The One Delusion that Keeps you Stuck

Now I am home on the east coast for winter break.


It was HARD to take a break!

As my friend Ben says, when you’re an entrepreneur, you grind and grind and grind and grind!

And you’ve gotta keep grinding! And it’s true.


He’s one of the hardest workers I know. I’m so grateful we can talk entrepreneurship together.

It’s similar for fundraising. It’s never really done.

If you’re feeling like the year has seemed like work, work and more hard work, you are not alone. I am right there with you.

Here’s a picture that personified grinding to me. It’s an art piece by Michael Ferris Jr. It’s a picture of a man enlarged by 1/4th all in wood, inlaid, with pigmented wood glue holding him all together.

A metaphor, if you wish-for our nonprofit lives.

We may feel like if we just had better systems, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard, maybe we could apply best practices all the time, and just DO IT ALL.

But the fact is, we can’t.

There is no system in the world that can make our work get done as if we were four people-development associate, development director, events coordinator, grants manager, and more.

Even Kim Klein, when she was briefly a development director for a nonprofit, found it nigh impossible to keep up on all of the best practices that she not only knew, but taught. There was just too much to do.

Maybe you’re cobbling your fundraising together out of wood glue and scraps.

I’ve been reading a book lately called Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, by Neil Postman. There’s a chapter called Fanaticism. He calls people who seek systems fantatics. Since I love systems, this was weird to read. But stay with me.


He writes, “Systemaphilia arises from the assumption that human beings are sufficiently clever, knowledgeable, and multi-perspectived to design complete and just about perfect systems of human activity.

People who suffer from this systemaphilia include Buckminster Fuller, Karl Marx, John Dewey, Rousseau, and Joseph Stalin. What these very different men had in common was a belief in the feasibility of total change.

Having noticed that the purposes and structures of various human situations were faulty, indecent or even depraved, they imagined systems which would in every respect be more desirable than those that existed. Systemaphiles are sometimes greatly praised for their efforts, and we express our admiration for them by calling them visionaries.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that what they propose never works. At least, not in the way they have predicted.

Propheteering is a very dangerous enterprise and has rarely been responsible for the unqualified improvement of life. In fact, where human incompetence, injustice and misery have actually been reduced, the improvement has usually been the result of ad hoc, piecemeal, sometimes even accidental approaches rather than of some well-coordinated comprehensive plan.

Why is this?

We make mistakes by the carload and not because of bad intentions. We make them because we do not know enough or cannot see in more than one direction at a time. We cannot even remember our past clearly, let alone predict our future.


And yet, systemaphiles do not usually take into account the virtual certainty of error in human calculations. They unfold their plans as if error were only an occasional defect in the edifice of human history, whereas Error is the name of the building itself.

Second, if, indeed, humanity is making any “progress” at all, then it has come, and always comes, at great expense. Progress is a Faustian bargain, and not always a good one.

When you read your next proposal to improve something about our fundraising systems or programs or school systems, what you won’t see are prophecies about what will go wrong, what mistakes will be made, or what negative consequences will arise from it.

These considerations are absent because systemaphiles create plans based on oversimplified assumptions and one dimensional metaphors.

In an effort to reduce a situation to a set of clear principles, systemaphiles have to ignore all paradoxes, contradictions, and competing principles. They have to overlook the possibilities of error, and to pretend that nothing of value can be lost.

As Lewis Mumford points out, “Life cannot be reduced to a system; the best wisdom, when so reduced to a single set of insistent notes, becomes a cacophony, indeed, the more stubbornly one adheres to a system, the more violence one does to life.” Pg 109-112, Crazy talk, Stupid Talk.”

Based on this, every system you introduce is going to have some drawbacks, and some bargains you have to make that you probably won’t like. Or that people around you won’t like.

To make your fundraising office more efficient, to make your job less like three people’s jobs, you might have to alienate some board members who don’t want you to have a database.

Or bring in a bunch of volunteers that your boss doesn’t want you to take time coordinating.

Or make some board members get sick of you haranguing them to fundraise. You might get fired.

Standing up for yourself and your boundaries at work also might get you fired.

There’s always a drawback to any plan.

I’ve been working so hard this year, and I know you have too. But every time we plan, it doesn’t work out in some way. No matter what you do, there’s no kind of plan that is without failures.

So right now I encourage you to not beat yourself up for anything you could have done better this year.

It’s important to take a break, to take a breath, to take stock, to regroup. I just wanted you to know that I’m taking my own medicine. I’m doing this, and I hope you can too.

The perfect plan isn’t going to solve your problems or my problems.

The perfect system isn’t going to solve our problems.

But understanding that what works is a lot more chaotic and haphazard than we imagined-that is powerful.

I hope this gives you permission to just randomly try new things this year.  You never know what will work until you try!

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