In December of last year, we made the last minute decision to do a year-end fundraising campaign for the very new organization that is Creating the Future. In the spirit of transparent engagement, we promised to share what would normally be kept secret – everything we learned from that campaign.
That is what this post will attempt to do. And I say “attempt” because there was so much that we learned, that we’re thinking it may become a book! For now, I’ll try to hit the highlights.
First, a quick chronology of the campaign from start to finish:
December 6: Blog post asking whether or not to embark on a campaign.
December 16: Decided to go for it.
December 29: Shut down the campaign.
December 30: Posted initial thoughts about what we had learned, knowing there were things that “just didn’t feel right,” that we needed to explore further (hence, today’s post!)
Learning #1: It’s all about Context
“What we learned” all depends on the context of the question. If the context is fundraising tactics, the answer becomes about the immediate task at hand – what worked and what didn’t work re: raising the money we set out to raise. For those tactical questions, the posts here and here pretty much cover it.
The problem we had with our campaign, though, was not tactical. It wasn’t even strategic. It was philosophical, rooted deep in our vision and values.
Mark Riffey’s comment from the December 6th post at my blog sums it up:
“If we are going to rebuild the charitable world, are we going to start doing so by funding it the same way that Friends of the Woolly Mammoth (et al) would do it? And if so, how is that congruent with the mandates/mindset of The Pollyanna Principles and Creating the Future?”
When put into that context, it becomes clear why we felt pulled between tactics and values. It also becomes clear what questions we, as a sector full of individuals and organizations, indeed need to be asking and answering.
What would it look like if resource systems were about sustaining thriving communities, rather than figuring out how to meet payroll?
Sustaining thriving communities would require cooperative systems – rooted in our interconnectedness, rather than rooted in competition (if for no other reason – and there are PLENTY of other reasons – than that cooperation lends itself far more easily to being self-sustaining than competition does). Those systems would be rooted in the abundant strengths and assets communities already have, rather than constantly having to infuse those systems with external resources (i.e. cash).
Sustaining thriving communities would require systems that aligned with core values, rather than requiring us to constantly choose between core values and economic survival.
That’s just some of what systems would look like if they were aimed at their highest potential – sustaining thriving communities.
Learning #2: It’s all about Current Systems
Current systems do not look at all like that. There is nothing strength-based / abundance-based / cooperative in any of our current resourcing systems. Rooted in scarcity, weakness and competition, those systems actually go directly counter to values that will lead to sustaining thriving communities.
Interestingly, though – and I’ve written about this extensively in articles at our website – current systems ALSO go directly counter to creating sustainable organizational resources.
No sustainable dollars + no sustainable communities
= Lose / Lose Scenario
The current system looks loosely like this:
- Organizations need short term funds.
- We use systems and approaches and tactics aimed at generating short term funds. While we might call these approaches resource development systems – they are really fundraising systems.
- Those fundraising systems are rooted in assumptions of scarcity. Even the very word – fundraising – suggests that we do not have what we need (which we assume to be money), so we must raise it. Our strength relies on people outside our programs to make us strong. And that dependence upon others for our very survival embeds fear into every effort.
- That said, though, the result of those fundraising systems is that they do indeed raise short term dollars.
- However, there are also other results. Because current systems depend on support from outside the organization, we must constantly go out and find the dollars that will keep our efforts alive. Fundraising becomes an ongoing job, separate and apart from the actual work we are doing to build strong communities.
- Because we need what others have, the system requires that we identify everyone associated with our work by the dollars we believe they can give us. We therefore value those with money more than we value those without money. Of course we say we value everyone, but in truth, we treat small donors like money trees – we only communicate with them when we send another ask letter.
That said, however, we ALSO treat LARGE donors like money trees. We are just more attentive to those trees. We fertilize them and prune them. We pay homage to them, nurture them… until, of course, they stop bearing fruit, at which point we move on, finding new trees upon which to lavish our nurturing attentions in the hopes that they will be more productive.
- All that said, it is important to repeat that money DOES come in from these ongoing efforts. Enough comes in to allow us to survive until the next fundraising letter or event. But with no long-term investment in our strengths and in each other – and the ongoing requirement that we compete rather than building strength together – the money only lasts so long.
- And so we find ourselves back at Step 1: We need short term funds.
Learning #3: It’s all about Fear and Human Behavior
In late November of last year, Dimitri and I decided to stop the part-time consulting that was supporting both ourselves and this fledgling organization. If Creating the Future is to accomplish its mission, committing ourselves full time is the only way that will happen.
However, committing full time – and giving up the small amounts of consulting that were at least keeping the doors open – meant there was no longer any income at all. Yes, there was a business plan for generating revenues, and we are currently working 24/7 to implement that plan. But until that kicks in…
And so it was that a week after making the decision to dive into the deep end of the pool with no floaties, we realized, “Year-end is statistically when the very most money is donated to charity. If we did a year-end campaign, we could raise enough money to bridge the next few months.”
The rest of Learning #3 might as well say “See Learning #2.”
When we humans are scared, we don’t have the strength to buck trends and head out on a limb. We might know everything I have written here thus far – heck, I’ve been writing this stuff for years. And in that time, I’ve used that wisdom to help organizations accomplish amazing things.
But there is a big difference between being the dispassionate consultant and being organizational founders who are worried they won’t be able to pay their mortgages the next month.
Fearful about how we would make ends meet in the near term, Pollyanna Principle #6 led every one of our actions: “Individuals go where systems lead them.”
And all the systems – not some, not a majority, but virtually all the systems in this sector lead to “fundraising as it is done.” Case statements and asks and all the stuff that is so institutionalized that it is taught as “Best Practice” in some of the most notable universities in the world.
Even though we knew in our hearts that that was a path rife with scarcity – a path that went counter to everything we were working to achieve for this sector – the bottom line was the same bottom line it is for our clients.
We needed money. And the current systems was the only system around.
Learning #4: It’s all about Changing the Systems
So was our fundraising campaign a failure? Hardly. In addition to all we learned, we raised $7,000 in 10 days with virtually no mailing list and our hearts clearly conflicted.
But wait, that’s not entirely true. Because raising that money was not really in addition to all we learned, but entirely because of all we learned. And that’s because $5,000 of that $7,000 came from a donor who appreciated our courage and willingness to shut down the campaign – and to do so transparently – based entirely upon the core values we wanted to uphold and model to the world.
Which brings us back to the comment Mark Riffey made when we first raised the question of whether or not to raise the money.
What would funding look like if it is NOT the way we’ve always done it? What would resourcing these efforts look like if their focus was sustaining thriving communities?
Learning #5: It’s all about Changing the Norms
As we ask those very different questions and come up with the answers, one thing is clear: Nothing will change until it all changes.
Until a strength-based, cooperative, interconnected, life-affirming approach is the norm for how we build and support community-building efforts, individuals who are living in fear of paying the bills will be pulled into the scarcity-and-fear-based system that currently IS the norm.
Individuals will indeed go where systems lead them.
If Creating the Future is to live up to its mission of guiding this sector to reach its potential, we must change the systems upon which we are sustaining our communities. And we are indeed dedicated to accomplishing just that.
And so, in the words of our friends and colleagues Trae Ashlie-Garen and Troy Alford, we are “beginning as we intend to continue.” Yes, that applies to our efforts to sustain our work, but it also applies so very much to our efforts to engage transparently in all that we do.
We are quite certain we would not have learned nearly this much this quickly, had we not been committed to sharing each step with you. That decision has “kept us honest.” It has kept us more mindful and aware, and working far less in reflexive auto-pilot mode (or as Dimitri calls it, Zombie Mode).
Engaging at every point also reminds us that we are not alone – that this is, indeed, a cooperative effort, built on trust and relationship. We do have significant strengths upon which to build. We have a community. We know this is part of what it will take to reconsider not just funding and resources, but everything.
And so to you, our co-conspirators on this adventure to change how social change is done – we bow in deepest and most humble gratitude. And we cannot wait to see what’s next.
Photo Info: Cups Completely Empty shot by me, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO during our 2010 Midwest Tour.