“This will be the most unorthodox development committee meeting you have ever attended” promised Tom, the committee chair. Admittedly, I was skeptical, yet the energy in the room was palpable as more and more committee members stuffed themselves into the tiny, clown-car-like space, where we were meeting. While the need for the organization’s services had grown significantly, the development effort, though robust, had remained relatively flat over the last five years. This group of people committed themselves to find a way to take their work to the next level.
The board/volunteer development committee has the difficult job of generating high performance while overcoming significant negative stereotypes about fundraising. Endemic to many failed efforts is a misunderstanding about what is needed from the committee. Often we think about it in terms of more influence, better contacts, and deeper pockets. These are important, but these are the outcomes not solutions to building an effective development program. By chasing these, committee members put themselves in a very unproductive position — reacting to each others ideas, hoping that someone will discover the secret that will make asking their friends for money less painful.
What I appreciated most about Tom’s “unorthodox development committee meeting” was that this group of people had moved beyond reacting to each other’s ideas before they walked through the door. For the last few months, the committee has ruminated over reams of data about the organization’s past fundraising performance– understanding the structure of the program, the kind of results it has generated, how it cultivates new donor prospects and how it impacts the donor relationship. More importantly, they were able to dispel several assumptions creating a clear picture about their situation. Now, they were ready to begin the discussion about what a redesigned effort might look like.
According to organizational learning guru Peter Senge, “understanding the creative process is the foundation of genuine mastery.” Yet, he goes on to say, “muddling through is the strategy that characterizes most of us.” For the development committee to work (or any board committee for that matter), we need to embrace the creative process by utilizing the skills and expertise around the table to assess situations, broaden perceptions, and surface deep assumptions. From there we can take action on a fresh perspectives that will give way to strategies rooted deeply in the committee’s beliefs and collective thinking. This will lead to building new activities and processes and ultimately develop new structures and practices that will maintain the effort.
Key to the creative process is a deepening of commitment. When development committee members react to each other, there is no skin in the game. Ideas are a dime a dozen. But when members delve into the issues, examine assumptions, and discuss new solutions, they are also sharing their passions, beliefs, and desires for the organization. As the committee seeks a solution, the individual member is expressing why they are there and the group must navigate its way through these different perspectives synthesizing them into a shared vision forward.
After introductions in the small cramped room, Tom had us get up and walk next door into a larger open space and there we worked individually and in teams to explore the organization’s situation and identify potential strategies. It was not the large room, the paper on the wall, or the collaborative brainstorming that made this meeting “unorthodox.” It was that this committee was ready and energized to go to the next level, and at the end of the meeting more committed than when they started to continue on their creative journey.