Conquer Your Fear of Making Mistakes
Creativity

6 Tips to Conquer Your Fear of Making Mistakes

I once worked at a place where everyone was focused on avoiding mistakes. It was a deeply engrained cultural value that came, I think, from the president of the company, who came from a difficult family background.

It was a challenging place to work.

Whenever something went wrong, the company went into a frenzied process of documenting the error and pinpointing what (and who) had caused it. This was meant to be so we could avoid making the error a second time, but we jokingly (and not-so-jokingly) called the document the “Blame Matrix.”

The result: paralysis. The cost of making a mistake was so high, it just felt safer to do as little as possible.

And we made a lot of mistakes. More than other places I’ve worked. Sure, we were pretty good at avoiding the same mistake twice. But we more than made up for it in really strange one-time errors, the kind you make when you’re so afraid of messing up that you don’t notice the obvious problem that’s right in front of you.

As I eventually figured out, sometimes fear of mistakes is even more damaging than mistakes themselves.

But just sloppily ignoring the possibility of errors is not good either. You’ve got to use a meaningful level of prudence.

It’s a balancing act all professional people have to work on.

I’ve noticed it’s heightened at a lot of nonprofit organizations.

If you or the people around you are paralyzed by fear of mistakes, here’s an article in the Harvard Business Review you might find very helpful: How to Overcome Your Fear of Making Mistakes.

Here are the practical highlights of the article:

  1. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of your fear

It’s reasonable to feel afraid sometimes. It heightens your awareness. But the fear tends to increase in hard times. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re feeling this way. And don’t beat up others for it.

It’s natural to try to keep up a brave face, but it can be unhealthy. Especially when it drives you to deny the difficult reality we’re in and berate yourself for the emotions you feel.

Acknowledge your fear — to yourself, and to at least a few other people in your life. Channel your fear into useful activities that allow you to prevent errors without focusing on them.

  1. Use emotional agility skills

The key to keeping your emotions from causing you to be less effective is to practice these learnable skills:

  • Label your thoughts and feelings. Stating your fears out loud helps defang them.
  • Accept reality. There are many things you can’t control — especially other people’s behavior. List those things that you know you need to accept and work with.
  • Act on your values. Your values are your strength. Consciously make your values part of your decisions and reactions.
  • Don’t try to reduce uncertainty to zero. It can’t be done.
  1. Focus on processes, not outcomes

While you can’t completely control outcomes, you can control processes and reduce the chances of failure. Look for ways to make sure you have the information you need, to eliminate your blind spots, to discover problems earlier rather than later. This will not only help reduce mistakes, it will give you a way to channel your fear into productive activities.

  1. Broaden your thinking

Think big. When you put your fear in context with everything else in life, it can help you clarify your thinking. Even thinking about all the other things that cause fear can give you perspective.

Doing this can help you get into problem-solving mode, which itself makes fear easier to face.

  1. Recognize the value of leisure

Fear wears you down. And being worn down makes you fearful.

Take it easy!

Take breaks. A week or two. A day off. Even short times away from the grind can help you not only recharge your energy, but increase your ability to solve problems.

  1. Detach from judgment-clouding noise

Fear makes us pay attention to too many things. You’ve probably noticed how you can fall into obsessively checking social media or news constantly when you’re afraid. At work, we can over-monitor people around us, and be constantly checking and re-checking data. (I can’t count how many times I’ve watched as fundraisers started taking emergency steps because results to the latest campaign were behind where they should be … only to discover a day or two later that there’s no problem at all.)

Limit your information intake! Make sure you take the time to think about the information you have. This can make you much more effective.

Fear of making mistakes can really do a number on your work and on your life.

Do your best to be mindful: Fear has the most power when you aren’t aware what it’s doing to you!

Knowing you have other people who care about you, can give you advice, and listen to you is another way to beat the fear of mistakes. You can tap into the community by joining The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You also get access to tons of tools, tips, courses and more to help you build your fundraising career. Find out more here.

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Book view orbit
BooksCreativity

BOOK REVIEW: Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie

orbiting the giant hairball coverI read a lot of books that are meant to make me better at my work. You probably do too. Every fundraising book I can get my hands on. Lots of books about marketing and other forms of persuasion that can bring new ideas into fundraising. Books about strategy and thinking that just make me smarter and more effective. Books about dealing effectively with other people.

I devour them all. Hundreds of books. Many of them are simply amazing. Some of them not so much.

So when I tell you there’s one book of all those that I really, really hope you’ll read, please understand that I’m telling you something I think is a very big deal.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball is the one book that has really transformed my professional life. It’s the “business” book I most often recommend to people.

It’s not about fundraising. It’s not about any particular business at all. It’s about being your best in a “corporate” environment. And for the purposes of this book, nonprofits can be among the most in-the-box, anti-creative types of corporate environment in existence.

You know that in order to succeed at this crazy, fuzzy profession of fundraising, you have to be creative, passionate, and amazing all the time. But you work in an organization that is ruled by procedures and bureaucracy — and it often feels like a strangling mass of hair.

That’s the hairball of the title.

When you read this book, you’ll see how to escape the hairball — and appreciate that it has a necessary function. You’ll discover the balance that will give you the freedom and confidence to be the creative problem-solver you want to be — and that your organization needs you to be.

Let me summarize that balance.

Most of us are able to make a positive impact because we are part of a community — an organization. Even those who are “self-employed” don’t work alone, really. Everyone works within organizations.

And that means hairball. Every organization has one — a mass of policies, procedures, rules, and bureaucracy. Those things, by their very nature, strangle creativity, innovation, exploration, and bold thinking.

Some hairballs are worse than others — bigger, messier, more strangling — but there’s no such thing as a hairball-free organization. The weird thing about the hairball is that it’s necessary. If there were no hairball, there would be no organization.

You need the hairball.

But you also need to be free from the hairball.

If you let yourself be trapped in the hairball, you will waste all your time and energy on trivial, bureaucratic BS. You won’t accomplish much that matters. On the other hand, if you completely escape the hairball, you are no longer part of a community that puts your greatness into action.

The solution is to “orbit” the hairball. Stay just within its gravitational force — close enough to share the corporate goals and direction, but just far enough out of it to avoid getting tangled up.

That’s what the book is about. It’s a practical, inspiring, cheerleading handbook on finding the balance where you aren’t tangled in hairball, but you aren’t floating by yourself in empty space.

The book is full of inspiring examples of orbiters and hints for how to orbit. It has helped me solve more conundrums and deal with more frustrations than anything else I’ve read. Through the years, it gave me and my orbiting colleagues a vocabulary for plotting our escape from the hairball — while appreciating what it offered us. Like, you know, salaries and benefits and shared purpose.

It also points out that each of us has a hairball inside our own heads. And talks about how we orbit even that hairball:

So many books and workshops that promise to increase our capacity for creativity fail to deliver because they prescribe removing the left twin’s censoring hand through rational means. That won’t work. To take a rational approach to halting the left twin’s silencing of the right twin is to play directly into his strength, which is rational thinking. And you cannot beat him at his own game. Ultimately, the only effective way to remove his inhibiting hand is through transrational thinking.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball is not a “normal” book. It’s filled with sketchy drawings and weird design. Some of it is handwritten. It looks messy. (There’s one chapter, titled “Orville Wright” that is just one 8-word sentence long. But it’s a sentence that packs a wallop.)

You probably know people who will hate it at first sight, because it looks so strange. Maybe you will hate it. Until you read it.

This book just might change your professional life, the way it has mine. I highly recommend it.

One of the duties of a true Orbiter is to equip yourself with knowledge so your creativity can soar. The best way to do that is to pursue quality fundraising training and advice — and by belonging to a community of fundraisers who share knowledge and connection. That’s what you’ll get when you join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. It’s a true community, the thing we all need most right now — plus all kinds of courses, templates, checklists, and other resources that can help you go to new places as a fundraiser. More information here.

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CreativityWriting

How to Keep Writing When You’re on Empty

NOTE: This blog post was written during — and is about — normal times. Now is not a normal time. There are a number of suggestions below — like “sneak out to a movie” and “do your work in a café” — that you cannot or should not do right now. I hope you will take this advice in the spirit of what you will do when things get back to something like normal. In the meantime, do the things you can to overcome the barriers. Stay healthy, look out for others, and be kind!  – Jeff

I know how it is. Sometimes you’re just a wrung-out sponge. No more ideas. No creative energy. No inspiration.

Even with deadlines looming and colleagues waiting, the thought of sitting down to write your next fundraising project fills you with loathing and dread.

That’s okay. It’s normal, and it happens to all writers.

The problem is, your deadlines don’t know that. They march on no matter how empty you are.

And nobody wants to hear your whining about it.

Seriously, one of the most annoying — and pointless — things you can do is talk to your colleagues about how blocked and uninspired you’re feeling. Cry me a river, they’ll say, rolling their eyes.

But I have some good news: There are ways to beat that empty feeling.

It’s not easy, but it is simple: You just need to change the size and shape of whatever box you find yourself in.

You see, you are always in a box. Sometimes it’s a cozy, comfortable, happy little box that you really love to be in. Sometimes it’s a gigantic box, with plenty of room to run around as much as you want. But often, the box is cramped, uncomfortable, weird-smelling, and missing all the things you need to do great work.

Your box is made of two things:

  1. Your circumstances — the things outside of you, like the time of year, what your topic is, how busy you are, etc.
  2. Your attitude — how you feel about those things.

There are things you can do to change your circumstances, but on the whole, they are hard to change. How you feel about those circumstances is more important than what those circumstances are. This is why the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Because nobody has an attitude about someone else’s circumstances. Their problems always look simpler and more solvable as a result.

There are many things you can do to change your attitude, to break out of your box and recharge your energy.

Starting with these quick actions can rescue you from being stuck in a matter of minutes:

  • Meditate or pray.
  • Breathe for one minute (or more). Take deep and slow breaths and pay close attention to how it feels.
  • Turn on some music. (This doesn’t work for everyone, the type of music is important — and specific to you. Experiment with this!)
  • Write in a journal. (Maybe write about how it feels to be empty.)
  • Drink some cold water. (The colder, the better.)
  • Drink caffeine.
  • Read, listen to, or watch something funny.
  • Read, listen to, or watch something inspiring.

If the quick methods aren’t doing the trick, you may need to take more time-consuming steps. These things may take an afternoon or even a whole day.

  • Do something creative other than writing: draw, make music, dance. You don’t have to be good at it. Just do it.
  • Watch a movie. For best results, sneak out and watch it at a theater.
  • Sneak out and do anything. Doing something you don’t have permission to do can have an almost magic effect on how you feel.
  • Listen to music actively. Really concentrate on it.
  • Go to a museum.
  • Work out.
  • Work in a café. (This is my go-to option when I’m stuck. Cafés seem to have good writing magic for me.)
  • Take a nap.
  • Take a walk.
  • Copy — by hand — a passage of writing you admire. (This is weirdly powerful. I don’t fully understand why, but it really charges me up sometimes!)
  • Memorize something. Poetry, scripture — anything you’d like to have in your head.

Beyond the things that can recharge you and overcome blockage, there are a number of “maintenance” activities that can prevent the emptiness before it hits:

  • Now and then, take the long way home. You’ll be surprised how energizing that can be.
  • Participate in community activities.
  • Practice thankfulness: Think about everything that’s good in your life and say “Thank you” for it all.
  • Take vacations. I know it can be hard. But it really makes a difference.
  • Study a language.
  • Take a class.
  • Learn a new skill, especially something that’s unlike the things you normally do.

Finally, cultivate a general attitude about writing: It’s just a task.

Think about it this way: Do you suppose your plumber ever gets “plumber’s block”?

The answer is: Of course she does! Sometimes she really doesn’t feel like doing anything at all involving pipes and water!

But she does it anyway.

Writing is hard. But when you get right down to it, writing is just another profession. Writers aren’t special. The blockage that we experience sometimes stops us cold — because we let it. If you remember that writing is just another task like plumbing, it can help you get on with it even when you don’t feel the magic.

And these exercises can really help you get out of the box. Let me know if you have any additional things that work for you by posting a comment below!

Get the help and inspiration you need to keep you writing with strength and confidence: Join The Fundraisingology Lab!

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Creativity

How to Survive Shiny Object Syndrome

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!

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FundraisingCreativity

VIDEO: Bass Players and Fundraisers – the Real Thing

I play the double bass. That’s the biggest, lowest string instrument in the orchestra. It’s the one that rests on the floor while the player stands or perches on a tall stool to play. Yep — that’s me.

Let me be the first to admit that it’s not a glamorous instrument.

There’s not a lot of drama, flash, stardom, or glory. You hardly ever play a solo. In fact, a lot of what you do is hardly noticed by listeners.

But without the bass, music just doesn’t work. Whether it’s the symphony or the latest pop, everyone would notice if the bass were missing.

Bass players are a lot like fundraisers in that way.

Not the stars, not the focus, not what people think of when they think about the work of nonprofit organizations.

But the nonprofit world would be in terrible shape without us!

That’s why I want to encourage you, as a fundraiser, to be proud of the less-visible, less-praised work we do.

Be proud of your own work, and support your fellow fundraisers. We need each other!

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CreativityDirect MailDonor CareDonor LoveDonor PsychologyWriting

2 Truths Your Donors Wish You Understood about Direct Mail

I am a Gen Xer. I am not the core target market for direct mail. In my early twenties I had to learn two lessons quickly in order to do my job as a Fundraising Appeal Manager.

Lesson one: The people who respond to direct mail grew up with the post being THE main way people communicated outside of in person

The audience who loves and responds to direct mail the most are the Silent Generation born before 1945 (and we are talking about those born in the last 1920’s to 1945) and the older of the Boomers, so let’s say those born 1946 to the 1950’s.

If you’re younger than that, you no doubt see the mailbox as a container full of bills, catalogues, and other not-so-wanted things.

But a few decades ago, the average person could count on there being personal letters from people they knew in every post. Try to imagine how different it would be to approach the mail knowing you’d be connecting with friends and family — some of them people you haven’t seen in years. The post was a source of precious human connection. And even though it was possible to reach distant people by telephone, it was prohibitively expensive, used mainly for emergencies and very important news, if at all.

You and I approach the mail with little sense that there’s anything good in there, and rarely anything from a real person.

Not most of our donors. They expect good things to come in the mail.

This is why direct mail — which to my imagination seems so unlikely to be at all interesting — can work. And work very well in many cases.

Break free from your sense that the mail is almost entirely boring, annoying, and irrelevant.

Do your best to imagine what it’s like to think of the mail as magical, beautiful, and important.

That’s when you’ll start to succeed in direct mail fundraising.

Lesson two: Direct Mail donors want mail from causes they are connected to and care about

Our core direct mail audience range from their 60s to their 90s. Most don’t work the long hours you and I do. They don’t have the kids’ dinner to scramble together in the evening, along with the household chores, being nice to the significant other, and doing all those work/life balance things we know we should be doing. They have more time.

They also have more life experience. They saw more than any generation before due to their access to radio, TV, phones, print, and later the internet. They have lived through wars, famines, and revolutions. They saw the rise of AIDS. They fought for civil rights and lead the feminist movement.

Every generation tends to believe their own time is the most dramatic and important of all time, but think about it: people who are now older lived through more crisis, danger, and drama than you or I can imagine. They have a strong sense of connection with the world, which comes from their experience. It also comes with age, because changes in brain chemistry increase their sense of connection with the world.

They see and experience their world differently from you and me.

Direct mail may seem to us like irrelevant and unwanted “junk mail.” To a true direct mail donor, it is a chance to change the world!

That’s the reality you’re working in when you work in direct mail.

Learn more about the often-surprising ways we connect with donors by taking our most popular online course, Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

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Fundraising ideas
Creativity

Where Good Fundraising Ideas Are Born

In fundraising, as in any creative work, ideas are among the most precious things we have.

Big ideas. Small ideas. New ideas. Even old ideas brought back to life.

People who are good at dreaming up ideas — especially good ideas — are heroes in our business.

The problem is this: Most people, most of the time, are terrible at ideas. In fact, many of us might qualify as champion idea-slayers.

But almost anyone can be a power-generator of great ideas. You just have to be realistic about what it takes.

I’m going to show you the two things it takes to be a great idea person. But first, I’m going to show you why we are so often idea-slayers:

We kill good ideas because we are so afraid of bad ideas.

I once attended a meeting with a client where we were discussing some kind of strategic challenge — I can’t remember what, and in a minute you’ll see why it’s probably a merciful thing that my memory is fuzzy on this.

The person in charge said, “Let’s come up with some new ideas, and we’ll decide which ones we should move forward with.”

Some brave soul described an idea. I remember thinking it was interesting, and possibly a very good idea.

The room immediately sprang to action.

“We tried something a bit like that nine years ago and it failed.” 

“We probably don’t have the database back-end to handle it.” 

“We’d have to hire at least one FTE. We can’t afford that.”

There were more like that. Potential problems with this new idea. After about ten minutes, the person who’d said it felt like crap. The rest of us felt we’d dodged a bullet by stopping such a terrible idea before it got too far.

That idea was dead. A stinky corpse.

The meeting went on like this for a while. Someone would name the germ of an idea, then the rest of us would pounce on it and convincingly show how bad that idea was.

After an hour, we’d massacred around ten ideas.

We had no solution to the problem we were trying to solve. Not even the germ of a solution. But we did have a shared conviction about how terrible a number of possible approaches were. In other words, we were further from a solution than we’d been when we started.

That’s how you kill good ideas.

You kill bad ideas.

That’s the fundamental truth about ideas. When they’re new, the good ones and the bad ones look exactly alike. It’s sort of like a garden. In the early spring, not long after you plant the seeds, you start to see little green nubs poking out of the soil. You can’t tell yet what they are. Some of them might be carrots or broccoli. Some might be dandelions. You have to let them develop and grow a bit before you can tell the difference.

If you live in terror of the destructive power of weeds in your garden, you might pre-emptively pull up all the potential dandelions, now while they’re easy to pull.

But you’re going to pull up all the good stuff too. And you’ll never find out which was which. And you’ll end up with no ideas.

That’s the thing about ideas. The good ones don’t come from nowhere. They come out of an environment: good ideas, mediocre ideas, bad ideas. Ideas that would have been good in the past. Ideas that might be good a few years from now. Ideas that aren’t very good, but could turn great with a few tweaks.

And they all look alike at first.

So here’s how you become an idea champion:

  1. Tolerate bad ideas.
  2. Seek quantity, not quality.

I don’t mean you must implement every half-baked thought that gets blurted out in a meeting. But you must let those half-baked thoughts grow a bit by taking them seriously — at least until you can tell whether it’s growing into a carrot or a dandelion. And sometimes you can’t tell until you’ve actually implemented. And seen the badness of the idea blossom.

The unattractive truth is, most new ideas are bad. But the only way to get good ideas is to have a lot of ideas. Most of them bad.

If you’re having a lot of bad ideas, that’s a sign of a healthy situation. Because among the bad ideas are a few good ones. The ideas that solve your problems, that help you adapt to a changing world, that keep your best people engaged.

And raise a lot more money for your cause.

It costs very little to have a bunch of bad ideas on the way to a good one. But there’s a massive hidden tax on the organization that blocks all ideas because it blocks bad ideas. Those organizations fail to solve problems, lose their smartest employees, and eventually find themselves unable to adapt to changing conditions.

If you want good ideas, accept bad ideas. Embrace quantity. Don’t kill ideas while they’re new.

Have you experienced this in your organization? We’d love to learn from you, please share your thoughts below.

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