I got to spend time in St. Louis recently at the Opera America conference, and it was terrific. It might be difficult to imagine a true diversity of age, ethnicity and background in the field of Opera, but there it was. A beautiful and diverse group of professionals, with at least four generations represented, and folks of every background, talking about issues that matter including access, community engagement, and sexual harassment. Plus, some art thrown in. Good stuff.
I’ve always appreciated the neck tattoo. Men and women with neck tattoos are fully committed in a way that I am not, having decided as a young adult I am not the fellow for this particular and permanent sort of personal statement (what tattoo would I get….will it hurt….what if I feel silly later…really, it looks painful). I admire the boldness and clarity of purpose represented by this most bold personal statement.
But I have often wondered how those neck tattoo enthusiasts would emerge in the professional worlds of banking, lawyering, accounting, and my business, fundraising. I worried that a bold personal statement like a neck tattoo might be a barrier to future professional opportunity, that these good folks wouldn’t get the same opportunities to shine and might not easily escape the stigma of looking different than the norm.
And I was wrong.
Ours is a world of diversity, and, increasingly barriers are dropping. Years ago I attended my first ever meeting of Development Officers at a university where I got a job raising money. And I wore a brown suit to the meeting, not knowing that the University Gift Officers wore black suits, and black suits only. Everyone kind of gave me the stink eye. They all looked like one another, talked like one another, and stuck to the script. A bunch of mostly ex-athletes, hired based on a physical type. The early 2000s were overrated.
More of this remains that not, I am sorry to say. Non-profits tend to move more slowly than many other types of organizations in embracing change as they tend to be led by older, whiter, more conservative leaders. A question I truly despise when board members are asked to evaluate fundraising candidates is, “Who would you like to have a beer with?” the implication being, who do you kind of like in a personal way, that makes you feel comfortable, without explaining exactly why you say that, you know, because that might get us into trouble if we said out loud what we mean when we ask this loaded and silly question.
Top Ten Terrible Reasons For a Non-Hire (ALL TRUE):
- She wore sleeveless.
- He sighed too much.
- She hasn’t worked in enough places (having served more than five years in the same job, bucking the industry trend).
- I just wasn’t feeling you in my gut.
- I know her sister, and there are concerns.
- I talked to so and so off the record, and he confidentially torpedoed the guy.
- He salted his lunch before tasting it.
- She reminded me of what’s her name 15 years ago.
- He doesn’t have the “Foundation” look in his eye.
- He is not Superman. We need Superman.
This is a really crappy way to evaluate talent. I enjoy beverages with my friends the most, who tend to share similar social-economic backgrounds, of a similar age and education level. And we riff for hours on “Empire Strikes Back” and make funny voices and talk about countries yet to visit. But friendships aren’t hires, and your board feeling “comfortable” with this or that candidate is limiting at best, dangerous and morally unsound more likely. If you don’t get sued for your lack of vision, you will at least miss out on capable candidates who aren’t grandchildren of your board members.
So let us embrace an absolute diversity in fundraising talent. Rather than Looking the Part, today’s successful fundraisers are Acting the Part, as confident leaders, as change agents in their communities, as innovators.
And so it is up to all of us to nurture true fundraising talent wherever it comes from, to grow our own leaders, to support diversity of every kind. Our organizations must escape the “I’d like a beer with him” thinking if we are to thrive, yes?
Wear a black suit if you want, but show off that neck tattoo with pride.