npo leadership: something’s burning

Donors have an uncanny ability to sniff out how much you believe in the work of the organization. The closer the contact, the closer you are to face-to-face, the more likely the donor is spot the fire in your eyes (or the absence). Passion–that intense, unwavering, zealous belief in what you’re doing encourages (drives) donors to join with you in the cause.

Donors are drawn to authentic passion and vision.

Donors reach for their checkbooks when they see passion, vision and fire in a leader’s eyes.

Direct mail and other direct response channels create some distance but the reader will still notice a lack of passion. Great direct response copy is often gutted because of the lack of passion and drive. Frankly, I believe copy is changed often because of lack of baseline belief more than any other reason (assuming it was great copy to begin with). Of course there are other reasons good copy gets neutered, but lack of passion is the root of most bad edits.

Take a look at this video by the group Atomic Tom. Don’t know anything about Atomic Tom. I’m not endorsing them or their music, but watch a few minutes of the video. They had their instruments stolen (at least that’s the set-up for this video) and so they’re doing their art with what they have.

As you watch, check out the woman on the left side of the frame, behind the lead singer. I don’t think she’s part of the group. It’s fun to watch her get into it.

Assuming that this isn’t an incredibly good Apple stunt, these guys believe in their art. They’re performing on a moving train live in front of one of the toughest audiences in the world–New York commuters. And they’re great. And they’re having a good time. And at least some of the people on the train seem to be enjoying it.

You can see the passion and fire, can’t you?

At about 3:40 in the video, the lead singer gets after it with some high notes. You know, you really have to believe in what you’re doing to do that on a train full of strangers. Love it.

So how about you? Ready to give your elevator pitch on a New York train full of commuters? Ready to hit that high note in front of strangers…or donors? If so, go for it. Don’t hold back for a second.

If not…well that’s a different story. Short of telling you to dust off your resume, what can you do? One thing that will help is to spend some time at ground level in your organization. Walk the streets with your people. Be face to face with whoever’s life you’re changing. Talk to the men and women who are hungry or lost or need help…

Disconnect with bureaucracy, plans and admin. Connect with the heart of your work.

Hear for yourself, face-to-face how your organization is changing the world. Then tell your donors about it. Ignite the fire through direct contact with your service. You’ll have more stories to tell (and not about buildings or budgets).

If you’re changing lives, you’ll know. If you know, you can tell the stories. And that’s the high note your donors are waiting for.

How about you, could you pitch on a train full of strangers? Does that seem “beneath” you? If this sounds crazy, do you think that the work your NPO is doing is worth the risk of letting your fire burn out loud? Can’t wait to hear what you think.

***UPDATE 11/1/10 Atomic Tom made CBS Early Show! Good for them. Looks like that World Wide Rave thing works.

UPDATE: 11/1/2010: Turns out that the stolen instruments was part of the “video story” and didn’t happen. So it wasn’t as advertised. But the focus of this post is still correct, just a bummer that they took an easy road and made up a story that wasn’t true. It would have been just as powerful if they’d have skipped the “stolen instruments” angle.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

5 thoughts on “npo leadership: something’s burning”

  1. Isn’t passion what anyone of us wants others to see in us? Not only does it bring satisfaction to our own hearts, but also builds confidence in others. This call to passion is for NPO’s and for-profits alike. I think of the nonprofits that I support and it was passion in the person I heard, saw or read that prompted me to give.

    Steve, I appreciate your comment on getting to the ground level to help sustain that passion. NPO leaders need to build in activities to fan the flame of passion. That flame will help keep their associates on fire, building a bigger flame, attracting donors wanting to make a difference.

  2. I started out reading with a lot of head shaking and AMENS. And then I got to the video, which was great (I am rethinking my position on the IPhone as I write).

    But…then you had to go and throw down the challenge to give the pitch (story and musical note…effective word choice there Steve)in front of strangers on a train and my head started to tell my heart all that could go wrong.

    My heart was inspired and excited about the idea and could envision all the things that could go right. But my head was REALLY loud with lots of visions and memories too.

    I know it is this internal battle that leads to mediocrity, satisficing, and just plain old blah. Unfortunately, the blah is actually enough to keep going, but it does not maximize potential nor transform anything because it does not inspire others to take risk and make change.

    Now if I and lots of other NPO and FPO employees could learn to get over our fears and belt out the high notes the world really would be a different place.

    Thanks for the challenge and the inspiration.

    Here is a question that I would love to see thoughts on, how does an NPO with so little margin — for error and for risk investment — build a culture that promotes the kind of risk taking you are talking about above?

  3. @Jeffrey–Yes, Passion is what all of us are looking for…frankly professionally and personally. In your field, passion for accounting is critical. I get passionate about concepts that edge in the direction of accounting–reporting and analysis but it still isn’t accounting.

    A guy like you, has to have the fire for CPA-ing. That’s what your clients need from you, not going through the motions.

    And, authenticity…that’s another portion of passion.

    Thanks for staying in the conversation with us!

  4. @John–Ah, I love the way you think and the reality you bring.

    It’s the “Battle of the Blah,” isn’t it? I would never add to the list of “To Do’s.” Everyone who serves in an NPO already has too much to do. What I would say is that when the blahs seems more powerful than the pitch, then you have to find a way to refresh yourself.

    And, in all candor, if you don’t find the passion, you’ll pay the price somehow. That’s a tough reality. If you’re (and we’re not talking about you, but really any one who serves an NPO), can’t find the passion, you’ll burn out or die.

    Burn out personally, because no one can serve an NPO unless they’re “sold out” on the mission. The pay isn’t good enough and the hours are too long (just saying…).

    Seth Godin put it this way on his blog some time ago: http://bit.ly/10g9As … a serious dose of reality.

    Or you’ll die, because boring won’t survive in this competitive marketplace.

    The good news? Well, if you’re doing great work (and John, I know your org is) then all you need is some refreshment and refocus. Another place to get that recharge, is with the donors who love you. A fun phone call to make is to talk to a long-time supporter and once you finish thanking them, ask why they give. I’ve heard some of the most amazing stories from donors.

    Don’t feel burdened by this, but when you feel burdened, rekindle your passion.

    Thanks for your passion and authenticity.

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