Causes vs. Symptoms

I’ve been running now for about 10 years (actually, I jog, but that sounds 1980ish).  Over those years, I’ve only experienced two injuries that were painful enough to sideline me this activity that I’ve grown to love.  One of those injuries occurred about 8 years ago.  It was a sharp pain on the outer side of the left knee which presented so quickly and intensely that I had to stop running mid-workout and slowly limp back to my car.  The second injury occurred a few weeks ago and is an arch pain in both of feet.  And while this pain is more of a throbbing, bruised feeling, it is severe enough that I’ve not been running for 3 weeks.  However, I can tell I’m getting better.

What I learned from both of these experiences is that bodily pain can show itself in places that are not the location of the underlying problem.  In other words, the actual causes of my pains were not in my left knee nor in my feet.  For my knee pain, I had a tight, left leg iliotibial band that was pulling on tissues just enough around my knee to cause pain there.  For the soles of my feet, I’ve realized that I have tight calf muscles that have pulled on tendons that run down around my ankles and connect to the tissue (fascia) underneath my feet.  The knots in my tight calves have pulled on the tendons and have caused pain in the arches of my feet.  In both instances, I massaged the problem areas vigorous and, voila, the pains in my knee and feet subsided.

Besides perhaps being TMI, there is a development purpose to this post.  Specifically, it is not uncommon for development leaders to misdiagnose the real causes of unsuccessful outcomes or missed goals.  In fact, I see this quite regularly in my consulting work.  Below are 3 classic “painful symptoms” we can experience in our development efforts and their true causes.

  1. Our Board Isn’t Being Generous – While it is easy to blame the Board members themselves who don’t give annually, or don’t give generously to our institution (“They know they are supposed to give!” or, “I don’t know why they would even say ‘yes’ to being on the Board when they know the giving expectation.”), the reality in many situations is that the Board members were, in fact, not clearly informed of the giving expectations when they were asked to serve on the Board.  The institution may not even have a standard recruitment process or a consistent set of Board member expectation talking points (preferably written down).  In so many instances, the real “cause” for this pain can be traced all the way back to the first conversation about the member serving on the Board and the fact that giving expectations were never fully nor clearly communicated.
  2. We Don’t Have a Deep Pool of Major Gift Donors – Institutions can adopt a culture, especially around major gifts, in which the talking points are as follows:  “We don’t receive significant gifts here,” or “We don’t have many major donors or prospects.”  People associated with the institution, even institutional leaders, can downplay their ability to raise significant gifts because, “our donors just don’t have those kinds of resources.”  Again, it is easy to look at the point of pain (i.e., the donors who supposedly don’t have major gift giving capacity) as the cause and not merely a symptom of the real cause.  And, in almost every situation, the real cause of this “pain,” is an underdeveloped culture of engagement throughout the institution.  In other words, the institution has not consistently sought out friends and potential partners and asked them for advice, asked them for feedback, asked them to dream with the institution, asked them to help make the institution better, etc.  Over time, institutional leaders have not prioritized and allocated the necessary time, energy, and financial resources to do the hard and sometimes messy work of relationship building.  Without a culture that consistently invites and welcomes new partners into the multi-faceted work of mission fulfillment, it becomes easy to blame the lack of major gifts on either our donors themselves or their lack financial capacity.
  3. Our Donors Will Only Give For Restricted Purposes – Donors who only make restricted gifts may not be a problem for you and your institution, but for an increasing number of organizations and institutions, receiving unrestricted gifts to help fund operational costs is becoming more important by the day.  If your institution is one that receives more restricted gifts than you would like, the reality is that this “pain,” is not due to your donor base having unusually strong and well-formed opinions about their giving.  This “pain” is not even due to your donor base needing concrete outcomes for their giving.  The cause of this “pain,” is almost always a lack of consistent messaging and compelling solicitations specifically seeking support for the annual fund (or whatever unrestricted gift vehicle you might use).  Development professionals and leaders, in general, completely underestimate the influence that consistent solicitations for annual fund gifts can have over time.  For instance, I’ve worked with smaller social service organizations and larger universities which initially claimed that unrestricted gifts were not gifts their donors were interested in making.  In two such instances, because we implemented consistent, multi-channel messaging, we re-imagined the brand and marketing of the annual fund, and we confidently invited all to give in support of the institution’s mission, both institutions enjoyed 200%+ increases in unrestricted giving over the course of just a few years.  Over time, donors will follow our lead and will give in support of the areas or funds that we suggest.

In each of these classic, painful development circumstances, the root cause of the problem turns out to be different than where or how the pain is experienced.  Much like our human bodies, the cause of a particular development pain may be something else entirely than what we, at first, believe.  If we aim to limit or eliminate our painful development outcomes, we will be wise to assume that the pain we are experiencing is probably only a symptom and not the root cause we need to address.


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