Straws in the Wind

When I was in college, I had an English professor who used to stand in front of the class holding his hand up and waving his fingers.  “Straws in the wind,” he would say and then tell us about something he read, heard, saw that in and of itself may have been fairly innocuous but which, he felt, was actually pretty portentous.

So when I hear about a seasoned development director being let go, only to be replaced by a very young, inexperienced development coordinator because it “saves” $100,000 in salary and benefits, I think, ahhh, a straw in the wind.

Or when I hear about another for profit leader in her late 40s or 50s who wants to be an Executive Director of a nonprofit so she can “give back” and do something meaningful—yes, another straw in the wind.

And then there is the “news” from a Haas foundation report that talks about the organizations that are raising more by doing away with the development director.

Straws in the wind are those things that herald change.  And I do see many changes in the nonprofit sector.

Fundraising is an area where change is very visible.  It’s not that we are using technology more as a replacement for older platforms, but, rather how technology is changing the way we do things across the board.

Electronic communication tends to be shorter, terser, more here’s the information and less let’s talk about it feels.  Letters, phone calls, in person visit rely more on stories, personal touches.  If an email goes on for three paragraphs, we first apologize for it being “very” long.

When I started fundraising 30 years ago, donors learned about our organization from our organization.  They visited, were visited, came to events, read our (very long) appeal letters and got other information generally in the mail.

Today, many of the donors I know get their information from the research they do on the internet.  And that information is not as carefully curated to meet the donor’s specific interests and needs.

When I teach younger fundraisers, they always bring up the fact that phones are not necessarily phones to people under 30, and voice mail is not uniformly listened to.  Email, which I—considerably older than 30—live and die by, is ok, but text is the read communication king.

Whereas we used to take comfort in things staying familiar, those born after 1980 tend to thrive on change and love the newest, shiniest, brightest thing.

Of course, demographics—or maybe “demongraphics” as I first misspelled it– is NOT an exact science.  I suspect that often it is not science at all.  Still, we do tend to hang around with those who share our values and our beliefs.

When I started fundraising, most of my donors were members of that Greatest Generation and the one thing they shared was a trust for and in charities.  But boomers onward don’t really trust us; they question our motives, the way we do business, our lack of sophistication.  Smaller nonprofits—the bulk of our sector—are looked on as childish, not to be trusted with money or resources and so, expected to do much much more with a whole lotta less.

Board members want their nonprofit to act just like their for profit business, but without spending the money or hiring enough staff to get things done effectively or efficiently.  We’re supposed to work harder, do more tasks, and be paid less because, after all, we are working for a nonprofit.  And that, somehow, means that we should embrace a mentality of poverty—our poverty.

Which brings be back to the beginning and stories of older, more experienced people being given the boot for being too expensive.  Younger, less experienced people getting opportunities to do more at a much lower salary.

Straws in the wind.  What ones are you seeing and what are they telling you?


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