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3 Top Learning Strategies You Need To Change The World

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Today I’d like to address something practical: How we learn.

Why am I bothering with this? What does it have to do with fundraising and nonprofits? Actually, it has to do with everything. If you don’t learn new things, you slowly wither. And with today’s rapid pace of change, confident learning has become critical to adapting, adopting, and feeling connected to the world we inhabit.

How we learn is super important, as it’s the foundation of our ability to succeed.

Consider the hours of time you spend reading articles and books, attending webinars, conferences and meetings, watching videos, and whatever else you generally do to explore and develop new skills. Do you think you’re absorbing this information in a manner that helps you to grow? If not, might there be a better way?

When we were kids we instinctively knew the best learning mode.

We experimented! We tried to turn over, sit up, crawl, walk, jump, say words, put words together to form sentences, pick up cheerios with two fingers, use a spoon, drink out of a cup, make our parents laugh. We tried all sorts of things to get attention and see how far we could push the boundaries. And we learned fast.

Somewhere along the way, we lost our innate sense of the best ways to learn.

We didn’t stop trying. But we tried differently. And we tried less. We often put things off, placing learning skills on the shelf where they weren’t easily accessible to us. It was simpler to just tell ourselves we’d “think about it.”  A procrastinator’s trick if I ever saw one. And the trick works all too well. Unfortunately, “thinking about it” has little applied impact. We have to get hands on for change to happen.

Innovative learning strategies

I want you to think for a moment about how you learn best.

Some learn best visually, through observation. For others it’s auditory, through listening. For many it’s simply reading and writing, which is the way most of our schools are structured. And for some it’s kinesthetic, through movement and touch. There are plenty of books, articles, and research papers (see, e.g., here, here, and here for just a few) on the topic of how people learn, but the reality is there’s a continuum.

There’s no one right way to learn. 

Even if you know, or think you know, your preferred learning method, often a combination of these modalities can be helpful. Most people have plenty of room to practice and strengthen new learning behaviors. And in a world where there’s constant demand for attention, and it’s easy to get distracted, taking the time to hone your learning skills makes a lot of sense.

Ready to give some learning strategies a try?

3 learning strategies to practice

Today I’d like to focus on three modalities I’m using in an intensive course I’m taking from Tara Mohr about how to love well. It happens I’ve enrolled in this curriculum because love is something I believe the world needs now. Plus, coming from a place of love happens to be the best way to fulfill on your nonprofit mission and build the lasting connections with supporters you will need to survive and thrive (more on this to come, I promise). But before I can productively share what I learn, I need to rethink how I learn. I’m guessing this may be helpful to you as well.

These three learning strategies are working like gangbusters for me, so I’m delighted to present them for your consideration.

1. Inviting writing

Research shows when we write things down (especially handwriting), we internalize it more and remember it better. You can get some of the same impact from embellishing a digital document with colors, shapes, arrows and other personal flairs. That’s why I always tell my clients to put their plans, policies, and procedures in writing. And it’s why I’m a huge fan of whiteboards and written brainstorming meetings. When you write out plans, you commit more and hold yourself accountable.

How might you more fully adopt writing as a learning strategy for yourself?

How about trying to journal? The easiest place to begin might be to keep a gratitude journal. When you do, you’ll begin to see what’s most important in your life. Learning about yourself is the first step to learning more about other things, and other people, too.

For fundraisers, I recommend you keep a donor gratitude journal. When you do, my bet is you’ll see your job is much more about love and impact than it is about money. That’s an important shift in stance, and it can have a huge influence on how your approach your work moving forward. I’ve seen folks who keep such journals not only become more effective fundraisers, but also enjoy their work so much more.

Why not try a little writing exercise right now?

Pull out a sheet or scrap of paper, grab a pen and get ready.

Here’s a snippet of a fuller exercise from my 7 Clairification Keys To Unlock Your Nonprofit’s Fundraising Potential. It’s around “clairifying” your values so you can approach your work from a meaningful, relevant, and centered place. Values are powerful. Take the time to thoughtfully articulate them. You’ll find they’ll tell you a lot about your future directions in terms of vision, mission, brand, programs, leadership and support constituencies. Take the time, first, to clarify your own values. Then ask others on your team to do the same. Finally, schedule a time (while you’re still in the values frame of mind) to conduct a similar group exercise (write on a whiteboard or easel). You’ll generally be most effective where individual and organizational values align.

  1. Identify a key value that governs your behavior or life.


  1. Write about something or someone that supports this value.


  1. What would someone see if they witnessed you behaving according to this value?


  1. Describe a time you invited others to share your value; or how you could do that.


Writing helps you discover insights, integrate concepts, and learn from your own inner wisdom. You may be amazed what happens when you simply ask yourself questions about what you’ve just learned (e.g., via article, book, webinar, meeting, etc.) and then write down your answers.

2. Incorporate experimentation

If you want to move beyond the status quo, you need to get a bit out of your comfort zone. It sounds scary, but not if you approach it with the playfulness and lightheartedness of a child. The only failure here is not trying.

How might you incorporate experimentation into your modus operandi?

Experiments involve testing out new ideas, approaches, beliefs, and behaviors. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Commit to using a new word (e.g., in regular conversation; in an email; in a blog post).
  2. Try out ChatGPT for a quick project (e.g., turn a fundraising appeal letter into an email, text, and/or social media post; write a brief impact report using a storytelling approach to summarize key outcomes).
  3. Make a 20 second thank-you video on your phone and send it to a targeted group of donors (e.g., first-time; $500+ donors; $1,000+ donors; new monthly donors, etc.).
  4. Pick up the phone and call someone to tell them you’re thinking of them, and why (e.g., a colleague; donor; volunteer; family member; friend). See how you feel after the call.
  5. Think of something surprising you could do to thank a donor and really wow them. (see Creative Ways to Thank Your Donors).

Experiments are an important part of how people change. When I first read Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Fundraising I tried out every trick in the book until, eventually, they became part of my natural routine.

3. Give space for new ideas to flourish

What if you were to shine a soft, sparkling light on some of the concepts you learn? Rather than tuck them away on a shelf (too often never to be seen again), place them on a front burner, apply a little flame, and cook away. Gently simmer. Let new thoughts pop up like little bubbles. Stir them around slowly so they incorporate.

How might you simmer on a new idea or concept to grow it into something bigger?

Simmering means sitting with something over a period of time. Less deliberate than thinking, it’s more of a day-dreaming state where you allow ideas to pop in and out of your consciousness. Here are a few ideas to get the process started:

  1. Paste an idea next to your computer where you’ll see it regularly. Try something like “Smile!” Or “Stretch!” Or “Breathe.” Then do these things – as you’re talking on the phone, participating in a Zoom, or noticing your shoulders are up around your ears and you’re not exactly in your best state of “flow.”
  2. Put a photo of your kid, grandkid or beloved pet on your desk. It may bring loving feelings to the forefront, reminding you to practice loving awareness and empathy in your daily encounters. As you talk with donors and colleagues, think about approaching them from this more empathic place.
  3. Paste a list of generative questions next to your work station. Look at them from time to time, thinking about how you might use them to build an important relationship. Consider: “What are you most proud of?” “If you could leave a legacy for future generations, what would it be?” “What are your top three giving priorities?” “What do you think we should do about this?” You can also ask these questions of yourself; simmer on the ones where answering them brings the most joy or enlightenment.
  4. Write down the qualities you most need in new board members. Pin these next to your computer, or write them on a little sticky note you can affix to your laptop when working. Whenever you’re talking with people on the phone, consider whether they might have any of these qualities. Or whether they might know other folks who do.

Change the world through learning

The day-to-day work of finding sufficient resources to sustain your nonprofit mission is hard. It can be daunting.

The more you learn, the more you’re able to adapt to change, adopt new skills, and do the most strategic, effective job possible. Use your staff development budget. If you don’t have one, advocate for one!

Keep your antennae up so you recognize opportunities when they present themselves.

Don’t just keep doing what you’ve always been doing. It may no longer work the way it used to.

What learning strategies would you add to this list? 

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