Sentimentality is not the same as connection
And how it could be limiting your connection to donors.
Every once in a while I get invited to a party thrown by dudes I haven’t seen in a long time. And the party plan is always the same: Meet at a bar, get really drunk, ignore our wives and children, stay out until 2am, wake up hungover, then try valiantly to piece together the late hours of the night. That happened recently when I was invited to a huge party at a hotel, thrown by a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while.
Getting lost in the sentimental is extremely seductive. There’s enormous comfort in reliving a time when we had far less responsibility. And look, I’m not saying these parties can’t be a ton of fun in the moment. But in my experience, the connections generated by these gatherings are almost entirely superficial. There’s no space or time to talk about what’s really going on in people’s lives. Nobody talks about the challenges of parenting, shares tips on staying happily married, or managing personal finances in a world that compels consumption, or caring for infirm relatives, or coping after the loss of a parent, or complicated issues of personal health and wellness.
Can you imagine those conversations at a party like the one I described above? Hell no.
And you can also bet that nobody will talk about a vision for the future, or ideas on how to improve the world, or how to define success, or dreams for our kids, or a coherent vision for reversing the effects of anthropomorphic climate change. These topics are ignored in favor of maintaining the figurative (and in this case, literal) buzz of sentimentality.
In Buddhist psychology, there's a name for this phenomenon. It’s called the near enemy, an emotion that’s mistaken for a positive virtue. In this case, being sentimental about relationships from the past offers fleeting enjoyment, but without the opportunity for authentic connection the feeling fades and you’re left with, well, nothing.
In my 22 years of fundraising, I’ve sometimes found it tempting to lean on the sentimental. Heck, colleges and universities organize Reunions around this very mindset and hope that every five years our alumni reflect on their schooling and open their wallets with appreciation.
But if I had one word of advice for today’s fundraiser, it would be to stop talking so much about the past and focus your conversation on the vision for your organization. Talk about how philanthropy at all levels will allow you to make some defined impact on the world. This will help you reach a level of authentic connection that will undoubtedly inspire more generosity than the hogwash that passes for sentimental.
p.s. In the end, I decided not to go to the big party. Peg and I went to dinner at a friend’s house instead.