Chasing that Silver Lining

When I picked up my 8-year-old from school a few weeks ago and asked her how her day went, she heaved a huge sigh and said, "Terrible." Of course, I asked what had happened. In a voice heavy with anger, she told me that her teacher had asked her to write her personal narrative more neatly. "That's it?" I asked.

"You don't understand!" she howled. "I want to write fast! It made me so mad that I had to slow down!"

"So," I said, "your teacher did one thing that made you mad, and that ruined your whole entire day?"


It's human nature to focus on the bad stuff. Listen to the morning news any day of the week, and stories about horrors happening in the world outnumber stories of joy by a wide margin. The mistakes we make in life stay with us in a way that our successes rarely do. We remember the bad days, remember exactly where we were the moment tragedy struck.  But those days of ordinary sweetness -- of tasty dinners and laughs with friends -- are harder to recall with the same clarity.

And the same is true at nonprofits. It's so much easier for the Board, the staff, the volunteers -- for everyone -- to zero in on the one mailing that didn't go right instead of celebrating the dozens that did. That mistake that resulted in a deluge of angry donor calls? Everyone remembers that. The fundraising event that exceeded projections? All anyone can recall is the snafu that meant there was one bathroom for 500 people.

And there is tremendous value in reflecting upon our mistakes.

But I've found -- in life and in fundraising -- that if I want to have more success and more joy, I have to chase down the success and joy I've already had.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their amazing book SWITCH: How to Change When Change is Hard, call this "finding the bright spots." See where your fundraising program is working and try to replicate that success in your weaker areas.

A few years ago, I had a client that was very enthusiastic about trying new techniques in the mail, but they didn't want to spend the money to test. The result was a series of mailings that were wildly divergent in their results. A blockbuster appeal was followed by a bomb, one renewal performed well, while the next effort tanked. They wailed over every disappointment and bemoaned the lack of consistency in their direct mail program.

I desperately wanted them to test, but they refused. So instead of fighting a pointless battle, I started honing in on what was going right in their program. I came up with a list of appeal themes that I knew had worked. The designer and I started using graphics that were still bold and exciting, but that we knew from past successes would work. We were able to create a more consistently effective program, while I continued to impress upon them the importance of testing.

The great Tom Ahern says that a fundraiser's primary mission is to "Deliver Joy."

But how can we deliver joy if we're only focused on the bad stuff?

That day with my daughter, I asked her to spend the walk home from school listing three good things that had happened that day. She was sure she would never be able to think of three good things about that horrible day, but by the time we walked through our front door, we had a list of five great things about the day. (Which may not have softened the blow when I made her work on her handwriting for homework.)

Embrace your mistakes. But don't forget to chase your successes, find the bright spots, and deliver joy.