President's Perspective Blog

Leadership in Trying Times: Flipping Pessimistic Thinking

Leadership and Teams: Boards and Volunteers
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Fundraisers are leaders, simply by nature of the jobs they have and the connections they have with people both internal and external to their organizations. As leaders, people come to you with their problems and challenges—whether it’s staff and colleagues, donors and volunteers, or even your CEO or board member.

You are faced with a barrage of issues every day, and it can be tough to remain optimistic and energized, and even tougher to keep others inspired and focused on their jobs when one problem after another pops up—think whack-a-mole.  Throw in issues like economic uncertainty and physical and mental wellness, and it’s easy to see why some feel overwhelmed in their jobs occasionally.

At the same time, one of the biggest strengths that fundraisers possess is the exact thing that can help in these situations—the very basis of fundraising: communications. Because the secret is, we may not have the immediate solution to problems (or even later on), but how we respond to people and communicate with them when they have problems is most important. If we can flip their thinking about how they approach problems, then we’ve probably won the battle already, no matter the answer to the particular challenge.

What’s worked for me over my leadership tenure—and especially through the pandemic—is to think of problems and challenges as opportunities for leadership, growth, change and optimism.  Here are three ways I think of problems and challenges in this manner:

  1. Every problem is an opportunity to review what you’re doing and change things for the better. Solving a problem, by its very nature, means that the situation is going to get better in the long run. So, approach it that way. What’s going to improve by addressing this problem? How are we going to serve people better? How are my staff and I going to improve by addressing this issue? Even a small problem can present opportunities and make us all rethink about how we do things and why we do them.
  2. Every challenge is a chance to reveal who you truly are as a leader and demonstrate your principles and values. Are you taking care of staff? Are you sticking to your principles and values? Are you working with donors and members to ensure they’re being taken care of? Are you focusing on your bottom line, which is critical, but also doing so with empathy and understanding? Are you addressing problems in the workforce from an equitable and inclusive viewpoint? How you address a problem will say a lot about you, and people will see that in their interactions with you.
  3. Every problem is an opportunity to do away with negative thinking and pessimism and keep people energized and engaged about the work they’re doing. Sometimes it doesn’t take much for a couple of small problems to snowball into bigger ones. Even if problems don’t become bigger, staff and others might perceive them as very significant if they aren’t addressed quickly. Use every problem or challenge to thank people for their work, no matter how big or small the issue, but of course, do so genuinely and sincerely. Look for why the challenges might have come up, especially if they relate to staff relationships and the workplace, as they might point to larger or systemic problems. Talk about the impact of their work and how much fixing this problem or challenge affects the impact they make every day.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that EVERY problem or challenge needs to lead to a long review of operations, or that you need to inspire staff about every issue they talk with you about. But I like to think of the three factors above as part of a leadership mindset. When we start to look at problems this way, we open up so many more ideas and innovations, and we remain intentional and pro-active with our work. That’s incredibly important, especially in this day and age, to keep people connected to our organization and positive and optimistic about the work they do on our behalf.

How about you? How are you looking at problems and challenges? Send me your ideas either to or on Twitter at @AFPMike Geiger. And of course, you can learn about all about leadership ideas at AFP LEAD this fall, Oct. 20 – 22, in Houston. Register today.

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Mike Geiger, MBA, CPA

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