©Copyright 2021, David Staal, all rights reserved
Two leaders, a decade apart, shared words that 1) built my integrity as a spokesperson and 2) lowered my blood pressure.
What did they say?
The first advice came while preparing for a press briefing in response to unwanted and distorted publicity. I commented that with the right spin, we could sway the media to our angle. After a quick, biting comment about that approach, I heard a better game plan: “Worry less about how things look and focus more on how things really are.”
The second piece of golden counsel dealt with a much different circumstance. Less than a year into running an organization, I called our board chair to announce bad news. A dark financial report caused me to panic, which proved easy for him to discern. His response provided the calm I needed: “Situations are rarely as good as they seem or as bad as they seem.”
Neither person gave me a solution. Instead, they shared something timeless and priceless -- the freedom that comes from embracing reality. Nearly a modern edition of the ancient wisdom: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable.”
©Copyright 2021, David Staal, all rights reserved
A friend purchased his dad’s graphic design studio and it’s now a premier creative agency. Our working relationship and friendship began in the analog world of brochures and, over a couple decades, has continued into the digital world where they provide innovative leadership.
Along the way, he’s remodeled their building multiple times. Unassuming from the outside, it’s a digital Disneyland inside. On a tour of the facility, he unlocked the door to a small room in the basement. As the lights turned on, so did his smile. “This,” he said, “is where I come to think and gain clarity.”
Gesturing to the large layout table, graphic designer utensils, pivoting desk lamps, and backless stools, he explained that the room held the original tools of the trade his dad used in the studio’s early days. “I love this space because it reminds me of where we’ve been.”
Did I mention that he owns a premier firm and has figured out how to also partner with organizations that improve the world? My friend has a humble, grounded view of true success.
That brief moment breathing in his firm’s history delivered a timeless lesson; respect the past in order to inform perspective about the road ahead. So many answers for today’s challenges already exist for those willing to revisit experience -- their own or that of others.
Such a simple journey could start with esteem for ancient wisdom:
“For what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?”
©Copyright 2021, David Staal, all rights reserved
Many years ago, I received an offer to shift roles that sounded exciting until I learned the new job meant I no longer had a large team to lead. Popular wisdom says: “If you think you’re leading, but no one is following, then you’re only taking a walk.”
Our organization’s president offered a different perspective. “This role will require you to learn how to lead by influence and what it really means to serve people. You’ll become a more effective leader because most people can only lead by authority,” he said. “Take away their position, though, and often no one will choose to follow them. That’s not leadership; it’s hierarchy.”
I took the role. Fortunately, the president provided ongoing, nearly real-time mentoring; he proved surprisingly generous with his time. Years later, he made a recommendation that landed me in a CEO role at a different organization. “You’re ready,” he said.
Today, he leads one of our country’s largest nonprofit organizations, and his people there love him as their leader for the right reasons. I still do, too.
What a great example of better, enduring wisdom:
“Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.”
It’s hiring and annual review season. Experience has taught that although words enter my ears, I need not let every one of them establish residency.
22 years ago, a person agreed to approve my hire despite two reservations: 1) She said I didn’t have what it takes to serve as the organization’s voice, and 2) determined I had no writing skills. Years later, another leader decided to appoint me as local/national media spokesperson during a very turbulent PR season. A few years after that, a different leader asked me to co-author a book – the first of several published.
Clearly, authority and wisdom can travel on separate itineraries.
In a world overflowing with opinion, experience has shown that these words point to a better way: "Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life."
Simple messages can make profound differences.
Duke University’s legendary basketball coach, Mike Kryzyzewski, is a big fan of the statement I believe in you. He says, “Those four words can mean the difference between a fear of failure and the courage to try.”
Tell your child I believe in you as many times, and in as many ways, as you can. Every kid needs to feel accepted and valued. He constantly wonders about himself and wrestles with competing self-perceptions—his abilities versus his inabilities. Ideally, the people closest to him will help tip the scales in this internal battle.
The thought process works something like this: “My dad believes in me—so I should believe in myself.”
A child propped up by such confidence will face the inevitable challenges of life with resolve. Such was the case with Wilma Rudolph. Early in life, doctors told her mother that, due to a debilitating disease, Wilma might not walk again. Wilma decided to embrace a different prognosis. “My mother told me I would, so I believed my mother.”
And that belief became the foundation that later enabled her to become a U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist in the 100, 200, and 400 (relay) meter races.
One of my favorite illustrations of this principle comes from Ben Zander, conductor of Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music. He believes grand potential is released when belief replaces reasons for self-doubt, which is why he gives all his students the grade of “A” at the beginning of the course. Their first assignment is to write him a letter, dated at the end of the term, which explains the story of what the student will have done to earn this high mark. His philosophy: “This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.”
Give your child an A and watch him or her live into the possibilities you’ve inspired.
This topic came up one day over lunch with my friend and mentor Dick. I asked him what advice he had for me about raising a teenager—after all, my son’s thirteenth birthday was quickly approaching, and I’ve heard that parenting challenges change when the teen years arrive. “Expect the best from him, and tell him that you do,” Dick said. “Then watch him chase it to make it happen.”
Then Dick got more specific. “For instance, many parents joke about how awful they expect their children to be as drivers. Your son as a driver might seem a long way off, but it’s not. So instead of making light of him, take any opportunity you have to tell your son that you believe he’ll make an excellent driver some day, and give him a reason or two why. Take that same logic about predicting his success and apply it to as many situations as you can.”
Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison says, “Long before I was a success, my parents made me feel like I could be one.” Her observation is a powerful one—and one we can put to use with kids of all ages.
Many of our country’s incredible educators know how to inspire life-changing confidence. We can learn (and apply) lessons from how they share simple messages that make profound differences. Let’s start with a Kindergarten teacher in Indiana, who begins class every day with a three-statement, repeat-after-me exercise:
“I am kind.”
“I am smart.”
“And I am brave.”
Can words really make such a big difference? Yes.
Pastor and author Jack Hayford tells us why: “It is perhaps among the most humbling features of God’s ways with humankind that He confers upon us a staggering degree of power (and responsibility) in the capacity of our words to cause things to happen.”
Our world desperately needs more kind, smart, and brave people. So, what words will you tell your children?
*Portions of this column come from David’s book, Words Kids Need to Hear
© 2021 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
You likely know someone who lost a job. Someday his or her unemployment will end, and a new job will begin – but not soon enough. Four Corners of Grace will help that person make the hard journey from today to “someday.”
This new book strengthens the heart and provides reason for hope. It’s a fast read, and the impact is immediate. Your friend or colleague will thank you for sharing a source of fresh, life-giving perspective.
Or maybe it’s for you.
Look hard at today to see a brighter tomorrow.
So much has changed these days that even the word change became pivot.
Plenty of other vocabulary variations have taken place:
Let’s turn attention back to pivot.
As a native of Indiana, the state crazy for basketball, pivots seem humorously simple. But for nonprofit organizations, they’re no laughing matter. For some, a pivot must happen, or the game is over. Seriously.
In a basketball gym, rules allow a player with the ball to turn and face a different direction (a pivot) as long as one foot remains on the floor and does not fully lift or slide. In the nonprofit arena, let your mission and values serve as the foot that stays grounded. Swing that program, events plan, or fundraising effort as far as needed.
The challenge every organization faces – determining what direction is the right way to go, and how far is enough. A daunting task indeed when considering that no one really knows what to expect in the future. Or even next week. Keep this truth in mind: Nobody knows, which means everyone offers guesses. Oh wait, I mean projections based on the latest models.
However, shelter in place does not mean stand still and do nothing. Very few organizations have the option to hibernate until this harsh season changes. You owe it to the people you serve, the people you lead, and the people who fund you to figure out what change(s) to make.
The starting point for any pivot: Ask the right questions. The type with hard answers that could change everything and even threaten your organization’s relevance or reason to exist. Or they might affirm it all and point toward new opportunities. Yes, go there.
Every entity works within its unique realities, so you and your team must determine the specific questions that ache to be asked. What was once important, practical, or feasible might now be quite different – and will drive the need to consider changing. Some situations call for minor modifications; other circumstances require pivoting with heft. This search for the right questions to ask will only work well when you worry less about how things look and more about how things are. Perceptions often prove far too weak to lean on when challenging times arrive. Reality provides the firm footing needed.
To start, let’s rummage through a pile of questions unearthed by other organizations as they dig to find their best pivots, and then ask them in your specific context.
How has the constituency we serve changed?
For example, if an organization serves students, then all will be fine when school opens this fall, right? Not so fast. Will school open? Will they allow visitors? What schedule will they follow? What changes will take place that may or may not accommodate your program? Organizations that serve in elementary, middle, and high school face these questions, as do those who operate on college campuses. While operational challenges mount, demand might also increase. Keep demand in mind as a story to tell with donors because great cases for funding involve pivoting changes into new opportunities.
Key question: How does our program need to change for us to continue pursuing our mission?
What about events?
Many associations have gatherings as a core element of how they serve members. National, regional, annual, quarterly, networking, training, or any other type of in-person get-together deserves sober scrutiny. For some associations, other income streams will continue to provide funds. Others, though, face dire futures if they can’t assemble their members because events serve as the reason they exist. Even though governors will eventually relax guidelines, that’s not the same as an individual’s willingness to travel and attend. Imagine the value potential from a pivot from gather together to meet you where you’re at.
Key question: What shifts should we consider to how we keep our members feeling like they belong and are being served?
What about donors?
Sure, the stock market will bounce back and with it preserve the investment portfolios that drive the amounts many foundations grant each year, which should preserve the total amount foundations give. However, many made early and extra gifts (to all who did: well done!) that could impact gift levels throughout the remainder of their fiscal years. What about your largest individual donors? Many own businesses, so what bounce will they experience – and when? Lower-end donations will diminish, as seen in recent survey data that shows 64 percent of churches experience decreased giving (click here to read). As the collection plate goes, so goes the small gift segment. Mid-level donors will always remain a hard-to-solve mystery, but smart money will bet on a significant decline in their giving too. However, there seems to be a collective national vibe of getting through this together and an appetite for innovative solutions. How would your donors react to a message pivot that turns remember that we need you into a new story to tell?
Key questions: By segment, what can we anticipate from our donors and what should we proactively do as a result? What’s our fresh approach and our new story to tell?
What will happen with public funding?
Government grants seem generous now, but will money continue to flow to NGOs once the urgency around COVID-19 diminishes? What will the government’s posture look like toward the social services sector whose clients’ needs multiply due to the economic crisis that promises to linger? How reliable will national, state, or local government funding become going forward, especially when tax revenues fall and direct assistance bills mount? When government funding falls short, competition increases for support. But now is a tough time to consider ramping up infrastructure. Has the time come to pivot from react on our own to collaborate?
Key question: What options exist to navigate drops in public support, and how might we re-position to avoid such decreases?
Pivots and changes have become so common that they will, without doubt, play featured roles in the much-anticipated new normal. Ask the right questions and you’ll be part of it too.
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
Part 2: Craft Your Message
Evenings provide quiet moments to reflect on today’s activities and anticipate tomorrow’s possibilities. Our minds comfortably toggle between two points.
Another area worthy of such dual examination: Fundraising. Last week we looked at how to improve donor communications. Now let’s explore what to include in message(s) you share.
Your organization or association faces unique challenges. Assume donors / members also deal with their own world of complexities, which means they likely know nothing specific about your current situation, program, or needs. From that safe (and profoundly sensitive) perspective, consider six key ingredients for effective messaging. Mix this half-dozen together in whatever measures make most sense for you – and a strong message will emerge.
Provide an inside look, first on the constituencies you serve and then on your organization. Use strong, crisp stories for the former and a chart/graph to describe the latter. Share new stories and fresh information that recipients can find nowhere else and have not received before. Now is not a good time to recycle content. General stories generally accomplish nothing – so keep them specific, lively, and purposeful: Make ‘em laugh or make ‘em cry, just help ‘em see why their support makes a real difference. You achieve organizational transparency with perspective that feels vulnerable and difficult to share. Supporters love brutal honesty.
Change is now normal. Even expected. Share brief descriptions of recent pivots your organization has made to continue pursuing your mission. Be specific and make sure what you share comes across as both tangible and logical. If an event had to be cancelled but a free webinar took place with a popular speaker, share it as an example of hard work to keep up with the cards that reality dealt you – along with how many people attended, a key point or two the speaker shared, and any similar upcoming plans. Directly connect the event with your mission.
If income dropped, if unexpected expenses arrived, if finances threaten to erode or erase what you do, say it. What major issues prevent you from moving forward? Describe the issue, the impact, and the options you face. Use definitive statements to describe lack of attendance, lack of access, lack of awareness, or any other lacks you face. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize recipient Daniel Kahneman writes, “If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.” Clarity always beats cleverness. The likelihood of receiving support goes up when recipients easily understand the need, the reason, and the request.
Enormous wealth has vanished in the markets and most industries experienced heavy losses, so many companies, foundations, government, and individuals have less money. This means donation levels will likely decrease and competition for gifts will increase. To what extent no one knows because precedent does not exist. Welcome to the new reality; consider it as you discern any gift amount you request or membership fee increase. Now is the time to tout your organization or association’s unique place in today’s world, no matter your size. Use real-life examples to illustrate your impact.
Create a case for support needed now. If you plan to re-engineer soon, let donors know that you’ll update them along the way. An even better approach: Invite your key donors to participate in the planning, or at least provide an opportunity for them to offer ideas. This gesture will result in greater buy-in, even a feeling of ownership. Yes, this item is worth reading the entire article to discover because of the potential upside it will bring to your efforts with key donors. Inviting key supporters to step closer, to join an inner circle, will serve as a strong maneuver against increased competition for funding.
Trim away any need to impress. Instead, show high awareness and authenticity. You will accomplish much when you articulate reality – especially in tough times. Too often, the desire to look good or appear in control results in messages that undermine the true need you want donors / members to understand. Remember that external communications focus on the recipient, not on you. When they serve as invitations for partnership, both parties benefit – the greatest toggle you can achieve.
Up next: The trendy (but important) term “pivot” – what, how, and why for nonprofits.
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
Part 1: Six Improvements
Sunsets provide a daily promise: Every end sets up a new beginning.
The end of shelter-in-place and the economic shutdown will launch a new, defined-as-we-go era. After reducing, restricting and removing, the doors will open for rethinking, rehiring, reworking, and more. Much more.
Take a couple deep breaths now and prepare to embrace reality that will soon dawn.
Leadership guru Patrick Lencioni tweeted on April 6: “No organization is going to emerge from this crisis unchanged - I don’t mean [just] financially. During a time like this, we’ll either get better as a result of what we choose to do as teams and organizations, or we’ll be diminished for what we fail to do. And that is the question every leader must answer. Will we get better, or worse?”
Patrick’s prophesy applies as much to associations and nonprofits as it does to businesses. That said, let’s consider how to improve donor communications – a need shared by any organization that solicits donations. Get better in this area, and you will begin your new era strong. How might you change letters, emails, updates, requests, and acknowledgements? These six ideas will deliver immediate and disproportionate impact – while costing you nothing:
1. Segment donors into different groups that will receive different communications. Your supporters likely possess varying appetites for information. A general guideline: The greater the gifts, the more you should feed.
2. With a specific donor group in mind, picture a representative person and craft your message to him or her as if you’re meeting over coffee. A conversational tone invites engagement – on paper, on a screen, and at Starbucks. Formal language falls far short.
3. Use the pronouns “you” and “your” often, while avoiding “I” and “our” whenever possible. The former two should outnumber the latter pair by at least 3 to 1. The word “we” should reference the joint effort of your donor and you, not the organization.
4. Make it fresh; always share something new. Donor communications that read like general overview brochures or, even worse, simply describe the same mission in a different manner invite little or no response. Find someone who writes well to help you. Just don’t continue to waste your donors’ time with dull pieces.
5. Show more, tell less. Illustrate impact through a story. Emotional connection with a donor happens through well-crafted stories. In his book All Things New, author John Eldredge says, “Hope is the sunlight of the soul.” Show how your association or program shines bright, and you’ll secure support from a very deep place within a person. Key word: Show.
6. Transparency must play a leading role. If finances concern you, say it. Or any other difficulty. Donors appreciate your forthrightness when they hear about your challenges. A simple graph or chart can show reality quite well and with punch. Just make sure that you also provide the planned solution, especially the role you want the reader to take. (Read Deliberate but not Desperate)
Using the six items above, read your three most recent communication pieces and look for specific items you could change. Make the edits and then read again. See the difference? Donors will. And they will appreciate your association or organization’s new day.
Next week, part 2 will provide content development suggestions that help you answer the question: What do I say?
This article provides further coaching from writing expert Roy Peter Clark: Make Hard Facts Easy to Read
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net