In Dialogue: Melting Walls

In Dialogue: Melting Walls

A conversation with Team Generosity founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.


Karl:  Can you talk a little bit about the difference between being a philanthropist and being a fundraiser?  How have the two of you found common ground and learned to work so closely together?

Jeff:  You can start by thinking of me and Jennifer as two circles.  As we got to know one another, we discovered shared interests and areas in which we could support and help each other.  It was as if the two circles were beginning to overlap.  And eventually, as we shared more and more, not just professionally but in human terms, it was as if the wall between the two circles gradually disappeared.

For me, this is a metaphor for how partnerships are created and grow deeper.  Some people get to partnership more quickly than others.  I think Jennifer and I got there pretty quickly.  The next challenge is how to get multiple circles—not just two—to start intersecting with each other and allowing the walls between them to vanish as well.

Understanding the partnership between Jennifer and me starts with understanding what kind of a philanthropist I am.  Remember that I started as an investor.  Our private equity group was always looking for great entrepreneurs to partner with in developing business ideas.  We asked questions like, Who’s offering a good opportunity to invest our money, our energy, and our time?  Where can we add the most value?  What business on the horizon is most unique?

I brought that same attitude into the nonprofit world.  I asked the same kinds of questions: Where can we make the biggest difference?  What’s the best use of our limited resources?  Who has an idea that no one else has come up with?  And it was a natural extension to ask, Who is the best person to work with to maximize these opportunities?  That led naturally to my partnership with Jennifer, which has turned into a long-lasting and multi-faceted connection.

Jennifer:  Our partnership is an interesting story.  But it’s a little misleading to talk about it as a partnership between a philanthropist and a fundraiser.  Those labels don’t get at the heart of what makes us tick, and using them is a way of falling into the trap of putting money at the center of the relationship.

Remember, money’s just an enabler.  It enables us to get our work done, to live, to make change happen in the world.  The real question is, What lens are you looking at it through?  If you’re looking at it through a lens of collaboration, then the awkwardness and the barriers created by labels that define our relationships in terms of money mostly melt away.

So I somewhat disagree with Jeff’s circle metaphor.  I don’t feel as if I’m confined by the role of fundraiser, and I don’t believe Jeff and I ever inhabited two separate worlds divided by invisible walls.  And I think this should be true for other people who want to create similar kinds of partnerships.  Roles like fundraiser and philanthropist should be just entry points to a relationship, which means they should be very short-lived.  They should never be allowed to become a barrier between human beings.

Jeff:  Of course, not everyone is prepared to operate that way.  In a lot of relationships, there are still two separate circles searching for connection.  I have a lot of fundraisers come to visit me and in most cases the wall between us is definitely there.

Jennifer is different from most fundraisers.  The people she calls on actually want to talk with her a second and third time!  Once they understand how she connects people with one another, they actually start to come to her, saying things like “I need a resource—I need a person—I need funding—I need some fresh ideas—I need help pulling people together in a group—Can you help me?”

Jennifer:  And that’s the exact same reason people come to you!

Jeff:  That’s true.  And that’s how we’ve been able to combine forces and work as partners, even though our circumstances are different—I have some money and Jennifer has only a small amount of money . . .

Jennifer:  No money—make that no money!  (She laughs.)

Karl:  This is interesting.  I just read a very good book about fundraising where the central theme is, “Learn to look at things from the perspective of the philanthropist.”  It’s a reasonable suggestion—but you’re saying something different: that the goal should be to break out of any particular perspective and just connect with people around a shared passion.

Jeff:  It’s not about roles or hierarchy or even money, per se.  It’s about cooking stone soup.  Everybody is welcome to the dinner party, and everybody throws whatever they got into the pot.

Jennifer:  It’s all resources getting mixed up in the stone soup.  So one provides an onion, another a carrot, somebody else a potato.  The soup needs it all.

This is why fundraising is not about selling.  To me, selling is about convincing somebody of something.  But fundraising is so much more about lighting that spark.  Think about the deep relationships you have, or about the last really meaningful conversation you had.  Nobody was trying to sell anybody on something.  Instead, ideas and experiences and feelings were flying back and forth, and all of a sudden, you started reaching fresh conclusions, thinking more deeply, and connecting dots in an amazing way, because that’s what a good relationship leads you to do.  That’s what real fundraising should feel like.

This reminds of a question I was asked in class the other day: What kind of research do you do before a first meeting with a prospective partner?  Do you gather research about them on the Internet?  And my truthful answer is No.  The reality is that I don’t Google people until after I meet with them.

Karl:  So if I was going to start a job as a fundraiser tomorrow, would you recommend that I not Google people as well?

Jennifer:  Not necessarily.  It’s probably just my own style thing.  I usually don’t even think about it until afterwards.

Jeff:  I do Google people.  But I think your approach is about more than style, Jennifer.  It’s about keeping the beginner’s mind.  You use the relationship to introduce you. I actually think over-research is a problem.  I’ve seen people come in to a first meeting and you can practically hear the wheels turning: “Hmm . . . They gave me these six facts about Jeff . . .  Here are the three things he’s interested in. . . . Here’s the amount of money he should be able to give. . . . How can I make sure the conversation turns in exactly the right direction–?” The problem is that they’ve walk in with a whole load of specific expectations and a complete game plan for how they’re going to manage it all, and it just ruins the relationship.

Jennifer:  I agree.

Karl:  It sounds as though it can kill spontaneity.

Jeff:  It prevents you from going to beginner’s mind.  You don’t go to the beginning of the relationship and start with, “Who are you?”  That’s where every real relationship has to start, and where it has to return over and over again . . .