“IDEAL” LEADERSHIP: Beginning with the End in Mind

In a previous blog I referred to two studies—Under Developed on the status of nonprofits in the U.S. and Beyond Fundraising: What Does It Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy? by Cynthia Gibson. Though most would agree with the bleak assessment described in the Under Developed survey of over 2,700 nonprofit executives, many would consider the proposed solution in Beyond Fundraising to be quite idealistic. After all, can we really expect our fund development to be characterized by the following:

  • Donor relations and fund raising are to be the responsibility of everyone in the organization, not just the fundraising staff
  • Fund development, in general, and donor relationships, in particular, are to be valued and mission-aligned components of everything the organization does
  • The fundraising staff to be involved from the beginning of the organization’s planning process
  • The focus to be more on donor relations and donor retention rather than the far more expensive process of new-donor acquisition
  • An internal culture of philanthropy to be the fundamental solution to a multitude of organizational ills and woes

Is that idealistic? You bet it is, and that is precisely my point. I would even press that point a little farther—that nonprofit leaders should begin with a clearly defined vision of what donor relations would look like in the ideal expression of their organization. Visionary leadership is not just promoting ideas; it’s instilling, managing, and maintaining ideals.

“Beginning with the End in Mind” is Steven Covey’s Habit #2 in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Summary—

Habit 2 is based on imagination—the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default.

Most people have an inherited dominance. They’re right or left handed; right- or left-brain dominant, their right or left eye is dominant, etc. Likewise, organizations and their leaders have dominant visions. Their primary or dominant vision can be for administration, fundraising, programs, facilities, endowment, current gifts, human resources, etc. Organizations will inevitably take on the characteristics of strong leaders or influential board members. Those leadership teams instinctively visualize what the ideal organization would look like in terms of that dominant emphasis. And usually, that dominant vision drives priorities, decision-making, and long-term planning.

Nonprofit leaders should begin with a clearly defined vision of what donor relations would look like in the ideal expression of their organization.

Through the years, we’ve worked with hundreds nonprofits digging deeply into the inner workings of their mission, vision, and values. I’ve noticed that though they all have a vision for the organization’s program, it’s very rare for a nonprofit to have an equally clear vision for donor relations. In other words, they have a clearly defined picture of what the ideal program would look like but a rather fuzzy idea of how donor relations would look in the ideal expression of their organization.

The push back I often hear from organization leaders is that they are focusing exclusively on current gifts, they’re cutting development staff, or they’re investing heavily into donor acquisition instead of donor-retention—all because current circumstances demand it. I understand their dilemma, but also believe that it’s probably not contributing to a strategic vision for ideal donor relations. In many cases, organizations are actually working against that ideal. More precisely, there’s a lower level of commitment to donor relations. Applying Steven Covey’s definition of Habit #2, program initiatives are being pursued quite intentionally, while the lack of a clearly defined picture of donor relations empowers circumstances to shape organizational decisions by default.

I’m contrasting the vision of donor relations with the vision for the organization program, but the contrast could be between any of the dominant interests listed above.

Imagine an organization beginning with the end in mind, with a vision for donor relations as clearly defined as the programming vision or any of the other dominant ideals—an organization in which leadership decisions are as proactive and intentional about cultivating long-term donor relations as they are with extending the organizational program. That makes sense only if you believe that relationships (not just money) are the essential engine of every nonprofit program.

Visionary leadership is not just promoting ideas; it’s instilling, managing, and maintaining ideals.

Cynthia Gibson’s description of a culture of philanthropy in Beyond Fundraising might seem idealistic to many nonprofit leaders. But that’s what “ideal leadership” is all about—instilling organizational ideals and then progressively turning them into reality. Beginning with the End in Mind is really at the heart of creating a culture of philanthropy in a nonprofit organization. Without a firm commitment to a clearly defined donor-relations ideal, great organizations will become less effective because circumstances are empowered to shape their fund development strategies.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Founder and CEO, Thompson & Associates
Copyright 2017, R. Edward Thompson

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1 Response to “IDEAL” LEADERSHIP: Beginning with the End in Mind

  1. A. Charles Schultz says:


    Thanks for an excellent and encouraging blog. As I meet with development staff at seminars and visit about their success, my perception is that the most successful programs are those with the best donor cultivation and retention strategies. You are exactly right to encourage all staff to focus on donor retention — it is the key to building strong nonprofits.

    Charles Schultz

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