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Lessons on Fundraising from To Kill a Mockingbird

old jg Old, Philanthropy 3 Comments

My boots on stage at the Wyly - To Kill a MockingbirdFor her birthday, I took my wife to a stellar production of To Kill a Mockingbird by the Dallas Theater Center at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater in Downtown DallasAT&T Performing Arts Center. The stage design was an elegantly contrived combination of simplicity and intimacy that drew you right into the story — particularly because we were fortunate enough to have front row seats.

(those are my boots in the photo to the right)

Although I enjoyed the film version with Gregory Peck, I admit that I was greatly impressed by this performance’s adaptation from “page to stage” of the book that has meant so very much to me over the years.

(NOTE: My wife and I named our second child after Harper Lee)

The direction was superb and the acting was exquisite — particularly the children, whom I heard during the intermission had to learn an entirely different script within weeks of the final production. I also was very impressed by actor Jeremy Webb‘s delivery as Atticus Finch; I had a high bar for what I expected during the court scenes, and he delivered a strong performance (combined with some very good humor during the interactions with Scout / Jem that I think was unfortunately muted in Gregory Peck’s otherwise superb performance).

All in all, it was an exceptional evening that left my spirit soaring — though, I confess, it is hard to emerge from such a performance with anything less than a feeling that you have totally squandered your own potential to fight injustice. Kudos to Wendy Dann for directing an inspired production of this uniquely American play; may it light fires in the hearts of its viewers to dedicate more of their time, money and energy to this fight!

Of course, this being a blog related to nonprofit management and fundraising, I feel morally obligated to connect this to the topics for which you subscribe. So, without further adieu, let me offer the following:

  • Keep your integrity. One item that this performance highlighted exceptionally well was the dedication of Atticus Finch to living a life that was consistent both “out in the world” and at home with his children. I have found more than one example in my career (in the past week, in fact!) of organizations that play different cards for different donors; this is particularly true when answering the question, “Are you a faith-based organization?” For some organizations, the answer depends on who is asking — a government official, a foundation director, a major donor whose faith is a key reason why they donate. This will only come back to haunt you in the end; be authentic, be transparent and do not be afraid to walk away from something that is not a fit with who you are.
  • Be courageous. It would have been easier, and more lucrative, for Atticus to go along with the sentiments of the racist town than to be courageous and stand up for Tom Robertson. Similarly, it is often easier for nonprofits — particularly those that serve the “poor” — to pander to the whims and false beliefs of their major donors (few of whom genuinely understand the lives or problems of the people served by the organization). Do not be afraid to be courageous and to confront your board, your volunteers and your donors when they are in the wrong. Standing up for your mission and your clients is more important — and, I believe, more financially sustainable — than being a yes-man for donors whose giving is more an expression of their own feeling of superiority than a genuine concern for the less fortunate. NOTE: If you doubt me, check out the growth of CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries) over the years; no one has been more courageous in the fight against poverty than their CEO Larry James and VP of Public Policy Rev. Gerald Britt, yet their budget has tripled in the past 5-7 years.
  • Don’t overlook your non-financial supporters. One of the biggest problems that I see among nonprofiteers is a dismissal of the value of their clients’ own contributions to their missions. In the book, the film and the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, the dedication of the negro community is highlighted as one of the pillars underneath Atticus — indeed, it becomes clear that his strength is drawn far more from their collective will to support him than from anything else. Chills ran down my arm during tonight’s performance when Reverend Sykes commanded everyone to stand to honor Atticus after the verdict was rendered and they had lost the fight. Atticus remained strong because he knew they were behind him; so, too, should nonprofit managers and social entrepreneurs gain their own strength from the people whom they serve … and, ideally, whom they serve BESIDE, and not above.
  • Be humble. One of my favorite moments in the play is when Scout and Jem learn that their father is the town’s best marksman. My wife (an attorney) and I both chuckled when Scout complained that her father’s occupation as a lawyer was less impressive than being the town’s trash collector; this revelation that their father had something **actually cool** about himself that he had hidden from them made it all the more impressive to them. As nonprofiteers, we are frequently lauded by our friends in the private sector for the work that we do; while it is wonderful to have a rewarding career that offers you work in which you can take deep personal pride, do not think for one moment that your mission is more about you than your clients. More about this in my blog about The Hobbit as Nonprofit Manager.
We are in this fight together, my friends. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and let’s dedicate ourselves with renewed strength to the week ahead.

Comments 3

  1. Karen Ramey-Torres

    Thank you for these inspiring thoughts. We love our clients and feel honored when they refer their friends to our services. That is the highest compliment about the value and relevancy of our services.

    1. Post

      Indeed! If only more nonprofiteers realized that “empowerment” does not come from hand-outs or being consigned to the life of “recipient,” but from being lifted to a place of equality and dignity. Our jobs are much more about doing that kind of internal work within a person’s heart than about addressing their needs on the surface of their lives.

      Thank you for your thoughts; please keep posting!

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