Remember the sound of the dial-up modem? “eeeee-awwwwwww-eeeeeeeeee?” For a major donor I interviewed recently, that sound was music to his ears.
During the “dial-up” period of our internet life, you may also recall that new modems with faster and faster speeds were being introduced about every 2 months. Everyone wanted to go faster so that downloads, uploads, gaming, and general ‘web surfing’ was a better more dynamic experience for the user.
Faster modems, it seemed, were better.
Except for this particular guy. He told me, “when everyone else was focused on ‘faster, faster, faster,” I thought, ‘what about the other way? I wanted to see if we could slow it down.”
What? Who would want a modem to be slower?
Turns out rural power companies across the U.S. and the world seemed to want slower modems. Now, I’m not an engineer so I’m not sure of all the details, but here is the gist.
Rural power companies have to assess and bill the amount of power being used by their customers. This makes sense. But what doesn’t make sense is sending a “meter reader” across great spans of land to read the meters. It takes far too much time and, thus, is too costly. The holy grail of rural meter reading, it seemed was having the data from these rural meters communicated automatically and in real time to the power companies using the phone lines.
But there was a problem in making this happen: the phone lines carry so much static and noise that the data transmission from standard modems was always corrupted. It turns out, though, that if you built a modem that transferred data in super-slow-speeds, the noise on the line would not be a factor and the data could be sent in real time with no problem. Needless to say, the power companies became very interested when this inventor let them know that he could build a slow modem that reliably could deliver the usage data from their rural customers at a fraction of their current cost to read meters.
As you might imagine, after the all the patents were in place, this inventor became very wealthy. Hundreds of millions of dollars wealthy.
My interview with this donor was fascinating. I walked away inspired (as I regularly do from these encounters) and asking myself, “what lessons can this man’s experience teach us all?” Here are at least two:
1. Slow down. You life, your work, your family don’t necessarily get better just because you are doing more or involved in more. Work to prioritize and slow things down. When you slow down you can remove the ‘noise’ of life (as his invention did for the phone lines) and focus on what is truly important. And almost always, what is truly important are relationships. Not possessions, not money, but relationships.
Think about this from a development standpoint: Every year during planning, it is a common occurrence to pull out calendars and plan for the following year. Rarely, if ever, do we delete activities, events, or initiatives. Instead, we add to the calendar. But what if we started the calendaring process by first prioritizing based on the promise of having the biggest impact on advancing our institutions and, simultaneously, agreed to cut two events, initiatives, or activities from the calendar. We would, in essence, be slowing ourselves down and focusing more energy on what is truly important for our institutions.
Almost everything we do as development professionals helps our institutions. We do good work. But doing good is not enough. We need to be good at doing good. Slowing down and prioritizing helps us be good at doing good.
2. Go against conventional wisdom every once in a while. This donor made the point that he purposefully went in the opposite direction from everyone else. The overwhelming trend of discovery during that time was to build faster and faster modems. He decided to build one that was capable of going slower and slower. And it paid off.
In development we have a habit of benchmarking ourselves against other shops and mimicking the activities of “successful” shops. In higher education fundraising we even have the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) – or as it is known on the streets “Copy And Steal Everything.”
And finding out what is working for other institutions is a good thing. It can give us some context for our own work. However, don’t be afraid to zig when others zag. Question the conventional wisdom from time to time. Your institution is unique and you have the opportunity – indeed the charge – to craft strategies that will work for you. Those may be very different strategies from those that work at another institution.
When we slow down and think a bit differently, we may find that our work is more exhilarating and our results are far better.