What’s Important To Know

Millions of dollars are spent each year on professional development.  People attend conferences, webinars, conventions, workshops, and buy books all in an attempt to become more knowledgeable and become more valuable employees.  Learning matters. The more we know, the more effective we become.  That’s easy enough to understand.

But if we can all agree that learning matters, what, then, should we be learning?  This question, actually, is the question.  There are three areas of knowledge that impact our effectiveness as professionals:

  1. Technical knowledge – or understanding the specifics of our work;
  2. Personal knowledge – or understanding our strengths and weaknesses as individuals;
  3. Interpersonal knowledge – or understanding how to effectively engage and involve others.

Think about our work as advancement professionals.  Overall, what type of knowledge has the biggest impact on our effectiveness?

Without hesitation, I would answer “interpersonal knowledge.”  Our work is all about engaging others.  Gaining a broader understanding of human behavior and motivations enhances our efficacy to do this work.  Learning from the fields psychology, sociology, education, history, social-psychology, consumer behavior, cultural studies, behavioral economics, etc.,  can provide us with the types of knowledge that make us better advancement professionals.  The more we understand other people, their drives, influences, deep-seated patterns of behavior, etc., the more effective we become.

But compare this to what we spend our time (and money) actually learning.  We go to conferences and workshops and attend all sorts of technical trainings.  We spend hours and hundreds of dollars learning how to use facebook to make our young alumni give more.  We listen to experts talk about how to make our phonathon scripts produce more “yeses.”  We buy books that claim to teach us “How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money”.

And yet, there are huge problems with focusing so much of our attention on gaining more technical knowledge.  First, it grows stale.  Technical knowledge becomes obsolete when MySpace users migrate to Facebook and then to Twitter.  Technical knowledge can also pigeon-hole us.  It can turn us into specialists when it could be more beneficial to be a generalist.  Understanding a formula for writing strong fundraising letters is a worthy technical skill for an annual fund officer to possess.  But that specialized skill doesn’t particularly help the annual fund officer grow into a skilled major gift officer later in her career.

Despite the drawbacks, though, there is always something new on the technical knowledge horizon to capture our attention and imagination.  Something promising.  Something shiny and exciting.  The next killer mobile app.  The next (false) hope of a computerized silver bullet which will increase our gift income simply by hitting “enter.”  And so, we buy it.  Our appetites for technical training appear voracious.

Conversely, learning more about interpersonal knowledge feels old-fashioned.  It is boring.  It is tired.  There are typically no new and exciting breakthroughs in these fields of knowledge.  When we learn more in the area of interpersonal knowledge we simply grow toward deeper understandings that change our effectiveness in nuanced ways over time.  There are no quick fixes that result from increasing your interpersonal knowledge.  It’s about becoming more wise – and that takes time and patience.  Just like advancement work.

P.S.:  Two interesting “interpersonal knowledge” books that I have recently finished and would encourage every advancement leader to read are “Punished By Rewards” by Alfie Kohn (Kohn will challenge everything you believe about performance metrics and employee evaluations) and “The Narcissism Epidemic” by Jean Twenge (She sheds light on an important sociological reality that is quietly impacting giving and volunteerism).


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