The (Irrational) Fear of Change

This is the sixth installment of our series on Fundraising Culture, by Larry Johnson, Founder of The Eight Principles.  We’ll look at what a culture is.  What is looks like.  The kind of fundraising culture you want.  How to build it and how to keep it.

Nothing is as constant as change.  It’s all around us.  Every day.  This isn’t just a feature of the current tech world. Edmund Spenser said it most poetically five hundred years ago:

The every-whirling wheel of change; the which all mortal things doth sway.

—The Faerie Queene, VII 6, st. 1

Hardly anyone would dispute this.  Yet—when it comes to nonprofit management, and especially fundraising strategies and techniques, a sort of irrational rigidity often kicks in.  I call it the irrational fear of change.

You see this in many forms.  I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard the leadership of a particular nonprofit express the parochial sentiment, “We’ve always done it this way.”  When I hear this, I’m never quite sure whether it’s hubris, ignorance, or bold-face fear I’m hearing.

“We’ve never done it that way”, is the same sentiment in reverse.

Before we dismiss these statements by assigning them to the merely uninitiated, the ones lacking in fundraising sophistication, consider the wise “enlightened” phrase, “best practices” which has become ubiquitous.

“Best practices” is that moniker often used as a shield against anything new.  After all, we’ve arrived.  We’re sophisticated.  We’re in control.  We know how it works. We’re masters of the conventional wisdom.

Ah, no.  There is no fixed set of strategies and methods that are optimum for any organization.  The ideal solution is always a moving target.

Change is constant.  Those organizations who perform at the top of their potential this year, next year, ten years from now, are those for whom strategies and methods are always in flux.  Always in refinement.

So—how does a nonprofit get on top and, more importantly, stay there?

It’s not so much what you’re doing as what you’re thinking.  The mental frame in which you approach pretty much anything determines the quality of the outcome.

The best are always learning.  They’re always seeking to improve.  Leadership in these organizations is characterized by a common ethos of knowing what you don’t know.  They’re never self-congratulatory. It’s not that they’re not thankful or appreciative.  But they know there’s more to learn.

Perhaps Aristotle said it best:

The admission of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.

This mindset has always proved true in my career.  I’ve worked with literally thousands of nonprofit leaders and fundraisers.  The very best always knew what they didn’t know.

Creating a culture of excellence.  Once which always seeks to improve.  Takes time.  And strong leadership.

It takes continual effort.  The passion to see the very best emerge in an organization was my motivation for creating our Continuous Learning platform here at The Eight Principles. 

By reinforcing an understanding of the underlying principles which don’t change, clarity emerges to discern the strategies, methods and techniques which do.  Do that enough—including everyone in the organization, not just “fundraisers”—and you create a fundraising culture which never stops.

When leaders exhibit an attitude of continuous improvement, and work to achieve a broad understanding through the organization, “stuff happens”

That’s the good stuff.