Marcus Buckingham: Nonprofit Fundraisers, Focus on Your Strengths

“Excellence is a habit for life.”

So says Marcus Buckingham, prominent author, business thought leader, and distinguished speaker of the AFP International Conference 2013.

For nonprofits pursuing excellence in everything they do, Buckingham is an important voice to tune into. And at AFP 2013, he’s preaching the gospel of strengths-based leadership.

1. Always Focus on Strengths First

As individuals, we’re quickest to notice the things that bring us discomfort.

On a basic level, this is a helpful thing–if you’ve got a thorn in your heel, you’re going to want to pull that sucker out as soon as possible. But in more abstract, work-related settings, our fixation on weaknesses is a real hang-up.

“Where is your best ROI?” Marcus Buckingham asked 5,000 fundraisers in San Diego, “Is it in your strengths or your weaknesses?”

This simple question gets to the heart of why nonprofit fundraisers­ need to focus on their strengths if they want to unlock their maximum fundraising potential. You can spend all the time in the world correcting your weaknesses­, but you’ll just end up average.

Average fundraisers make average changes in the world. Exceptional fundraisers (who work on their strengths) make the world a better place to live.

2. Why We Get Hung Up on Our Weaknesses

“Why are we so fixated on our flaws?”

Buckingham’s answer comes down to one thing: fear.

The fear and discomfort of feeling weak makes us focus on and try to fix our weaknesses instead of enhancing our strengths.

Buckingham suggests an analogy to child-rearing. We hate to see our children’s weakness, especially compared to their peers, so we try to encourage them to fix those weaknesses. Unfortunately, spending hours improving a child’s water coloring skills is time that might be better spent helping your child become the math wizard she already has a head start at becoming one day.

The same goes for you, as a nonprofit fundraiser.

Everyone has areas of opportunity where they can grow–and those lie in areas where you are already strong. So get stronger.

3. The Real Definition of Strength and Weakness

When we think of our weaknesses, we think of the stuff we’re terrible at. I’m not a mathematician, and I never will be. Nor would you admire me on the basketball court.

But the real definition of a weakness is this: An activity that weakens you even if you’re good at it.

When you’re engaged with your strengths, you’ll know it. You’ll be more effective, instinctively look forward to a task, be inquisitive and acquire a feeling of deep fulfillment.

If you’re really great at something because you’ve practiced it or been forced into that role–but you don’t feel the fulfillment and satisfaction described above–that thing you’re good at is a weakness! Even if you’re technically skilled at it!

The biggest lesson for fundraisers: Embrace your own fundraising style, then focus on making that natural strength even stronger.

Buckingham makes a point of saying that what’s elegant and natural for one person is forced and fake for another. Don’t make yourself adapt a fundraising paradigm that doesn’t jive with your natural strengths.

Finally, encourage others in your organization to embrace their natural strengths. These strengths will be different than your own–and that’s great! Don’t force others to adapt your gifts. They have their own.

In Buckingham’s own words:

“There’s no perfect profile. There are just practices that fit your profile.”

So go. Learn your strengths. Use them to fundraise better.

“Excellence is a habit for life”–a habit of embracing your strengths.

  • “Embrace your own fundraising style, then focus on making that natural strength even stronger.” This is SUCH good advice – in all walks of life not just fundraising! Getting so much from all the posts and tweets from AFP 2013 – a great resource.