Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and I am so pleased today to interview one of my very good friends, Marc Pitman of Ask Without Fear and the Concord Leadership Group. Marc, thank you so much for being here.
Marc, tell us a bit more about you and why your specialty is leadership.
MP: My wife tells me that I give $10 answers when people want $0.10. So I’ll try to go for $1.50. But one of the things that I’ve realized – my wife and I used to work at a boarding school. I’ve always been in leadership. I’ve been studying leadership since I was a teenager. I grew up in a family that was very heavily involved in Amway, going to the sales meetings and rallies, and I read How To Win Friends And Influence People and listened to Zig Ziglar and Brian Tracy, and I went to the conferences and listened to them speak.
So I kind of grew up weird. There was like school work that I did, and then there was work I did as a Pitman family member. I had to do homework by reading this positive mental attitude and goal setting stuff. So leadership was always around me. It was just kind of part of the water I swam in. But with the boarding school I worked at, we looked at the students who are leaders and we thought, we really enjoy working with them. We must not be doing real work. This can’t be real, because it’s not really work unless it hurts. If we’re enjoying it, it can’t be really legitimate work.
So we try to work with these other students that were on the bubble, or struggling academically or struggling socially or whatever. But we’d keep gravitating to the student leaders. As we started coming to the grips of our calendar reality of, we really like spending time with these students, we realized that those students – the Brittanys and the Johns and the others – they were student leaders. But the student leaders and their structures – and this is true in our nonprofits, and our for-profits now too.
Our structures isolate leaders.
So leaders were elected into a leadership position by their peers or appointed by adults in the school. Then they said, those kids are fine. They don’t need our help. They can figure it out. We need to pour our resources into people that are on the edge. Absolutely, there’s a lot of reason to be caring for people on the edge. But I just realized, my wife and I realized, we really work well with leaders and they’re kind of alone.
So I’ve loved building a leadership with my voice. Ask Without Fear was written for leaders. I love working with leaders because I think it’s surprising. Anybody that’s starting to run an organization, whether it’s an entrepreneur or is the boss, peer promoted to boss or somebody who comes in to run a team. It seems almost destabilizing and disorienting. It’s like you’ve got to find your sea legs with the whole having the title of authority, changes the way your words are received. People in a lot of places don’t necessarily want to hang out with you. So just becoming that trusted advisor and being able to be a safe person for leaders to talk with and just verbally think through things without thinking that they’re giving commands.
Even brainstorming from a boss’ perspective can be totally different because people think, oh, that’s the new direction. No, I’m just thinking. I’m just thinking out loud. So I love it. Does that answer the question?
MT: Yeah. You started focusing on leadership instead of just fundraising because you see that leaders are isolated and that they want support.
MP: Well, I’ve always been about leadership. My first book was written for board leaders of nonprofit boards because I really wanted – well, they could do a lot more work. They’re doing great work, but they could do even more if they understood fundraising. That seems to be one of the things that really confuses people about leadership in nonprofits is the whole fundraising aspect. So I saw I could have the biggest leverage in that. Then focused for almost the better part of a decade on teaching fundraising, more or less.
Because it turns out there are a lot of people that just find that very helpful to have it explained in a simple way, but also have the courage to go out and make the ask and realize they’re not bugging people.
MT: Wow. But since you’ve focused on it for a decade, you’ve actually come out with a research report that says that there’s a crisis in nonprofit leadership. In your report, you say that what is causing a crisis in nonprofit leadership is insecure CEOs.
Why do you think nonprofit CEOS are insecure?
MP: If you come into a leadership position in a nonprofit, usually there are two avenues. One, you see a need and you start fixing it. Then you pull other people around you to help you fix that need. Along the way, you stumble across this whole fundraising thing. I’ve got to get other resources to continue fixing this problem. That fundraising is this monkey on your back that you want to get off your back. You’re not pleased with it.
None of us get into a nonprofit because we liked fundraising. Or most normal people – there are a few of us that do, like me. But the other way is you get promoted in. You get hired into a nonprofit, and if you’re used to any other type of leadership, usually you focus on your staff and your customers, whoever’s getting the mission done to them or purchasing the mission. Now, you have this board – which you may have had before. But there’s a lot more ownership and they’re your bosses. Then there’s also this other total new group called donors, who are customers too.
You’ve got to do certain things. You’ve got to do customer service stuff with your donors because it’s the right thing to do. But it feels like it’s taking you away from what you thought your mission was, to fight cancer or take care of pets or conserve land. It just feels like you’re getting split apart, and it feels like you’re having multiple personality disorder.
So I think that’s why leaders are insecure in that, and we see this a lot on capital campaigns where leaders will have a bold vision, want to go forward with it, and then get cold feet after they’ve already committed time and resources and pull out. I remember sitting with somebody, one of my colleagues, and I asked them just about a capital campaign that they had already committed to mobilize and everything.
About six weeks in, the CEO pulled the plug, postponed it for a year. I said, well, what do you see in the sector? That was before the report had come out. He said, ‘Insecurity in CEOs is the thing that’s just killing the sector,’ and it’s not because CEOs don’t care. It’s because they care so much. Honestly, nobody’s really got fired for doing things the way they’ve always been done before. It’s the taking a risk that feels risky, inherently, in that, and you don’t really know how it’s going to be received or if it’s going to work.
MT: Wow. So I can definitely see that with some of the CEOs that I’ve worked under. It has been hard for them to not just do business as usual. A lot of times, another thing I think contributes to their insecurity, is that a lot of them don’t have a lot of nonprofit experience and they come from the business world. You have different mentality there, and there’s a learning curve. Like you said, you have a whole other group of people to be accountable to.
MP: Well, it becomes a vicious cycle,The board see this insecure CEO and they get destabilized because they’re thinking, we hired this person to take care of the job. Why is he asking us what’s our mission? Well, I’m asking what’s your mission because that’s the right question for me to be asking.
But it can seem destabilizing to be board, and they don’t understand fundraising even if they think that they’ve seen a good bake sale. Nobody wakes up in the morning trying to figure out how they can harm their nonprofit. We’re all earnestly trying to do better for the organization.
But I was on a board, and consistently, the same way we had done fundraising was consistently bringing in less each year. You could see the event income decline, and it hadn’t hit operations yet but it was going to. It was hitting the grants that we were able to give out, and there was still this huge resistance to trying something new that actually worked. In most other successful fundraising nonprofits, it worked. So it wasn’t like we were trying anything new. It was just we were trying something new for the organization.
Then we hired somebody in from another nonprofit with a background in fundraising. But the culture of the nonprofit ate the strategy in a heartbeat. After a year of working hard trying to set up a major gifts program, this new executive director kind of put a kibosh on that. So it’s not just people being hired in and not understanding nonprofits. It’s even maybe from nonprofit to nonprofit, not realizing that there are certain things that are similar. I think we try to be so true to the core mission, which is great. Value driven and have integrity in what we’re doing. That we sometimes forget what we already know.
I know for myself, when I was a one person shop running a fundraising shop for a hospital, my blogging on my fundraising coach blog helped keep me in check with what I should have been doing for myself. Oh, right. I was just talking about looking at the database and seeing who my donors really were. I have been here two years and haven’t done that. I did the demographic research in the community, not on the donors. But the donors are the people that are funding our effort. So I can be talking to the community, but that’s more of a community relations job. My job is to talk to people like our donors, and I found out that they’re a totally different generation so I need to use totally different messaging.
So yeah, I’d agree that it’s people coming from outside the sector. But I think it’s also people trying to be really specific for their organization and forgetting some of the basics that they know.