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Magical Thinking… Be On Guard

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Give me a show of hands…how many of you have been in a meeting when a board member, boss, or colleague proposed a fundraising idea so outrageous or nonactionable that it appears to come from a galaxy far, far away?
As consultants, we frequently find ourselves protecting our clients from falling into the trap of “magical thinking.” And just what is that? In a nutshell… impractical ideas or over enthusiasm for concepts that have no grounding in reality. A key role for a consultant is identifying unrealistic or inappropriate fundraising ideas and shooting them down diplomatically – before the group wastes valuable time discussing or pursing a fool’s errand. Of course, this is done gently, making the room feel like there may be elements of the suggestion that have potential… but for another time.
Magical thinking often rears its head during meetings concerning fundraising events. Advancement committees, anxious to compete and short on original ideas, will often bring up a high profile event another NPO is doing and propose something similar. These usually involve elite locations, speakers, and/or honorary event voluntary leadership. To give the conversation a reality check, I’ll jump in and ask something like, “Does anyone know if their gala makes money?” Or, “That golf tournament has been operating for nearly twenty years and it may take us that long to reach a level of net revenue that will satisfy us.” Or the biggest truth of all… “Their constituents are relatively affluent and our supporters are far from it.”
Magical thinking also occurs amid the rating and screening of major gift prospects. We are undertaking campaign planning with a client and are in the early process of determining prospective donors and forecasting their realistic gift potential. While philanthropic capacity is not in question, thanks to sound research, overly eager staff and senior executives continue to propose outlandishly high ask amounts in a virtual vacuum. The numbers bantered about the meeting table show no correlation whatsoever to donor affinity, personal access to the donor, levels of engagement or inclination, or research about their other philanthropic interests. On the other hand, volunteers often suggest low ask targets because they are projecting themselves in the hot seat and want to soften the blow.
A third place magical thinking kicks in has to do with timelines and logistics. Consider the following real situation. An advancement office typically raises $2 million annually. The organization wants to embark on a $20 million campaign. With only a few extraordinary potential gifts identified, the CEO or campaign chair expects to wrap up the campaign in 18 months. That’s ten times the annual goal over a year and a half. Without a doubt, such naivety elevates magical into blissful thinking.
It is the responsibility of consultants, seasoned advancement staff, and officers to bring reason and logic to these development related discussions. We must always be on guard for distracting and unrealistic magical thinking by exerting our leadership and inserting best practices in order keep the process on course in a comfortable and diplomatic way. Recently, two of my Copley Raff associates were leading a development meeting of senior executives. The conversation turned to almost fantasy level magical thinking. In order to get things back on a constructive track, my team leader told the entire room to “get real.” Only once the discussion returns to reality can advancement strategies and tactics become productive.
I was once paid one of the greatest compliments of my career by a campaign cabinet volunteer. He told the chair that “Larry has a way of discarding your idea and making you feel good about it.” Let us not forget that there is both an art and science to our work.
Your takes:
  1. Be prepared to be able to identify and respond to magical thinking in ways that keep your advancement stakeholders grounded and in the game.
  2. Construct and communicate expectations that are based in reason, best practices, and hard data.
  3. Leave the door open for the occasional “blue sky” conversation in order to generate creative ideas and push the envelope for further accomplishments, but make it clear that these brainstorming sessions produce food for thought and not firm action items.

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Have a development, executive recruitment, or campaign strategy or management challenge? Let’s talk! Click here to connect with Rebekah Kaufman, Director of Consulting Services at CRI.