Saturday, January 28, 2012

Birthday parties, mother in laws, melt downs and the art of saying thank you.

Eileen in 1931

My mother in law was a product of The Great Depression; as a result she had a certain way of doing things. For example: She really enjoyed her food AND would eat every morsel on her plate – even if she was full. She always had lipstick on and her hair sprayed. On the occasions when she and I would go out for lunch, she would have only two vodka martinis - never three! (A mistake I made only once.) My mother in law expected that children should, at all times be happy, polite and obedient – especially when we had company. There was also a certain protocol around gift giving. Eileen was very generous and really enjoyed giving presents. It took me about six years of marriage to learn the four phases of her gift giving protocol - the most important of which is phase 3: the thank you. If that went wrong the entire visit had an air of tension around it.

As a young mother who believed it was okay to let children run around naked, to breastfeed and sleep in bed with us until THEY no longer felt it necessary and who encouraged them to explore their “independence” and express their real feelings – sometimes my mother in law’s expectations didn’t always match the reality of our home. (Except for the martini part – we did that well together from the beginning.)

 Our children were both born at the end of May and were only two years apart so I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that our baby, Chase, often had his birthday celebration tacked onto his older sister’s. This lasted until he started to figure it out. There was one memorable birthday in particular. The year they turned 5 and 3 – 2001. Our daughter Skye was falling in love with horses, so of course both kids had a horse theme, my girlfriend brought her pony to our house and all the kids had a fabulous time riding it.

After the frenzy of the piƱata candy, games, cake and pony rides it was time for Nan to give the kids her gifts. Any parent out there will know that I had orchestrated the worst possible time in this busy day for such an important ritual. I take full responsibility for the outcome.

Our guests gone, it was finally quiet and we went into the sitting room where Nan had two big gifts on her lap. It was time for phase one of the gift giving ritual: polite conversation, in this circumstance reflections of the party. When that was done and since Skye was oldest she received her gift first. Setting a prime example for the remaining phases of the gift receiving ritual: Phase two: express joy upon seeing the gift. Phase three: get up, hug and kiss Nan, look her in the eyes and say thank you (sometimes more than once). Phase three: show the world your gift – in this case put on the hat and turn around.

This was a facebook profile pic for awhile
So I think it is okay to use it.
(besides - it is the only pic we have of the hat!)
Now it was Chase’s turn. Barely able to contain himself he tolerated the well-intentioned but not so fun teasing about whether he thought the next present was for him. He finally secured his gift, tore it open and found… a cowboy hat. Just like his sisters, only a different colour. At this point, my tired, strung out on sugar three year old son deviated from the gift giving ritual, hurled the cowboy hat to the floor and very sincerely asked. “Is that all? Do you have another present?” Upon hearing a shocked, mortified and jaw dropping “No!” my poor son, who was much larger than most three year olds burst into tears and turned to me to for comfort. Dramatically seeking much needed solace in the only place that my distraught three year old - and many others around the world- can find it in circumstances as devastating as this - under my shirt desperately blubbering our code word: ‘leche’. The party was over. All four phases of the giving ritual had failed miserably and we had given Eileen yet another reason to be appalled and had to scurry upstairs for a ‘nap’.

Eileen in 2009
Now dear reader, you may be asking yourself what on earth this has to do with fundraising? Well, a lot actually. Every time I hear the classic debate about asking for another gift in a thank you letter I think about what my mother in law’s response would have been. Eileen MacKenzie, had a very high opinion of the good work that charities do and was proud of her donations. However, she had a very low opinion of the people who raise the money for charity work to happen. In fact, Eileen had specifically asked me not to talk about my work with her friends. This is not atypical. Fundraising as a profession is still not given the respect it deserves. I have had major donors tell me in person that they don’t feel I should be paid for what I do – that is another blog post. As professional fundraisers we must gently match people who have money to give, with charities that align with their values.

My point is that the majority of donors are from an older generation and we can assume that they share the similar values as my mother in law. With few exceptions, my experience has proven this for me in dozens of conversations with my donors over the years. If my mother in law had received a solicitation in a thank you letter she would have called all fundraisers ‘greedy bastards’ and would have felt regretful about her previous gift. (note: I know we have to innovate, I know donors are changing, but the fact still remains that the majority of funds come in through the mail and in major gifts from donors over 55 years old the data will tell you that)

There are no absolutes in this business, however, I believe that fundraising is not about aggressive direct marketing techniques that have a high churn rate and make more money. I’m happy to leave that with the corporate sector, those days are gone for us. Fundraising and philanthropy are about people making a difference together. When done well it should feel good to give and it should feel good to receive. This is a people based, emotional business. This profession, at the core, is based on good human relationships. That is why a thank you – JUST gratitude and nothing else - is so important. After that we need to pause, report impact and then EARN the next gift.

There has been a lot of controversy lately about this word ‘relationship’ and the idea of ‘Relationship Fundraising’. Since this post is three times longer than recommended I’ll save the bulk of that argument for another time.

I’ll just end with this. I am very grateful that early in my career (2002), through an inter library loan, I ordered a book called Relationship Fundraising by Ken Burnett. It took four weeks to get to me from a small library in Northern Ontario. (Sorry Ken I don’t remember where exactly.) In that book I learned two important lessons that make up the core of how I approach this profession:

1. If we focus on building good respectful relationships between our donors, ourselves and our organizations the money will follow.

2. Money is a means to an end – it isn’t the objective.

I know that data is important for strategic decisions, I also know that good business practices are essential and I appreciate that much of Relationship Fundraising is anecdotal and not evidence based. Except for this: MY evidence. A very small sample I know. Over the past eight years (as far back as I started tracking) and through two recessions, by focussing on relationships instead of dollars the two organizations that I have worked for have consistently achieved double digit growth. In 2010 over 16.5% (it will be more for 2011 the fiscal isn’t over yet) and up to 35% growth on average per year from 2004 – 2009. This is not an exaggeration, I check with the director of finance annually to confirm this track record. By making relationships the priority the organizations I work for have been able to do this during a time when a lot of fundraisers are moaning about recessions.

I am very proud to be a member of what has recently been referred to as the ‘Relationship Fundraising Cult’ because I know it works. Get me the T-Shirt, I’ll wear it proudly. I also know that a lot of people and organizations don’t really understand what it means nor do they do it very well. (Yet another blog post.)

In conclusion, I’m happy to report that my relationship with my mother in law survived the birthday party of 2001 and it was a great privilege for me to be by her side when she died a somewhat peaceful death at 84 after a very short bout with cancer in 2010. You may also be relieved to know that my children are no longer breastfeeding and prefer to sleep by themselves with their laptops for company instead of me. Perhaps that is something else to worry about...

Finally, I believe that relationships between organizations and donors will be damaged if our thank you letters are tarnished with a solicitation. Gratitude ought to be pure, sincere and 100% about what the donor has been able to achieve for the world with their gift.

Skye still rides horses
Chase is allergic to them and prefers Basketball

I now have my very own copy of this book.
I would be happy to share it with you.
.Ooops I meant click here to buy your own

Thank you for spending time here

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The balance between ambition and contentment

Anyone who has worked with me, lived with me or just hung out with me will tell you that I am rarely satisfied. It is true; I am constantly pushing. I always want more. Not stuff – goodness knows I have too much stuff already. I want to do more, learn more, write more, share more and change more. I rarely celebrate accomplishments and often miss them entirely. If you had asked me six months ago, even two months ago, I would have claimed these traits as assets. I think I've changed my mind.

My epiphany started at a retreat recently hosted by networker extraordinaire Paul Nazareth. In the days since, I’ve come to realize that this ambition and drive that pushes me, and those around me, can also be a liability.

So my very late New Year’s resolution will be to strive for more contentment and I’ll tell you how I’m going to do that in a minute. First I must tell you about the retreat.

Purpose: As quoted in the invite from Paul: “We all attend too many "sessions" and "conferences" this is a chance to meet people and have a real, quality human connection and discuss issues and challenges if comfortable. If not, a quiet natural space to just spend a quiet moment”

Our agenda: Introductions and lunch

The place: A wonderful farmhouse in the heart of the Caledon Hills

The rules: no twitter

Who was there: A diverse group of people - for profit and non-profit folks, novices and veterans, social media junkies and other more well-rounded human beings. We were all connected to Paul some way and many of us really needed time to slow down.

Paul didn't even wear a suit!
The day was perfect; the people were warm, open, kind and interesting. We had great conversations about dogs, planned giving, personal growth and a number of other things. I even was treated to a knitting lesson from Anne Rosenfield and saw Paul in something other than a suit! The really sticky bit of the day for me was something that Colleen Bradley shared during a short structured group conversation. In her coaching work Colleen encourages people to make a list of 100 things they are grateful for. Mundane things like…a clean bathroom sink or minted toothpicks.

I confess to having heard of this before. I am even a proud owner of a dog eared copy of The Book of Awesome. Perhaps it was Colleen’s calm, gentle and inspiring presence or maybe it was because of the opportunity to pause and really listen, since the retreat I’ve started having small random thoughts of thankfulness. During these moments of purposeful gratitude I’ve come to realize that I also feel a moment of contentment. It is really nice.

So on this blog post I’m going to start my list here. I will continue sharing on twitter and facebook in the hope that perhaps you will also post small things you are grateful for and together we can share this positive energy that is created

Today I am grateful for:

1. Quiet

2. Dry clean MATCHED socks

3. My daughter

4. My son

5. My husband

6. A loving home

7. That we have enough food

8. That my puppy cuddles under blankets and warms my feet

9. A black shirt with no dog hair on it

10. Warm, clean soapy dishwater

11. When the entire kitchen is clean

12. Afternoon naps

13. Fireplaces

14. Nice hotels

15. Homemade pasta

16. When the 5:30am bus is warm

17. People who have had a profound impact on my personal and professional life:

18. High School Drama teacher Paul Kershaw

19. College Drama teacher Kathryn Shaw

20. ED at my first fundraising job Carol Luck

21. Current boss Caroline Schultz

22. Fundraiser Ken Burnett

23. My host in Nepal Ram Adhar Kapar

24. Passionate donors who REALLY care

25. Fresh snow on the car that doesn’t have ice under it

26. Sunsets

27. Sex

28. Wet dewy cool summer mornings

29. Crickets in August

30. The sound of Chase playing piano

31. The sound of Skye playing guitar

32. The amazing people who teach my children

33. When my puppy goes OUTSIDE to “relieve himself”

34. Nepal

35. India

36. The blue lagoon spa in Iceland

37. The Netherlands

38. Clean laundry

39. Sunday brunch

40. A full gas tank

41. Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc

42. Puppies who keep me warm while I’m blogging

This list will continue…

Those of us who exist to serve, who have made it our mission to create a better world, must constantly strive to do more. We must be driven and ambitious for ourselves and our organisations. We must also make time to pause every day and be grateful for small miracles. It is kind of like putting your own oxygen mask on first, the world needs us to be well.

Ambition IS an asset – when balanced with gratitude and contentment.
Will you join me and start a list of gratitude? What are you thankful for today? Please share.

 Thank you for spending time here.