How to Snatch Success from the Jaws of Failure

I’m no stranger to disappointment, either in my personal or professional life. Most recently, the much anticipated baseball postseason ended prematurely for my Philadelphia Phillies. I was saddened. Judging from the faces of the players, the postseason elimination was even more painful for them.

Phillies Win 2008 World Series Trophy

The Phillies failure to go to the World Series got me thinking of my own failures and the challenges we all face in the development profession or even serving as a volunteer for a nonprofit organization. Two of the greatest challenges that we all face are dealing effectively with failure and rejection.

Interestingly, these are the same challenges faced by sales professionals. So, what can a salesman teach a fundraiser about failure and rejection? If that salesman is the legendary Tom Hopkins, the answer is plenty.

Hopkins made his first million dollars in sales by the age of 27. He accomplished this by making the subject of selling his hobby and by studying every aspect of the sale in incredible detail. Today, he is known internationally as a master sales trainer and the author of several bestselling books on the art of sales. You can learn more about him by visiting his website:

Hopkins teaches five important axioms for dealing with failure:

1) “I never see failure as failure, but only as a learning experience.”

You can look upon failure or rejection and simply choose to wallow in your defeat by feeling sorry for yourself. Or, you can learn from the experience. While you will never be a winner every time, you can improve your performance by learning from your experience and understanding what works and what does not.

Regarding his struggle to invent a long-lasting light bulb, Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He eventually invented the light bulb that changed the world.

2) “I never see failure as failure, but only as the feedback I need to change course in my direction.”

Failure or rejection can only slow us down if we allow them to. Instead, if we view failure or rejection as feedback, we can pivot off of it to our next action step which just might lead to a positive response from that prospect or another.

For example, I once observed a fundraiser ask a prospect for a significant donation. The prospect lived in one of the wealthiest communities in America. The prospect responded, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you out right now. Cash is tight. You see, my wife is having the gardener completely re-landscape the backyard.” The fundraiser’s heart could have sunk. He could have ended the conversation cordially and moved on. Instead, the fundraiser considered what the prospect said as useful information rather than as a rejection. Specifically, the fundraiser heard “I can’t help you right now” and that the family has a gardener. So, the fundraiser asked, “If things are tight right now, would you be able to make a gift of that size next month?” The donor cheerfully replied, “If you can wait until next month, that would be great. We’ll be done with the landscaping by then so I’ll have the cash. Are you sure that’s not a problem for you?” The fundraiser closed the gift.

3) “I never see failure as failure, but only as an opportunity to improve my sense of humor.”

When faced with challenges, my mother was fond of saying, “If I didn’t laugh, I would cry.” In 1883, the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.” Here’s what Dwight D. Eisenhower had to say about humor: “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”

The point is that we often tend to take ourselves a bit too seriously. While we engage in serious work, we need to develop the ability to laugh at ourselves and the situations we sometimes find ourselves in. It sure beats the alternative.

4) “I never see failure as failure, but only as an opportunity to practice my techniques and perfect my performance.”

Every time we’re in front of a prospect, every time we draft a direct mail appeal, every time we write a grant proposal, every time we do our day-to-day work is an opportunity to practice, to hone our skills. So, even if a given effort ends in failure, it was not a complete failure because we at least had the chance to practice.

When I started out marketing my services way back in the long, long ago, I went to the Midwest to practice meeting with development officers. I knew that if I messed up, prospects in my home market would never find out. It was a good idea, too. I was terrible. No, make that TERRIBLE. Fortunately, I learned quickly from my mistakes and came back to the East Coast ready to develop local relationships that got my direct mail/telephone fundraising firm off the ground.

5) “I never see failure as failure, but only as the game I must play to win!”

Just like the folks who sell lottery tickets say, “You can’t win unless you play.” And, playing the game means you’ll sometimes lose. Just ask the Phillies. But, unless you play the game, you’ll never be able to secure important donations for your organization or land valuable clients for your firm. Fundraising is a process. Every “no” simply brings you that much closer to a “yes.”

Hopkins sums up his approach to a healthy sales attitude with what he calls “The Champion Creed”:

I am not judged by the number of times I fail, but by the number of times I succeed. And the number of times I succeed is in direct proportion to the number of times I can fail and keep trying.”

Development and sales are certainly not identical professions. But, they do have a great deal in common. And, we can certainly learn from each other.

I hope you’ll be a true champion for your organization. And, though you may disagree with this sentiment, I hope the Phillies will be a champion for Philadelphia next season.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

15 Responses to “How to Snatch Success from the Jaws of Failure”

  1. All I have to say, Michael, is, very very timely and well-said.

  2. I had a “salesman” on my blogTalkradio philanthropy show this week to discuss this perspective. You definitely have helped us widen our view of fundraising and relationship-building, Michael. Thank you!

    • Laura, thank you for sharing your thoughts and for understanding the common ground we share with sales professionals. There’s definitely a big difference between the stereotypical used-car salesman and a sales professional just like there’s a world of difference between a begger and a development professional. Sales professionals and fundraising professionals can definitely learn from one another.

  3. Thanks Michael. This was a very motivating post!

  4. Love the Tom Hopkins quotes. Good stuff. And, being a Philadelphian, I’m also bummed about the Phillies losing!

    • Steve, thank you for your kind comment. October certainly isn’t as much fun as we had expected it would be.

      I want to take this opportunity to let readers know that you’ve been kind enough to provide a guest blog-post for next week. It’s about telephone fundraising. Folks will value the information and enjoy your humorous writing style. Thanks!

  5. Michael, thanks for sharing these great insights. We can learn a lesson from every encounter. The only real failure is not trying or giving up.

  6. Spot on with content, timing and crossover of the fundraising and sales functions. I recently interviewed with a sales consulting firm, who were concerned that my 15+ years of fundraising experience wasn’t enough sales experience. I told them fundraising is sales – it’s just harder! And we learn better than anyone how to hear “not now” instead of “no.”

    • PJ, thank you for your insight. You’re right. Fundraising is sales, but only harder. In sales, you are giving someone a product or service in exchange for their money. In fundraising, you do not give much of anything to the person giving you money. Instead, we promise to provide a good or service to someone else! In fundraising, we sell ideas! That’s always a much harder sell, as you’ve observed. Best wishes.


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