In my excited attempts to bring community-centric fundraising to life, I made many mistakes. Some were more uncomfortable than others, but all of my failures presented worthy lessons for my next opportunities.
On the first episode of Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, Brené Brown shares her concept of “Effing First Times”or “FFTs” as she calls them. FFTs are a recognition of the difficulty at being new, let alone good, at just about anything.
“When we have no relevant experiences or expertise, the vulnerability, uncertainty and fear of these firsts can be overwhelming,” she said. “Yet, showing up and pushing ourselves past the awkward learner stage is how we get braver.”
I long for 2018-me to have had access to this framing. I had just begun (intentionally) integrating justice, equity, and belonging into my development practice. As the founder of a boutique consultancy, I committed myself to the trials of novelty, knowing that more than once, I would — inevitably — fall on my face. But, I hoped (maybe knew?) the reward would outweigh the risk. I was open to experiencing and learning from failure.
When I reflect on those earlier days, I can’t help but think of FFTs — and even what those FFTs actually felt like: “FFFs” — Fucking First Failures.
I had spent the previous decade in nonprofit fundraising. The concepts of community-centric fundraising were the breath of fresh air I didn’t know I desperately needed.
At the same time, in 2018, I did not know how to do it. In my excited attempts to bring community-centric fundraising to life, I made many mistakes. Some were more uncomfortable than others, but all of my failures presented worthy lessons for my next opportunities. So here I am, sharing my FFFs with you in the spirit of radical honesty and vulnerability (while desperately hoping you won’t judge me too harshly).
FFF #1: Change is hard
I learned that if you change — or break — the rules without bringing all the players along, you might forfeit the game.
Whether agreed to or not, there are rules of engagement in the nonprofit sector. As with all rules governing systems, sectors, and institutions, these rules of engagement are a collection of ways we agree to behave in relationships with each other, with power, and with money.
In the philanthropy and nonprofit space, these rules reinforce a practice that is driven by harm reduction, scarcity-mindset, resource-hoarding, competition, and silos.
When I embraced the principles of community-centric fundraising, I broke the nonprofit rules of engagement, both on my own and on behalf of my clients. This should absolutely be celebrated.
But, where I failed was diving straight into implementation without first strategizing which specific rules to break, what fall-outs to anticipate (and thus create mitigation strategies), and how to communicate to colleagues that doing this was ultimately in the best interests of the larger community.
I learned that if you change — or break — the rules without bringing all the players along, you might forfeit the game. Community-Centric Fundraising is meant to be a movement, not just a process or a practice. To build a successful movement, all must be welcome at the table — wherever they are in their understanding of equity and justice. We must call in those resistant to change and sit in our own discomfort as we patiently ready the soil for transformation.
FFF #2: History, that thing that repeats itself
The past matters. To understand why we (you, your institution, our partners, the system) are where we are, we have to understand where we’ve been.
In 2018, I didn’t know what I didn’t know — and now I know I should have done more research on how money moves in my community and how local policy decisions reinforce inequitable systems. I should have reviewed 990s for local foundations, asked for casual meetings and conversations with fund administrators and corporate giving leaders to understand how decisions are made, and spent the time asking questions to seek understanding of how things came to be as they are.
In laying this ground work and spending time on research, we can take note of the patterns of power, policy, and influence. This can feel contrary to what has been taught about resource development, but I encourage you to lean into the discomfort.
FFF #3: Ditch the hustle culture
And just as I had broken rules, I began to implement new ones. I set realistic goals with time and encouraged my clients to do so as well.
We have trained our donors to expect certain types of behavior, communication, and outcomes from us. As I began my community-centric fundraising journey, I desperately wanted to ingrain these principles across my fundraising efforts, and this aspiration led to action with little communication.
To bring donors and funders along in our community-centric fundraising movement, we must adopt a mindset where we are allowed to be human and whole and we all have a chance to grow and learn. Testing community-centric fundraising activities and asking donors and funders for feedback felt so much better than trying something new and hoping for the best.
And just as I had broken rules, I began to implement new ones. I set realistic goals with time and encouraged my clients to do so as well. With donors and institutional funders, I was candid about what wasn’t working or where their goals were misaligned with grantee needs. I worked to be transparent with funders about what costs really looked like and encouraged my nonprofit clients to stop reinforcing and requesting funding for programs that were not working.
It was terrifying.
And it worked.
FFF #4: Perfectionism and all its friends
Fundraising lends itself to high-achieving, numbers-driven people. We set goals, and we work until we reach them — ideally on time. After discovering community-centric fundraising, I approached transitioning my work to a new model in the same way. I saw a new path forward and believed I was solely responsible for bringing it about in my region in a rapid timeframe. I worked endless hours, I took on every client remotely interested in my work (because who else could possibly do it?), and I struggled to move the needle.
What I have learned is that the act of moving forward in a movement is the target we should all be striving for. Compromise doesn’t always feel great, but meeting funders, nonprofits, and communities where they are often means we must do it anyway. Additionally, I have discovered that the burden is not mine to bear alone. There are many ways to participate in the movement, and it was my job to cast a wide net inviting other fundraising professionals and consultants, nonprofits (clients and non clients), and funders into the movement to play the role that best suited them.
Examples of what this might look like are sharing opportunities to engage in the work with your community, renegotiating grants with gatekeepers when the grants don’t benefit the organizations or those they serve, taking cues from stakeholders and community members, and being very clear and transparent in communications with funders, program participants, and community members. We must all engage in a culture of lifelong learning and commit to continuing our path forward as opposed to trying to get it “perfect.”
In “Rising Strong,” Brene Brown expands on how she views “failure.” She encourages us to “rumble with failure” and tells us that doing so would be to choose courage over comfort, accountability over blame, and to embed key learnings from failures into our lives. As I consider my own FFFs, I know that I have rumbled with a beast, I’ve come out on the other side, and I’m ready to go back at it again and again, because our work — and the Community-Centric Fundraising movement — is too big for us to sit this one out.
I’m not sharing my experiences as a cautionary tale — rather, it is my hope you take my failures and boldly forge ahead to fail all on your own …
AND THEN learn from your failures and level up to your next exciting success.
Rachel D’Souza-Siebert (she/her) is the Founder+Principal of Gladiator Consulting in St. Louis, Missouri. Through Gladiator, Rachel has combined her knowledge of organizational culture and fund development with her deep personal commitment to centering community, seeking justice and creating belonging for those who have been disenfranchised or targeted by institutions, systems, and policy.
Born to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from India, Rachel has always been passionate about bridging differences and celebrating what’s possible when we collaborate from a mindset of abundance, learning, and risk-taking. Rachel loves cooking, snuggling her kids, and Instagram.