Photo courtesy of Farewell Debut.
It was nearly a decade since I’d last seen Laura. We’d only met once, when she gave me a tour of the youth center she worked at. We instantly bonded as two fellow Development Directors, swapping battle stories and the inevitable peaks and lows of fundraising for scrappy organizations that were beloved by their communities and, well, us. I didn’t know all the details, but I knew her parting from the organization was painful and sudden.
I was now the chief fundraiser for the center and was desperate for any hint of historical knowledge, since Laura was the last true professional fundraiser in the role, replaced by a scattering of transient, warm bodies that unsuccessfully pushed papers for 8 years. In those years, relationships iced over, funding ended, and the world of fundraising in NYC changed dramatically during the cooling. I also wanted to meet up with Laura, because I generally don’t fair too well in cultivating fundraising friends. The NY Metro area tends to mold its ilk into well-polished pods of professionals that don’t break form often. Last we met, Laura had a penchant for blue hair, 1970s punk and big necklaces. I wanted to find a friendly warrior — I figured we could at least commiserate on our battle scars post-2008 recession, post-Bloomberg and the golden age of our profession, when the word “sustainability” seemed reasonable.
It wasn’t the warmest reception. We met in a dark, cavernous restaurant on the lower west side that had airs of reclaimed wood, warehouse and vaguely asian finishings. I threw out a large hug the moment we met, while she stood her ground and gave a light embrace that belied the solid fighter that I knew stood before me.
Our meeting progressed only slightly better. We didn’t bond like I had hoped. We didn’t trade war stories like Wonder Woman and Athena, warrior goddesses that conquered and brought justice to all. We shared stories with caution, because our stories didn’t have heroic endings. I don’t think Laura quite trusted my intent, as I was now representing a place that caused her pain. I have too many nonprofit stories without heroic endings, but I draw power in what I can rewrite and re-envision for the future. This wasn’t a power lunch, however, and it felt more like two bad ponies hunched over overpriced salads lacking in basic sustenance. Ponies once beloved by their organizations, by their leaders, but now relegated to the outer pasture, broken, joyless and fairly irascible.
Development Directors – the Wonder Women, Michonne’s, and Burka Avenger’s of the field – embrace the cause, the organization, the donors, board, the program staff… hell… we even cozy up to the financial directors, accountants, maintenance… anyone that makes it all happen every day. Our faith and love runs deep. We obsessively devour all information that feeds into the state of the cause: the donors, trends, markets, politics… it all matters. We become enveloped by the cause, both intellectually and emotionally. We are not, however, perfect. For example, most mortal women aren’t the 21st c. reboot of Wonder Woman where apparently nothing can kill her.
Personally, I am a ninja grant-writer and strategist, but major gifts is sometimes my kryptonite. I’ve refined my donor relations and execution over the years, but my bad pony story came about nearly two decades earlier at the start of my career. I built an enviable fundraising program from the ground up, leveraged heavily on grants, a successful annual event and appeal and a growing communications platform. The Executive Director wanted more–she wanted a Development Director that could take that success and quickly turn it into a major gifts program with barely the time, planning, training or resources needed to build this new program. She wanted a pony that could do more, and she grew increasingly frustrated by the seeming limits of my talents. I grew increasingly frustrated by the limits of her talents, but I wasn’t the one with the power. It was her call to put the bad pony in a corner.
One of the most painful, shell-shock moments in my career was the day she pulled me aside, alone in a workshop room, and expressed her dissatisfaction in my work and my “bad attitude.” She tapped her watch to show that my time was limited. The message was clear: ‘shape up girl, or get out.’ When I walked back in the office the next day I resolved to do 3 things: 1) I would be the happiest fucking employee she had ever seen; 2) I would make things ‘right’ in whatever combination of tasks or goals she deemed suitable; and 3) I would leave. It wasn’t a heroic departure, but I met my goals, and I was gone in six months.
I still love that organization. It still brings me joy. I still love the people that I worked alongside for so many years. There are many narratives to my time at the organization, and the days leading up to when I left, but that day, at the restaurant with Laura, I was back to being the bad pony. There was something in the timing of our meeting, and the manner in which I was coming to her that brought it all back. Laura shared her story–not all of it, but enough. I shared mine. We didn’t draw strength from one another. We didn’t bond. We should have–it should have been a fantastic reunion. We should have ordered steak or definitely something with more protein. I can blame the pretentious hipster garbage that dangled all around us; I can blame the sad salads, but mostly I blame the profession.
The nonprofit field is drenched in stats, surveys, opinions, and every quantifiable indicator that development directors are miserable. The best study to date, Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing the Nonprofit Field, is now buried in a deep google search. Underdeveloped found that most Development Directors are deeply unhappy, last less than 2 years in their jobs and can readily tick off at least 20 reasons why they feel fairly defeated and otherwise abused. There are about 50 blog posts that could spin off on how & why this has come to be, but not a lot of consultants, executive directors, board members or senior leaders really understand (or talk about) what it’s like to be the chief fundraiser.
I’m not quite sure if you can, or should, cross a superhero with a beloved pony – it’s weird, but I know what it feels like to be both. Mostly, I don’t know what it feels like to be a fallen superhero. I just know what it feels like to be a bad pony. So I’m going to keep re-writing this narrative, because no one else is writing the handbook for getting out of the pasture. I hope that someday Laura and I have lunch again, but this time we’ll order steak and Manhattans. Our stories will be about heroes and fighters and warriors–it will be about us.