How do you keep fundraising - without losing your soul?
I’ve been here at the Opportunity Collaboration in Ixtapa, Mexico. For Western social entrepreneurs engaged in community based anti-poverty efforts, it was arguably the place to be. The concentration of quality small to mid-size nonprofits, thought leaders, and funders committed to this approach was quite remarkable.
I’m back now, replete with new relationships and interesting thoughts. I also brought back, if not Montezuma’s Revenge, then at least his deeply rooted bitterness.
I’m also absolutely exhausted. I’m feeling not just the kind of physical tiredness from international travel and being away from home, but a certain spiritual tiredness. The roots of this kind of exhaustion can be summed up in a statement I made to some folks sitting next to me as we were about to start lunch:
“I’m just so tired of trying to make myself seem interesting.”
I think everyone felt the same way. It’s the reality at these kinds of conferences – especially this one – that everyone is pitching their mission. The fact that the conference also had funders present made that dynamic even more palpable.
It is very rare for a social entrepreneur to succeed without being good at pitching. I met one guy at the conference who seemed to have done so. But he was a McArthur “genius award” fellow, and thus was the exception that proved the rule.
For the rest of us mortals, you have to be always ready to tell your story, and to do so seeming like you’re doing it with the same energy you did when you first began your venture. Try recounting the first time you had this heartbreaking exposure to abject poverty in Latin America or met an AIDS victim in Africa – and now do it at least six times a day, ready to do it again the moment someone next to you at lunch says, “So, what do you do?”
For some of us at least, this kind of repetition can bring about a certain numbness, a hardening to what once was a very precious and sensitive wellspring of motivation. It feels to me like taking my six year old’s hand made birthday card that she crafted just for me... and then xeroxing several thousand copies and mass mailing it out to complete strangers.
So what is a social entrepreneur to do? You can’t stop pitching. And the more successful you get, the more you will have to do it – only now people that you’ll have to work even harder to “make yourself seem interesting.” This usually means injecting in words like “scale” and “economic sustainability” anywhere you can in the narrative.
One night after dinner, I spotted this man with a one year old son sitting by themselves at a table. He had come along so his wife could fully participate in the conference. Given that this conference was such target rich environment for networking (and the nonprofit leaders all had spent several thousand precious dollars to be there), I hadn’t seen anyone approach them all week.
It turns out that he was a geophysicist who on the side made musical lutes. For those who didn’t know this – and that includes me – lutes had once been a popular instrument in the medieval ages but had almost gone extinct in the modern age. That is, until a small group of craftsmen rediscovered the art.
He was fascinating. It turns out that the art of lute making is one of the most non-scaleable, economically unsustainable enterprises imaginable. It takes an incredible amount of attentiveness and a delicate approach. Even the best lutemaker can only turn out a few each year. And they do so because they produce a sensuous, rich sound that is utterly unique for a listener.
So how does a social entrepreneur keep on pitching over and over without losing her soul?
I don’t know exactly.
But I think it may have something to do with lutes.