Naysayers, roadblocks, and ways forward: Building consensus around your fundraising plan

This was originally posted at FrontRangeSource.com.

Last week, Ann and I attended a great session of our Consultant Leadership Forum at the Denver Foundation. It’s a group of about 30 consultants – from a variety of backgrounds – who serve the nonprofit sector in our area.

We gather once every couple of months and our conversation generally centers around a particular book or article.  The sessions are curated by CausePlanet (and if you haven’t checked out their great site, it’s chock FULL of wonderful resources).

Last week we talked about the book Buy-In: Saving Your Good Ideas From Getting Shot Down by John P. Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead.  It’s all about how you present your ideas and work them through to consensus.

Sound like something that fundraisers need to think about?  We’d say YES!

The best fundraising programs are constantly reinventing. While we always want to use best practice and learn from testing, we also need to look for new ways to engage and deepen our relationships with our donors.

But very rarely in a nonprofit organization are you able to implement fundraising ideas without generating consensus around them.  And as fundraisers if we don’t generate buy-in for our ideas, who gets the blame when they don’t work? We do.

And rightly so. Because if done properly, fundraising speaks volumes about the ethos, character, and potential of the organization.  A bad fundraising strategy can boomerang back to the whole organization and give it a black eye.  It needs to be properly vetted.

But generating buy-in for fundraising ideas doesn’t come easy.  To begin with, people are often skeptical at best, hostile at worst, about fundraising.  Add to that a few misconceptions and a dose of  “that’s too much work” and you’ve got yourself a big fat zero – the status quo.

In our practice, we work hard to build consensus around fundraising ideas.  We try to get as many people as possible to put ideas on the table.  And then we use our experience to craft a vision and strategy that is then taken back to various constituencies and we ask them to improve it, punch holes in it, make it better.

What we emerge with is a better, stronger, fundraising plan that everyone feels they own.

Along the way, we find that there are plenty of “naysayers” as the authors Kotter and Whitehead call them and they are the folks who can derail buy-in (generally unknowingly) through four strategies:

1.  Idea killer: This is when irrelevant facts are introduced that muddy the conversation enough so that people are bewildered and move away from the idea.

Roadblock: We see this most often when people who have been in an organization for a long time bring up something similar to the new idea that was tried before.  They can throw all kinds of information into the process about something that no one remembers and so can’t refute.

Way forward: If this happens, we try to “park” the past and encourage the group to go back to real data to draw lessons from what really happened.

2.  Death by delay: This is when people balk at new ideas because they seem like too much work.  It’s the “we have too much on our plate already” line of thinking.

Roadblock: This is a typical one in fundraising and nonprofit work.  We’ve all heard this, right?

Way forward: The way we deal with this tactic is to give people a magic wand: “What would it take for this to happen?”  “Let’s pretend we had all the resources and time in the world. How do rate that idea now?”

3.  Fear mongering: This is when something emotional is brought up in the conversation that stops movement and raises anxiety.   It’s basically pushing hot buttons.

Roadblock: We see this a lot in the form of “this other organization sent me something like this and I hated it” or “This won’t work, I never answer the telephone and no one else does either.”

Way forward: We actually do an exercise where we ask people to stand up and repeat after us, “We are not the donor”.  We encourage decision-making based on facts, numbers, and our own unique donor audience, not on how we feel about fundraising personally.

4.  Ridicule and character assassination: This is when someone plants doubting seeds about the person whose idea it is. “No one else does this” or “you don’t know that” are two variations on this theme.

Roadblock: This doesn’t seem to happen that often directly in our experience, but insidious comments (that you aren’t quite sure how to take) are common and ideas are much more readily accepted if it’s someone who is at the top of the organization than further down the ladder.

Way forward: This is why it’s so important to gather all different points of view.  The best ideas come from the front lines and the front desk.  The top doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas, so we make sure everyone is heard.

Does any of this sound familiar?

In our Consultant Leadership Forum session, we discussed the idea of actually putting these four roadblock behaviors up for discussion before we even begin any sort of process. Maybe if we started by naming them, we’d all be more conscious. So few of us are even aware that we are doing these things.

In fact, I KNOW that I have been guilty of a few myself!  How about you? Have you had any experiences with fundraising naysayers?  How did you work around it to build consensus?

See also:

Ideas we discussed during the session: CLF.PeerIdeasBuildingBuyIn.July18.2013

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