Fundraising and the Value of Vocation

Sharilyn Hale, M.A., CFRE is a Principal of Watermark Philanthropic Advising in Toronto, ON.  She is also the Immediate Past Chair of the Board of CFRE International, the global credential for fundraising professionals setting standards for effective and ethical practice.  Together with Pat Thompson, she’s convening a dinner for 32 professional fundraisers on Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in downtown Toronto.  Here’s why:

“Any job can become a vocation, and any vocation can become a job” writes Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.  About a year ago, serendipity introduced me to Pat Thompson who was completing a research fellowship sponsored by the Metcalf Foundation on vocational renewal among nonprofit leaders.  I had found a kindred spirit, as in 2004 I had completed my graduate thesis in philanthropy on vocation among fundraisers.  We have since enjoyed wonderful conversations on vocational themes.  Energized by the experience, we want to engage others – professional fundraisers in particular – in conversation.

Vocation is a word bridging personal calling and community, with meaning.  As a professional fundraiser a vocational lens has offered me a simple yet profound way to understand the value of my work to me and to others, and has been an anchor to which I’ve tied my leadership within the philanthropic sector.

In sharing with fundraising colleagues, I know I am not the only one who reflects on the dynamism between the professional and the personal – the tactic and the spirit.  In fact, our work enabling the philanthropic aspirations of donors and volunteers often stands within the complexity of human emotion and experience – love, aspiration, meaning, ego, fear, change, grief, legacy, empowerment, dignity, participation, transformation.  To be credible we’re required to bring or meet spirit at the table.  However, it is ironic for a profession rooted in philanthropy (which is love and compassion), that there are few places or spaces to talk about such topics, and few opportunities to inspire (in-spirit) each other.

There are an increasing number of options to learn about fund development techniques.  And with the dramatic expansion of the profession, these vehicles serve an important purpose in education and conveying the body of professional knowledge.  Competence counts.

Yet, an indicator of a gap in our professional community and education may be a comment a colleague recently relayed from one of his donors, “fundraisers are increasingly well trained, but not well tuned”.  Being well trained is professional.  Being well tuned is personal.  Today, our world needs fundraisers who are both.

While there are some wonderful things happening in and through our profession locally and globally, fundraising and its relationship to philanthropy is often not well understood.  There is a degree of cynicism in the public realm.  There is increasing regulation, concerns about the size of the “pie” and demands for greater accountability.  There are dedicated fundraisers disillusioned at ever increasing expectations and wondering if they are really making a difference.  There are fundraisers who elevate themselves in the importance and stature that can come from success and proximity to wealth, and others who just show up.

Could a deepened sense of meaning and purpose among fundraisers influence the presence of trust, faith, vitality and authenticity in ourselves, among our donors and within the communities we serve?  I’m not sure.  But it seems to me that, just like our work with donors, our response to these issues requires more of us.  Perhaps we can thoughtfully inform the narrative.

One of the pioneers of our profession, the late Dr. Robert Payton, challenged fundraisers to consider whether they were living FOR philanthropy or living OFF philanthropy.  The answer may be found in a reflective assessment of what philanthropy is about and the values inherent in the work of fundraising.  We can observe where we fit, with our values and passions, as well as the manner in which we take our place and how we express our leadership in service.  This reflection can begin as personal “inner work” but to be most meaningful it is also communal – among colleagues and peers.  And then it extends even further.  Vocation is never singular.

Shared reflection has been invaluable for me.  Early in my career I had discerning mentors who challenged me to be more than a fundraising tactician – more than a money hustler, or a functional manager of influence and affluence.  My colleagues helped me connect my own dots – the dots of my personal history, my values, my aspirations and the things I love and am good at.  Vocation made it meaningful to a bigger world, a world that I can touch and be touched by.  That is so much more than a job.  It is a joy.  And it is so much more than just about me.

Meaningful conversations rarely end once the talking stops.  They imprint and plant seeds that we then mull over, distill and assimilate as we see fit.  Tuning is a painstaking process, a discipline which all too soon has to be repeated.  As a job can become a vocation, without care a vocation can too easily revert to being just a job.  As such, I continue to value conversations with my peers and what I learn from them about generosity, compassion, risk, leadership and renewal.

That is why Pat and I hope you will join us in conversation.  For more details about our plan for the evening, click on this link.  If you cannot attend in person, begin and/or continue your own.  We hope you will explore, listen, mentor and be tuned.

Posted in Philanthropy, Reflective Practice, Work and Vocation | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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!



Posted in Philanthropy, Reflective Practice, Work and Vocation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Blending Work and Vocation

Randy Murray is a musician at heart.  He played guitar as a member of BTO from 1991 until 2005.  Earlier, he performed with other bands, taught music, did custom recordings and was a radio talk show host.  He currently works as the Communications Officer for the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, and still performs occasionally.  Here’s what Randy had to say when we asked him for his take on the connection between work and vocation:

Following the 30th reunion of my 1973 high school graduation class, seven of that august group began socializing two or three times a year.  The one thing we have in common is that all but one of us met (although there were relationships between the group prior) in the Grade 8 band.  The administrators of Hugh McRobert’s Junior High School in Richmond, British Columbia in their infinite wisdom decided that the 30 odd (and that is the operative word) students who had chosen band as their elective should spend the entire year together.

That is my earliest experience of work and vocation.  I was 12, I had learned to play the trombone, music had been a huge part of my early life, and now my work (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) would be affected if not contingent on that vocation chosen in my early life.  There are many points in our lives when the sometimes-parallel lines of work and vocation intersect.

The December gathering of the “Steveston Seven” is the one time that we meet during the year that significant others are included and, like infantry going into battle, the majority of the seven spouses shoulder their arms, clothe themselves in festive dress and prepare for what must be a truly awful evening.  As the seven of us begin to reminisce and the room becomes increasingly soggy with nostalgia, each significant other of the former Hugh McRobert’s Grade 8 band wishes they could bring on a nose bleed, not a gusher, but just enough to cause concern and make an early exit.

During our recent 2011 December meeting, we talked about what each of us wrote in our high school graduation yearbook beside our photos.  At the age of 17, we don’t yet have the wisdom and the experience to understand that these words may haunt us forever but these words can be telling and profound.  If you analyse the comments of a high school grad on the yearbook page, many of these define vocation.

I said that I wanted to be a “musician or an English teacher,” that I liked my English teacher’s Yorkshire accent and because I did not fill out the “Dislikes” section on the form, the crackerjack editorial staff of the 1973 Steveston High School yearbook, wrote, “Randy has no dislikes.”  Well, that statement particularly for anybody who knows me is absurd.  I have many dislikes.  They run the gamut from lima beans to line dancing and all pro sports teams located in Red States except for the New Orleans Saints and I don’t have time to go into the geo-political reasons for that.

So I studied English and played in rock bands in unversity and from there I spent most of my life as a musician — my vocation and also my work.

When my one lucrative music job “went away” it was time to find another method to self-sustain.  Although angst-ridden, I combined the skills that I had acquired from my years of “living by my wits” with the things that I felt compelled to do.  I tried a few different paths all within the realm of my personal comfort zone.  Everything I did was totally related to vocation, I had no training for any of them, just some subjective skills picked up by being interested, knowledgeable and (without coming across as annoyingly earnest) passionate. I’m not saying that vocation is synonymous with being untrained or self-taught, and I’m not recommending basing one’s career path on subjective skills developed through years of doing something one likes or feels compelled to do (you kids, you stay in school and get those MBAs and LLBs). It has, however, given me some freedom.

I have always been somewhat “churchy” and the Anglican Church of Canada has always been present in my personal and family culture.  I believe that Anglicanism is a wonderful place to find and define one’s spiritual practice, to seek the divine in our lives if that is something we need to do.  Circumstances and happenstance are often symbiotic and in my case merged at the perfect vortex for me to become a Church Communicator in the Anglican Church.

Now here’s the central premise of my musings.  This is how vocation and work can blend together like Blue Sapphire, a dash of Laphroig, a small splash of vermouth shaken with lots of ice and garnished with olives.  I believe that most of us bring our vocation, our calling, our talent, what we were meant to do to our work.  We look first at the mechanics of our tasks: What is it that we must do?  What are the tools available to achieve these outcomes and are the skills we possess enough to complete the tasks?  Once these basics are established, the next important step is to integrate vocation into the work.  A primary motive is to ease alienation.  Work can be alienating, soul destroying and meaningless but successfully bringing what you love and what you know to your work, can make work more palatable.  We move towards vocation in our work so we don’t crack up.

What’s work and vocation really about?  Well, I think we combine the two so we can deal with what could be years and years of doing sort of the same thing by making our work our own.  As we personalize our jobs and subtly move them toward our personal strengths and skill sets, our work increases in its effectiveness and in what it means to us and to others.

Human beings are survivors.  We are all children who need to be needed and appreciated. When vocation and work combine in a positive union and when we know that what we are doing to support ourselves is at least one of things we were meant to do here on the planet, it can help make those days when your job sucks just a little bit better.

Posted in Reflective Practice, Storytelling, Work and Vocation | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Why I Am Not a Barista

Rooster Coffee HouseWhy, in this age of cafés and ubiquitous barista-ing, have I never ‘pulled’ an espresso or ‘frapped’ a mocha? It’s not as if I don’t work — I have had jobs throughout school and the summers in between. And it doesn’t come from a caffeine-phobia — these days I seem to live on the stuff. And truth is, I really love most places you can get hot drinks — there’s a community hub brewing beneath those morning check-ins and afternoon catch-ups. So what’s the story? This is one student’s quest to find out why she’s missing out on the defining job of her generation.

First, the very practical: because I have never applied for a job at a coffee shop. At least, I don’t think so. Nope, can’t say I have. I have been fortunate enough to be slightly choosy in what jobs I take. Sure, there have always been other menial jobs that filled my time: camp counsellor, kitchen helper, administrative assistant, nanny extraordinaire, elementary school tutor and so on. But it makes it tough to have been a barista if I’ve never applied. But oddly, I was never struck by the urge, not that the other options were much better.

Second, because no one has ever asked me to be one. Though I doubt there’s a “Canada’s Next Top Barista” or “So You Think You Can Brew” in any network’s line-up, I can assure you I wouldn’t make the cut. I’ve never shown a particular skill at producing ‘crema’ (those swirly designs in your foamed drink) and I don’t know my way around an espresso machine. There has never been a chance for me to be declared an ‘undiscovered coffee guru’ while making (very average) coffee on a Saturday morning at someone’s house — because I struggle with even automatic coffee machines.

Third, I think, before we become a full-blown ‘generation of baristas’, we can do better. In response to a fellow student who said he didn’t take a gap year because he thought he wouldn’t come back to school, one of my profs remarked, “Oh yeah, because serving coffee for a year might be so exciting that you’d miss having to do nothing but read and write about subjects you chose to study.” And it’s true: in comparison to serving coffee, I think we can demand better, create better, be better.

While I have many barista-ing friends who profess to love the work since there’s some pleasure in the predictable routines, friendly ‘regulars’ and work ending when the shift ends, not even these friends want this to be a long-term thing. At the very least, they’d want to open their own cafés for the challenges that would bring. In the meantime, these coffee-serving jobs tend to be secondary and supplementary to real passions. The actor or photographer or web designer who works at a coffeehouse is a classic trope in cities from L.A. to Montréal. But those actors, photographers and designers do things we need; there are many more things the world needs besides another mocha-serving student.

One of those options might be starting your own café or volunteering or staying in school. But many students are spending 10, 20, 40 hours a week working in a café and why is that? Is it that they feel called to this work? Not often, unless you get the chance to break out on your own, away from the massive corporate Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Horton’s locations. It often comes down to this being the only job they can get. And when you need money, you don’t gripe about higher callings. This is a problem, these dead-end jobs.

Quite frankly, this hourglass shaped economy, where these menial are the only jobs you can get, is getting tiresome. That’s why there are Occupy protests. That’s why record numbers of us are enrolling in post-secondary programs, in an attempt to reach the decent paying jobs, if there are any left when we graduate. That’s why we’ve been categorized as Generation Sell: equal parts entrepreneur and showbiz salesperson. Everyone’s starting something, selling something or planning on it. Because the current paradigm of what a student job is and of what we can do after we stop being students is failing us. And it tastes worse than a bitter, 3-hour old brew.

This sentiment to start out on our own stems from “the heroic age of dot-com entrepreneurship that emerged during the Millennials’ childhood and youth,” wrote William Deresiewicz in a recent New York Times article. Further fueling the small business fervour was “a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself,” Deresiewicz continued. So if we’re ‘The Entrepreneurial Generation’, what is holding us back from quitting our jobs and launching start-ups? In many instances, it’s exactly what holds most people back from quitting a job, semi-stable if nothing else, and putting themselves on the line. Sure, youth can take more risks and make more mistakes without the penalties of full-blown adulthood but it’ll still hurt if it fails. And it’s scary. But we still ought to try to carve out something new for ourselves.

And so, sometimes jobs are just what you can get (“Oh I hate my job, some day I’ll quit and be an artist”), what you fill your time with as you figure things out (“Ooops! Turns out I wanted to become a computer hacker instead!”) or what you use to fund your passions once you figure them out (“I hacked PlayStation with my new skills and gadgets!”). But while the job prospects may look bleak now, I expect all of my favourite baristas (unless it’s what they really love) to move on once this scary recession stuff blows over. Because this screwed up economy needs all the help it can get from talented people like you.  And World, I’m hoping you brew a strong pot of bold for these courageous folks. Otherwise I’m going to learn how to use those espresso machines.

Posted in Early Career Exploration | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kai Nagata’s Odyssey

Kai NagataA 24-year old reporter quits a prestigous job with a national television network and blogs his “cri de coeur.”  Within 24 hours, his post — Why I Quit My Job – goes viral.  Most commentators line up for or against his views on politics and the media.  Some of us want to vote for him or hire him.  Others vilify him.  Many offer to play Thelma to his Louise on his cross-country sojourn.  His former media colleagues retort with articles on why they haven’t quit their jobs (like this one) and a string of tweets attacking his critique of their profession.

Going home

But he’s not looking for a debate or a fight.  He isn’t seeking approval and doesn’t see himself as a desperado.  He’s taking a stand.  At this time in his life, he’s simply looking for greater congruence — a tighter connection between who he is and what he does.  He suspects he’s not a journalist but is likely a storyteller of a different kind.  “I need to better myself spiritually, physically, and intellectually to effect meaningful change in the world around me,” he writes.  He’s ready for an epic road trip — to return to the place where he is most himself and to be with the people who know him best.  To go home.

The odyssey years

There is an important piece of this story missing from the commentary.  Kai Nagata is in his odyssey years.  Odyssey is to young adulthood what play is to childhood: necessary work.  New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about this emergent developmental stage in this classic column from 2007:  “There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age.  Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.”

Generational disconnect

Brooks observes that the older generation interprets the actions of young adults differently.  Some as a rejection of their values and choices.  Others see their behaviour as evidence of a failure to launch and accept responsibilities.  Still others blame themselves (and each other) for encouraging their children to follow their bliss instead of providing more practical advice about living as an adult in the real world.

A time of improvisation

But it is possible, Brooks writes, to see that this period of improvisation as a sensible response to modern conditions — economic, political, social and environmental challenges that call us to continuous reflection and reinvention.

This is a time unlike any other in human history, demanding that we listen carefully to what is needed most and how each of us is best equipped to respond individually and collectively.  It is also a time like all others.  Young people have always had the greatest capacity to see what’s wrong with society and to agitate for social change.  They can be counted on to provide fuel and oxygen for the fires of reform. 

A different example

Many who are twice Kai’s age live in denial of this fact or in fear of being unmasked as imposters in their workplaces.  At midlife, a painful realization can set in that sparks a crisis in identity often experienced as deep dissatisfaction with work and relationships.

Kai sets a different example.  He writes of an undeniable impulse pulling him toward work focused on real problems and a collegial community that asks him to act on — not hide – his real opinions.  He also has a mature homing instinct.  He already knows the value of stepping back, relocating himself in the bigger picture, and moving forward from that new place.  He intuitively understands what’s involved in renewal and is not shying away from the hard work of beginnings and endings, developing skills that will help him avoid a midlife crash or spring back more quickly in a period of vocational drift.

Choosing a track

Kai is an adult, albeit younger than many of us, and he is leading like one — by speaking in his own voice, practicing reflection, engaging in respectful dialogue, and acting from a place of principle.  He’s writing and rewriting his own story, crafting a narrative that packs a punch powered by truth and sincerity.  As one veteran reporter tweeted, “You know how political consultants are keen on crafting a ‘narrative’ for candidates?  Would be hard to top this one.”

Kai’s recent performance in the public arena proves he doesn’t need a consultant to write a storyline for him.  He’s authoring his own life.  This ambitious young man is not on the fast track to political office.  He’s on the right track to change the world.

Posted in Early Career Exploration | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Learning to Listen to Stories

Mrs. Payne was my third grade teacher.  She presided over an orderly classroom: neat rows of wooden desks, bulletin boards dotted with the class’ best work, spotless blackboards.  Well-worn textbooks lined the walls.  We sang all three verses of God Save the Queen and O Canada every morning.  We sat in alphabetical order.  This was the kind of space in which teaching and learning took place in the 1960s in Ontario – the heartland of what was considered faithful, patriotic and true at that time.

After lunch each day, Mrs. Payne read aloud from the Wizard of Oz series of books for fifteen minutes.  No questions were asked nor assignments given during this time.  She read.  We listened.  This daily ritual turned me into a great lover of stories and storytelling.  It also turned me into an attentive listener.

Listening for the voice of vocation

In a circle of leaders engaged in social change work many, many years later, I rediscovered just how much I love listening.  Some of us were teachers.  Others were doctors, social workers, lawyers, managers and fundraisers.  Like me, some resisted any attempt to define their profession with a single word.  In this circle, we listened.  We were encouraged to let our lives speak and to listen for the voice of our vocations.  “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.  Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent,” writes educator and activist Parker J. Palmer whose thinking has inspired the formation of these circles across the United States and Canada.

A home for our stories about work and vocation

Since the 60s, we’ve created spaces for teaching, learning, talking and listening that are very different from Mrs. Payne’s classroom.  Cyberspaces, in fact, where blogs like this one reside.  And intimate circles like the ones to which I owe my renewed sense of purpose and vocation.  With this first blog entry, I’d like to dedicate this new virtual space to the stories of our lives – and of the organizations and communities to which we belong.  Love them or hate them, they are ours and we are theirs.  You are invited to participate in the conversation as a teacher, learner, talker and listener.  And to notice how we are becoming the change we wish to see in the world through our work.

The Leader Renewal Project

This cyber conversation is one of many on vocational, organizational and civic renewal that I’ve been having thanks to the Metcalf Foundation.  As a Metcalf Foundation Innovation Fellow, I embarked on the Leader Renewal Project in 2007.  My views are my own but the foundation’s board and staff leaders are listening in to learn more about the needs of leaders and organizations in the nonprofit sector.  Their mandate is “to enhance the effectiveness of people and organizations working together to help Canadians imagine and build a just, healthy and creative society.”  They are loyal friends of the arts, environment and community at a time when we really need them.

Stories, storytellers and storytelling places

Whenever I start thinking about the power of stories to build the kind of society we envision, the epic stories, storytellers and storytelling places of my childhood come to mind.  My grandmother’s story about teaching in a one-room schoolhouse and her dining room table.  My Sunday school teacher’s story about Jonah, the whale and a town called Nineveh, and the nursery where we sat cross-legged in a circle.  And, of course, my third grade teacher and that classroom where I first discovered Dorothy and her trio of friends on the road to Oz.

The end of the beginning

When Mrs. Payne read the last chapter of the first book, I remember that I was inconsolable until the next day when she pulled the second in the series off the shelf.  Up until then, I had no idea that the ending of one book might mark the beginning of another adventure with a collection of familiar and new characters. 

I loved these strange worlds inhabited by the witches, dwarfs, wooden men with jack o’ lantern heads, flying monkeys, and other extraordinary beings found in subsequent books.  But mostly, I was fascinated by the girl who walked the razor’s edge between loss and opportunity, the unknown and home, crisis and renewal. 

In all weather, Dorothy kept moving forward.  Each encounter or event took her to a new place and set her on a path with no clear destination.  There were traveling companions with whom she laughed, cried and celebrated — and who became trustworthy friends.  Everything that happened was unpredictable with one exception: she always found her way home to the place where the story began and would begin again.

(Here is the staff of Armour Heights Public School in East City, a neighbourhood in Peterborough, Ontario circa 1969.  Mrs. Payne is the fourth from the right in the back row.)

Posted in Storytelling | Tagged , , | Leave a comment