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  • Writer's pictureDr. Eric Lankin

Taking Risks

I was saddened to hear this story from Sara, one of my mentorship clients. “Your plan failed!” Sara was told at a senior staff meeting. “Yes, I understand that it is taking longer than we expected,” she responded. As the Development Director of a relatively new nonprofit, she was in the first six months of a job. She was all about trying out new ideas that the organization desperately needed. After developing a careful marketing plan, she unfolded it step-by-step. It included strengthening the database and introducing a direct mail program. “But you said you were going to raise $50,000 by January 1, and you didn’t,” said the CEO. That it was not as successful as Sara had planned was a big disappointment to her, but as she explained to me, she was patient with the process. The CEO and the other members of the senior team, did not understand how complicated the process can be.

Let’s unpack the dissonance between Sara’s approach and the CEO.

For the CEO, who expected that every fundraising program would be wildly successful, he did not understand the risk of trying out new ideas and new plans. For Sara, she expected to test new ideas and plans in this relatively new job and thought the senior leadership was on her team.

Sara, an experienced fundraiser, had the stomach and fortitude to handle the risk of new programs and new directions, because she knew that sometimes plans will not be as successful as expected and hoped. Sara explained to me that after that senior staff meeting, she began to review her marketing plan and what she would experiment with differently next time. The CEO, unwilling to make a long-term investment with this relatively new staff person after what he called a “failed campaign,” made a decision for her, and let her go.

The obvious lesson learned for this nonprofit was that although they hired a development director, they had an unrealistic expectation for the short-term. It would have been helpful to have received counsel from the executive search firm or a consultant about reasonable expectations for this position and field; timetables and needed long-term investment in fundraising to insure success.

For me, as a consultant, I heard stories like this before. To understand what happened to Sara, we have to dig deeper into areas of organizational culture. This nonprofit did not easily accept business risks as a part of their culture. The CEO and other senior staff members were experts in the social cause of their nonprofit. Their service to the clients of the social service agency they created, a critical factor in their success, was excellent but they had little understanding of the risks that they would have to take to get the nonprofit to the next level of growth. They were told that they needed greater resources to grow and therefore they hired a development director. However, their organizational culture was not oriented to business success but to service delivery. Working with a development director, who expected and was more comfortable about taking business risks, was dissonant to the organizational culture that had been created.

Schein defined organizational culture as “a pattern of basic assumptions- invented, discovered or developed by a given group...that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” Considering the above, Sara, our newly fired development director, may not have been in her position long enough to understand the organizational cultural norms and expectations of the leadership of the nonprofit. Moreover, hiring a development director, whose efforts could have been wildly successful or less than successful, added a new “business” not “service delivery” position to the nonprofit. This new position changed the rules of the game for the nonprofit’s leadership without the necessary deeper exploration of the organizational cultural implications of this hire.

Sara, bruised, learned her lesson and moved on. However, the nonprofit leadership, quick to blame Sara for the problem, were clueless what actually happened and began to search for another fundraiser. For them, until they explore the changes in organizational culture Sara and her position represented, it’s going to be hard to get to the next level of growth.

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