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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 smartest 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?