Perfection Paralysis

There’s a famous proverb attributed to Voltaire: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I get the feeling Voltaire may have spent some time hanging around nonprofit boards.

Here’s the scene:

It’s a nonprofit board meeting, and the discussion is about the board’s role in fundraising.

Board members are in the process of committing to taking the lead in identifying and cultivating donors. They have agreed that for the good of the organization they have to move in this direction. But then, one by one, they start expressing qualms. In short order, it’s a complete qualm storm.

“You know,” says one board member, “As volunteers, we don’t have the stories that would make us effective in this role. We won’t be convincing. Before we start meeting with donors, don’t you think we need training to help us get really comfortable with a bunch of those stories, so we can communicate the message better?”

“I’ve seen other organizations that have really great videos about their work,” says another. “Gosh, I saw one the other day, and it made me cry. I’d feel a lot better if we had a video to fall back on, one that would really help people to connect. Isn’t it premature to go speak to people before we have a DVD to show them?”

“It’s hard to get people interested if they’ve never heard of us,” says a third. “Couldn’t you do a better job of sending out press releases and getting our name out there so people will be primed before we start talking to them?”

To which my immigrant grandmother would have said: “Oy!” (So too, her grandson.)

Here’s the deal, folks: If a board waits until everything is lined up, until everything is perfect, until all the tools are in place and each and every precondition is met, they’ll never get out the door for even one visit.

Board members don’t need to be familiar with the program stories. The staff member who is in on the meetings can provide that kind of emotional detail. Board members’ role in these situations is to build a connection to the potential donor and to vouch for the importance of the work and the quality of the organization. Board members need to be able to say why it’s important to them. The story that matters is the story of why the particular board member cares so much that he or she is willing to knock on doors to pitch the organization.

You don’t need a video to sell your organization. Most videos aren’t very good anyway – and a conversation is far more engaging. And you certainly don’t need extra press releases. Frankly, nobody reads the papers much anyway. You have to accept that your organization is not and never will be a household word. If you want to sell a product everyone knows, go and become a salesperson for Toyota.

Conditions will never be perfect to attract donors, so there’s no time better than now. Pick up the phone. Set up a meeting. The donor may say yes, or the donor may say no. But that’s vastly better odds than if you never asked at all.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.

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