A Pep Talk

When you're reading blogs like this one, you often get complex information presented as easy-to-remember slogans and buzzwords: It's all about relationships! Friendraising! Storytelling! Three simple ways to... It all sounds so easy. I often find myself reading a few blog posts, attending a webinar or two and coming away believing I should be able to incorporate all my new knowledge without a hitch. It rarely goes so smoothly as I think it should.

It takes time and effort to perfect new techniques.

beach gazingI see a lot of organizations jump on a trend or try a new way of doing things, only to abandon it when it doesn't pay off immediately. But how likely is it that you are able to stand up on your first attempt at surfing? Won't you have to learn how to read the waves, move your body in relationship to the water and the board, and teach your muscles how to maintain a new kind of balance?

The same is true for fundraising tools. You may need to work on your new skills over many months and many mailings, tweaking and perfecting constantly, before you see your efforts bear fruit.

In other words: practice, practice, practice.

People who write blog posts with "easy" new tools have been working with those tools for years. Many of the writing tips and techniques I talk about are skills I've been honing for decades.

So if you try something you read on a blog or learned at a fundraising conference once and it didn't work…give yourself a pat on the back for trying something new. And then try again.

One of Those Days

poutLast week, I had one of those days. You know the ones. You do your best to get things done, reach for creative heights, and refrain from yelling at your family or snapping at the mom who just ran over your foot with her giant stroller. And nothing quite seems to work out. I sometimes have a hard time keeping days like that in perspective. Rationally, I know that some days are just like that. But I often turn my frustration inward, sure that if I could just buckle down, I could move forward on that big project/be a more patient parent/write the heck out of that fundraising letter.

But last week, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I was complaining to my husband about my lack of forward momentum, and he reminded me that we'd had a sick child, strange school hours/off days, and an addition to our already crowded weekly schedule. From his perspective, it was no wonder I was off my game.

And that is when I realized that "those days" almost always happen when I'm out of my routine. My work may be creative, but that creativity relies on my devotion to my daily rhythms. And when those rhythms get thrown off, so does my ability to do my most effective work.

Of course, disruptions to routines are inevitable. Not only that, I'm starting to think they're valuable.

"Those days" often can be precursors to a different kind of day: the days when everything I work on comes together almost magically.

My regular path might be narrow, but sometimes you see more by stepping off for a time.

By stepping off my usual path, I give myself the chance to look at the things I'm trying to accomplish from a new perspective. And I'm able to be fresh and more creative when I get back on track.

So next time I have one of "those days," I'm going to try to look at it as a gift, rather than a curse.

Although I still might snap at the lady who runs over my foot with her giant stroller.

Always Say Yes

YESOne of the most valuable lessons of my professional life was first delivered to me in my high school improv class: Always Say Yes. If you've ever taken an improv class -- or read the chapter in Tina Fey's memoir that talks about her application of "Always Say Yes" into her own work life -- then you know that this rule is designed to keep an improv scene going. Actors are not allowed to say "no" to their scene-mates, or the entire scene dies. As Fey says, "The fun is always on the other side of a yes."

I was reminded of this lesson from my long-ago improv class right out of college, when I worked for someone who routinely demanded the impossible. Very quickly, I realized that as long as I greeted his every new proposal with a "yes," then work moved forward relatively peacefully.

Of course, that didn't mean that his every proposal worked. In fact, many, many times, it fell flat. And eventually, I learned how to avoid his crazier demands by saying "yes"...and then telling him exactly what needed to happen in order to accomplish his request.

To this day, I say "yes" to almost every unreasonable demand that crosses my desk -- not out of a misguided sense of people-pleasing, or a secret masochistic streak. But because I know saying "yes" is the quickest way to get to the fun, to the part of a project where the words are flowing, the creativity is happening and things are getting done.

I am always taken aback when I work with someone who tells me "no." How can you ever get to the good stuff if you refuse to even try?

Sure, it might not work. I've pitched many an idea that did not work -- either because they were under-developed, or because I didn't understand something crucial about the project, or because they just ultimately weren't doable.

But those failed efforts almost always led me to successes. And, perhaps more importantly, they taught me to take a joy in my work that I could never have found if I'd let myself say "no."


When Your Hands Are Tied

CrimeI've posted a lot of advice in this space, and I read a lot of fantastic advice from my colleagues and mentor-types around the world. I really believe that if you want to excel at copywriting for nonprofits, now is the best time to be working -- there's simply never been so much easy access to top-notch educational resources as there is today. But what happens when you're not allowed to implement all this world-class free advice?

There are a lot of obstacles to doing your best work. Organizations hire me to help them do their best work, and even I face huge hurdles in implementing the changes I know are necessary to push my clients' efforts into the stratosphere. I know you know what I'm talking about:

  • Board Members who think their corporate expertise translates to fundraising.
  • Program staff who don't understand that fundraising is as important as what they're doing in the field.
  • Databases and antiquated computer systems that are virtually unusable.
  • Executives who are unwilling to invest in best-practice acquisition and retention.
  • A basic lack -- of EVERYTHING! Not enough staff, crumbling infrastructure, too few resources...the list goes on.

I do love Tina Fey's advice to go "Over! Under! Through!" the things or people standing in your way. But for non-profits, sometimes, unfortunately, these obstacles prove insurmountable. So what's a savvy fundraiser to do?

Focus on what you CAN do.

So you can't segment your list properly, or your CEO refuses to give you staff to make thank you calls. Instead of moaning about what you can't do, try coming up with ways to work with what you do have.

What about hand-selecting 100 (or another doable number) of your most loyal donors for more personalization than your database can offer? Can you write a script for volunteers and put them on the phone with your donors?

There are usually several different ways to come at a problem. Venture outside your comfort zone and see if you can find one of them. And if you still can't solve your problem, then focus on doing the best job you can with the resources you have while continuing to...

Educate everyone at your organization.

Let them know what is possible. Remind program staff that you are on their side -- working tirelessly to get them the money to fund the amazing and selfless work that they do every day. Paint a picture for your leadership of what your organization could accomplish with the right equipment, experts, or staff. Provide your Board with information about fundraising best practices and show them your plan for bringing your organization up to that level.

Just as you keep your donors informed about the work your organization is doing, you should keep everyone at your nonprofit informed about what your department is doing. Open the lines of communication on your end. Be an example of how things could be.

Keep doing your best work.

I have worked with people and organizations that did not want my advice. I've also worked with groups that wanted me to swoop in and save their direct mail creative, while doing everything they could to tie my hands. It's not fun.

But regardless of the dysfunction around you, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself and your organization is to do the best work that you can do. It may become clear that you need to part ways, but until then, take advantage of all the wonderful free advice that's out there and do your best to excel.

Because really, the only thing you can control is your effort.


What Knitting Taught Me About Writing

I started knitting when I was in my mid-20’s. My mother is an expert seamstress and had tried to teach me to sew, but it just never took. I couldn’t muster the patience or the exactitude necessary for sewing. (Really, I hated all the ironing. I still don’t iron, unless you count tossing things in the dryer for a few minutes.) By a strange coincidence, I also started writing for a living in my mid-twenties, about four months after I cast on my first stitch.

For years, I didn’t think the two were related at all, except that when I am in a knitting phase, I’m not writing quite as much, and when I’m in a writing phase, I’m not knitting as much. If I thought of them together at all, they were competitors for my time.

But one day, one of my kids was looking at my latest project, and she said, “Wow, that sure is a mess. Are you sure you want to keep making it?”

Hold the mustard! That is something I say to myself in the middle of every single thing I write -- fiction or fundraising or email to a friend.  And in that moment, I realized that all these years of knitting and writing have been far more inextricably linked than I ever knew.

The Beginning: Casting on

Every piece of knitting starts with that first cast-on stitch (Fancy expert knitters who know some fabulous technique for starting without casting on: Pipe down! I’m making a point here!), just as every piece you write starts with that first word.

Those first few rows of knitting – just like the first few sentences you write – are maddening. Full of promise of what’s to come, but messy and often confusing...and absolutely necessary to get to the good stuff. They’re never the prettiest stitches or the most beautiful prose. But they form the foundation for what is to come.

As you add row upon row, word upon word, you feel pretty good. You’re making progress! Your fingers are flying! This is AWESOME!

Until you look at your word (or row) count and realize how much further you have to go.

The Messy Middle

Which is when you get to the big slog, which looks like this:

Can you even imagine wearing that? Can you imagine wanting to?

The same thing happens when I’m writing. I get to the middle and feel absolutely certain that everything I’ve done up to that point was a complete waste of time. There are stray thoughts everywhere, paragraphs that start strong, then peter out into nothing. Structure? What structure! It’s an amorphous blob that will never amount to anything.

But I keep plugging away. Because I’ve come this far, and because I’ve done this enough times to trust that it will somehow, some way, work out.

Done, But Not Done

And then you finish. You type that last word, cast off that last stitch. It feels great, and hey! It doesn’t look half bad.

Of course, it’s not ready for prime time yet. There are all those loose plot threads to tie up and those seams – and themes – to sew up.

And this is where I really start to lose heart. I’ve spent so much time with this project – during which I’ve thought of a dozen other projects (or received a dozen new assignments) I’d rather be working on. And I’ve kind of gotten sick of even looking at this one. Why did I pick out this ugly yarn anyway? No way am I ever going to wear this monstrosity!

I know a lot of knitters – and writers – who get to this stage and simply stop. They have completed but not finished sweaters taking up space in their knitting bags. Writers have finished but not polished novels. Fundraisers have letters that could have raised big money, but instead fall flat.

But this is what knitting – such a visual and tactile medium – has taught me about the more intellectual medium of writing: DON’T GIVE UP.

That extra little effort to finish and polish and press is so worth it.


The Benefits of Giving Up

Why yes, I did recently write quite a nice post about perseverance and finding that one-legged-biker inspiration to keep you going in dark and frustrating times. But today, I want to write about giving up.

We're taught to never give up. A host of voices from our childhood, our adolescence, and right on up into adulthood all exhort us to keep climbing that mountain, keep reaching for those stars, don't give up. You can do it.

But sometimes, giving up is good. Especially when you're writing.

In most projects, there comes a point at which you can't figure out what's not working. You might know what's wrong or you might not. But clearly, something needs to change.

You can spend hours beating your head against the keyboard, forcing word after word onto the page. Or, you can try these four "I give up!" techniques:

Take a Walk

There's a reason this is a tried-and-true suggestion for dealing with writer's block -- or any other kind of block, for that matter. A ten minute walk around the block can clear your head and get blood flowing to those parts of your body that can go a little numb after hours and hours hunched over the screen of your laptop.

Try a Change of Scenery

Speaking of laptops, if you don't have one, get one! Then you can take it on the road -- coffee shop, bar, extra desk at your buddy's office...giving yourself the gift of unfamiliar surroundings can boost creativity and help you solve problems that seemed insurmountable when you're staring at your same old scene.

Bake Something

Or learn to knit or build a birdhouse or play the piano. Doesn't really matter what you do, as long as you funnel that creative energy into something totally different. Open new pathways, and you'll be surprised where those new roads will take you in your writing.

Take a Nap

If it's good enough for Einstein, it's good enough for you! (Seriously, Google "famous nappers" -- lots of powerful, creative people liked a good nap!) A ten minute power-nap can do wonders for recharging your mid-day batteries. Plus, I often find that while I'm sleeping, my brain keeps on working on those stubborn problems. And when I open my eyes, the solution is right in front of me.

Alright, I admit it. This post isn't actually about giving up. At least not permanently. But it is about knowing when to walk away from a creative project and let it simmer for a while. Get some distance, find a new perspective, and enjoy the view for a while. Work will still be there when you get back.


One-legged Biker

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I commute to work by bike. It's an easy way for me to squeeze exercise in without taking extra time away from my family and other obligations, there's a great infrastructure for it here in Portland, and it allows me to one-up those sanctimonious Prius drivers. (Win-win-win!) I've been called "hard-core" more than once as I've ridden to work in the pouring rain, hail, snow and wind. Hard-core? Hard-core is those guys on fixies who race past me up the hill without breaking a sweat. Or those folks who scream at cars that don't leave enough room in front of the bike box. I am not hard-core.

I'm not above muttering complaints about the weather, the hill, the errant squirrels darting in front of me, the exhaust fumes, and the wardrobe limitations imposed by my bike-commute. I am a whiny bike commuter.

But a few weeks ago, I rounded a corner on my daily commute (grousing under my breath about the bitterly cold wind and the threatening gray clouds) and found myself behind a one-legged biker.

That stopped my grousing cold. More than that, it made me re-think my commitment to bike commuting. Because if I lost a leg, I'm pretty sure I would give up biking.

Clearly, I wouldn't have to. Here, riding twenty feet in front of me, was proof that if I wanted to, I could continue biking even in the face of a lost limb.

Now, I don't know if that biker had a special, transcendent passion for biking, or if he lost his driver's license, or if he couldn't afford parking downtown and hated the smell of the bus. I don't want to apply some there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sentimentality to his situation, which I know next to nothing about.

But whatever his reasons, he had committed to riding his bike when that can't have been the simplest option, the path of least resistance.

Nonprofits are often faced with projects that take every ounce of perseverance for them to complete. Lack of money, staffing problems, red-tape and bureaucracy can all conspire to make every battle an uphill one. But the most effective organizations don't give up. They take setbacks in stride and continue pursuing their goals, even if, to outsiders, it may seem impossible.

That kind of perseverance inspires donors. Those stories about the times you overcame huge odds to move mountains are fundraising gold. Collect them. Share them with your staff and your donors. And remember them when the going gets tough again, as it inevitably does.

I only followed the one-legged biker for a few blocks before I turned to continue on my way to work. I didn't have the chance to study how he accomplishes what in my head seems like an impossible task.

But the memory of those few blocks has stayed with me. I challenge you to find your own one-legged biker. What inspires you to keep going? What makes you approach your projects with the creative energy of someone who would choose to bike through rainy Portland streets with only one leg?