March 3, 2015

How to Harness Passion to Fuel Your Nonprofit

IMG_9647What are the and opportunities of working with passionate people? This article looks at nonprofit work and the pluses and minuses of working with people who care deeply about your mission.

Start With Passion, But Don’t Stop.

“This building is full of people filled with passion,” shared a friend, referring to his co-workers at the headquarters of a mainline denomination.

Nonprofit success draws deeply from the well of human passion. Founders see wrongs to right. People follow those with zeal for something better. Leaders imagine a different world.

Yet, passion, while necessary, is never enough.

Last month, another nonprofit, The Institute for the Ages, shut its doors, leaving a set of disappointed supporters in its wake. Passion fueled the Institute’s growth; lack of income killed it. Other nonprofits experience blow-ups in the boardroom—some arguing about the destination, others about tactics, fueled by engaged passions. Unharnessed passion stirs actions, but like a Fourth of July firecracker, the actions inspired might sparkle brightly before exploding or fizzle into smoke.

Ingenious nonprofits find ways to harness passion as an energy source. Harnessed, passion fuels organizations to jump tall buildings in a single bound, and better yet, it creates mission results that amaze and astound. The formula: your passion + my passion directed to effective actions = mission results for the long haul.

How to Harness Passion

How might you fully collect and harness the energy of this ardor? The following outlines a logical, effective framework:

1. Know Thyself.

What brings goosebumps to your arms? When do you go beyond the call of duty? To work more effectively with enthusiasm, first, create a list of passions that impact you. Ask, why do I care so much that I go beyond what’s necessary? Consider experiences that move you as “passion alerts,” much like traffic alerts. When you’re enthused or infuriated, jot down a few words to capture the essence behind your annoyance, pride, and joy. Write. It will help to recognize the depth and variety of your passions. For example, you arrive at work miffed at a driver who cut you off. You take out your list and write: driving well, handling a lethal instrument with care, and respecting others.

To apply this to your work with nonprofits, focus on the “why” behind your involvement. What story brings tears to your eyes? Or what about the “other” organization—you know, the competitor who “does it wrong”—what key points do they miss?

Recognizing your own zeal helps you to draw upon your feelings as fuel for your most important work. According to the New York Times, Ira Glass’s pledge spots are “funny, while having a dramatic arc.” Glass, the host and producer of This American Life, shares that “he gives them everything he’s got.” You, too, can give your most important work everything you’ve got if you tap your passions.

Furthermore, shared passions represent ideal connection opportunities. Knowing your passions helps you to say, “me too!” when others express their own. Shared enthusiasm creates bridges between souls.

2. Seek Donors Fuel by Passion.

“I love our donors,” said Molly Demeulenaere, acting interim director at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Florida. “Most of them are science geeks—like me.” Seeking donors who share your passion represents a vastly different mindset from “getting money.” Getting money involves taking something into your possession.

No one wants to be taken. Do you?

People want opportunities to act on their commitments. They want to create results. Ingenious nonprofits listen for, learn about, and understand the “why” behind their supporter’s commitment to their organizations, so they can develop invitations to help those individuals tap their energy.

3. Handle with Care.

Without passion, a nonprofit is unlikely to succeed. Without harnessed passion, it runs the risk of blowing up at an inopportune time. Like gas under pressure, the risk of explosion always exists. Like bottled gas, treat passion with care. When you tap it, direct it toward mutual goals. For example, ask for advice and share that you’re also be asking others for suggestions, so the giver understands their advice will be considered but perhaps not used. When you ask people to donate, make it about their goals. You’d be remiss not to offer the opportunity.

Working successfully with passion requires that you recognize and tap its properties. We’re all fervent about many things. For example, my list includes children, fresh food, justice, innovation, clever ideas, wilderness/camp experiences, nonprofit potential, excellence, intellectual growth, being fully alive, and my family—a mixture of common interests and personal eccentricities. You know from your list that everyone experiences multiple passions and that our limited energy and resources allow us to act only on a few. Furthermore, we often experience confusion about which actions, if any, will fix, change, or improve things that matter to us. Ingenious nonprofits help to reduce this confusion.

Yes, people who have passion for your mission are more volatile than those involved because of peer pressure or obligation. That’s the drawback. The benefit? Passion-driven people engage for the long haul and give more.

4. Encourage Action.

Nonprofit development helps people tap into their passions and use their resources to be effective agents of change. Good development, therefore, offers ongoing and varied invitations to act.

Supporters’ responses can reveal to the world and the individual something undeveloped or even undetected. When Sid learned about work going on in his community to help abused children, he wondered why he’d been supporting other causes his whole life that now looked superficial.

Beyond development work exists community-building work. In this work, ingenious nonprofits invite people who share passions to meet and connect both physically and virtually in small groups. Once you know about some of the passions of people who support your work, follow their lead, create opportunities for people to meet others, and enjoy the “Me, too!” experience.

Join the ranks of ingenious nonprofits. Start with your passions, seek supporters with vigor, give them lots of opportunities to act, and invite them to join communities of people with similar passions.


Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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