Fear of Failure Puts Success on Ice

safe : fearBy Avrum Lapin

Paralysis, fear, gridlock, inertia … we hear these words all the time. The one thing that we do know is that they tend to lead nowhere. They are the recipe for status quo and guarantee the likelihood that little or nothing will change. And in today’s high paced and hyper competitive philanthropic marketplace, standing still is falling behind … plain and simple.

Too often we hear from colleagues and friends in the business of philanthropy that a particular goal is out of reach. Why? Because they tried something similar years before and it didn’t succeed; because they believe that they don’t have the capacity or infrastructure readily at hand; because they don’t perceive to have the leadership ready and able to step forward and make something happen by example; because they cannot yet clearly articulate the value proposition; and because they are afraid of mentioning money to a constituency that they perceive to already be “over solicited.”

So as we often say to friends and colleagues, let’s not define ourselves by what we are not or by our self-perception of that which we believe we cannot do. Let us look instead to who we are, what we are capable of doing, and how we can make the transition from fear and paralysis to achievability.

We must perhaps start from a previously counter-intuitive place and confront our fears, framing our vision and thinking ambitiously about how to realize that vision. And in taking this step, let’s begin by answering a few critical questions:

  • What is the “state of our space” – what are other universities, schools, synagogues, social and human services, and providers of health, mental health services and programs for people with disabilities, etc. doing successfully that we can learn from and adapt?
  • What are best practices and advancements that should be part of our selling proposition that we haven’t gotten to yet?
  • What are our constituents asking of us? How are we making their lives and the lives of our communities better? That is what animates the vision and motivates people to give generously of themselves and their funds.
  • What do we need to do to meet their expectations?
  • What resources do we have that have not been tapped and are ready to be engaged?
  • What investment do we need to make to get there and what is the risk that we are taking on? Is the risk worth the endeavor?
  • Do we remain managers of our status quo, moving incrementally from year to year, or will we be leaders who will cross traditional boundaries in pursuit of success?

And in answering these questions let’s look ahead and determine what can we be in two, or five, or ten years from now? Can we trace a believable line from where we are today, assessing the resources that we can muster and the expertise that we can assemble from within and without, to where we would like to be, indeed where need to be?

I am reminded of the synagogue which was 75% of the way toward the ambitious goal of their capital campaign. As the effort advanced they began to hear questions from a particular cohort (yes – one with resources and capacity to advance the effort) about the building design and other areas relating to the fundraising effort and other organizational issues. The Campaign Leadership began to entertain the notion of putting the campaign on a “brief hold” until they were able to address those questions.

These Campaign Leaders, compelled to please and engage and not alienate, felt a paralysis descending. After some discussion, however, they ultimately decided to confront the questions by engaging and involving these important stakeholders rather than providing them with a veto over the pace of the congregation’s campaign. In doing so, they truly lived up to their roles as leaders, to the benefit of the campaign and their community.

How did leaders in this context and others determine their path to innovation and achievement over status quo and incrementalism? In truth, it isn’t that difficult, but it does take vision and a readiness to confront that ever-present hesitation about making the wrong call and ultimately the fear of failure. It is made easier by doing the following:

  1. Listen to your community and understand what they want. Don’t engage in speculation, making determinations around a Board table without testing those decisions among those who would support them and live with their consequences. Step out of the “echo chamber” that can form around a small circle of well-intentioned leaders, and connect with your constituents.
  2. Approach the situation with confidence – confidence in your organization and its mission, purpose and “value proposition,” and how what it does improves the lives of people; confidence in your abilities as a leader and the depth of the organizational resources to be tapped, developed, and optimized; and confidence in your decisions that will make things happen.
  3. Do your research – identify the depth of current and prospective stakeholders and supporters and know the capacity and inclination of your prospective donor pool. Obtain wealth research together with anecdotal information – when integrated they form the full picture. Think broadly and have a substantive plan to approach and attract those donors.
  4. Focus on facts and your organization’s “selling proposition” – programmatic and business-related – thus providing clarity to your community and to your current and potential donors about what will happen as a result of their involvement, leadership and support. Remember that giving is a passionate decision advanced by credible information and comfort around facts.
  5. Communicate with stakeholders about prospective results, and don’t operate based on assumptions – illustrate how their efforts and their dollars will be put to work, the impact that their philanthropy will create, and how they will be recognized.
  6. Prepare a Business Plan – show how the dollars will be collected, their impact on the budget and organizational capacities, and how the funds will go to work to make the goals that everyone shares more achievable. A Business Plan supports and concretizes the vision, thus making it more believable, and tracing that line from where you are to where you would like to ultimately be.

And remember, it is not about buildings and brochures, but about how the fundraising activity brings benefit to the community and to the lives of people. Putting it into that context will help to assuage fear and enable leadership that achieves great things to shine through with confidence and power.

Please feel free to contact us at The Lapin Group at 215-885-1550 or alapin@thelapingroup.com to discuss this further. My colleagues and I welcome your comments and emails. Let us know what you think.

Avrum Lapin is President at The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising and management consulting firm for nonprofits. The Lapin Group inspires and leads US-based and international nonprofits seeking fund, organizational, leadership, and business development solutions, offering contemporary and leading-edge approaches and strategies. A Board member of the Giving Institute and a member of the Editorial Review Board of Giving USA, Avrum is a frequent contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com and speaker in the US and in Israel on opportunities and challenges in today’s nonprofit marketplace.

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