Thursday, February 26, 2009

Raccoons and a paralyzing fear of failing

What the hell have raccoons got to do with a fear of failing? Well, nothing. At least on face value.

But I wanted to write about both today and there is a link. Let me explain.

You see, I’ve blogged a lot over the past year about what’s different/the same about working in the Canadian charity sector and other parts of the world I’ve worked in. Those who have come to know me over here know that my response is usually the same when asked that question: not much.

Of course there are some differences, some nuances.

Let’s start with the raccoons. I can safely say that I have never shared an office with a raccoon before. Maybe some domestic pets, maybe even a possum. But a raccoon? Never.

Until now. You see last night as I was wrapping up for the day I peered out the window onto the patio and saw what I thought was a medium sized dog. As I squinted my eyes to adjust to the darkness that had set upon the day, there it was. A very rotund, eerie looking creature. This was no dog, this was a raccoon.

And there is the first thing that I wouldn’t encounter as an Aussie or British fundraiser.

What else is different?

A monumental fear (by many, not all) of failure. So fierce its often paralyzing. Don’t get me wrong I’ve encountered this in other places, but certainly not to the degree I’ve seen it here.

I was reminded of this again as I make my way intriguingly through Dan Pallotta’s book, Uncharitable which I mentioned in my post last week. I strongly recommend getting your hands on this. It makes a compelling read about some of the flaws in the way we operate as a sector and the way the public perceives us.

Dan talks about, as he puts it ‘prohibition on risk: punishing courage, rewarding timidity.’

He says, “An organization constrained to seek certainty perpetually relives the past, trying the same old things over and over again and boring employees to death. It will never attempt anything breathtaking that night stimulate the imagination or open the door to wonder and possibility. It is exiled from the future. It operates in an environment that not only discourages ideas that have already been imagined, but discourages the development of new ideas”.

In other words, we do what we used to do, which is what we did before that and so on and so on..

You may recall I recently talked about not allowing tradition to become destructive. Doing stupid things just because that’s the way they were always done.

What I see talking to many organization’s in Canada is a fear of doing something you’ve never done before, a fear of tripping, maybe stumbling, that holds us back from eventually making big inroads, and ultimately have a big impact on the benefactors for whom we work.

It’s fair to say this fear is heightened at the moment because of the unchartered waters we found ourselves in with a crippling economy, and in addition as I mentioned in my steps to avoiding recession suicide we need to stay focused. But that doesn’t mean not doing things for fear of them not working.

Take direct mail acquisition. It usually never delivers a healthy return the first time round, in fact usually not the second or third time. But we all know that if done properly with testing, refinements and tweaking, the long term benefits will outweigh the short term pain.

But sadly we often don’t get there. Because its pulled after the first mailing that delivered just 16 donors.

It’s this type of short term thinking, this aversion to risk that concerns me. And I know it gives many sleepless nights.

Even more than my friend Ricky the raccoon gave me last night..


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