The Art of Plate Spinning
The beautiful ship Titanic left Southampton, U.K., on April 10, 1912 on its maiden voyage, with a goal of reaching New York. The ship set sail with 2,240 passengers. On April 14, 1912 the ship hit an iceberg in the cold Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, the ship sank on April 15, 1912, with 705 survivors. The Titanic’s passengers were divided into three separate classes. The Titanic’s class determination was based upon a variety of factors, such as wealth and social class.
The first class passengers were the wealthiest passengers. Other prominent members were assigned the upper class based upon factors, such as prominence in business and politics, high-ranking military and industrialists, bankers, and professional athletes. There was a pecking order and passengers were assigned to their classes accordingly.
The plight of the Titanic was once again brought to life in the 1997 movie directed, written and co-produced by James Cameron. It starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The success of the movie created a nationwide stir and led to Titanic exhibitions across the country. In these exhibitions, items from the sunken ship were placed on display. My wife and daughter visited one such exhibition in Indianapolis.
I vividly remember my daughter purchasing three facsimile plates from the Titanic display that represented each of the three classes on the ship. The first class plate was very beautiful and ornate in design, while the third class plate was extremely simple. The second class plate design was somewhere in between the two plates.
I was thinking about the Titanic plates the other day at work. I thought, I spin plates representing various classes every day. Sample tasks (or spinning plates) from one of my recent work days included:
- Talking to an expert peer on the possibility of a feasibility study
- Making a $25,000 ask to a potential corporate sponsor
- Meeting with staff to discuss a Radiothon marketing strategy
- Preparing for a weekend all-hands-on-deck special event involving a media partner, new program to benefit the needy and the Indianapolis Colts
- Volunteering at the Kiwanis Luncheon meeting
- Helping a leader in a small town create a recognition award for his advisory board
- Responding to a request from a higher-up regarding a pilot of a new fundraising project
- Meeting with staff members to discuss statewide Christmas program plans
- Working with my boss on several upcoming projects
- Completing two grant requests to potential funders
- Dealing with a car issue that is in the shop
- Helping a peer get a job interview with a CEO of a nonprofit who asked me to recommend candidates
- Creating minutes from a recent development committee meeting
I can continue the list from one day on the job, but you get my examples of quality and quantity plus width and breadth. You deal with the same issues and plates. Some you want to avoid but cannot avoid, as there are things in your work you love to do and vice versa. The key is to figure out how to keep functions spinning. Think in terms of the Titanic's three-class system.
First Class Issues
These issues are the most important. You must give these priority. You need to be proactive with these things to do. These items are important and are on top of your time allocation. Look at items you need to accomplish and always keep first class items front and center. If you manage others, delegate selected functions to them. Challenge them and see if they can grow in their jobs. Do not micro manage but make them accountable. Keep the number of plates spinning manageable to you. Do not overload yourself, as you don’t want to hear plates breaking. All of these class items should be spinning.
Second Class Issues
These issues are important but not as important. These items have a longer time window. Many of these could evolve into first class issues. Determine a priority for them. Don’t let the second class issues get in front of first class issues or both classes will suffer. Once again, delegate selected issues if it will give you more time. You only have so many hours in a work day. Use every minute wisely. Only selected second-class plates should be spinning.
Third Class Issues
These issues just came on your radar screen or they are items you can wait to address. The majority of these issues aren’t at the spinning-plate level. You can only handle so many plates at once. It would be unusual to have a third class issue spin. You need to determine when a third class issue translates to a second class and, eventually, first class issue. You must be disciplined and be aware of every item on your to-do list.
In summary, we spin plates in our job every day. It is something we cannot avoid. You decide each day what is most important to you and how you proceed down the work list based upon priorities. Think about your past, present and future as you look at work functions. Plate spinning is very hard to do and takes a great deal of energy. With practice, you will improve your craft and determine the quantity and quality of plates in the air.
In many cases you and a peer may share the same plate. Decide upon one primary spinner. In reality, plate spinning is an art. Be up to the challenge, and strive for continuous quality work and results each day, for that is what is expected of you. I promise I won’t tell when the occasional plate falls and breaks. There will always be more where that came from! Happy plate spinning to you.
Duke has extensive experience as a nonprofit practitioner, author, lecturer and consultant. He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the last 11 years. He has been a long-standing member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where he was previously named the AFP Indiana Chapter Fundraising Executive of the Year and has held the CFRE designation for many years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in education administration, master's degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also completed post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
He is currently executive director of development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. Contact Duke at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-224-1029.