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Learn How to Guide Nonprofit Leaders Toward the Truth Instead of Letting Them Rely on Their Opinions

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guide nonprofit leaders

In much of our culture, we glorify opinions over facts. At one place I worked, the executive director gleefully presented everyone on the management team with a sweatshirt as a team-building gift. It said “Maven University: Opinion above Knowledge.” 

I was embarrassed to wear it. Everyone else seemed to find it a real hoot.

In our culture, mavens are celebrated. They’re the stars of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point because they’re good connectors, and they offer up their opinions freely as a way to help you shortcut forming your own. Mavens present their findings as knowledge, but just as often they’re only sharing their opinions, which then spread far and wide and are taken as knowledge. 

No one knows everything. Just because someone thinks they know best doesn’t mean they do. This is especially true if their knowledge is based on opinion, not expertise, data, research, or anything other than their own gut. I recently read a pertinent article on the Moceanic blog published posthumously by the savvy Simone Joyaux: For Fundraising Excellence, Rely on Expertise, Not Opinions

In it, she says: 

“There’s almost nothing you can do in your whole career that has as much impact as guiding your leaders toward following expertise.”

True, true, true. Yet, these words got me thinking: The key principle here is guiding.

Why do you need to guide nonprofit leaders? 

Too often in our quest to feel respected and appreciated for our own wisdom and expertise, we try to beat our leaders over the head with what we know. Rather than guide, we badger.

Does any of this sound familiar?

They say: “I want only happy images in our end-of-year appeal.” 

You say: “You’re wrong; research shows sad images raise more money than happy ones.” 

They say: “Maybe for some organizations; it’s not true for us and would be bad for our brand.” 

You say: “But people want to see there’s a problem they can help fix, not a situation where everything already seems resolved.”

They say: “They need to see we’re effective and happy photos show that.”

You say: “That may be your opinion, but it’s not based on data and testing.”

They say: “I don’t need data and testing; I’ve been doing this for years, and people tell me they love our photos.”

You say: “Look, you hired me to be the professional fundraiser; I’m telling you what works.”

They say: “You don’t know what works any better than I do.”

You argue. 

Your leader fights back. 

You argue. 

More fighting. 

Theoretically, this could go on forever. Usually it stops when the boss puts their foot down and tells you to stop badgering them: 

“I know best. Do it my way.”

Badgering doesn’t work. 

In those cases, the fundraiser leaves feeling disrespected, frustrated, and hopeless. They complain to their colleagues, take a couple of aspirin, run home to vent to their loved ones, and contemplate switching jobs. 

The boss leaves feeling disrespected, beleaguered, and angry. They feel unsupported, run outside for a smoke, complain to their colleagues and/or loved ones, and wonder if they’ve hired the wrong person and need to let them go.

Disrespect piled upon disrespect is a lose/lose proposition. Badgering leads to bickering. Badgering isn’t guidance. Guidance is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the direction provided by a guide.” 

The key principle here is direction.

Expert guides don’t tell you what to do.

To guide nonprofit leaders is to point them in a certain direction. Guides gently point you in the direction by which you can find the right path by yourself. They take you on a journey, explaining points of interest along the way and facilitating the act of discovery.

Guides are respectful. They honor the other person’s own power, wisdom, value, and possibilities. 

Expert guides, professional fundraising guides included, have useful tools. They deploy them not as blunt instruments but as precision tools meant to get to the heart of the matter. 

In many ways, they’re like good coaches. They approach each situation with their two ears and one mouth, using them in that proportion. They listen in a loving, attentive stance. They ask generative, directional questions. 

Consider this conversation compared to the one above: 

They say: “I want only happy images in our end-of-year appeal.” 

You say: “What’s important about that?”

They say: “Donors need to see we’re effective and happy photos show that.” 

You say: “What else might be possible to show that effectiveness?”

They say: “We should tell people in the appeal how many people we helped last year.”

You say: “That’s one way. But did you know that research from psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics show people are more engaged by stories than numbers? If that’s true, what story could we tell to show effectiveness?”

They say: “We could tell the story of one person or family we helped get off the streets.”

You say: “Great idea. Rather than showing the person you already helped in the photo, what if we show a photo of a sad Mom and her kid on the streets; then we can lead with a story about how another Mom and kid just like her are today safe, warm and fed? We tell the happy story, show the sad one, and lead the donor in the direction of turning the sad story into a happy one. They know it’s possible because we’ve told them how it’s done and, specifically, what they can do to be a part of the solution.” 

They say: “I’m not sure this would work any better, and it seems too risky.”

You say: “What could we do to mitigate that risk of sharing a sad photo? Or to mitigate the risk that the happy photo might depress fundraising results, and maybe all these years we could have been raising even more money with each appeal?”

They say: “I suppose we could test one appeal photo against another.”

This fundraiser has expertly guided her executive director to the place she wanted them to go all along. Now she has permission to conduct a test and develop some useful feedback to inform future appeals.

Expert guides ask directional questions.

In a role as guide and fundraising coach, your job is to ask the generative (aka leading) questions that direct others to see new possibilities and find their own answers. This enables others to become co-creators with you in developing strategies. No one, especially a leader charged with running the show, likes to sit on the sidelines feeling useless or not in control.

Your value in this process lies not in how smart you are but how able you are to guide nonprofit leaders leaders toward their own power and wisdom.

“There’s a substantive difference between personal opinions that are based on preferences and hunches—and expertise, which is based on a body of knowledge and research. Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector is often ruled by opinions that are not informed by expertise.”

— Simone Joyaux

You can’t just ram your personal experience and expertise down someone else’s throat. Most human discourse is based on our own stories, biases, and beliefs. Shifting someone to a place where something other than what they’ve always thought seems possible requires more than a little finesse. This is especially true when you’re working with a leader who sees no distinction between opinion and knowledge or one who actually values opinion above knowledge.

How to “direct” vs. “tell”

I’d like you to consider putting the “director” back into “director of development.” While you’re at it, put the “development” front and center as well.

Being a director doesn’t mean being in command so much as it means being entrusted with the overall direction of whatever enterprise you’re engaged with. The kicker here is that even when you’ve been given this role, trust must generally be earned. Some leaders come from a place of thinking “I trust you to raise the money” means “I trust you to do exactly what I tell you to do.” 

If the organization ends up not raising as much money as you know they could, the boss may still be happy. But will you be satisfied?

The best fundraising directors guide others—within and outside the organization—to a place where together you’ll develop the resources needed to ensure your mission survives and thrives. If you can’t guide nonprofit leaders to this place, you haven’t fulfilled your primary job responsibility.

If simply telling your boss what to do doesn’t work, you need to find an alternate route. Let’s look at a typical “telling” conversation:

They say: “Make this direct mail appeal just one page; it’s redundant, and besides, no one will read a four-page letter.”

You say: “That may be your opinion, but it’s not based on data and testing.”

They say: “I don’t need data and testing; I’ve been doing this for years and people tell me they love our letters.”

You say: “Look, you hired me to be the professional fundraiser; I’m telling you what works.”

They say: “You don’t know what works any better than I do.”

How might you direct this boss to their own inner wisdom and power so they might see the possibility of some leeway or alternate option? Let’s look at one example:

They say: “Make this direct mail appeal just one page; it’s redundant and, besides, no one will read a four-page letter.”

You say: “That’s an interesting perspective. What’s most bothering you about this letter?”

They say: “It’s a waste of paper. It makes us look bad.”

You say: “What about it do you think makes us look bad?”

They say: “We look like we can’t get to the point, and I’d feel infantilized with all these short sentences that get more or less repeated.”

You say: “Do you think you might feel differently if you didn’t know anything about our organization and our mission?”

They say: “I’m not sure. I just know I don’t like this.”

You say: “I understand. From your perspective as an insider, this may strike the wrong tone. We could definitely consider a one-page letter to our current donors. This letter, however, is an acquisition piece. And research shows this type of appeal outperforms shorter ones when it comes to securing new donors.”

They say: “I don’t agree; I’ve been doing this for years and people tell me they love our letters.”

You say: “Loving a letter is one thing; loving our mission and donating is another. What if this 4-pager could raise more money—including from the non-responders who aren’t letting you know they hated the 1-pager because it assumed they knew why the organization’s work was important and/or different from other organization’s working in this same area?”

They say: “I can’t work with ‘what if’s.’ We can’t know which is best, so let’s go with my gut.”

You say: “Is there a way you can think of where we might be able to figure out which is best? I’ve seen what works elsewhere, and you’ve seen what works here. But maybe what works here could work even better?” 

They say: “Hmm. Actually, what if we tried a test of two different letters? Then we’d know for sure what works for next time.” 

You say: “Great idea! If a 4-pager ends up outperforming a 1-pager, then it’s actually not a waste of paper. Let me find out how to do this cost-effectively. Do you have any other thoughts?”

Opinion above knowledge? Vice-versa? Or something else?

What would it look like if you could be more of a guide than simply a traditional leader or follower? There are many nonprofit fundraising truths of which you’re no doubt aware (also see here). Your job is to use the best possible tools and strategies to fulfill your important director of development role. You need to direct people toward the truth of what works and develop new possibilities and alternatives.

There’s a path in between blindly following a leader who’s not aware of these truths and trying to hit them over the head with what you know. That’s not really leading. It’s badgering. It won’t work. You’ll hit your head against the wall over and over, hurting yourself in the process and not helping move the needle.

The best guides check their ego at the door. Forget about what you know for a minute and think about putting on your guide cap. Get ready to actively listen and ask questions to draw others out. This also happens to be great practice for your work with donors! Gently lead others toward the truth of what is most effective in fundraising. They may still refuse to see it, but at least you’ll have fulfilled your responsibility.

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  • Bonnie Zima Dowd

    Thank you for this great piece! I've experienced it more than once in my career. I only wish you wrote it 20 years ago, and I read it back then.
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