I love my students. They’re bright, enthusiastic, and dedicated to making the world a better place. Who can fault anyone that puts in countless hours of study and practice just for the opportunity to snag a entry-level job in a challenging profession?
But last week, I lost it in class. They were complaining about a challenging staff person at a charity. They’re doing projects for a number of charity partners and, at times, things don’t go smoothly. The complaining made me angry because it was based on the assumption that the staffer was deliberately trying to mess up and also trying to make life difficult for them personally.
My rant (much abbreviated here) went something like this: “Really, do you really think that he gets up every day and says to himself, how can I fail at my job, put my organization at risk, and drive the Humber students crazy?” As I said, the students are smart, and quickly admitted that the guy is well intentioned and not engaged in a satanic plot to rob them of a successful graduation.
This is the third article in a series on charity leadership. In the first, I challenged senior staff to own their roles, to put aside fear, trust their experience and wisdom, and forge ahead with what they know needs to get done. In the second, I offered tips for managing Boards and helping senior volunteers achieve excellence.
Today I’m asking you to stop and imagine what’s behind someone’s behaviour before you instantly assume that they’re attacking you personally. Sure, there are toxic staff and volunteers. But it annoys me when I frequently hear people jump to the conclusion that evil is running wild, when that’s seldom true. I confess that I came to this realization long into my career. Until then, I was the fundraiser who believed that someone didn’t like me, or was out to get me, when disagreements surfaced.
Financial staff and volunteers were most often the focus of my paranoia. Then one day I watched a Chief Financial Officer deliver bad news to a Finance Committee. I saw in his face profound sadness and frustration, and I finally understood that, like me, he got up every day trying to keep our organization alive with every ounce of his energy and with all the skill and cunning he could muster. He was an ally.
That moment finally made me stop and consider why that man disagreed with me frequently. It wasn’t out of disrespect or envy, or any of the nutty things going on in my head. He was exercising his professional role: making sure that I had mitigated risks, used data, not whim, to make decisions, and established evaluation processes built in to identify problems early. He was making sure that I succeeded.
A CFO is a fundraiser’s best ally. I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of great financial staff and volunteers. Once I realized that they were allies, I completely changed my approach. Instead of entering into discussions feeling defensive, I looked for ways that we could jointly solve problems. No smart CFO is opposed to revenue generation. Balancing the budget means that she won’t have to report bad news to the finance committee. (And if you take the time to get to know your CFO, you’ll discover that’s what keeps her awake at night.) A smart CFO also knows how to identify, and prevent, financial problems; something that every fundraiser wants to avoid.
If you’re like me, you don’t particularly like (and are not good at) financial planning, management, and reporting. But it’s integral to our success. Once I started seeking advice and assistance from financial folks, I discovered two wonderful things: they do like this stuff, and they’ll jump in and help when their expertise is appreciated. In one place, I had many donors worried about the way the organization accounted for its long-standing deficit. Try as I might, I couldn’t understand it well enough to explain it to financially-savvy donors. But when I brought my CFO along, it was like watching Julia Child explain French cooking to a foody. Everyone left feeling great, most of all me. Because although (truth be told) I still didn’t get it, I could see that the donors had moved from distrustful to content. And my job had just gotten much easier.
So, please, the next time you jump to the conclusion that someone is out to get you, ask yourself if, perhaps, an ally is trying to help you be better, but you’re just too insecure to appreciate it.
Denny Young is a Professor at Humber College, and Coordinator of its prestigious Fundraising Management Postgraduate Certificate program. He has been in the profession for over 25 years and shown exemplary leadership as an executive, educator and mentor. His experience includes senior fundraising and communications roles in a number of sectors including health, social service, and the arts.