Do You Have an Attitude Problem?

Has anyone ever accused you of having an attitude problem?

I hope so.

If you don’t have an attitude problem, I encourage you to develop one. For your sake. For the sake of your organization. For the sake of the nonprofit sector. You can even make it your 2014 New Year Resolution.

I’m not suggesting you cultivate a bad attitude. Instead, I’m encouraging you to shake up the status quo regardless of what others might think. I want you to challenge conventional wisdom in an intelligent way.

Remember, if some of our ancestors had not had an attitude problem, we’d still be living in caves.

Let me share two stories that will illustrate what I mean.

I quite fondly remember the very first time someone told me I had an attitude problem. It was Mrs. Imperiali, my first-grade teacher. Mrs. Imperiali, her real name, asked the class, “What’s the Eager Studentsmartest animal in the world?” I immediately raised my hand. When Mrs. Imperiali called on me, I confidently answered, “Dolphins.”

My response puzzled my teacher. She asked, “Why dolphins?” I told her, “Because they don’t kill each other for no reason.”

Mrs. Imperiali snapped, “Mister, you have an attitude problem!”

I need to point out here that, when I was in the first grade, it was during the height of the Vietnam War. I guess Mrs. Imperiali didn’t appreciate what she believed was the anti-war sentiment of my response. However, since I believed in my answer, I did not take my teacher’s criticism as a negative. As a result, I’ve worn the attitude-problem label with pride, not shame, my entire life.

In case you’re wondering, the answer Mrs. Imperiali was going for was “humans.” As it turned out, she had designed her lesson plan to demonstrate that humans are part of the animal kingdom. Oh well.

A couple decades later, I met Carol Buchanan Daws at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Like me, Carol had an attitude problem.

As the Assistant to the Museum Director, Carol was responsible for the back-office processing of museum memberships. Despite being the oldest natural science research institution and museum in the Western Hemisphere, the Academy only had a token membership program and no Director of Membership.

Carol saw an opportunity to grow the membership program. She repeatedly told her boss about the potential of the membership program. Unfortunately, the Museum Director was content with the status quo. So, Carol did the only natural thing she could do: She kept nudging him about it.

Finally, when the Museum Director was sufficiently annoyed or, perhaps, convinced, he appointed Carol Director of Membership.

In short time, under her innovative leadership, the Academy’s membership base grew dramatically. Eventually, the number of Academy members surpassed that of the Franklin Institute, the much larger, better attended, and more funded science museum across the street!

If Carol had been content with the status quo, if she had not been a persistent advocate for a more robust membership program, if she had not been willing to test new techniques and new markets, the Academy never would have built one of the most successful museum membership programs in the nation.

Having a healthy attitude problem can be good for your career and for your organization. Just keep these six pointers in mind:

1. Remember, there is a difference between having a bad attitude versus an attitude problem. As I use the terms here, the former is disruptively counter-productive while the latter is constructive, creative, innovative, and problem solving.

2. When you develop a healthy attitude problem, you may find yourself without much support, at least initially. So, you’ll need to have confidence, patience, persistence, and inner strength.

3. Do not keep doing what you’re doing just because that’s the way it’s always been done. Conversely, do not buck the status quo simply for the sake of change. Make sure you have a good reason for challenging the status quo, and make sure your alternative ideas have been well thought out.

4. Testing is essential. Having an attitude problem is not a license to act haphazardly. If you’re challenging the way things are done, you need to be methodical and careful. At the Academy, Carol tested using telemarketing to promote membership renewal and acquisition. She hired my firm and, together, we helped the Academy become the first museum anywhere to use and benefit from professional telemarketing. But, Carol and I carefully tested the medium before the Academy fully embraced the use of the telephone.

5. Recognize that leadership is not just about a job title. Leaders can be found anywhere on the organizational ladder. If you have a good idea, don’t let your job title stop you from advocating for it. And, if you’re lucky enough to have someone on your staff with an attitude problem and a radical idea, learn to channel and manage that energy.

6. Know your limitations. The reality is that no matter how much we might want to push the boulder up the hill, we simply may lack the strength to do it. So, know when to enlist the support of others. If you can’t do it by yourself and you can’t recruit allies, know when to stop pushing. Just keep in mind that healthy, reality-based persistence is fine.

Since records have been kept, philanthropy in the US has remained at approximately two percent of Gross Domestic Product. Despite the massive increase in the number of nonprofit organizations, despite the exponential growth in the number of fundraising professionals. despite the professionalization of fundraising through association and university educational programs, philanthropy remains  stuck at two percent of GDP.

As fundraising professionals, we have been getting more effective at fighting for a bigger slice of the pie. However, we have not been the least bit effective at growing the philanthropic pie any faster than the growth of GDP.

If we’re going to ever grow the philanthropic pie, we’re going to need a lot of people with an attitude problem. We don’t need tweaks to the way we engage in the business of fundraising. We need bold, fresh ideas. We need people willing to lead the tribe out of the cave.

If you don’t already have one, will you develop an attitude problem in 2014? As I learned in the first grade, it can be a little scary, a lot of fun, and ultimately very rewarding.

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

9 Responses to “Do You Have an Attitude Problem?”

  1. You know that I agree with you, Michael!

  2. Michael, great beginning of the year blog! I, too, have an attitude that can border on being too pushy, but has also given me the opportunity to be creative. As always, thanks for sharing.

    • Lyn, thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m not quite sure what “too” pushy is. Whenever I hear “too pushy,” I tend to think it says more about the entrenched thinking than the change agent.

      In any case, your comment reminded me of something I should have mentioned in my post. There are differences in how change agents are perceived depending on whether the change agent is a man or woman. A man who advocates bold change will likely be perceived as being an innovative thinker and terrific leader. By contrast, a woman in the same position risks being viewed as difficult, bossy, or worse. It’s not fair. It’s actually stupid. But, gender differences exist, and we need to be aware of it so we can work accordingly. In other words, when women push, they need to be particularly careful about how they communicate. He Said, She Said: Exploring the Different Ways Men and Women Communicate by Deborah Tannen looks at this issue and is a terrific resource.

  3. Michael,

    It appears that we have something in common again: The attitude that the status quo is in need of a tune up. As you know from reading my posts, I try to shake up the way people think, too. Some have been kind enough to call me “thought leader, visionary, and guru” while others have referred to me as “a heretic.” I take each label as a badge of honor. To make changes in the way people think and do things, it does take persistence. Sometimes, I wonder if the persistence will pay off, but I will keep trying until it does.

    • Richard, thank you for commenting and for being someone else with an attitude problem. Your mention of “labels” reminds me of an AFP Conference I attended. One of the labels they had available for folks to attach to their name badge stated, “Troublemaker.” Being one myself, I had to point out to AFP that if one truly is a “Troublemaker,” one won’t need a badge label to demonstrate it; people will simply know. 🙂

  4. Thanks again for a great post! I agree that we need to be more effective in fundraising … so, many nonprofits have claimed to “innovate” by using social media, emails, etc. … but I think a lot of times it’s just the same old “bake sale” approach transferred to the Internet, which doesn’t really generate a lot of new revenue or program effectiveness. I am looking to build meaningful partnerships and give donors new access – not just keeping hem outside the box of my organization. It’s led me to propose new processes that I think are measured and mild, but my colleagues deem borderline-radical. Your post has encouraged me to “keep the faith”!

    • Laura, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Many organizations are on a continuous quest for the latest-greatest idea for raising more money. However, the best course of action for many is to simply master the fundamentals. Once the basics are mastered, the organization can expend time, energy, and resources (human and financial) on testing innovative ideas. Unfortunately, as you’ve discovered, what passes for innovation at some organizations really is not innovation. Often times, what passes for innovation is simply using a new medium to do the same, tired things. True innovation usually requires a bit more creativity and effort. It requires solid metrics.

      I applaud your efforts to creatively engage donors. The practice of development is fundamentally about building relationships. I’m glad to hear that my post has encouraged you to “keep the faith.” I wish you the best.


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