The Power of Unfinished Business
And how it can lead to successful fundraising.
Like that final missing piece, unfinished business can elicit powerful emotions.
I recently reconnected with my high school alma mater, Oxford Hills High School, or MSAD #17 here in Maine. The “OH” combines eleven small towns into a single rural melting-pot school district. But I’m not from there. I didn’t grow up there. And even though I only spent 6 years living in the ‘Hills, I tell people that’s where I’m from. And I can’t imagine saying that I’m from anywhere else.
You see, my family moved into the OH when I was 12 and entering the 7th grade, coincidentally the same year that the district funnels six local elementary schools into the single, comprehensive Junior High. This meant that, quite accidentally, I was a new kid just like everybody else. Sure, there were elementary school cliques. The Guy E. Rowe School kids knew each other. So did the Oxford kids, the kids from Harrison Elementary and so on.
But once you hit Junior High, everybody was a new kid.
For decades I’ve reflected on my parent’s decision to move our family from Oklahoma City to rural Maine. Because now that I have teenagers of my own, I cannot imagine doing what they did. And nowhere in today’s modern parenting manuals does it say, “upon turning 12, immediately relocate your pre-teen children to a new school district, preferably one in a predominantly rural state”. Not exactly a textbook parenting decision. And because the outsized influence of the Middle School years is well documented, this could have gone very, very, very badly.
But it didn’t. They were some of the best years of my life.
And because of that, not a day goes by without reflecting on what the Oxford Hills community meant to me personally, as well as how I could ever possibly repay the kindness and support shown to a kid coming in from Oklahoma over 35 years ago. I daydream about winning the lottery and giving it all to organizations in the OH, renaming the athletic fields after my friends and coaches, and endowing scholarship funds for every single OH graduate who wants to go to college. This feeling, this profound existential indebtedness is something that I’ve started calling “unfinished business”.
But when you start looking around, your “unfinished business” is everywhere. It’s that book you started to write but never finished. It’s the phone message you listened to but didn’t return the call. It’s that class you dropped, the trip you canceled, the friend you ghosted, the town you left, the team you quit, or a nonfinancial debt you never fully and completely repaid. It’s that nagging feeling that somewhere something is left incomplete without your intervention, involvement, or action.
As a 25-year professional fundraiser, identifying prospective donors who are navigating this unfinished business is the line between fundraising and professional artistry. Sure these donors can sometimes be identified through formal surveying, feasibility studies, or special events, but often unfinished business conversations take place while walking with, thinking with, and truly engaging with our closest friends and potential benefactors. These are conversations that go beyond case statements, campaigns, and KPI-driven modern advancement practice.
But what’s most remarkable - at least to me - about unfinished business, is that it’s rarely grounded in a person’s need for accomplishment or recognition (though that is sometimes the case). More often, it’s something deeper and more profound. It’s almost like love - hard to explain, easier to feel.
So the next time you meet with a prospective donor - when the time is right - ask about their own unfinished business. It might sound strange but stick with it. Because understanding this deeply rooted condition is - in my experience anyway - essential to encouraging transformative acts of philanthropy.
So what’s your Unfinished Business?