Principles Before Practice

Our friends in the engineering fields have a saying:  Don’t dig before you know what size shovel you need.

Most folks like to do things.  They like to get results.  It doesn’t really matter what industry or profession you are in, most good folk want to make something positive happen.  Engineers may want to start digging. Scientists may want to start experimenting.  Doctors may want to start treating.

But if you aren’t careful you can begin the task before you have a good sense of how best to approach it.

The most effective development leaders are those who have a solid grasp on the principles of good development work prior to practicing development work.  In other words, they have an overarching understanding of the concepts and precepts of high-quality development work and these concepts inform their efforts.  So, what are these principles?  There are many, I would suggest, but I would offer the following 3 as key:

  1. Understanding your constituents is more important than them understanding you and your institution. When we hold a general view that our work is, first and foremost, to better understand our donors and future donors, we have the beginning framework of how we should work.  Instead of arming major gift officers with printed case statements, ipads, or other materials designed to help us tell our story better, we should teach them how to ask insightful questions and listen actively.
  2. Shared beats unshared.  Instead of messaging our constituents, the best development pros share with them.  When we embrace the notion that our work is to engage, involve, and share with our constituents, we approach our work differently.  How does a phonathon script read when created to engage and involve?  What specifically do we ask of our advisory groups?
  3. Tomorrow is just today – but in the future.  Yes, you read that one right.  Here’s the point:  If you spend 95% of your time putting out fires or focused on getting things done for today, you aren’t practicing high-quality development work.  Effective development shops – of all sizes – spend ample time doing discovery calls to qualify future major gift donors.  They craft annual work plans for all aspects of the enterprise (and then they work the plan).  And they create long-term individual donor giving goals that they strategize toward.  In other words, planning for your institution’s future gift income streams is an essential ingredient of effective development efforts.
Principles, such as the ones listed above, should be well understood and adopted by everyone in your shop so that your specific efforts produce the most fruitful results possible.  When we don’t pause to learn and embrace the fundamental principles of our work, we end up wasting resources chasing ideas that sound good at the time but fail to produce the desired, longer-term results.

P.S.:  “Principles before practice” isn’t the same as “paralysis by analysis.”  In the former, people are encouraged to think first about the overarching principles that should guide the work to be done.  In the latter, people fail to achieve results because they never actually do the work.


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