Is your Nonprofit Fragile?

  So in 2011 I wrote about a book called The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb. good book. He now considers it an appendix to this 2012 book, called Antifragile.

Who is Nassim Taleb?

He’s someone who has spent his life in pursuit of knowledge, specifically about randomness. He spent 20 years working as a financial trader and he is now a professor of risk engineering at NYU’s Polytechnic institute.

What’s the deal? Why should you care what some professor of risk engineering says?

Well, because our nonprofits are pretty darn fragile.

What does fragile mean in this context?

It means that when there are a series of unexpected events, the nonprofit gets weaker.

So, if your nonprofit is getting most of its money through one income stream, such as a government contract or a grant, or maybe just through one year end appeal letter, then it is fragile in terms of fundraising.

If your nonprofit is depending on one person to fundraise, or even one person to organize all of the fundraising, and that person gets sick, dies, or leaves, then your nonprofit is fragile.

Whereas antifragile means that you get stronger in relationship to surprises or shocks or unexpected events.  As Taleb says on the book cover, antifragile means things that gain from disorder. These people or nonprofits celebrate failure.

You may remember that I work to celebrate failure here, and that other good nonprofits do this too.

Taleb writes, “My characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched by a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on. These types often consider themselves “victims” of some larger plot, a bad boss, or bad weather.”

Taleb believes that we should celebrate failed entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in general.

He writes, “I would like to establish a national entrepreneur day, with the following message: “Most of you will fail, disrespected, impoverished, but we are grateful for the risks you are taking and the sacrifices you are making for the sake of the economic growth of the planet and pulling others out of poverty. You are the source of our antifragility. Our nation thanks you.”

How can your nonprofit get less fragile?

1. Assign everyone the task of fundraising, and not just fundraising the same old ways, but new ways of fundraising-trying new things.

2. Talk about mistakes at every staff meeting. Have a competition to see who can say how many mistakes they made that month, and whoever makes the most mistakes gets a prize.

3. Make sure each of your board members, before they become full fledged board members, has to sit on the development committee and get trained in various ways to fundraise. This way, for the rest of their term on the board, they will know what to do when you ask them to fundraise, and you can build your fundraising army.

4. When you make a mistake with your event, annual report, appeals, or other fundraising tasks, have a debrief with your boss and the team, and go over what you learned from that.

5. Take a look at all of your nonprofit income streams. Where could you grow?

What’s another way to think about antifragility?

Do you ever feel like you have never worked harder than in a one person fundraising shop?

In a study of 2,000 different nonprofit professionals over the course of 30 years, Penelope Burk asked who had the highest job satisfaction, and it was those overworked underpaid people in one person fundraising shops.

What the heck?

So maybe you’ve heard of post-traumatic stress syndrome. But have you ever heard of post-traumatic growth?

It’s the concept that people harmed by past events surpass themselves.

Taleb writes,

“How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean, serious, but not terminal trouble. I hold-it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction, that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity.

Naturally there are classical thoughts on the subject, with a Latin saying that sophistication is born out of hunger (artificia docuit fames). The idea pervades classical literature: in Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up genius (ingenium mala saepe movent).

The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates!”

You can be antifragile! Yes, you are growing through pressure!

You are capable of raising more, doing more, than you ever thought possible before you started fundraising. Isn’t it incredible, that after you fundraise, so many more things seem possible? You’ve gone through that baptism of fire! You’ve come out the other side!

So, your nonprofit fundraising job, that you think is actively trying to kill you- what about this idea?

“Those from whom we have benefitted most aren’t those who have tried to help us (say with “advice”) but rather those who have actively tried-but eventually failed-to harm us.” Wow. This is some zen stuff. I highly suggest that you read Antifragile and get ideas for your nonprofit.

If you want 65 more fundraising career resources, just go here.

If you want 99 more nonprofit leadership resources, click on over here.

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