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By Jonathan Farnhill, Author of The Porcupine Principle and other Fundraising Secrets
Shizua Arakawa is an unlikely fundraising role model, but her career illustrates the importance of some aptitudes that I believe are essential for successful fundraising. Curiously, some of these aptitudes are currently unfashionable. In fact, I’d go more than that, they are seen as unimportant, when in reality they are as important as it gets.
Arakawa is something of a phenomenon in ice skating. She was the first skater in Japan to win three consecutive junior national titles, she won the Asian Winter Games and she won the World Championships. She also became the first Winter Olympic gold medalist in Asia and is the first Japanese skater to win both World Championships and Olympic gold medals. So, she’s no slouch, and clearly has a great talent. And the reason for her success must be her talent surely? Well, no. As Matthew Syed points out in his book ‘Bounce’, it is not talent that has brought her success.
Firstly, she possesses a completely remarkable attitude and dedication to being a great ice skater. In order to be the success that she is, it is estimated she has fallen over 20,000 times on the ice rink. 20,000 times. Incredible. She has not been put off by failure. When she has failed, she has learnt from it and it has increased her dedication. As fundraisers, this is so important, because most of our life is spent being rejected. Whether we do face to face or grant making trust applications or mailings to individuals or selling tickets to events – most people say no. How do we react when people say no? Mutter darkly about how horrible people are? Complain bitterly about the advantages our competitors have? Argue the reason for our failure is cataclysmic incompetence by the staff who deliver our charity’s work? Arakawa would be a great fundraiser if she is not already, because every rejection would lead her to ask ‘how can I get it right next time?’
Secondly, she realises that talent is not as important as practice. David Beckham and I share very little in common. I come from Yorkshire, he comes from London. He is considered one of the world’s most handsome men, whereas the phrase most often used to describe me is ‘odd-looking’. What we do have in common is that we both loved playing football when we were children and played for hours and hours, whenever we got chance.
So how did Beckham become one of the world’s greatest footballers and I didn’t even get picked for my school’s second team? One of the main reasons is that Beckham, like all great sports people, didn’t practice to have fun, he practiced to improve. Whereas I spent hours practicing what I knew I could do, he spent his time trying to do what he currently could not do. As a result, his practice led to improvement and mine led at best to a plateau.
Syed calls this ‘purposeful practice’. We are trying to attain something that is currently just out of our reach. We see practice as not entrenching our existing talent, but enabling our talent to extend to new heights. When fundraising, how often do we try and better ourselves and how often do we stick with what we know? How often when we finish a fundraising event, campaign or application do we review it and look at how we would do it better next time? Rarely in my experience, I’m too busy looking at the next fundraising activity to have the time to learn and improve. The Japanese call this desire to continually improve ‘Kaizen’ and it is a crucial aptitude for success.
Thirdly, Arakawa challenges us (and those that employ us) to be patient. Last time I looked, fundraisers on average only lasted eighteen months in a job. Yet talent is not as important as what you know (or ‘domain expertise’ to use the jargon). In other words, knowing your context, your role and your organisation is more important, and that takes time.
To become truly outstanding takes around 1,000 hours a year of purposeful practice for ten years, but most fundraisers are barely given ten months before judgements are made about their effectiveness. Syed writes about ‘expert-induced amnesia’ and it is something we should all aspire to. To achieve this state you need to know your role so well that sometimes you don’t know how you know what to do, you just know. It has sunk deeply into our sub-conscious, so much so that if we are asked to explain it we may struggle.
Occasionally I have fleetingly visited this happy state, telling my boss a fundraising campaign will work ‘because I just know it will’. It’s easy to be wrong, and it is easy to use our amnesia as an excuse for avoiding doing the hard slog of research and developing an idea. However it is also true that often our fundraising ‘hunches’, when grounded in a deep knowledge and experience of the role and the organisation we work for, turn out to be winners.
So I would argue that dedication, continual improvement and patience are the hallmarks of fundraising success more than talent. Of course, you may disagree. Other people believe talent is the most important thing. One company built their whole strategy around talent and they became one of the world’s biggest companies. They were called ‘Enron’.
Jonathan Farnhill is Chief Executive of Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education. Before that he was the Director of Funding for St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth for six years, during which his ‘Thanks a Million’ campaign won the Institute of Public Relations Gold award for best PR campaign in the country. He was the voluntary Regional Chair of the Institute of Fundraising in the south west of England between 2002 and 2006. He is a regular speaker at national charity conferences, an acclaimed trainer and a visiting lecturer.
Follow Jonathan on twitter at magic_jonathan.
Recent endorsement for The Porcupine Principle
‘a wonderful little book by Jonathan Farnhill… Each short chapter is skilfully written and contains a wonderful combination of wisdom and humour’
www.icebergahoy.wordpress.com March 2012