Beginner’s Mind for Fundraisers

Cicada Wing

An organization Dimitri and I love is about to die.

Everyone says it is a casualty of the economy. We know that is not true.

Even when times were good, the ABC Group was struggling. And so five years ago, when we were teaching an earlier version of our “Building Engaged Support for Your Mission” workshop – the one we did in Phoenix just last week – the ABC Group sent three people – a board member, the ED, and their Development Director – to see if perhaps this was an approach that could sustain them.

The premise of that workshop hasn’t changed in all the years since the ABC Group attended.

Money is not the most effective aspect of building strength. The most effective aspects are those that simultaneously build community strength while building organizational strength.

At the workshop five years ago, the ABC Group’s ED and board member were both enthusiastic about seeing the entire spectrum of “building support” through a different lens. However both were deferring to the development director – a woman with years of experience and a great fundraising reputation.

And sadly the development director found the whole day useless.

Not that she said that. But she sat apart throughout the whole day, sporting a bored “I don’t need this – I already know my job” look. At one point she shared with us that this was all well and good, but that their organization was different.

Several times in the years between that workshop and today, the ED called us in desperation. Each time we offered to assist for free, to help the group move away from traditional fundraising, and to implement what we had taught at the workshop. Each time those offers languished as the group chose to keep doing what they already knew.

Last month I received a mass email from the group. It said they needed $50,000 to keep their doors open just for that month. Their funding was gone. Most of their staff was gone.

This is one of our favorite organizations in the world, with a unique mission we love. And it is about to die.


Last year, we were doing a workshop on governance, when a woman from the XYZ Organization approached us. “I never properly thanked you,” she said.

“I was at a workshop you did in Phoenix 5 years ago. We had just opened our doors, and I knew I had a lot to learn.

I came home and followed every single thing you suggested. Today our budget is $2 million and we are growing strong, even in this economy.”

Yes, you guessed it; the woman from XYZ was at the same workshop the ABC Group attended and ignored.


Last week, I taught that same workshop in Phoenix. While we have certainly added rich layers to the workshop over the years, our core philosophical premise has not changed.

This time, though, I had the image of those two groups in my mind. And so I asked the group the following question:

What will it take for you to do something different
than the way you’ve always done it?

And will you?

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki is often quoted as saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

The minute we think, “I already know that,” learning and possibility stop.

So how can we find the kind of Beginner’s Mind that led the XYZ Organization to its long-term success? One of the easiest routes to Beginner’s Mind is to leave behind your search for answers, and to begin asking new questions.

For years, organizations have been asking the same question:

“How can we raise the money we need?”

Asking that same question over and over, it is no surprise the answer changes only to the extent that it patches a new trick or tool onto the same old assumptions.

So then what might different questions look like, as we seek Beginner’s Mind in our quest for building engaged support for the work we are doing? Let’s start with these (and then let’s add to this list!):

• What brings strength to any endeavor? Which endeavors endure for dozens and hundreds of years vs. those that fall by the wayside? What is it those successful endeavors have in common?

• How can we ensure our programs will build a strong community?

• Do we see community members as individuals who can gather together to create their own support systems, or do we see them as clients we must help, who cannot otherwise help themselves (and certainly cannot help “us”)?

• What would it look like if our programs were built by and sustained by the community that will benefit from those programs?

• What if there were no such thing as programs? Is there a different way to get the end results we want to see in our communities?

Yes, these are the kinds of questions that shake up everything. That is what Beginner’s Mind is all about! By starting back at the beginning-before-the-beginning, we may just catch a glimpse of a more effective path.

So what questions can YOU think of? What questions shake up your thinking? What questions seek to find what builds strength, period?

As you will see in the video, if we seek what builds strength in one place, we may be surprised the extent to which the very same things build strength into everything we do.

So please, share your questions. Let’s open our minds and create possibility for building support for our work in all new ways. Let’s find our Beginner’s Mind.

To learn more about different ways to think about “traditional fundraising” vs. building engaged strength, this article provides a good comparison.

To those viewing this post in an email reader, the video that follows can be found at this link. Or just click through to the blog and watch it there!

2 Responses to Beginner’s Mind for Fundraisers

  1. Nice article. Great quote — “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” It is not always the experienced fundraiser who holds up the change. There are many of us who are open and very receptive to new and different. Let’s also point out that there are many ED’s and longtime board members who are the real hold out to change. A good leader can move their staff to greatness regardless of how long someone has been on the job. A good leader needs more than passion for change; they need the ability to motivate and inspire their staff, including longtime fundraisers. A good leader needs to make tough decisions, including cutting loose the longtime fundraiser even the one who is bringing in big bucks — if they’re not helping to sustain the organization longterm.