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How to Survive Shiny Object Syndrome

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When we asked our community of great fundraisers around the world about their biggest fundraising challenges, one of the big ones was Shiny Object Syndrome — SOS. It’s that need to chase after cool new stuff, often ignoring more immediate things that actually bring home the bacon for most nonprofits.

One member put it this way:

Our CEO tends to focus on cool new stuff, at the expense of tried and true methods. I’m constantly saying, “we do not have a shortage of good ideas … what we lack is capacity.” I’m not sure how to convince him and others that the most effective and efficient use of time is to focus on the things that bring about the best return and find ways to amplify and replicate those things.

Does that sound familiar?

You are not alone!

That focus on the new, often at the expense of doing what actually works, is widespread in the fundraising world. And not just for us. It’s a thing almost everywhere else too!

People — especially those in leadership — seem drawn to new things like moths to a porch light!

You might be frustrated with leaders who seem willing to drop everything that’s working in order to grab at a vague promise of something more exciting and interesting. You’ve probably seen people who excel at the old stuff snubbed or ignored in favor of flavour-of-the-week outsiders making wild assertions about what they can accomplish.

It can help to understand what’s behind this common behavior in our leaders. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Leaders of organizations are often under a lot of pressure to produce results or do better than last year. They know that doing what they did in the past is unlikely to produce much better results, so they look for new things.
  • It’s frankly more thrilling to chase interesting new possibilities than it is to develop strategies and stick to solid plans in a disciplined way — even though that’s far more likely to yield great results.
  • Anyone can get bored doing the same old same-old.
  • You’re not likely to get a lot of attention, win awards, or have great stories to tell at cocktail parties if you’re doing the same old things.
  • People don’t want to seem behind the times or out of step.
  • New ideas that haven’t been tried can seem amazingly promising. Proven activities, even very successful ones, give us predictable results, even when they’re good. In our imaginations, the new seems limitless, while the proven is limited.
  • Sometimes Shiny Objects are promoted by skilful salespeople whose entire job is to make something sound irresistibly wonderful, even if it’s a load of crap!

I hope you’ve noticed something about these causes of Shiny Object Syndrome.

It’s not just for bosses and board members.

You probably have a touch of SOS too. I know I do! We tend to call it a “Syndrome” when it comes from someone else … and we call it “being innovative” when it comes from ourselves.

And here’s the other thing about it: We all have a responsibility to innovate, to look forward, and to keep up with changing situations.

In a way, SOS is almost a good thing! It’s only bad when it keeps us from doing our jobs. Just because something is new or speculative doesn’t mean it’s good … but being new also doesn’t mean it’s bad. Cutting off all exploration of new ideas would be a catastrophic mistake.

So here are some ways to think big while avoiding the harmful part of SOS — whether it comes from a leader or from within yourself:

  • You should spend more time on proven activities than you spend exploring new ideas. Anywhere from 60% to 90% of your time. But make sure you do schedule time for innovation, exploration and dreaming.
  • Use the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize your time. It will help you find that balance between the ongoing old stuff that really works and the Shiny Objects that might work.
  • When a boss or co-worker comes to you with a Shiny Object — listen! Don’t reject it out of hand: Look for signs of promise. Think of it this way: At some point, direct mail was a Shiny Object that people like us were sceptical about.
  • Consider the source of any Shiny Object you encounter. If it’s being pushed by someone who stands to profit from you getting involved, be extra sceptical. It might be great — but there’s a good chance it’s not.

When it comes to innovation, there’s a “Goldilocks Point,” a “just right” place between being hypnotized by every new thing that comes along, and being afraid to do anything new at all. The most successful fundraisers are those who find that middle path!

Related posts:

One of the best ways to stay on top of what’s new, what’s working, and what you should avoid is to join The Fundraisingology Lab … all the best training coupled with the coolest community in the fundraising world to equip you and encourage you on your journey as a fundraiser. Click here to find out more.


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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