Raising the Work at AFP Congress 2019

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From November 25th to the 27th the CanadaHelps team, along with hundreds of fundraisers from across Canada, made the annual pilgrimage to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for AFP Congress, Canada’s largest fundraising conference.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Raise the Work”.  Success in the fundraising profession (and most professions) is often measured by immediate financial results – focusing on the urgency of raising money to the detriment of our growth and elevation.  By “raising the work” rather than only just funds, we are choosing to invest in ourselves to bring new ways of thinking, skills, and disciplines into our lives and into our work.  The theme itself deserves praise and some reflection.

This is a theme that really resonates with me on many levels.  Firstly, in the obsession in the charitable sector over “admin ratios” and “overhead”, often as the key indicator of the efficiency of a charity’s work. This is an unhealthy paradigm that leaves us overworked, underpaid, and ultimately unable to effectively carry out our mission.  We need to invest in ourselves to increase our ability to serve.  Overhead spending only makes up 9% of overall expenses in the charitable sector.  In the for-profit sector, general and administrative expense can make up to 50% of net sales depending on many factors (such as maturity, model, etc.) – it is understood that investing in capacity generates results.  This is something we need to continue to talk about so our funders and donors can understand that the ROI on an investment in an organization itself can oftentimes be greater than an investment in any single program.

This theme also resonates with me on an individual level.  Sometimes, work and life can seem so overwhelming.  It seems like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.  Every decision is anxiety-inducing.  You can’t turn your brain off at night going over everything that happened during the day and everything that you still need to do tomorrow.  How can you excel when you are in this state?  How can you be your best self and produce your best work?  When the focus is only on the immediate short-term financial (or otherwise) results, it makes it very difficult for us to “Raise our Work”.  This requires a different view.  It requires us to zoom out past the quarter to the year.  From the year, to the 3-year plan.  From the 3-year plan to the next 10 years of the organization.  From the next 10 years of the organization, to the scale of the problems we are trying to solve.  How about scaling back to the view of the length of each of our lives?  We can go further all the way back to 4.5 billion years ago to the birth of our planet.  The significance of that email that has been stressing you looks a little bit different from each of those views, does it not?  Yes, we have the urgency of immediate funding challenges, but we also need to address these challenges from the right viewpoint to build sustainable organizations where people can thrive such that they can solve the problems we are all trying to solve.

Congress was an inspiring and rejuvenating gathering that was centered around this concept and here are a few things that stood out to me:

  • What an amazing group of people. We had one new member of the CanadaHelps team attending a charitable sector conference for the first time and the energy and kindness of the people took his breath away.  As I spoke with Exhibitors with businesses that spanned across sectors, they shared how they loved working with the people in the charitable sector more than any other.  I am still a baby in the Congress game (four years in!), but it still fills me with such a deep sense of gratitude every time I attend.  This is such an amazing, collaborative, intelligent, and helpful community.  I cannot wait to see what we can accomplish as we continue to focus on “Raising the Work”.
  • We are not afraid to have the difficult, but important conversations. Our leader and CEO at CanadaHelps, Marina Glogovac, recommended the team here read an important book released this year called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas.  She actually went even further and bought us a copy (thanks, Marina!)  In her words, this book “asks fundamental questions about economic systems and the elite who are philanthropic but in ways that ultimately serve only to protect and further their interests”.  Giridharadas shows this in how discourse around issues is shaped so as to never fundamentally alter the systems that are creating inequality and inequity, only to create “solutions” in the same systems and at the same level where the problems were created.  At this level, all issues can be solved by more entrepreneurship.  There needn’t be any losers, and dissent towards this viewpoint is considered in bad taste.

Well, I can tell you that the AFP Congress community is definitely different.  This is a courageous community willing to challenge systems and even their own power.  This was evident to me through multiple sessions and conversations had throughout the conference, and I particularly enjoyed the discussion between Maeve Strathy, Mide Akerewusi, Kishshana Palmer, and Caroline Riseboro, facilitated by Stephen George.  Next year, Congress is taking it a step further.  Let’s keep being courageous, let’s keep challenging, and let’s keep seeking the truth. Canada and the world needs our leadership!

  • And the skills! At CanadaHelps, I see it over and over again.  As a social technology organization, we often hire from the for-profit sector.  We have amazing people come to our organization wanting to find work with more meaning.  Without fail, every such employee is blown away by the sophistication and the pace of our work.  In joining a charity, they expected a slower pace and a lower level of sophistication.  Nope!

For those of you who don’t share in these experiences I wanted to share that you all are so skilled and work at a very high level of sophistication.  Own that!  You are experts!  AFP Congress exemplified this in sessions with literally hundreds of different metrics, and segments, and personas, for all of the different aspects of donor stewardship and fundraising across all of the different channels.  Very impressive!  But also perhaps a little overwhelming for a small shop just getting started in the fundraising game.  This has me thinking of the possibility of a CanadaHelps conference for small to medium shops.  Hmmm… Stay tuned!

I would love to hear your thoughts on the conference and the idea of “Raising the Work”.  Comment below!

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