By Matthew Helmer
I’ve been called a lot of things during the course of my life. Some of it’s not worth remembering or repeating. Others are downright hilarious. And some are layered with significant meaning — husband, father, brother, uncle (err, “guncle” to be precise). But there’s one moniker I proudly embrace in any setting: The Unicorn.
I’m not sure if Lynne Wester was the first to call me this, but she’s certainly been the most consistent. And from the earliest days of the DRG Group, I’ve always been The Unicorn on our team of sparkling stars. I like to think it’s because I bring a brain that is just wired to think different — to challenge the status quo, ideate, push for continuous improvement, and never shy from being labeled a “maverick.” In reality, it may have more to do with my fabulous sense of style and fondness for cocktails with extraordinary flair. Regardless, the term comes from a place of love — and that’s something we could all use a little more of these days.
Here’s the thing, though: I think there’s a unicorn inside each one of us (or a narwhal or a peacock — you do you, boo). We all have a rare star quality; the trick is unleashing it for the world to see. During this season of transition, I’ve benefited from some time to reflect, and, without any scientific backing or sanctioned unicorn research, I offer these three keys to unlocking the sparkle within you.
Embrace Authenticity. Simply put, show up as genuinely you and create space for others to do the same. In the absence of authenticity, what we get is conformity — more of the same. And don’t we all deserve a more diverse, more meaningful experience? I know it’s not always easy — it has taken me decades to feel comfortable in my own skin, and I still have miles to go. I also know not every environment is ready for the full Unicorn experience; I’m not tossing my filter or encouraging you to do so. Recognize your audience. But also know that the spark that lives inside you is unique to you, and the more you keep it hidden, the less impact you have on your work and the people around you. It’s equally important to provide opportunities for others to be their authentic selves with us, to create safe spaces. The most meaningful moments in my career and in my personal life have been those when I showed up with my full self — my distinctive set of experiences, perspective, and voice – while allowing others to do the same. That’s when, as we said in the ‘90s (perhaps too often), it started to Get Real! And there’s nothing realer than a unicorn; you need only believe in yourself and others.
Ask Questions. Specifically, ask two questions. The first is “Why?” Too often in our lives, we jump into the How and What before ever articulating or understanding the Why. Yes, folks, I’m talking about PURPOSE. Know your own Why, apply it to what you do, and align with people and organizations who support it, nurture it, live it. Simon Sinek, whose masterful book Start with Why is a must read for, well, everyone, says your Why is within you. Start there! Surface it, explore it. Without it, authenticity is fairly impossible to achieve. As for me, I have an innate and insatiable need to elevate the way people experience the world around them so that they can be inspired and empowered to make a difference. This shows up in my work with organizations, teams, and donors, and in my personal relationships. Your Why is just as meaningful, and discovering it is a powerful step toward releasing your inner magic. The second question is “Why Not?!” — a helpful little reminder that no reward is possible without a little risk. After all, what is a unicorn if not a leap of faith?
Nourish Your Sense of Wonder. The moment we stop being curious, we lose an important aspect of being human. When is the last time you were awestruck? Let it happen today. Experience something new, something different, something familiar in a different way. Look for JOY in every moment, or at least in every day. There’s a lot of heaviness and darkness in the world around us, yes, AND there is much more light, love, and wonder to be found. Seek it. Celebrate it. BE it. That’s a hallmark of a unicorn — why else would we be so popular at birthday parties? One of my favorite tips for discovering the wonder in even the direst of moments — a mistake (gasp!) — comes from this reframe by the conductor Benjamin Zander, who encourages us to consider how fascinating they can be. Retraining our minds to look for possibility, to choose optimism, is one of the most helpful gifts we can ever receive.
So today, as I make a leap of faith of my own by embracing my role as the full-time Unicorn with DRG Group, I hope you’ll join me in setting your inner unicorn free (after all, have you ever seen one in a stable?). I look forward to wondrous adventures together, connecting with your authentic self, and seeing your Why in action! Thank you for being part of the journey and allowing me to be part of yours.
p.s. The transition from designing the donor experience at one organization to partnering with many others to elevate theirs is filled with rethinking, reimagining, and retooling my workload – and that’s exactly the topic Angie Joens and I will explore in the next DRG monthly webinar on June 7. It’s packed with tips and tools you can use in your organization, and we hope you’ll join us!
Matthew S. Helmer, aka The Unicorn, brings more than two decades of fundraising, donor relations, and constituent engagement experience to his role as Consultant and Strategist with the DRG Group. Most recently, he served as Assistant Vice President and Chief Communications Officer for University Advancement at Colorado State University. To partner with Matthew on elevating the donor experience at your organization, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, and connect with Matthew on LinkedIn or Twitter.