Maximizing the distance between all and nothing

In a recent post here at Generous Matters, I confessed my frustration with either/or thinking by nonprofit boards, CEOs, and development staff. You know, the willingness of some leaders to settle for walking or chewing gum, sans consideration that the two might be done simultaneously.

As the saying goes, confession is good for the soul, so I’m back for a second go-around. This time my complaint is with the all or nothing attitude. Overachievers, in particular, fall hard for this kissing cousin of either/or thinking. These folks are expert at calculating risk before striking out in a new direction. Unless there’s a 99.99 percent chance that all is possible, they want nothing to do with the plan.

Which is unfortunate, because there’s  much to gain from maximizing the immense middle ground between all or nothing. “Something” can be a pretty good prize. String together enough something’s, and you’re talking real progress.


I think, for example, of the chief development officer at a theological school for which I conducted a campaign feasibility study a few years back.

The hoped for goal was $10 million, with a big chunk allocated for scholarship endowment. The case for support was compelling and the individuals with whom I spoke were enthusiastic in their comments about the school. Scholarship aid, in particular, was a clear “hot button” fundraising issue with the school’s donors, making it, in the words of an interviewee, “an easy sell.”

Unfortunately, likely “buyers” weren’t able to put their money (or enough of it) where their mouths were. Even before adding up the numbers, I could see that launching a campaign wasn’t in the school’s best interest.

When my report arrived on her desk, the disappointed chief development officer faced a crossroad. She could have said, “Well, that’s that,” filed away the campaign plan, and doubled down on the annual fund.

However, determined woman that she is, she wasn’t ready to give up on scholarship endowment. She wisely looked for means other than a campaign to raise the needed dollars, and then got busy with the work.

Progress toward the goal is slower, for sure. But she’s doing it — one gift, one annuity, one anticipated bequest at a time. She may not achieve the hoped for all during her tenure, but her results are a lot better than nothing.


In talking with the development officer recently, I was impressed not just at the good results she’s achieve by maximizing the middle ground, but also at how her faith has grown by doing so. The slower, individualized approach gives her time to build deep relationships. To be truly present to donors. To be awestruck by God’s works in people’s hearts. To savor each gift as it comes.

Now I know it’s also possible to grow in faith via a campaign effort, but there’s a lot more clutter along the way.  Keeping pace with a relentless campaign schedule can sap spiritual reserves and cut into devotional time. Relationships are monetized in the quest for the BIG one. Donor hearts often take a back seat to campaign priorities. And if the final tally comes up short (as is the norm for campaigns), it feels as though everyone failed — staff, donors, and even God.

All of which makes my friend’s fall-back plan sound pretty good. In the middle ground between all or nothing, she has found God’s enough. That is maximizing. That is real progress.


  1. Thanks Rebecca. I get a lot from your posts, and much of what you write transcends fundraising. Today’s principle helps to describe my approach to pastoral ministry as well – no big growth campaign or “quick fix” strategy, just slow and steady growth, build deep relationships, try to savor each small victory, trust God in the midst of the journey. A Eugene Peterson book title says it well – “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”

    • Along with you, Greg, I resonate with the phrase “a long obedience in the same direction.” That’s how I’ve tried to live my life and establish priorities, although I’m not completely successful a lot of the time. Thank goodness this isn’t an all or nothing thing — we keep trying.

      Thank you for letting me know that Generous Matters is helpful to you. You’ve made my day.

      Blessings in your ministry.

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