Rounding Out the Year

I found this year’s ADRP International Conference in Memphis to be an enjoyable and informative experience. It’s always inspiring to see five hundred or so of my peeps gathered in one place to talk about the important things that we do, and over mounds of pulled pork, no less. New speakers, new topics, new methods of delivery, and efforts to gather information about the next critical subjects and approaches to our work marked for me a maturation of the association, probably reflective of the emerging needs, if not demands, of the members. 

Angie Joen’s keynote address was of particular interest to me. Not only do I admire her for broadcasting photos of herself and her family, but I agree with her that it’s time for us to think about how we each seek to rise to our highest level of competence, personally and together, as a practice discipline. With humor and gentleness, and not a little self-mockery, she provided us with a serious review of the ways we can find mentors and what to watch for as we traverse the often dark forest of professional development. I’m sure that there will be a run on the books she referenced. Watch out, Amazon.com!

I’d like to add a title to her must-read list: The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, published in English in 1981. I read this book a short thirty-five years ago, and I periodically crack it out again to be reminded of how I am the mistress of my own fate, for good or ill. When I follow the track of my several confrontations with and usual setbacks at the hands of Queen Bees or when I puzzle through why I have sometimes waited for the tiara to descend onto my head, I come face to face with my own tendency to repeat compulsively self-defeating behavior.

How does this play out in our work in stewardship and donor relations? For purposes of this discussion, let’s just clip off the word child and rewrite the title of this book as The Drama of the Gifted Donor Relations Practitioner. What makes us gifted? Tenacity, creativity, energy, and a dozen more words that parse those three into nuances of stick-to-itiveness, maybe even bullheadedness; inventiveness and resourcefulness, but sometimes literal-mindedness; and dynamism and perhaps passion.

If we are imbued with so much positivity and creativity, with the occasional dash of neurosis, why then do we don the cement shoes by seeking after best practices? Talk about compulsive repetition! A colleague of mine refers to them as common practices, which highlights the fact that most of what we cling to and promulgate has gotten its prominence without demonstration of effectiveness. The lure of the listserv has encouraged us to look outside for what might be the best thing to do. Why do we reduce our initiative to being copycats?

But then, do we know what we are seeking? Increased philanthropy from our donors? Efficiency in operation? Sustainable, repeatable activities? Where do best practices lead us? I’m coming up dry on the reasons why some things are best, and not just better, or even only good practices. What I believe is that if we want to lead we must break the molds; we must ask why something we do is the best thing to do. We must get beyond our willingness to credit the accumulations of actions as certification and get to proof of effectiveness.

If we want to be leaders, we must return to our inner gifted child and ask the question “why?” for everything that we do.

Julia Emlen
Principal, Julia S. Emlen Associates

If you have any thoughts on the questions posed by the author and wish to follow-up directly with her, please send an email to [email protected].


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