A Conversation on Being Fundraisers

Sharilyn Hale and I invite you — our colleagues who are professional fundraisers — to have dinner with us at a favourite Chinese restaurant of mine on Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto.

For more than a year now, we’ve been talking about the vocational lives of people (like Sharilyn) who turn thousands of other people (like me) into philanthropists.  We’ve been wondering: how did they find their way into this work?  What depletes and sustains them?  Where do they find courage to face the challenges and grasp the opportunities presented to them everyday?  Who inspires or models the way forward for them?  We’ve also been taking a closer look at how professionals in the philanthropic sector build competence and character — and renew their sense of purpose — for even greater impact over the course of their careers.  Answering these questions for ourselves whet our appetite for other perspectives.

Earlier this year, Janet Gadeski joined us.  Janet is the editor of Canadian Fundraising & Philanthropy and the President of the Hilborn Group.  At the end of our coffee break, we agreed it was time to widen the circle.

We’re picturing tables of four or six for no more than 32 people, a couple of questions to get the conversation warmed up, and a few simple guidelines.  I’ll offer what Quaker educator and activist Parker J. Palmer calls a “third thing” — something that points to a universal experience and helps us reflect on our individual stories.  The most useful third things tell the truth indirectly, in the manner of metaphors, so what we know to be true can emerge at a pace and depth that is appropriate for each of us.

When I imagine tables set with boxes of Mother’s piping hot dumplings and platters of other delicacies, the writings of  Chinese philosopher and poet Chuang Tzu come to mind.  His poem The Woodcarver has been part of my inner conversation on vocation for more than twenty years now.  More recently, I picked up Wandering on the Way and was drawn into the chapter called “Autumn Floods.”

That’s how I sometimes experience the turn of the seasons in September.  As a downpour of good intentions.  A deluge of meetings carried over from June.  A flood of postponed assignments.  Fourth quarter targets can be dark and foreboding clouds in a late afternoon sky.  When the autumn floods come and overtake the banks of the Yellow River, writes Chuang Tzu, we cannot tell an ox from a horse on the other side.  We lose all perspective, no longer able take in the broad outline or fine detail of the landscape.

In other years, Labour Day has felt more like the start of the new year than January 1st.  A time to mark progress.  A blank canvass upon which I can throw new colours.  An opportunity to make choices about what to discard and what to keep for the long winter ahead.  Restored and buoyed by summer’s idleness, I have the energy and focus needed to discern what now and what next.

No matter how I come into this season — overwhelmed, energized or simply on autopilot — time spent reflecting with colleagues puts me on firmer, drier ground.  I’ve learned that reflective conversations about my work help me stay creative, effective and above all resilient.  As Sharilyn would say, they keep me “well tuned.”  From conversations with more than 150 nonprofit leaders over the past couple of years, I know that many others have the same experience when they spend an hour or two tending the connection between who they are and what they do.

So, if you’re a professional fundraiser who is ready for a tune up, please join us for dinner.  We have 32 places available and you can reserve yours by clicking on this link.  Dumplings are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year celebrations.  They’re shaped like ancient silver and gold coins symbolizing hope for a prosperous year.  They also speak to us about the generosity at the heart of philanthropy and the cause at the heart of each fundraiser’s vocation.  We look forward to a feast of stories, including yours, with some steamed rice and hot sauce on the side!



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