by Aimée A. Laramore, MBA, owner/lead consultant of ALlyd Solutions, Inc.
Every effective fundraising training or workshop experience in the development arena illuminates the importance of listening. We routinely emphasize the importance of appreciative inquiry and open-ended questions to become proficient in identifying and illuminating the philanthropic passions of the donor. Over time, the best in the field are accomplished at listening to God, listening to mission and vision, and listening to the donor, too. The question for this season is; “Are YOU listening?”
Four months into the pandemic, I began to experience a new level of listening. My reordered life rhythms and new Sunday morning worship routine became the backdrop to poignant stories at the intersection of faith, pastoral concern, and stewardship trends. I was reminded of the sacred calling that leads people to be resilient in the face of difficult times and solutions-oriented in the most complex of situations. Unanticipated organizational change is often a slow and arduous process. Yet, as I listened to clients and conversation partners, I was reminded of the innovation possible when our values guide us. I was surrounded by diverse leaders striving to hear the constituents they serve. Their listening translated into increased ministry, solidified outreach and compassionate pastoral care to those experiencing loss. I became a witness to this tangible impact.
In July, I was invited to serve on a panel on race, racism and white supremacy. On the reading list for participants, I noted the article White Supremacy Culture from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.
The article led to one of many ah-ha moments about the potential of listening in this pandemic moment. Throughout the summer I encountered numerous churches that had crafted thought provoking reading lists and learning opportunities, as they embraced the opportunity to reshape their faith culture and community at this moment in history. Development officers, mindful of shifting goals and campaign unknowns, listened intently to the experiences of donors and faith communities, intent on making the best possible choice to move forward. As leaders wrestled with the question of what is God calling us to do, I was again reminded that we can only answer that question with listening.
The article identified several characteristics of white supremacy culture which show up in organizations. The process of deeply reading the article prompted me to listen to my own discomfort and to consider what I was being called to do. Two of these characteristics stood out to me: perfectionism and a sense of urgency. These traits were so indicative of the development culture I have become accustomed to, I was prodded to think more deeply about the necessity to align our values with our practice of raising resources. The discipline of listening is not only for cultivation or “the ask”; the discipline of listening is for the organizational culture that shapes our work.
Culture is learned, subjective and cumulative; it is ever present and often very difficult to name or identify. Organizations led by people of color are not exempt from the many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture. As the article named the identifiers of white supremacy culture, I could feel the tension and weight of my own work style and organizations I served for my entire career. I noted in myself, a professional strategist of color, countless traits that I had adopted, in pursuit of acceptance, fitting in, and being recognized in a non-diverse field. In perfectionism, making a mistake is confused with being a mistake. I have championed Intentional Progress Over Perfection (IPOP) for the entirety of my career in nonprofit capacity building and fundraising, but realized in my own business framework, I too had adopted perfectionism as an acceptable trait. Although mistakes are inevitable opportunities to learn, and a very real part of personal growth and development, internalizing mistakes can erode who you are as a person. Mistakes are healthy. Perfectionism is a culture trap.
When teaching about a culture of generosity, I unpack the importance of developing an authentic culture of appreciation. A healthy approach to organizational growth incorporates a practice of speaking to what is going well and affirming how the work is done, not just an itemization of what is done. Countless major gifts from donors of color, philanthropic milestones and history-making development achievements can be credited to listening. A sense of urgency can offer an organization or donor a call to action. But that same sense of urgency can mistakenly lead well-meaning individuals to promise too much for too little in return; or sacrifice the interests of people of color for the sake of winning a perceived bigger prize. In reality, the work often takes longer than expected and realistic goals can be both necessary and unpopular. Development professionals of color echo these sentiments in unison, but we often fail to listen. In pursuit of a new, more inclusive operating paradigm, we are called to assess the role of perfectionism and urgency in how we engage others. We measure progress as bigger and more, without attention to the costs of the decisions being made. Asks are often made at the sacrifice of the giver, at the risk of relationship and without the necessary context for meaning. These traps can be avoided by listening.
In listening, we have an opportunity to reshape and reimagine the professional environments and standards that frame how we do the work. Listening requires of each of us a renewed commitment to embrace what is uncomfortable and to sit and rest with truth that may not be our own. There is a reason why fundraising requires the honed skill of listening. Sitting with and understanding the truth of someone else is a gift of its own. The art of listening is also good business for fundraisers, healthy organizations and philanthropists alike. In recognizing that listening is indeed Holy, the benefits provide for an authentic love of humankind that sustains each of us in unprecedented times.
Aimée A. Laramore is the owner/lead consultant of ALlyd Solutions, Inc. With 25 years of experience in organizational capacity building and development, she currently serves as the Philanthropic Strategist for the PhD Program in African-American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at Christian Theological Seminary. She enjoys serving as an Adjunct Assistant Teaching Professor at the University of Notre Dame where she teaches Board Relations and Management. A friend of Lake Institute, she served as Associate Director under founding director, William G. Enright, PhD. She is passionate about her work at the intersection of faith, giving and culture; which can be found throughout the country in religious institutions, nonprofit organizations, foundations and intermediaries across the country.
Gifts that Trouble the Water
by Rev. Monique Crain Spells, Assistant Dean of Admissions of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and President of Black Disciples Clergywomen
Aimée and Monique, both graduates of Purdue University, have worked together for several years. They self-identify as idea entrepreneurs, sister friends, collaborators and accountability partners for innovation in ministry and philanthropy.
There are a number of donor archetypes and a few gift categories we experience as familiar. Gratitude accompanies most all contributions, yet it is fair to say we take stock in gifts that affirm our established values. If we are honest, we prefer contributions that align with our strategic plans. While there is nothing wrong with preference, sacred wisdom calls us to examine how our personal preferences can limit imaginative diversification in our institutional portfolios. It only takes one Saturday binge watching the Food Network in November to determine how much more splendid one’s traditional holiday meal could become. With dynamic new ingredients or unconventional pairing of spices, the network reveals more memorable dining experiences and perhaps even elevated staple dishes because the menu has been diversified.
In the midst of a justice movement, pandemic, and Black woman’s Vice Presidential candidacy, I am reminded of the famed spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Long before formerly published in 1901, this encoded spiritual was used by Harriet Tubman and others to signal an unsuspecting pathway to freedom—new life. To avoid capture, the enslaved were guided through song to come off the land trail and enter the water where hounds could not trace their steps. The song says, “Wade in the Water, wade in the water children. Wade in the Water. God’s gonna trouble the water.” God is the host of freedom and freedom’s way. As in the lyrical coding, creativity staves off the premature end to good that could and should be. The brave sojourners of the Underground Railroad took the watered route knowing its discomfort was unquestionably worth reclaiming their liberty.
Consider the many “othered” constituents with the means and mind of generosity to give, but their hearts have never been engaged. Their cultural context is not movingly affirmed or discernible in any of their affiliate institutions’ established values or strategic plans. While they don’t dispute there is good happening in those spaces, greater good has been arrested by preference, comfort, and privilege.
During a season of sustained grief over racial injustice, I checked my account balances one Sunday and decided to give to three organizations verifiably working to heal the wounds in my heart. It was essential to honor the pain and resilience of Black people with gifts that help trouble the water. Those organizations did not know me personally, but their priorities attended to my plight. What would it look like to invite gifts with heart-led designations? What innovative development and programmatic synergy can be born of gifts purposed with the late Congressman John Lewis’ “good trouble”?
Ministry has taught me that every plan or campaign ought to leave formal room for holy disruption that troubles our preferences, but ignites unexpected good. Better yet, ask the engaged minoritized friend what are the community wellsprings of their heart, and listen. Attune your ears to contextual understanding and opportunities for alignment. Too often we repeatedly share what we need to someone whose needs remain a mystery to us. Lasting relationships function in mutuality.
This is a pivotal time in national and religious history. Our ways of being are grossly altered and our vocational approaches will continue to change. The water has already been troubled for us. Faith awaits a willing, rarely favored imagination.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
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