Monday, January 24, 2011

Caught Downstream

The most difficult part of being a consultant is being called in where most or all of the powers-that-be, if not much of the organization, have lost confidence in their vice president for advancement. Even though I ostensibly have been asked to conduct an objective analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the operation, it soon becomes clear that I have been brought in to confirm the hopelessness of the situation. The execution seems imminent and all I can do is plead for leniency and urge the powers-that-be to fix the circumstances that were beyond the current vice president’s control before bringing another one in.

It’s the most difficult part for me because I was a vice president for advancement for 21 years. I know how unchecked expectations, or the responsibility for almost everything, can roll into that office and inundate even the most capable and conscientious practitioners. But whatever I feel is an ounce of what that vice president is going through. And sometimes all I can do is commiserate, help that vice president take heart in the effort put forward, and advise how to orchestrate an exit with personal and professional dignity intact.

But now I’m starting to see a pattern to these situations. The embattled vice president once enjoyed better days, perhaps in at another place, perhaps in the same position in the same place only a few years ago. The place that was flush with well-developed prospects at the time. All that needed to be done was to assign those prospects to the fund raisers’ portfolios, and establish, monitor, and enforce performance metrics. Giving was taken for granted so advancement just focused on the getting. Then our vice president moved into this place where a generation or more of advancement leaders and many others had not built relationships with thousands of prospects, where the getting wasn’t automatic. Or our vice president stayed here in the same place and position but the stream of prospects began to run low, in part due to the recession, in part to the fact that too many people assumed for too long that the stream would magically stock itself. One way or the other, what worked so well once, ceased to, in some cases gradually, in others more drastically. The masters of downstream fishing were caught in the slow accreting insidious silt of of complacency.

There’s a larger ecology to philanthropy than many people realize. It pays to have leaders who see the larger cycles and interdependencies, who wander upstream from time to time, check the spawning grounds of giving and make sure that the stream hasn’t been polluted with wishful thinking. When change occurs, upstream wanderers see it first and adjust the fastest. When things go wrong, they don’t wait downstream hoping the fish will come back until all confidence in them is gone. They go upstream at the first glimmer of change, and devote their energies to restocking it and to keeping the water running clear.

Downstream fishing isn’t nearly what its used to be. Still, it’s heartbreaking to see folks getting caught down there and to realize it’s too late to be of much help.

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