A question that I hope was a mental exercise was posed recently on an online forum:
Should staff and board be limited to 10-year terms?
The question received a variety of responses – all of which, to me, highlighted an unfortunate divide. Younger people felt they had the fresh thinking that otherwise hidebound organizations need. Older people saw even the premise as ageist.
And I’ll out myself here: I’m in the latter camp.
The need for innovation
On the question itself, I agree the premise is faulty. “Fresh thinking” and “experience” are not opposites. People of any age can innovate. (Recent New York Times article: To be a genius, think like a 94-year-old.) And people with little experience can cling to rigid rules like a life-raft.
Innovation is increasingly important in our sector. And yes, the organizations that succeed will be those that value experimentation and learning. (It’s not much of an experiment unless it’s designed to teach. It’s just making a mess.)
But innovation isn’t the province of only those new to the field or new to an organization. Yes, you may bring some great ideas you picked up elsewhere. In fact, you should. But if the atmosphere is one in which creative thinking and well-planned risk-taking is honored, innovation will bloom.
Experience should teach us what works. And that’s not static. What works today may no longer be what works next month. It’s not so much a blank slate that teaches us (except accidentally) what’s effective – it’s the dogged hard work of learning.
And we should all be learners. Every day. All the time.
If I had to isolate just two characteristics I’d look for in a staffer they would be integrity and curiosity.
The honesty to admit failure and carry on. And the curiosity to keep trying.
Here’s what I think needs to be in place for a culture that values innovation.
Change starts at the top
If the organization’s leadership doesn’t include innovation and learning among its values, it’s hard for any staff person to pick up that slack.
Imagine your organization has a CEO who is more comfortable with the way things are than the way things could be. If he or she clings to routine, how will your proposal to revamp the organization’s communications messaging be met? Possibly, as a threat to all the CEO holds dear.
Unfortunately, the “it’s always worked this way” approach doesn’t really work forever. Grow or die…
Failure – as long as well-planned, is accepted – even expected
In an atmosphere where trying something new is only acceptable if it works, very few people will try. Or continue to try.
If you want new ideas, you have to leave room to experiment – and that means failure is as good as success. That is, as long as failure means learning. And one step further, as long as the learning is shared. Then everyone wins.
The value of experience
While I believe innovation and experience are not in conflict, there are advantages to experience.
The most important in our sector – and especially in fundraising – is that relationships take time to fully develop.
We know that development directors aren’t sticking around these days. (For many reasons.) But what happens to their relationships when they leave?
Development directors are not interchangeable as far as donors are concerned. And while there may be people with whom donors immediately click – that’s rare. Most of us take some time to feel really comfortable with someone. And when we’re considering handing that person our money, it helps to feel comfortable.
In fact, a revolving staff door can really hurt an organization. It fosters discomfort. And sometimes distrust. Why are the people I was getting to know leaving? Why does it keep happening? Donors aren’t stupid. If your staff isn’t happy, maybe that reads as a warning. If staff aren’t valued, are donors?
I know I was most effective when I’d been at an organization for years. The relationships I developed were real – and to my joy, some lasted beyond the job. I wasn’t handed trust with my job title – I earned it with time and good work.
Experienced people know their board members’ kids’ names. They remember that ten years ago, the person you’re thinking about cultivating had a huge blow-up with the organization and walked away. And they can tell you that the great new idea you had was already tried – and what happened.
The value of fresh eyes
New people can bring their own value, though. If learning is important, watching new people learn can benefit everyone. And if a young staffer brings tremendous enthusiasm, it can be contagious.
There’s also something I’ve seen clients value: fresh eyes. Sometimes, it’s hard to see everything from up close. Everyone gets in their lanes and carries on. But someone not yet familiar with those habits can bring new perspectives that – if treated as valuable – can energize everyone.
There’s plenty of room for everyone in our organizations. The real measure shouldn’t be experience versus new ideas. We need people who bring their best – people who are committed to the cause and the sector, people who truly want to help. We need people who are curious and eager to try something new – because they know how important success is.
We need the best people. And those who bring out the best in other people. Whether they’re 20 or 60. Whether they’ve been at the organization 10 months or 10 years.