Guest Post: Responsive Fundraising

In 2005, author and professor David Foster Wallace gave one of his most famous speeches to the graduating class at Kenyon College. Just three years before his suicide, this speech offers a rare glimpse into his personal views. In it, he meant to articulate the meaning behind a liberal arts education and why such a degree has greater human value than simply a material payoff. TIME Magazine called it the “Greatest Commencement Speech of All Time.” I call it the commencement address too few fundraising types have given enough attention to. Wallace began his speech with a now-famous tale about two fish.  

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The two fish knew how to swim and may in fact have been quite good at it. However, being really good at something doesn’t guarantee our accurate understanding of what we’re doing. Wallace explained the point of his fish story this way: “[T]he most obvious, important realities in our world are often the ones hardest for us to see.” He said the value of an education had less to do with knowledge and that most important is our “awareness of what is real, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over that it’s there.”

Wallace impressed upon the graduates that this awareness would keep them from relying on only their default settings—their automatic, unconscious beliefs. These implicit beliefs often position us at the center of the world, convincing us that our immediate needs and feelings should always be top priority.

Education, on the other hand, helps us to think critically and learn how to be less arrogant about what we believe to be true, right, and accurate about the world around us. Wallace explained that those capable of adjusting their default settings are those we refer to as well-adjusted. He stated, “[L]earning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience” (emphasis mine). 

Wallace warned the graduates that comprehending “the water” was hard work, and that no one expected them to do it automatically. He said it didn’t come naturally, that it took practice, will, and effort, and “some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.”

This is certainly the way it is with our work in the nonprofit sector: exhausted and always short on time and resources, we find it difficult to set aside time for introspection and critical thinking. It’s sometimes easier to flip the switch on whatever it is we’re doing and hope that works. Fundraising, for far too many organizations, operates on a sort of auto-pilot. The thought of slowing down in order to ask ourselves how we might do it better in more meaningful, sustainable ways can be difficult, uncomfortable and, frankly, exhausting. 

I believe most of us understand how to raise money. However, like the two fish, many of us are unaware of the environment we’ve been “swimming in,” and we’re unfamiliar with the default settings we’ve inherited—or that we even have them. We also lack the necessary margins of time and resources that enable us to take stock of our surroundings. It is this lack of awareness, rather than a lack of ability, that keeps us from addressing what I believe are our profession’s most enduring challenges.

Someone asked me recently what I thought was the most significant barrier to organizations increasing their fundraising capacity. My answer was that, for many organizations, fundraising efforts suffer not for lack of resources and not because the opportunities are not there. It is rather when organizations don’t fully comprehend their environment, and by this, I mean the world around them. They lack an awareness of what is really informing their decisions and the decisions of their donors. If an organization fails to understand its own environment, it cannot respond effectively to its employees, volunteers, and donors. Throughout my career, I’ve observed it is this lack of awareness and its ensuing behaviors that have led to the greatest disappointments.

When we remain unaware of what’s really happening around us (when we can’t comprehend “the water”), we make all sorts of misguided assumptions about what’s working in our favor and what’s not. For example, we are quick to draw conclusions about why a donor continues to support our organization or why she has chosen to direct her support elsewhere—without the benefit of a meaningful conversation. 

This lack of sensitivity to what’s really at play is why boards and bosses are notorious for holding unreasonable expectations, why they routinely scapegoat their fundraisers for their financial problems, and why professional fundraiser turnover is so high. With greater awareness, perhaps, boards and bosses would understand why a donor might give less predictably yet more significantly, why finding blame is of little value in a highly complex environment, and why fundraiser churn, just like donor attrition, is merely a side effect of dysfunctional fundraising practices.

iWave and the team at Responsive Fundraising invites you to discover how Responsive Fundraising’s Four Frameworks can help your organization increase its awareness and how you can create an environment where fundraising can thrive. Our four-part, weekly webinar series is six hours of fast-paced, interactive, CFRE-approved training beginning on Tuesday, July 7th and ending on July 28th. In addition to the Four Frameworks, we have added a Recovery Plan designed to ensure that your organization is ready to navigate the road ahead with boldness and confidence.

To register for our upcoming webinar series, click here.