Grow With the Flow
Bernard Ross is an authority on fundraising in the nonprofit sector and an inspiring public speaker, but he wouldn’t describe himself as a motivator.
In fact, the influential 50-year-old director of the London-based Management Centre thinks the idea of motivating anyone to do anything often is nothing more than a conceit that managers harbor about themselves.
“That’s just marketing talk,” Ross says during an interview. “It’s the stuff that’s written in the back of the brochures.”
The best a manager can do is to create a “framework” in which donors or employees choose whether to be motivated, says Ross, an energized and energizing Scot who speaks from more than 20 years of experience as a successful consultant and strategist.
“How did Nelson Mandela stay in prison for 27 years even though he was beaten by racist guards every day?” Ross asks, referring to the famed leader of the movement that overthrew South Africa’s apartheid system. “They told him to just give up, and he said no. Being motivated is an individual, personal choice.”
Ross likes to get down to cases in discussing his interaction with nonprofits, and the cases with which he has experience often involve high-profile people and organizations. He has acted as a consultant for government ministries, foundations and corporations, and has helped raise several $20 million single gifts for various causes. His book, Breakthrough Thinking for Nonprofit Organizations: Creative Strategies for Extraordinary Results (Jossey-Bass, 2002), was co-written with Clare Segal, the Management Centre’s co-director and Ross’ wife, and is designed to help managers gear up for change in the increasingly competitive nonprofit sector.
Curiouser and curiouser
Ross’s track record as a consultant and his wry, anecdotal speaking style have helped make him a popular figure on the lecture circuit. Rather than professing to motivate managers and board members, he likes to speak of stimulating their curiosity, a quality that can be of great use in creating frameworks conducive to raising money.
“It’s important to genuinely watch something in order to see what works and what doesn’t,” Ross says in the context of both consulting and managing. “You can learn to adapt good fundraising ideas and discard the bad ones.”
Ross says he learned the value of curiosity from Guy Stringer, former director of Oxfam Great Britain, an international organization that helps improve living conditions for the poor. He once saw Stringer give a speech in which he described observing the wife of a political prisoner in Nepal who would walk every day to the prison to check on her husband’s condition. The prisoner wasn’t allowed to have visitors, but he would signal his wife that he was still alive and well by flying a kite from a prison window.
“Guy was working to have prisoners of conscience freed,” Ross explains. “He didn’t talk about the suppression of free speech or about thousands of people being locked up. He talked about this one guy and his wife having a tender relationship.”
Stringer’s curiosity led him to focus on the individual case that most effectively conveyed the plight of political prisoners to potential donors. In doing so, he also was able to drum up belief in his cause, another quality Ross argues is essential to an effective fundraising campaign.
Which is not to say that all successful campaigns must serve humanitarian ends and depend on socially conscious donors. Ross the idealist thinks of fundraising as a tool for advancing “useful and purposeful” causes such as winning freedom for innocents. But Ross the pragmatist realizes that effective fundraisers can persuade people to believe in almost any cause, from the noble to the frivolous.
Don’t overrate reason
“Donors don’t sit down and ask themselves what are the most rational ways they can give away their money,” he says. “If they did that, we could make a list of goals and start with ending world poverty.”
The successful fundraiser convinces potential donors that the cause it represents is worthier than other causes. Ross mentions a friend who organized a campaign to help the National Gallery in London retain possession of a valuable painting that was on the verge of being purchased by an American.
“He had an absolute faith that keeping the painting in the National Gallery was the most important thing to do, and he persuaded donors that it was,” Ross recalls. “He even got several American donors to give him money, which was bizarre. Why would an American give a British gallery $3 million to keep an Italian painting in Britain?”
The answer, Ross says, is that his fundraiser friend was curious enough to find out which aspect of his cause was most effective — i.e., retaining the painting was a matter of national pride — and he used that aspect to turn potential donors into believers. Then he was creative and innovative enough to find a way to make sure people actually gave money.
“Creativity is the process of coming up with ideas, while innovation is the process of selecting ideas that have value,” Ross says. “Lots of creative organizations aren’t really innovative or just don’t make use of their creativity.”
“Innovation requires flexibility,” Ross adds. “If you’re not flexible, you’ll find yourself thinking negative thoughts: We’ve never done that before, that’s too high risk, we need something more adventurous, the chief executive wouldn’t like that, and so on.”
Ross stresses that there’s nothing inherently grand about any of the qualities he identifies as crucial to the art of fundraising.
“The interesting thing is that many people think of creativity strictly in terms of high art,” he says. “The truth is that, in the workplace, creativity is often just a matter of doing something slightly different. Then it becomes innovation.”
Focus on creativity
Encouraging the right mindset, whether at nonprofit or for-profit organizations, often is a matter of visualizing tangible goals. For instance, Ross is a big fan of the way 3M Corp. encourages creativity in the workplace.
“They have a simple goal,” he says. “Every two years, 20 percent of their products have to be new products.”
For the most part, nonprofits don’t have to invent new products, but they do have to be flexible enough to come up with new ways of doing business as the world around them changes. Ross’ favorite example of this dilemma is Amnesty International, which still is adjusting to the new world order triggered by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
“The bad guys in the Soviet Union had a bureaucracy,” Ross says. “They’d lock up political and religious dissidents, and Amnesty would write thousands of letters protesting the violation of the prisoners’ human rights.
“But things are different now,” he adds. “Who do you write to about human rights violations in Rwanda, and how do you protest terrorism? If we knew where bin Laden lived, it would be easy, but he’s not collecting his mail.”
In other words, a nonprofit organization, whether its goal is to save a painting or save the world, has to guard against adopting a rigid mindset. If it doesn’t, it is likely to be blindsided by forces it didn’t anticipate, because the world is always changing.
The mother of invention
Ross cites Greenpeace Argentina as a nonprofit flexible enough to overcome adversity. The organization at some point realized many donations sent through the mail were being stolen, so its managers bypassed Argentina’s notoriously unreliable mail delivery system by switching to online transactions.
“Instead of getting depressed about not being able to do direct mail, Greenpeace Argentina is doing the most interesting Web-based work anywhere in the world,” Ross says. “Instead of being blindsided and saying we can’t do direct response, the manager said, ‘How do we make that work for us?’ The whole organization is online.”
Some of the consultancy work done by the Management Centre involves “knowledge management,” which often refers to programs that teach managers to deal with situations that aren’t mentioned in any rule books.
For example, Ross says his company helped devise board games with personnel at Doctors Without Borders, USA/Médecins Sans Frontières, a nonprofit that provides medical treatment for people in distressed areas around the world.
In one game, the question for trainees was, “Who should get the vaccine to if we only have enough for half a camp?” In another, they had to decide, “Should we stay or should we go now that the rebel troops are coming over the hill?”
“Sometimes you end up in a spot where there isn’t a standard manual operating procedure,” Ross says with quiet irony. “You have to be ready to deal with messy situations.”
Knowledge management also is a useful concept in nonprofit fundraising, where managers sometimes face messy situations of a different sort.
“What do you do if you know that a donor is doing something unethical?” Ross asks. “How do you handle a donor who expresses racist views?”
You handle some of those problems in advance, he reiterates, by creating a framework that allows your managers to deal with unforeseen developments. You teach them the importance of curiosity, belief, flexibility, creativity and innovation. And you remind them that organizations with rigid mindsets are likely to be “blindsided.”
Ross made the latter point with an anecdote about how the Pony Express spent time and money in the mid-19th century developing a network of horsemen who could deliver messages from Missouri to California in a matter of days.
“For a while, it was the hottest prospect — the Google of its time,” Ross says. “What the people at Pony Express didn’t notice were these very boring guys with the big wooden poles and the wires moving along behind them. Then the New York City-to-San Francisco telegraph went live, and Pony Express went bust. They were completely blindsided.”
David McKenna is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.