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Sword and the Stone Syndrome: a common fundraising fumble for early-stage non-profit leaders

It's amazing what a head trip we can go through as non-profit leaders . . . there are some parts of our job where the hardest battle to fight is in our own minds and with our own emotions - one common example has to do with navigating the thoughts and emotions of fundraising to cover administrative needs, our own salary, in particular. This challenge fits in the larger Sword in the Stone Syndrome that frequently plagues organizational leaders as they wrestle with their own sense of worthiness in their role.

A great leader who is in a coaching group I help facilitate, recently transitioned from volunteering his time to raise money for the cause he loves to making that young organization his full time vocation. Now he is raising more than just donations for projects and programs - he is working to resource all of the fledgling organization's needs and one of the biggest expenses right now, is his salary.

As he struggles to find his bearings, he confessed something that nearly all new organization leaders feel at one point or another: he never hesitated to ask people to give to the work when he was just giving his time freely . . . . why does he get locked up now that he has to fund a paycheck.

"I've worked with [a variety of] people in the past . . . but not asking for money to support myself - it was always for the hungry children and homeless veterans."

I get it.

I've felt that way many times in the early years of leading the Ugandan Water Project. If you'll allow me to be completely transparent, I still have to face that voice of fear and feeling of illegitimacy at times. However, wrestling that particular set of lies into submission is a short engagement now because time, experience, and great mentors have helped me see and work with clarity, confidence, and conviction.

What's my response to my friend sorting through the fear of what others might think of his need to use donor dollars to put food on his table?

You aren't raising money to pay your salary.

You are raising money for your organization to fulfill a noble mission . . . to solve a problem and set people free. Part of what your organization does with those funds is pay for things like your salary but that doesn't displace your organizational purpose any more than paying rent for an office space. It would seem silly to talk about the cost of office space on you website because it's an acceptable and assumed part of making sure there is a professional approach to taking on the cause you're committed to and your donors know that.

I don't raise $10,000 for an annual financial audit, $1,800 for insurance, or $1,000 for a payroll service . . . I raise funds so that tens of thousands of people can be set free from the bondage of water-borne disease each year and live the lives they were created for. Those other pieces are how the ultimate purpose gets done.

How do we face the voice of fear in our heads?

Let's start with a really solid foundation: We do need to deliver great impact with ever-improving professional competency - at the end of the day, the reason we can have the confidence that the expenses of our organization are part of the path to creating change - is because we are producing change and clearly communicating that to our partners.

It should be easy for prospective donors to answer the questions:

  1. What problem do you solve?

  2. How do you try to solve it?

  3. Are you making progress?

If those answers are clear and the impact is strong - then there is much less noise to sort out in our own heads and far fewer actual questions from those considering partnership with you and your organization.

Fundamental strength in the work you do (even when it is small but growing) is the strongest value-proposition for what you present to a donor. The clearer it is that you move the needle on your mission, the less you freak out about the fact that you get a paycheck, or that your staff had a Christmas party or that you posted on social media about putting in a pool last summer.

As you lean into to truth that you create change for your cause then you also begin to (finally) believe that you are the professional that your donors have hired to create the professional results they love to be part of. It's nice when they see your value - it's critical that YOU see YOUR value.

Don't freak out in your head just because you now use donor dollars to ensure the mission receives incredible attention and effort - your time and focus are an incredible injection of value into the organization's work and the cause is worthy of that investment...

...and so are you.

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