Institutional or Institutionalized?
Check out this story the ever-radiant Sr. Georgette Lehmuth, president and CEO of the National Catholic Development Conference, told last Tuesday:
A young girl was watching her mother cook a pot roast. As she prepped it for the oven, she chopped two inches off one end of the roast and threw it in the trash.
"Why'd you throw that piece away mom?" the girl asked.
The mother answered, "You know, now that you mention it, I'm not really sure. That's how my mother made a pot roast, and I've always just done it the way she did. I guess you'll have to ask your grandma."
So the little girl went up to her grandmother's room and said, "Grandma, why did you teach mom to cut off one end of the pot roast and throw it away?"
"I just did it the way my mother did," said the grandmother. "I suppose you'll have to ask her."
So the little girl called her great-grandmother and asked the same question.
The old woman started laughing. "You mean they still do that?" she said. "Here's what happened: When I was first married, we only had one cooking pot. It was too small to hold a whole pot roast. And since the only refrigeration we had was an old icebox, I knew the meat would go bad. So I threw it out."
Institutional memory is a tremendous asset, especially if you've been around awhile. It's a valuable body of knowledge, specific to your organization, accumulated over many years by the brightest and best on your team.
The problem is bad ideas can become traditions too. If your nonprofit has "always" done some things a certain way, you need to make sure they still make sense.
It's a question worth asking. Especially in fundraising. With so much at stake, there's just no room for sacred cows. Nothing should be above testing.
If you don't know why a tradition has hung on — and your organization's "great-grandmother" is long gone — it might time to consider a newer, better way of doing things.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.