Category: Philanthropy


It Takes Good to Be Great

Ironically, in this week when my wife, Amy Sukol, led a seminar entitled “From Great to Awesome” at the 2017 Chicago Nonprofit Conference*, I was learning a complementary lesson, also loosely based on Jim Collins’ Good to Great, but in the opposite direction.

You see, this week wasn’t what I would call GREAT.

Rather, the power of good carried me, and really our whole office, this week as staff seemed to be in “just back from vacation” mode. Some of us really were just back from vacation. Others were dealing with children returning to school, the stress of upcoming holidays and looming deadlines.

Fortunately, we were well prepared.

Way back when I decided it was time to pursue my lifelong dream to learn to play the drums, I took lessons from the fabulous Wes Crawford. A great teacher, Wes stressed that although “playing by feel” was most satisfying to me, it was important to concentrate on rudimentary drills and thoroughly learn song structures so that even when I was “feeling off,” I could still play my part well. This sobering lesson can mean the difference between good and lousy.

As with playing music, working for a nonprofit organization is best done with a full, inspired heart. Our sector, not unlike the bandstand, is no place for just going through the motions. Passion, inspiration, commitment – these intangibles matter! They spell the difference between good and great.

But sometimes great is not an option. So many of us in the sector vacillate wildly between highly charged moments of intense productivity and low output slumps. I have certainly experienced this in my career – in my life. If we’re honest, many of us have. The inspired highs are amazing. We wouldn’t be who we are without them. But no human being can stay hyper charged all the time. We need ways of keeping forward momentum even when passions fade temporarily.

We’re in this business because we want to make positive change. Achieving lofty visions and fulfilling organizational missions requires greatness, to be sure, but sometimes greatness requires moments of simple goodness. As my long-time friend Rich once teasingly told me when I go through a bout with perfectionism in grad school, “anything worth doing is worth doing shabbily.”

Because our staff team diligently builds work plans based on office-wide goals that everyone has a hand in developing, a distracted week doesn’t need to turn into an unproductive one. We all know how to play our parts. We keep things progressing, even during those off moments when it feels a little more like just going through the motions than we’d prefer. Great can temporarily slow to good rather than crashing into lousy. The inspiration will return soon, as it always does. And when it kicks back in, we’ll still be heading down the right road and in the right direction.

*Amy Sukol, CFRE, is Executive Vice President at Lautman Maska Neill & Company in Washington, DC. She presented “From Great to Awesome: Using Analytics, Testing, and Donor-centricity” at DMA Nonprofit Federation’s 2017 Chicago Nonprofit Conference.

Embrace the Uncomfortable. Move Forward in the Face of Mistakes. Allow Space.

Facing a big birthday a couple of years ago, I resolved to live my personal and professional life with a new level of courage, integrity and productivity. As part of my quest I adopted a three-part philosophy, which I openly confess remains somewhat aspirational:

“Embrace the uncomfortable, move forward in the face of mistakes and allow space.”

Nearly two years into the experiment, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect here on Giving Way about why each of these three principles is important to me and to offer them to you, my fellow nonprofit leader, as tools for accomplishing your organization’s important work.

Embrace the uncomfortable
Most of us give in more than we would like to admit to the very human tendency to avoid conflict, dodge decisions and procrastinate from the distasteful or difficult. I have had the unique privilege of getting to know someone who seems to have been born without this gene. He is amazing! No matter what’s going on, he runs right into the fire… every time. Not coincidentally, he is also one of the most successful and productive people I know. His approach can be unsettling at times, but I’ve tried it on for size and let me tell you that it is immensely freeing. The positive results this practice creates are staggering.

M. Scott Peck opens his The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth with a simple idea: “Life is difficult.” So much potential gets wasted by leaders who avoid the simple truth that life is difficult. Once we accept it, it no longer limits us. How many times have you avoided an uncomfortable reality and when you finally took care of it said to yourself “that wasn’t so bad, why was I making such a big deal out of it?” What are you avoiding right now?

Move forward in the face of mistakes
A dear friend from high school recently posted a beautiful picture of herself on Facebook, along with the gloriously honest comment: “Ever take a pic and for whatever reason the light in the room washes everything out and you look like you’re not aging? And your hair turned out right for once? Well, those are the only ones I post.” That made me smile from ear to ear! Putting our best face forward is only human. While I wholeheartedly endorse the practice when it comes to Facebook photos, this tendency can be damaging in our work and personal lives.

Here is a crazy experiment: For one week, keep a written list of every excuse for a mistake you hear. I mean really listen for and record every unnecessary rationalization you hear for a simple error. Jot down on your list every example of a co-worker, friend, family member, etc. conjuring an excuse, however plausible, when a simple “Oh shoot, I goofed” would have sufficed. Make sure you also log the rationalizations you hear yourself say, either out loud or in your head. If you listen and record diligently, I promise you’ll have a long list. Guess what? None of it matters.

Whatever image you project as a leader, we all know you make mistakes. It’s okay. No, really! Your flaws don’t invalidate your greatness. As long as you’re doing meaningful work, you’ll be making plenty of mistakes (I just learned this morning of an embarrassing one I made earlier in the week – whoops!). Admit to them, fix them, learn from them. Keep going. It means you’re in the game. It’s good.

Allow space
A few years back I was running an organization called Do More Mission to help philanthropists and small- to mid-sized nonprofit organizations increase their impact. I am proud of what we accomplished but I now see a fatal flaw in how I named the organization when I started it in 2009.

A close advisor had tried to warn me. Encouragement to “do more,” he explained, is the opposite of what many driven nonprofit leaders need to hear most. So many of them (us!) share the shortcoming of pushing harder and harder even when it may be time to back off and leave room for grace. I suspect he was mostly talking about me. I ignored him and pushed ahead as planned, launching “Do More,” as we used to call it for short. A couple of years later a close friend and colleague told me about a management book by J. Keith Murnighan that he said really helped him. A few days later the mailman delivered Do Nothing!: Discover the Power of Hands-Off Leadership. Strikingly, the color scheme and cover design of the book was very similar to our logo. There I was with a simple choice right up in my face Do More! Or Do Nothing!

Do Nothing, By J. Keith Murnighan

do more mission logo

Do More Mission logo



Of all the things you have to do – and learn to do well – one of them is, well, NOTHING (suddenly, I’m thinking of George Costanza). Productive doing of nothing is an important skill that doesn’t always come naturally to passionate social entrepreneurs. I advocate for working hard, to be sure, but working smart is equally important. We accomplish the most when we do our footwork passionately and diligently, and then back off and allow space for the Divine to step in and put all the pieces together.

Whether you serve in a staff or volunteer role, try modelling these three uncommon attributes. You may be surprised how much potential they free up, and how much they can contribute to your organization’s success.

“Innovation”: What to make of a word that just won’t go away

In the nearly 10 years since bestselling author and popular speaker Scott Berkun famously implored the world to “stop saying innovation,” we in the Jewish philanthropic and nonprofit world show no sign of heeding his sage advice.

Scott, whose credits include the bestseller The Myths of Innovation, makes a nearly irrefutable case that the word innovation has lost meaning and become noise pollution. Instead, he encourages focusing on developing ideas for solving significant problems rather than finding exciting adjectives to describe those ideas.

So why is it that some of the most passionate, sincere and talented people I know in Jewish nonprofits keep returning to the innovation trope? Are we a bunch of gushy romantics, repeatedly working ourselves into a frenzied lather of naïveté at each “next big idea” that comes our way? Or have we become allergic to hard work, victims of our parents and grandparents successes and good fortunes, in search of one shiny new quick-fix after another? Or could there be something deeper and more substantive at play that causes us to hang on so stubbornly to “innovation” as an ideal.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am far from immune to the Jewish innovation addiction. I was an active participant in the birth of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), along with Mrs. Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation and our cherished colleague and friend Rabbi Shmuel Feld. I was in the middle of plowing my way through a daunting pile of books on social entrepreneurship at the time* and I stridently insisted that the word innovation MUST be in the name of the organization we were creating. I was an architect of JEIC’s subsequent partnership with Joshua Venture Group, which later merged with UpStart, whose mission is “inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.” If the Jewish world’s addiction to the word innovation is a pathology, I am surely among the diseased.

But is there a healthy way to be obsessed with innovation? Could it be, in fact, that innovation lies at the very core of what it means to be a Jew, a uniquely Jewish way of relating to the world, to each other, to ourselves and to the Divine?

In Judaism’s morning prayers, we praise G_d “who forms light and creates darkness.” This is stated in the present tense, explains Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, because G_d is perpetually creating the world. Judaism, in other words, sees G_d not as a being who created the world many years ago, but as the active, engaged Spirit who continually creates and renews everything in this world at all times. If we hope to align with this Spirit that guides the world and fulfill our highest potentials as humans and Jews, we too need to constantly refresh our relationship with this ever renewing G_d.

Jewish teachings repeatedly encourage us to “sing a new song” to G_d**. This suggests that while great value is placed on ritual in Judaism, there is also great value placed on bringing a renewed, sincere desire to connect afresh with G_d each time we engage in ritual.

Innovation as a state of heart and mind
I had the pleasure this week of sitting in a noisy Starbucks in New York City for nearly two hours with Stefanie Rhodes, executive director of Slingshot. Listening to Stefanie’s ideas about next generation philanthropy’s potential for the Jewish future, one gets the impression that Slingshot, known to date primarily for its annual Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation, just may have its brightest days ahead.

As Stefanie and I were talking, it occurred to me that innovation in the Jewish corner of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector may be a sign that the Jewish ideal of renewal and rejuvenation is yet alive. Perhaps innovation in the Jewish nonprofit world is more than a utilitarian response to declining communal organizations that seem out of step with contemporary Jews. Could it be that creation of new avenues for Jewish engagement is an imperative for every generation, part of renewing our relationship to ourselves and each other as Jews, and ultimately to the Divine?

To be clear, I’m not excusing continued over-use of an annoyingly hackneyed word, nor am I advocating change for its own sake. The philanthropic and nonprofit sector has seen billions wasted that way, by decades of initiatives that lack well defined aims and strategies. But when the newness is intentionally directed to create “significant positive change,” as Scott Berkun would have us say, innovation – the concept if not the word — can become a powerful, positive engine, both for responding to contemporary problems and to renewing our very souls.



*Among them Bishop & Green’s Philanthrocapitalism, Bornstein’s profiles of early Ashoka fellows, Christensen’s testament to the power of disruptive technological innovation for reforming education, and Paul Light’s “Driving Social Change: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Social Problems.

**No less than five times in the book of Tehillim, Psalms, alone.

Three-Part Harmony Fundraising

ccs, national public radio, npr, catholic charities, georgetown lombardi cancer center, association of fundraising professionals, afp, sukol, giving usa

Perspectives on Philanthropy, August 3, 2017. Sponsored by CCS Fundraising and held at NPR headquarters in Washington, DC (from left): Donald Dunn (Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center), Stephanie Witte (NPR), Tara Dwyer-Arras (Catholic Charities of Washington), Jason Lee (AFP)

Several organizations I am in close touch with are currently searching for senior development professionals. One executive director with whom I’m especially close was bemoaning how hard it is to find good fundraising staff. “It’s simple,” I leaned across my desk and said, almost annoyed. “You just need someone who can build on your successes, bring in new major donors and turn your hodgepodge of activities into an integrated program!” We both burst out laughing. Of course develpoment IS that simple, but what’s simple in words can be impossible in deed. It is not easy to find a single professional who appreciates the need for – let alone has the characteristics to accomplish – those three very different assignments. We talked about this a little further:

The project manager: Building on successes requires a disciplined worker, someone who is organized, thorough and systematic. This is the person that will pull old lists, order them by value and assign contact people for each name and check-in to make sure the work is getting done. She will also plod through dozens of phone calls per day, keeping close track of results.

The evangelist: Breaking open new major gift relationships requires a hunter gatherer, someone who is a master relationship builder who loves the thrill of the chase AND loves people AND loves your mission. Whew! If you’ve got one with all those attributes who can also close a gift, hold on to them no matter how much unmanageability their sloppiness and high energy level causes. This person will drive your accounting department nuts but everyone in the field will love them. They will make your professional life hectic, exciting and funded (at least this year).

The chief development officer: Building an integrated program requires a wise professional who can strategically assemble the component parts of a well-balanced system so that you can continually acquire new donors through multiple channels and grow existing donors up a pipeline with increasingly customized communications as their annual giving level grows. This is the kind of person who will be thinking about the 20 or 30 year value of donor relationships. This is ideal, assuming you’ve got this year’s bottom line covered.

If you could only hire one of these, which would it be?

The conversation was still on my mind yesterday morning when I attended a panel discussion hosted by consulting firm CCS Fundraising and hosted by National Public Radio at their beautiful Washington, DC headquarters. The program featured a top line report on this year’s Giving USA report on philanthropy in America, presented by CCS’s Luke Driscoll and followed by an insightful discussion. Moderated by Linda Cameron (also of CCS), the panel included Donald Dunn, Senior Director of Development at Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center; Tara Dwyer-Arras, Chief Development Officer at Catholic Charities of Washington; Jason Lee, Interim CEO at Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP); and Stephanie Witte, Chief Development officer at NPR. I attended the session because I had the privilege of learning from people associated with Giving USA’s annual report when I was in graduate school at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and I have so much respect for the work they do. It was especially stimulating to hear how senior colleagues in the trenches process and integrate this valuable annual publication (which you can purchase online). Thank you to all who made the event possible.

During the presentation I got to thinking about my colleague’s hiring dilemma. It occurred to me that fundraising is such a different animal in different contexts. When considering who you want to hire in that top development slot, lots of factors come into play. Do you have a full development staff with well-differentiated roles? How big is your organization? How much a part of your annual revenue comes from fundraising as opposed to fee for service income, operating grants/contracts or endowment income? How well does your current team do at balancing short term needs for revenue with long term investments in lifetime donor value? What is the team like that the person will work within or supervise? These are all important questions to think about when crafting a development position for your organization.

The sooner organizational leaders do what Mr. Lee of AFP emphasized, and recognize fundraising as the multifaceted, complex field it is, the better prepared we will be to hire the right professionals for our unique circumstances. Moreover, if we can parse out the three personality types listed above and find ways to balance and integrate them among our team members, we just may find that elusive three-part harmony of fundraising after all.