Do you have a personal compass that nudges you when it’s time to think about you? Does it ask
you to think about “Where am I now? How does it fit into my desired career trajectory and life
goals? Am I doing something that maximizes my skillset in an environment that helps me
Most people address these questions in a cursory manner, if at all. “It’s not something I’m
thrilled about, but the money is good.” I like what I do, but I don’t like the people.”
Frequently, people have “fallen” into a career path without assessing how well it fits for them
personally. For some, it proves to be a fortuitous pathway and things go well. Others wake up
thirty years later and realize they dislike what they do but by now have such a specialized skillset
they’re at a loss on how to transition. In the fundraising field in particular, it’s a common theme
for professionals: “Well, I started out in (fill in the blank with almost any field!) but then sort of
fell into fundraising.” Of course, there are now degree program specific to fundraising but they
are not prolific and didn’t even exist when most of those now at a senior level started their
But isn’t that a little sad? Working requires so much of our time and effort. It has the potential to
add a great deal of meaning to our lives when we can use it to serve others or to fully utilize our
talents. Because of the high investment and the high potential, seeking outside professional
navigation can help you answer those all-important questions.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NORTH AND SOUTH
Yet, why seek an outside perspective when we are generally smart human beings, capable of
doing our own research? Because we usually see only a slice of our personality. Of course,
we’re aware of our strengths and weaknesses but just don’t have the needed distance for an
objective perspective. For example, looking at a bicycle from four inches away ensures that you
see the wheel. Someone five feet away will see the whole bicycle. A person twenty feet away
may see the bike, the traffic on the road, and the road conditions.
So, the way we define ourselves tends to be outdated. It’s based on experiences that may no
longer be relevant. Yet, this is the main view we use to define what we do and where we
go—usually for decades! I hear this logical flaw when clients automatically say, “I’m horrible at
_____.” Then, they tell me about an incident that happened 15 years ago. They have since
matured or the situations are different, but their self-assessment does not include those changes.
Another area of deficit is the lack of information and perspective on skillsets. When people are
assessing their skillsets, they tend to focus on a narrow subset of hard skills rather than the
personality factors they bring to the table. The tendency is to say “here is what I have done, so
this is what I am capable of doing” versus asking “who am I and what opportunities might flow
from my strengths?” Delving into the unique traits of your personality, cognitive abilities and
way of seeing the world helps you to not only recognize opportunity, but also maximize the
payoff for your efforts. Having a solid understanding of our strengths and challenges, our likes
and dislikes means being better equipped to focus energy into the areas that will yield the highest
personal and professional satisfaction.
Objective assistance on who we are as people helps provide a bird’s eye perspective on whether
a career path is congruent with our long-term professional and personal goals. It’s easy to miss
this larger perspective because we’re often focused on the current challenges and successes of
the week. This is particularly true for fundraisers—we get so involved in meeting all of our
obligations that the weeks turn into months and then years. Before you know it, your career is
defining you rather than you defining your career.
We spend more time on planning an event than we do thinking about our actions, personalities,
and strengths and how those insights (if we took the time to have them!) might inform our career
path. I like to call “fundraising” the accidental career because so many of us did not really
actively choose this path and very few of us actually map out the path once we’re on it.
Yet, when we’re in a position that is not truly aligned with our values and priorities, it causes
emotional drag. Emotional drag is that nagging sense of not being fully excited about what we
are doing and the questions that occasionally pop into our minds. “Is this all there is? Will my
time payoff? Why do I have a great job and feel so apathetic about it?” People notice a lack of
energy and enthusiasm about their job, even if it is a good one.
ALL SYSTEM GO?
System variables are those components that are bigger than any one person but may have a
profound influence on an individual’s ability to do the work. System variables include those
within an organization (i.e., the culture, the communication flow) and those which affect the
organization (i.e., the healthcare system, rules and regulations).
“Is it me or is it them?” Assessing this answer is crucial in determining career decisions. When a
person is assessing an unhealthy system, it’s necessary to determine the root and the route of
dysfunction. Where does it start and how does it flow? How likely is it to change? Frequently, I
have clients who acknowledge that they are working in a dysfunctional system but behaviorally
are still acting as if working harder or doing their best might make things better. High achieving
clients tend to have the perspective that they SHOULD be able to fix the system. Generally, this
is only true if the person has the authority to change the system.
It is equally necessary to assess systems when things are going well. What is making the system
work? If it all leads back to a single person, and that person moves to a different organization,
will the system still be positive and stable?
Assessing system variables is necessary for the cost-benefit analysis of staying within a career
path or within an organization for “the potential.” The statement I usually hear is “if this facet
changes, things could be great. I don’t want to give up too soon.” This thought process works
only if a system is new or in a current state of change that allows a person to pinpoint specific
variables and timeframes of change. When people are aware of what changes need to occur and
the reasonable amount of time attached, it helps them figure out the likelihood of the potential
coming to fruition. Vague statements such as ‘I’m going to give it a little longer’ or “hopefully,
things will get better” reflects that a person is probably wasting his/her time.
After over twenty years in the development field, I can definitely attest to the fact that any
success achieved has been highest in organizations that encourage success over hierarchy and
function over dysfunction. I’ve learned that you cannot “fix” the system so it’s critical to make
sure you and the system are a match! Sounds easy, right. Wrong! I spent a lot of what I now
believe was unnecessary time figuring out whether or not I could fix the system, or fix myself or
fix somebody else. At one time, my password was “thefixer.” It was a difficult journey and it
wasn’t until the road became impossible that I realized I wasn’t qualified to figure it out—at least
not on my own!
An outside perspective is especially helpful on systems because this professional is removed
from the daily details and better able to see an overall pattern. For example, a person working in
the environment may focus only on the current CEO. The outside professional’s perspective is
more likely to focus on the pattern of CEO’s. Is this one an anomaly or does the board tend to
pull in those who are technically smart but lack emotional intelligence?
The component of the system that affects daily happiness is the interpersonal relationships and
the general social culture. Social contagion is a concept in psychology used to describe how
attitudes and emotions are transferred from one person to another. This is why toxic people, if
left unchecked, can quickly contribute to a toxic culture. A system which allows bacteria to
breed will have difficulties with organizational health despite changes in individual personnel.
High achievers often try to cope by working harder. “I’ll keep my head down and do my job.”
The problem with this approach is that the emotional impact of a negative atmosphere erodes
energy, motivation and confidence, gradually making it more and more difficult for a person to
excel in his/her position.
NAVIGATION FOR HIGH ACHIEVERS
Those in the development field are more often than not high achievers. Just consider the twelve
characteristics Jerold Panas lists as being essential for highly effective fundraisers: impeccable
integrity, good listening skills, ability to motivate, hard worker, concern for others, high
expectations, love for the work, high energy, perseverance, presence, self confidence, common
sense and street smarts. Whew! These characteristics are also really common for high achievers
in just about any field you can name.
So, it’s no surprise that high achievers have a special set of challenges in their career trajectory.
First, they’re often so technically competent that it can be confusing to figure out the most
personally rewarding path. Secondly, they are often less likely to seek out feedback from others
or an outside professional because they feel that they should be able to figure it out themselves.
High achievers tend to have an over-developed sense of responsibility and try hard to avoid
disappointing others. They may stay engaged in projects or career paths to please a mentor or a
colleague. Their sense of responsibility frequently keeps them in a dysfunctional system for too
long. “I will let down a lot of people if I leave.” This thought process can even keep high
achievers in the wrong career due to the sense of moral obligation to those around them. The
tendency to take too much ownership can also keep high achievers from firing unhelpful
subordinates or result in them spending too much time compensating for another’s bad behavior.
The over-developed sense of responsibility also may result in the high achiever being under-
valued. She becomes the “go to” person for crisis and clean-ups without adequate compensation
The theme of waiting too long to act is common with high achievers. Waiting too long to reach
out for help in figuring out the variables driving your life and, ultimately, your personal and
professional happiness is also way too common. One of the most healthy and best things I ever
did for myself was reach out and say, “I’m not sure where I’m going or even if I’m going in the
right direction.” The day I asked these questions was a pivotal point in my life and my career.
Taking the time to question, to assess, to acknowledge and to discover is an activity, and a
characteristic, that should makes it onto a list of the most important things development
professionals do for themselves.