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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Thoughts

Donors and Pets

I was recently talking with a nonprofit board about the importance of continuously and consistently engaging with donors. “Because it’s a good thing to do” wasn’t cutting it, so I attempted a metaphor.

There are steps in the donor cycle — identification, cultivation, solicitation AND stewardship. It’s not solely about asking for money. Not that asking isn’t important, though it’s not where you generally spend most of your time. And it most certainly shouldn’t be the only time your donors hear from you. You go to an ATM when you need cash, not your supporters.

But where were we? The metaphor, right.

For anyone with pets, one thing you do with some frequency is take them to the vet. Sometimes for illness, others for a routine checkup. Either way, most people probably travel to the vet in a car, and for some, it’s the only time little FooFoo goes in the car. So when little FooFoo sees the car, little FooFoo knows what’s up.

Dog

Other people take their pets for car rides all the time. To the store, to the park, to pet play dates, etc. In those instances, when little FooFoo sees the car, it may just not be a wholly traumatic experience. In this metaphor, here are the players:

  • Little FooFoo: Your donor
  • The Car Ride: Your engagement with the donor
  • The Vet: The once-a-year solicitation

This seemed to resonate with the group. And it’s not meant to be silly, it’s reality-based. Long gone are the days when one touchpoint a year is adequate with your supporters. In a time when information is available in a flash — and over one million nonprofits are vying for the same dollars — your people need to hear from you. You need to take them in the car with you all the time (or at least often), and not just to the vet.

You’re doing a new program in-line with some of your donors’ interests? Shoot them a note! You just voted on a great new board member who will help really boost some aspect of your work? Let your donors know! You reached some sort of epic programmatic or financial milestone? Tout it!

There is such a thing as over-communicating, though we’re in the field of feel, and our donors are engaged for reasons of personal significance. More often than not, I’ve found if people don’t want to hear from you, they’ll tell you — either directly or by unsubscribing to your mailing lists. We have such opportunities to be stewards of our organizations’ missions, and in doing so, can be really great stewards of our donors.

So let’s do ourselves a favor; let’s take little FooFoo all over the damn place. The more familiar with the car ride, the less stressful, and you may just clean up less pee along the way — and isn’t that the goal?

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Thoughts

Getting it Done > Your Title

I’ve mused on the idea of “getting it done.” Go with me now please on another journey: worry about getting it done… not your title.

SillyWalks

Friends, Romans, countrymen… in the grand scheme of things, your title is insignificant. As nonprofiteers, the identifier on our business cards should be infinitely less important than the work we do — unless you are the Minister and your business is Silly Walks — though nevertheless, often the opposite is true.

For me, this idea became obvious just about three years ago. At that point, I had spent over a decade building up my experience and titles — coordinator to manager to program director to director — and then, shifting careers, overnight I again became a manager. Only then did it really begin to gel for me: my work was simply more important than what followed my name in my e-mail signature. [Note: this was around the same time I realized I was not seasoned]

Look, I won’t begrudge anyone for being proud of their accomplishments. If you’ve put in the time and energy, and have ascended to a certain position which carries a certain title, I’ll be your biggest cheerleader. #CelebrateSuccess, or whatever. But your title isn’t the whole of your job, so #chill with the self-aggrandizement. “Leadership” titles are important, as they identify achievements, tenure and hierarchy. Though at the end of the day, they really don’t mean much — if there are 1,400 Assistant Directors of Silly Walks at an organization, what does that even mean?

Another way to look at this is considering personal aspirations. By this, I suggest, the trajectory of one’s career shouldn’t necessarily be tied to ascending titles. I’ve taken a particular path which came with marginal title bumps, though now (as an associate director) in many ways I’m having a far more meaningful experience than I ever did with “higher” titles.

If it’s not clear, this is something that really bugs me. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even ask new acquaintances about their work or titles. At the end of the day, I believe titles say more about what people think about themselves rather than anything else. Instead, I prefer icebreakers like “[So and so], what’s your passion?” I like how this throws people off, and gets them a little off their high horse.

So next time this idea of titles presents itself as a potential topic of discussion, just remember:

NoBody

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