I spent last week at Web of Change – a week-long conference/retreat for activists, do-gooders, and leaders. To say it was a transformational experience for me is something of an understatement. Before I reflect on my learnings from the conference, I should preface this by saying that I already have mad love for Web of Change – it’s where my husband and I met two years ago – so I might be biased with my praise. (If you’re interested in reading about how Matt and I met and fell in love, read this post)
There’s a tradition within conferences these days to perpetuate that work is separate from the rest of our lives. Web of Change runs against this current with a fierce desire to bring our humanity back into our work, which is something that I deeply appreciate. We spent the morning sessions doing what’s called “personal ecology.” During these sessions, we discussed how we can better bring our whole selves to the work and what it means to be a human doing social change work. On the first day, we discussed owning our awesomeness and on the second day we discussed moments of failure.
The second day was powerful, though not without its complexities. In the small group I was in, I mustered up the courage to share a moment in my career when I was not living up to my feminist ideals. In other words – it was a time I felt that I failed as a feminist. It was a tough moment to share, but I would have been hard-pressed to find a more empathetic environment to share this story.
Sharing this story about failing as a feminist was really important for me. It was an opportunity to let the weight of the guilt go, but it was also a chance to see myself (and everyone) in their whole humanity. It’s the moment of recognizing the imperfect humanity in each person. To me, this moment of seeing and recognizing another person’s humanity is a gift. It’s what allows us to empathize with one another and form meaningful relationships.
This process led me think about the storytelling work that I do. When we tell a story, even if it’s not a story about ourselves, we are trying to convey a sense of humanity. We want other people (perhaps donors) to see and understand us.
I’ve lost count of how many executive directors, board members, and fundraisers that I’ve talked to who’ve said to me, “I just want them to get it.” When we are so invested in the work we do, it can be difficult to accept that other people don’t understand us or our work. In my world of stories, I immediately think that this means that we have not told the right story at the right time to the right person. But that’s such a pragmatic approach to solving the problem.
After this and other exercises at Web of Change, I’m coming around to a new understanding of the problem – that we are not being vulnerable enough in our storytelling.
In the context of fundraising, I would venture to say that vulnerability has never been a welcome idea. Yet, vulnerability enables us to speak our truth, to fight for what we believe in, to imagine a different kind of world and then voice that vision. We do all of these things and more in fundraising. But currently we do it with an emotional distance that keeps us “safe.” By “safe” I mean that we protect ourselves from rejection.
It’s really vulnerable to put yourself out there as a fundraiser when you are asking for money for a cause or organization that you care about. In this industry, there’s lots of advice that will tell you to remember that when a donor says “no,” they are not saying no to you personally. They are saying no to the organization. But it’s this type of thinking that encourages us to keep our distance and from sharing our most authentic selves.
You see, when we decide to self-preserve first and foremost we close ourselves off to the possibility of showing our whole, true, authentic self to another person. We keep our most passionate, emotional stories at bay because it wouldn’t be “professional” to share them with a donor.
But donors are people too. We are people. We are not our job title or profession. I think it’s time to find ways to allow this type of humanity and vulnerability to enter our profession.
In my own experiences with vulnerability and connection, we have to be willing to fully show up in order for that relationship to fully flourish. It’s my hunch that the same is true for philanthropic relationships. The more we are willing to be vulnerable with donors, the more our relationship will grow.
As I think about where my work is head in the next year or two, I find myself fascinated with these ideas and plan on exploring them more. I like considering what ways we can disrupt the fundraising profession to arrive at a new understanding of what it means to build relationships with people.
P.S. – I would be remiss in not mentioning that much of my personal growth in relationships has been spurred by The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. This book has changed my life is so many ways. Go read it!
P.P.S – There are many other Web of Changers (from this and other years) who have written whole-hearted, beautiful reflections about their experiences, and they gave me the courage to share mine. Here’s a list of the reflections that inspired me: