My wife, Barbara, was a very talented party planner when we lived in New Jersey. She coordinated many weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and even corporate events. Now she has become a gifted artist and interior home designer, skills that lay dormant during our tenure up north. But I learned a very important lesson from her party planning experiences and always applied it in my work as a professional fundraiser. Truth be told, anyone involved with interpersonal relationships should learn to apply these principles.
There were occasions when Barbara confronted “sticky situations” with some clients, such as the parents of a bride and groom. Getting married is already a stressful event, even though it is a happy time. And as many of us have discovered, the parents of the soon-to-be-wed couple don’t always see eye-to-eye on infinite wedding details. This can be nerve-wracking for all parties concerned, especially the soon-to-be-newlyweds who, as is usual, get caught in the middle.
I remember one incident in particular that was escalating to the DEFCON 1 level. Each set of parents had reached a point where they weren’t talking to each other. Whatever it was that upset them is not important. What was significant is these families were closing in on the wedding date and crucial decisions weren’t being made because of the communication breakdown. What to do?
My wife took a chapter from Aaron, the brother of Moses, and donned her social worker’s hat. In Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 1:12 says:
Be among the disciples of Aaron,
loving peace and pursuing peace….”
In Talmudic literature, Aaron was described as the great peacemaker, who went to any ends to make peace between spouses and feuding friends. To the best of my knowledge, Aaron didn’t possess a social worker’s degree but instinctively knew what to do. My wife isn’t an MSW either, but she possesses a profound understanding of human relations.
Back to the wedding.
She made an appointment to meet with the father of the bride, who was the most difficult to work with. They had a very positive discussion that focused on the future. She emphasized that the twosome one day will have children with many joyous occasions such as birthdays, graduations and other family milestones. What will dictate the serenity and happiness of the couple and future family events will be the resolution of present disputes that will be forgotten over time. This approach worked and long after the wedding Barbara received yearly congratulatory calls from him on her birthday, always showing infinite gratitude for her intervention. And, once more, there was joy in Mudville!
So, what does this have to do with fundraising? Everything.
I can recount instances when my intercession resolved many sticky situations. In one case, two major benefactors who were friends but then experienced “bad blood” between them refused to be seated at the same table during a gala dinner. I mitigated their dispute by seating them at opposite ends of the table along with distinguished VIPs next to each one. Their paths never crossed and it worked. Afterward, they became friends again, sharing stories about the VIPs who sat with them.
Another episode that comes to mind involved a generous board member long neglected by the directors and ready to “walk” and take her beneficence elsewhere. She hadn’t been invited to all regular meetings, wasn’t asked for input on key policy decisions, and was excluded from board-related social gatherings. It took considerable time and effort to explain to the president and the CEO the importance of always inviting her to meetings, calling on her on important voting matters, and including her in social get-togethers. A lot of hand-holding in the end resulted in her making some significant gifts and even a critical bequest.
Good people skills can also be leveraged to resolve differences between fundraisers. There were times when the chemistry between members of my staff became unraveled during intense periods, such as in the middle of major galas. Yes, we expect absolute professionalism from professionals; but with the human condition being what it is, sometimes nerves become frayed around stressful periods. Sitting down afterward and calmly sharing the etiology of these stressors helped alleviate them and we moved on. Peacefully.
By this time, you might be raising the nurture versus nature argument. Meaning this: are such conflict resolution skills learned or intrinsic in our DNA? Are we taught these skills or are they inherent in our being? Without conceding to oversimplification, I maintain it’s a little of both. Mediation, active listening, compromise, accommodation and collaboration are as a rule key ingredients to peaceful resolutions.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have declared: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” Fundraisers facing sticky situations know all too well the truth behind this saying.
Oh, and about that wedding Barbara coordinated. They all lived happily ever after!
Norman B. Gildin is the author of the recently released book on nonprofit fundraising “Learn From My Experiences.” He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits raise critical funds for their organizations. www.normangildin.com.