By Matthew S. Helmer
At the DRG Group, we’re passionate about promoting and teaching best practices while also providing sparks of inspiration for next practice in donor relations—the innovative, cutting-edge work that sets an organization’s donor experience apart from the rest. For us, it’s more than a professional pursuit; it’s personal—because we’re a team of individuals who think different and never rely solely on what’s worked in the past. We also believe wholeheartedly in the truth Lynne Wester reminds us often: it’s what the generous souls who empower our missions deserve.
We also know from experience, however, that just because you’ve read it/seen it/experienced it through an educational opportunity (ours or elsewhere), doesn’t mean that Next Great Idea is easily adopted or implemented at your organization. As practitioners, we’ve all been there: the moment our enthusiasm for a new direction is no match for the brick wall otherwise known as organizational hierarchy or cultural resistance to change. It’s deflating, downright soul-sucking at times. In those moments, it can be easy to feel like we’ve failed, that we’ve let down our donors and our teams—or worse—like a hypocrite for espousing best practice while being unable to actually practice it.
We’ve been there. I’ve been there more times than I care to admit. And over the years, we’ve experienced and observed key strategies for overcoming those seemingly end-of-the-road moments. Here are a few approaches we know to be effective:
Find Your Voice. When it comes to implementing needed change, one of the most common questions we receive is, “How do I get a seat at the table?” I get it—when it comes to creating meaningful change, few things are more effective than being in The Room Where It Happens. But donor relations is notoriously consulted too late in the game (if at all), forcing us to react to decisions made by others. It doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than waiting for an invitation to the decision-making table (one that most often will not arrive), we must learn to lead from where we are. Leadership is not a position—it’s an action—a series of actions. It’s a relational process among members of a group working toward a common goal—and in our world, that goal is designing an exemplary experience that retains donors and strengthens their connection with the organization. You don’t need a certain title to positively affect the donor experience or to be their advocate, and you don’t need permission to develop a strategy for how the work you do shapes that experience. You can lead from whatever seat you’re in and whatever table you’re at. Demonstrate the value of an idea by connecting it to the organization’s bottom line and its overall goals. Show that you care by speaking a language the decision-makers understand, whether it’s grounded in data, testimonials, peer comparisons, or all the above. Most growth-focused organizations are willing to take risks on new ideas, but few are eager to do so without some assurance that reward is possible. Lead by anticipating and answering questions about the value of a new idea.
Leverage the Voice of Others. Sometimes you can do all the above and still not make any progress. A disappointing truth to understand about organizational politics is that ours is not always the most effective voice at advancing a new idea—even (and sometimes especially) when it’s our own. If you’re getting a sense that an idea is being stonewalled, it could be time to lean on your allies. Others in your organization who’ve bought into the idea and see its potential may have a better shot at moving it forward. Bring them in. Let it go. At the end of the day, what’s most important is the value it adds to the donor experience, not who receives credit. Another effective strategy is to bring in an external voice to lend credence to your proposal. Hire a consultant. Play a recording of the webinar where the idea’s success was highlighted. Enlist a colleague at another organization to testify to the transformation they experienced by implementing something similar. Identify who has credibility with the audience you need to convince and bring them on board. One of our favorite tactics is to enlist a donor in championing an idea they believe in—direct feedback from donors on how making a change will enhance their experience is always more compelling than any 20-minute slideshow we can conjure up.
Demonstrate Results. Oftentimes we get caught up in the big impact of a complex idea—one whose scope and scale might be a little too scary for some organizations and its leaders. Here’s where breaking the idea into smaller, more easily implemented steps can lead to success. Start with change you can directly control or influence, track your results and show others proof that the idea works on a micro scale to help gain their buy-in to go “all in.” This approach won’t work for every change (e.g., you’re either migrating to a new database or you’re not), but most initiatives can start small and build from there. Want to eliminate all honor rolls at your organization? Start by removing them from event programs and other places with targeted audiences. Then utilize survey results and giving behaviors to demonstrate what has become known as an industry standard—they have little to no impact on a donor’s motivation to give—and rid your organization of them across the board. One caution: don’t ignore evidence that the idea isn’t working. It’s tempting to focus solely on data that reinforces the effectiveness of an idea we’re championing, but it’s equally as important to understand the drawbacks. It could lead to enhancements that make an initiative even more successful, or it could lead us to scrap it altogether. Either way, by acknowledging both pros and cons you maintain integrity and foster trust that is essential to leading change of any kind.
Throw in the Towel. Unexpected, I know—we’re not ones to advocate for giving up easily or accepting the status quo—but it’s also important to recognize when an idea has met its match before burning yourself and your credibility. Perhaps the timing isn’t right and the idea just needs more time in the holding pen. Maybe your case isn’t as strong or well-researched as it first seemed. When pitching new ideas, we must be as open-minded as we expect others to be. Listen. Balance impatience for change with patience for the process. Resistance to change is not itself indicative of a toxic environment. In fact, it’s quite normal. Regroup and ready yourself for the next opportunity—a change in leadership, a new campaign, even the simple flip of a calendar to the new year can easily reset the table. Save your energy for that moment, because there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come. On the other hand, with some organizations, that time may never come. It’s crucial to discern the difference between rational (if nonetheless infuriating) decisions to reject a new idea versus those that are fueled by ego, power/control, or a leader’s need to be “right” at the expense of the team and/or your donors. These ARE signs of a toxic culture, and as the late, great Kenny Rogers once crooned, “You’ve got to know when to fold ’em!”
In the end, not all of our ideas will (or should) be embraced, but stick with the ones worth fighting for, even if it takes longer than expected or leads you to seek out a new team that’s more willing to embrace change. The world needs new ideas and fresh energy; our donors deserve it. So, let’s keep dreaming and ideating—and share with us your best strategies for effecting positive change in addition to the ones above. We’ve got your back, and we’re all in this together.
Matthew S. Helmer, aka The Unicorn, brings more than two decades of nonprofit fundraising, donor relations, and constituent engagement experience to his role as Consultant and Strategist with the DRG Group – and he’s been in more than a few good fights to make positive change along the way. Partner with Matthew to elevate the donor experience at your organization by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org, and connect with Matthew on LinkedIn or Twitter.