Thoughts

The Dying Art of Asking Questions

By nature, I am a curious person — annoyingly so. My parents never complained about it, though I was definitely the “why?” child. While I’m sure this can be outwardly irritating, as an adult this practice keeps me well-informed on things of immediate or peripheral importance; a valued skill in nonprofits.

In recent years, however, I have noticed a downward slope with regard to asking questions, and this comes on all sides. Board members who express little interest in knowing what’s happening; staff who miss opportunities to learn more about the organization’s direction; “leaders” who make decisions based on internal feelings rather than seeking input. While not attempting to break this down on a systematic or psychological level, from my direct experience I’ve surmised a few roads which lead to lack of questioning:

  1. Time. “There are only so many hours in the day; I don’t have time to seek feedback and input when things just need to get done.”
  2. Fear. “Gosh… what if I get an answer I don’t want, or don’t like?”
  3. Ignorance. “Oh, wait, was I supposed to ask someone about this?”
  4. Ego. “I know better than everyone, so why would I waste my time asking questions to which I already know the answer?”

Those things all read badly, though not all of them come from a bad place. How many of us enter a situation where — sorry for using this phrase, but — we don’t know what we don’t know. The people before us didn’t keep running records or manuals, the staff has 100% turnover so there’s no institutional knowledge, and the Board are nowhere to be found for inquiries.

For whatever reason, we are losing the drive to be curious. Lack of creativity and inquisition are an issue in schools with children, but gosh, it’s an atrophying skill in adulthood too. In organizations, some of this is a top-down issue. Years ago I worked in places where questions were frowned upon, because how dare you question the all-knowing executive director.

I am, however, finding pockets of hope. I very recently joined the Board of a scrappy (their word, not mine) creative nonprofit, which has been enlightening. At each meeting, I talk with the team about fundraising, future planning, etc., and to my surprise… they ask a lot of questions. There are things about which they don’t know, and they want to know. As a volunteer, it’s kind of amazing to see the lightbulbs go off, but that really only happens when people ask genuine questions, and genuinely want to know the answers.

AskAway

This is creepy but cute, right?

As a fundraiser, I believe there is an art to asking questions. Some of the best visits I’ve had with donors and prospects end with the people saying things like, “Gosh, it was so nice learning about you!” In reality, I’m simply asking questions about them (some guided, some open-ended), which get conversations moving. It’s not simply “What are you interested in supporting and can we have your money so we can do that?” Rather, it’s asking about their experiences, what interests them, what organizations they believe are doing great work, where they see philanthropy making a difference, and so forth. Little of that is about “me” or “my work,” yet at the end of a good conversation, you can paint a nice little picture, simply by asking questions.

So ask away, friends! Ask genuinely and honestly. People want to share, and sometimes it simply takes a little prompting. “The smart ones ask when they don’t know,” mused Malcolm Forbes, “…and sometimes when they do.”

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Rants

Say What You Mean

ShrugWe all know what nonprofits mean (or don’t mean) when they put “other duties assigned” in a job description. But there are lots of other words and phrases in those postings which warrant some attention. Here’s some quick decoding of some of my most favorite jargon…

  • Flexible: We have zero idea what we’re doing, so on our absolute best day, we’re going to be all over the map. You need to not only predict all that nonsense, but respond to it like a clairvoyant. Also, if you are pregnant, a minority or have a foreign-sounding name, we may ask you to pretend otherwise in front of donors.
  • Self-starter: Since we have zero idea what we’re doing, there will be no guidance from management. Other than (maybe) pointing out your desk, the extent of your onboarding will be a walk-through of the kitchen area, focusing on which coffee filters to use… if the admin remembers to order coffee filters.
  • Collaborative environment: Our board is wayyyyyyy more involved than they should be, and you need to be okay with their input on how Times New Roman 11.5-point font size obviously looks much better on this thank you letter than Times New Roman 12-point font size.
  • Fast-paced environment: The executive director will dream up more mission-drifting projects than you can handle, with the expectation that you raise enough money for, and market them by yesterday.
  • Entrepreneurial: We can really only afford a 22-year-old, but we want 10+ years of experience, so we need someone who’s okay with ambiguity at all levels, which may, at times, feel like “entrepreneurship.”
  • Sense of humor: This is the saddest, most melancholy work environment in the country, and we desperately need someone with jokes to help with morale.
  • Passion for the mission: Low salary, no benefits, toxic environment, extremely long hours… but there’s a small possibility you’ll feel really great about the work itself.
  • Must be able to lift 20 pounds, bend, stretch, stand for extended periods of time, climb stairs, reach, twist, walk and run: You will do all of these activities on a daily basis, and often. Also, must have a valid driver’s license and a car, so you can pick up the executive director’s child from daycare; no, we will not reimburse you for mileage for doing this.

And there you have it. Now get those resumes updated, and be sure to let people know your references are available upon request — nonprofits love when you take up one-third of your resume with that phrase.

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