Whisper it quietly but I was a fundraiser once. Wait. Who am I kidding? You can take fundraising out of the job title but you can’t take fundraising out of the person!
I loved my career as a fundraiser. It was a fantastic training ground to learn how to build teams, persuade a range of people to support your cause and help unlock people’s passion and energy. Those lessons have been really helpful as I’ve stepped into my first role as Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation.
But there is something else that I didn’t immediately recognise was a legacy of my fundraising days. Really good fundraising teams are often those that exhibit the hallmarks of what I now see as mentally healthy teams. Looking back, I can see that I both was a part of and observed other teams that had figured a way to deliver great results without experiencing burn out.
Fundraising teams are often those who focus on how to support and energise each other because we know that fundraising involves being frequently knocked back. Bullying is to mental health what the mosquito is to malaria and so supportive teams are critical. I remember being in a team which held support triads every week to talk through what worked and what didn’t, and to plan for the next week’s work. It was a form of peer support that was simple but hugely effective in protecting our mental health.
Fundraising teams know that they have to be both creative and innovative, and the smart ones make space to enable that to happen because otherwise approaches can quickly become tired. That also means that fundraising teams know how to have fun – implicitly understanding that creativity and playfulness are intimately linked and if you choke off one, you’ll choke off both. It wasn’t a coincidence that it was in my fundraising days, I found myself being drenched in water fully clothed as part of the ice-bucket challenge or having my legs agonisingly waxed to promote some fundraising event.
Finally, fundraising teams are story tellers. All good stories have at their heart our shared humanity. You can’t get to shared humanity without opening up to being vulnerable or understanding the vulnerability of others. I will never forget the honour of sitting down and hearing stories of people in places like Sierra Leone or Myanmar who had been through more than I could ever imagine, and yet I had the responsibility of relaying their stories to those who could help.
We now know that all these ingredients that I saw in fundraising teams are vital for any team to perform at its best. The work of researchers like Brene Browne and Amy Edmondson have shown how authenticity and having the safety to be who you really are aren’t soft optional extras for the “touchy feely types”. The future of leadership, despite some notable current examples, rests with those who are prepared to lead in a mentally healthy way. That means a radically different approach to leadership that has often been role modelled. The strong man, alpha male approach has been tested and the results, I’m afraid to say, are not good. Rather, great leadership of the future will be recognised in the ability of a leader at any level to hold and create meaning, to manage one’s own and other’s anxiety, to serve so that others can do great work, and in committing to the on-going work of building self-awareness so you can glimpse at the impact you have on others.
Whisper it quietly but I think fundraisers could be at the forefront of leading the sector in creating mentally healthy organisations. If we did that, it would be our single greatest contribution to the causes we serve.
Mark Rowland is the CEO of the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) which focuses on prevention in mental health and owns the workplace community interest company, Mental Health at Work.