There is no factor more important to your success as a fundraiser than your grit. But is it possible to grow your resilience? In this episode of Fundraising Bright Spots, Rob Woods explains the inspiring research Professor Angela Duckworth has conducted in this area. Duckworth has argued that how gritty you are – how able you are to keep going in spite of life’s ups and downs – is more important to your success than any other factor.
After two decades of studying fundraising success, Rob explains why ‘grit’ is the most under-estimated ingredient of fundraising success too. But, crucially, what can you do if you want to improve your own resilience? In this episode Rob uses real examples to bring to life three practical techniques that have worked for other fundraisers.
He explains the concept of ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindset, citing Carol Dweck’s ground-breaking research on that subject; he explains what ‘learned helplessness’ is and why it hinders your ‘bounce-back-ability’ as well as an effective antidote to it; and ways to help you choose a better meaning so that you can become more resourceful.
- Professor Angela Duckworth found that your resilience or grit is the primary predictor of success in a range of fields, including Military Officers from Westpoint; sales-people, teachers, students and even spelling bee competitions.
- Duckworth defines ‘grit’ or resilience as ‘perseverance and passion for long-term goals’.
- Because it does not sound as interesting as the latest strategies and techniques spoken about on most conference platforms and podcast interviews, grit is rarely given the prominence it deserves when fundraisers strive to improve their skills.
- Contrary to what many people had thought, it is possible to measure your resilience – Duckworth’s ‘grit score’ is worth checking out and it is also possible to become more resilient over time.
- And most importantly, it is possible to become more resilient if you choose to. See below the four techniques I explore in this episode.
And three practical things any fundraiser can do to grow their resilience.
Obviously, just knowing them / evaluating these techniques intellectually will not make any difference to your resilience. They only work if you actually do something, if you give them a go.
1.Study, understand and practice a ‘growth mindset’. As a start, read about the powerful research in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, which shows that the more you believe (and use language which reflects that) it is always possible to improve somewhat, rather than seeing our abilities (eg intelligence / health / social skills) etc as ‘fixed’.
And one surprisingly simple but under-estimated way to practice a growth mindset is to force your brain to notice the growing and progress you make every day but may have been ignoring. Today get a journal or notebook and at the end of every day (at least for the next ten days), write down two or three things you learned or (even small) results you achieved. The more you notice the progress you are making, the more you will see your abilities in a growth rather than fixed way.
2. See the value in optimism. Reduce your chances of experiencing ‘learned helplessness’ by studying, nurturing and valuing the quality of optimism. Studies by Seligman and Meier have shown that salespeople who evaluate things in an optimistic way earn up to 40% more than those with a more pessimistic approach.
3. Master meaning. Duckworth’s research shows that the more in tune you are with a sense of purpose (bigger than your own objectives with the task in front of you), the more resilient you are likely to be. So make time to connect with your reasons why. Time spent finding, reading, discussing stories to do with the difference your charity makes is an obvious but immensely powerful habit in the successful fundraisers Rob has studied. Too often fundraisers get too busy to do this, but when you do so, it sparks new levels of energy and inspiration. If you or your team would like evidence that this tactic pays off, check out this other blog I wrote about the links between purpose and grit. It includes one study in which fundraising income doubled as a result of ten minutes a day spent connecting with examples of the difference the charity was making.
“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.” Angela Duckworth
“Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming. They’d rather show the highlight of what they’ve become.” Angela Duckworth
“…there are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time―longer than most people imagine…’ Angel Duckworth
‘In practice, finding a more optimistic meaning can be really difficult. And that’s why Professor Duckworth suggests a key thing that helps you get more resilient is the habit of sharing your challenges with someone else.’ Rob Woods
Grit by Professor Angela Duckworth.
Mindset by Carol Dweck
The Fundraiser Who Wanted More by Rob Woods
Blog on Resilient Language, by Rob Woods
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Transcription of Episode 6
Hi there, this is Rob Woods, and welcome to Episode six of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast. This is the show for anyone who works in fundraising and who wants ideas and inspiration for how to raise more money, enjoy their job and make a bigger difference. And in today’s episode, I’m going to be focusing my attention on the idea of fundraising resilience. And I’m going to devote the whole episode just to this topic, largely because it is so underrated. I think if you go to conferences, people talk about all sorts of other things. But rarely do they focus in my view enough attention on the power of resilience to affect your results. And yet, there is no topic more worthy of your focus if you want to be happy and successful in your work, than resilience.
This episode of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast is brought to you by Bright Spot Mastery programmes. So if you need to increase income through corporate partnerships or major donor and trust fundraising, these programmes will help. As well as the advanced strategies you learn on the training days, you’ll receive one to one coaching to help you put those powerful techniques into practice. To find out more about the Corporate Mastery and Major Gifts Mastery programmes, head over to www.brightspotfundraising.co.uk.
The start of my journey into this topic happened about five years ago because I came across a book by professor Angela Duckworth, and the title of the book was Grit. It’s an excellent book, I highly recommend it. And the gist of the story she tells right at the start of that book is of how years and years ago she’d been an elementary school teacher. And she was teaching maths. And she started noticing this pattern whereby, at the start of any given term, there would be various math tests which the children in her class would do. And she noticed that some children did well on those tests at the beginning of the term and some did not do so well.
But when she looked at the test scores at the end of a term there were some people who were doing well at the start and the finish, but there were always some people whose test scores had gone relatively downwards by the end of the term. And even more interestingly, there were some people whose maths ability had appeared to be mediocre at the start of term. They weren’t getting great scores at the beginning, but were now, at the end of term doing much better. And sometimes, indeed, getting the best scores of all at the end of the term. She was curious and she wondered what had made the difference. And the more she looked at it (because she was working with these children day in and day out) her view of what was different was that for the children whose scores improved, it was not about ability.
It was simply this quality they appeared to have of being willing to work harder, especially when things weren’t working out. They were able to keep going and try new things. And over time they could overcome the challenges and therefore improve their skill at maths. She called this resilience or grit. And when she looked at what research was out there, in terms of understanding this quality, she found there was very little academic research. So, to cut a long story short, she left her teaching job, she went and became an academic psychologist, and she’s devoted years and years of her life to researching this quality of resilience. And she’s come to learn certain things about resilience and grit that will help us benefit from that research. She’s also able to give us some advice, backed up by the research, as to what you can do if you want to get better at this quality of grit.
When Professor Angela Duckworth talks about grit or resilience she uses several definitions. One of them is grit is passion and perseverance for long term goals. She also says that grit is being willing to work hard for those goals. And also that grit is living life like it’s a marathon, and not a sprint. These are three of the key ideas in her book. But one of the first things she realised when she became a psychologist is that if you’re going to study something, it really helps if you can have some way of measuring it. And she chose to create a questionnaire or a course she calls the grit score. That is a simple test that anyone could answer fairly quickly and takes 10 minutes. And by answering these questions, anyone is able to get a sense of how resilient they currently are. It’s not fixed. This means that how resilient you are going to be for the rest of your life can change.
But at any stage in time, if you take the score, it can give you a sense of where you are. So in this grit questionnaire there are statements like: ‘setbacks don’t discourage me.’; ‘I don’t give up easily’ or ‘I am a hard worker’
And then she asks questions like ‘whether new ideas often distract me from previous ones.’… ‘And my interests change from year to year.’
So for the first two of those questions saying, yes to them would help score you as relatively gritty. And obviously the second ones are highlighting less resilient behaviours and attitudes. And each of these scores, can mark it and by the end of the this, this questionnaire, you’ve got a sense of how currently resilient you are in your approach to life. And if you’re curious about that, I’m sure you can find it by googling it or also it’s in the back of Duckworth’s book called Grit.
So once Duckworth had this Grit score, one of the first things she did with it was she took it to a place called West Point, which apparently is a key military academy in the United States. Of course, if you’re running a military academy, you’re using a lot of resource and money to train people up to be future successful officers. And it’s very important to know how to choose the right people, who are most likely to succeed. And apparently, the generals running West Point had used various ways of selecting and measuring people to do with their IQ, and their stamina, and their emotional intelligence, their intelligence and leadership potential and all the rest of it.
What they found is that any one of those has some effect or some correlation with how well an officer would do in three or four years’ time after being at West Point. But the single most accurate predictor of how successful someone would become as an officer three or four years after going to West Point was not any one of those. It was Duckworth’s simple grit score, ie, more than any other factor your resilience would affect how well you do would do in that particular walk of life.
What Duckworth did is she took that that same grit score test and she’s used it in a host of other environments, you know, from teachers in teacher training, to sales people, to whether someone’s going to be successful at university. And in the United States, where there’s quite a big phenomenon called Spelling Bees or spelling competitions, even in the context of spelling competitions for children the grit score is more powerful at predicting your success than your verbal dexterity, or your ability to memorise words and so on…Even more likely to predict how well you’ll do in spelling competitions is how resilient you are according to the grit score. And whilst I don’t have a PhD in this stuff, and I haven’t got hard data to conclusively prove this to you, all I can say is that in my more than a decade of interviewing very successful fundraisers, those who raise more than most of us, I can tell you that just as Duckworth found in these other walks of life, the same is true in fundraising – Over the years when I interview people who are very successful, and I study their success, time and again I see this theme of resilience in the way they approach their work. And that is why there are few topics more important for a fundraiser to study, value and nurture than resilience. And that’s why I’m having a look at this topic today.
One reason this is so important is that the human brain loves the idea of a quick fix. And if you don’t believe me, look in any newspaper and in the adverts section you will find adverts selling you a quick fix along the lines of become an internet millionaire in four easy steps or lose eight stone in a month. The reason these adverts will always be there is because the human brain wants to believe that success and progress is achieved in one big giant, miraculous leap. Whereas if you think carefully about anything in your life that is genuinely successful and you’re genuinely proud of, then I suspect you will find that it was never one big thing or one big stroke of luck.
Any lasting success was achieved through a series of small steps day after day, what someone called incremental gains. And in any one of those stories, there was a moment where something went wrong. This is certainly true of fundraising. Your greatest fundraising success will have been a time where something went wrong because a colleague wouldn’t give you the information or the donor didn’t call you back or whatever. And in that moment, had you been less gritty, you would not have picked yourself up and found another way to get around the obstacle or keep trying again and again. And so you would not have got that result. Your existing best fundraising successes and successes in other areas of your life, I think you will find, have stemmed from resilient behaviour as much as from being smart or skilful, or any of the rest of those perceived valuable qualities.
So what can we do, if we agree that resilience is important in fundraising success? What can any of us do to improve it? Well, in this session, I’m going to look at three key ideas that I have observed to be helpful for myself and other people that I coach and train. And the first is to do with having a growth mindset. The idea is develop more of a growth mindset than you might currently have. And this idea comes from Duckworth noticing a correlation in grit scores with how well people test in terms of their growth mindset. And if you haven’t heard much about the concept of growth mindset before, it was coined, I think, by Professor Carol Dweck, in a seminal book called Mindset, the new psychology of success.
And in this fabulous and inspiring book, she demonstrates the difference between what you might call a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. And it is what it sounds. If you’ve got a fixed mindset about something broadly, you believe things along the lines of you can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are. Wherever a growth mindset belief is, no matter how intelligent you are, you can always change that level of intelligence quite a bit.
And, of course, some of us have a fixed attitude to one area of our life or one area of skills and a growth mindset in others. And you know, it’s a spectrum. Of course, you’re never just at one place, there is a spectrum. And in this fascinating book, Dweck shares a bunch of studies which are really, really persuasive. And they’re a real wake up call for your own attitude as to how important innate ability or intelligence or sportiness or whatever quality really are. In one particular study, children who had been performing poorly at maths are taught in a really quite different way, where all of the signals they are sent, they are told the most important thing is hard work and practice and that innate ability or talent is completely irrelevant.
And whenever they got nine or 10 out on a test, they’re not praised for being good at maths. All of the signals are about how hard they worked to achieve their results. This research had stunning results about those children’s scores and their ability rocketing up and exceeding the scores of children from other schools that had been perceived to be better at maths. So if you’re curious about that, I highly recommend the book, called Mindset.
I guess it really stands to reason when you look at the idea of growth or fixed mindset that if we have received the signal that a particular school achievement or result in something is largely to do with talent rather than other factors, like hard work, when you are presented with something challenging it’s quite a difficult challenge. At some level, your brain can’t quite see the point in striving harder.
And that is why Professor Duckworth suggests that growth mindset and resilience correlates so clearly, because in life and, for instance, in our field of fundraising, sooner or later, a challenge or something really difficult is going to show up. And if you are relatively resilient in your current attitude and behaviours, you’re going to find a way to keep going because you don’t believe that success is already preordained by your own skill, your own ability or the size of your charity’s brand. So you’re going to keep plugging away, you’re going to find a way to solve that problem. So growth mindset is incredibly important.
If you’re listening to this, and you would like to get relatively more resilient and you see value in that and you’re thinking ‘what could I do, practically, to help’, then within the idea of growth mindset, my first tip would be every day, towards the end of the day or as you go home from work, ask yourself ‘what have I learned today’. And if you get yourself a notebook, and you just spend five minutes making a few notes in that in that notebook at the end of each work day, you will find that not only do you start to improve your performance because you don’t repeat the mistakes nearly as often, but also because you latch on to them and you learn from them in a in a more conscious way. Also, even more importantly, you’ll start to value learning and growth as just as important as whatever the overt, explicit results achieved in any given day or event. Secondly, do more ‘learning behaviours’. So you know, the best individual giving fundraisers I know are always testing in the way that they are communicating with their supporters and donors.
This fabulous fundraiser I sometimes work with, called Craig Linton, whenever he does any communication to his supporters, it’s designed to potentially increase some giving or increase the chances they’ll contact the charity, but there’s this other objective he’s always got, which is to test a hypothesis about a particular kind of headline, a particular photo, a particular story. So everything is seen as a test run, whereas I think other fundraisers see each piece of communication or each tactic primarily and only about whether it gets today’s results. Another angle on that is to quite deliberately seek incremental gains. So there is a fabulous fundraiser I’ve worked with a lot in the past called and Andy who works for a medium-sized cancer charity. And for several years I worked with him and did coaching sessions with him most months.
And again and again, he would arrive at those coaching sessions with ideas and questions for how he could make just small tweaks, small moves to the approach he and his team had to the events that his charity runs. And across those three years we worked together the team’s income went up by a million pounds. So by the third year, they were raising a million pounds more than when we first started working together. And when I tell that story to other people, they say ‘well, what was the thing? What was the tactic?’.
In truth, there were dozens and dozens of small tactics, small things, incremental gains, which Andy worked out and then with his team implemented, which led to this enormous growth over a period of time. That is right out of the growth mindset playbook, this notion of looking for small improvements, each of which have their own value, rather than looking for the big quick fix. And the other thing you can do, if you want to enhance your growth mindset and therefore get the benefits of more resilience in your life, is to try adopting this belief, which I found really helpful. It goes like this. I have not failed if I gave 100% effort and learned something. What this does for me, even when things go wrong, and I could be feeling the sting of intense disappointment, is t helps my brain search for some benefits, some learning, even if it’s something I won’t do again next time.
In my life, and doubtless in yours, it can be easier said than done when something’s gone badly wrong to actually practice that belief, but I really recommend you at least try it out. Because if you think of something in your life you really value – some relationships, some job, some success you’ve have or some skill you have; if you’re really honest, you can track back some of the positive result you’re getting now or skill level you have now, you can track that back to some previous mistake or error you made in the past and it’s largely because of that previous mistake that you went out and you tried harder or you tried a different approach. So always be looking to learn something, even when things go wrong. And a belief and a mindset can really help you if you want to become more resilient.
The second main area I recommend you look at if you want to become more resilient, is to do with valuing and cherishing the idea of optimism – is the glass half full or half empty? And a concept that really helped me get my head around this and how I could look at it slightly differently was to do with a particular experiment. And I’m going to tell you very briefly about this experiment. It is quite unpleasant. I don’t condone the fact that this happened to these dogs. But at the moment, this is the best way I’m aware of to bring to life this idea of learned helplessness. So in the experiment, I gather it was done in the 1960s, there were some dogs in a pen, and an electric shock could come through the floor. In one version of the experiment, and there was a lever on the wall and if the dogs bashed the lever, then the electricity would stop. But another group of dogs were even less fortunate – there wasn’t even a lever there. So whatever they did, that was just the suffering. The second stage of the experiment, though, was where it got interesting, because in the second stage, in a different pen, there was no lever. But there was a low barrier between them, and a place of safety. And when the shock started, the dogs who previously had had a lever, they had learned that there was something you could do to stop the pain. They looked up, they were willing to try anything and they jumped over the fence into the place of safety.
And unfortunately, the dogs who in the first stage of the experiment, had learned that whatever you do, the suffering just goes on and on, they didn’t even look up to see this place of escape. They just suffered on and on. I know it’s a cruel experiment, but it does bring to life for me the idea of how the idea of learned helplessness versus learned optimism.
And in the human world, the which springs to mind is from a couple of years ago. I was getting off the train, I think it was in Stafford station. And as I got off this busy train, there was a young woman sitting on the bench on the train station, and she was clearly unhappy. And she was saying to her friend on the phone, ‘I’m telling you is completely rammed. There’s no space on the train; I can’t get on’. And then there’s a pause. As if the person she was talking to was giving her some encouragement. And then she answered again, and the words she used will forever remain etched in my brain because they were so surprising to me.
She said, ‘No, no, I’m telling you, there is no space. It’s always the same, its because it’s October, it’s always the same… As soon as it’s winter, everything turns to shit.’ And I try to keep my language fairly clean when I teach and on these podcasts, so I apologise if I have offended you, but word for word that is what she said, exactly verbatim.
Because how’s that for a belief system? I mean, if you’re living in the southern Mediterranean, you can get away with that kind of belief because winter is not very long, but she lives in the middle of England. And she’s getting to have six to eight months of what some would call winter, where she’s extrapolating how things are going to go in her life. Now, the most interesting thing about this story is that when I walked along further down the platform, guess what I saw? There were a couple of train carriages which were fairly clear; there was space and there were even seats. And the reason I’m telling you this story is at some level, I believe this is similar to the learned helplessness of the dogs in the experiment I explained just a moment ago. And I’m saying it’s easy to think ‘well, why didn’t she look up? Why didn’t she look harder along the train platform? Why didn’t those dogs look up?’
Actually, in my own life, I know that once I’m in a state, if I allow myself to get too stressed, too overwhelmed, then my physiology crumbles, and so does my mentality. And the truth is, if I believe that everything is difficult now or it’s someone else’s fault, and there’s nothing I can do about it, then I have noticed that I too am less likely to look, metaphorically, along to the end of the train platform and find a way out of my current predicament. I don’t know if you can find a reference in your own life for where you got in a state and you believe there’s nothing that can be done.
Whereas in hindsight you realise actually there probably were some moves you could have made. So, if we are relatively optimistic about life, about fundraising, about our colleagues, about our supporters and donors, then I believe it’s easier to be more resilient in our approach to our fundraising, and to find ways to solve problems and make the relationships work and make the fundraising work as well.
The research by Seligman and Meier which is quoted in Duckworth’s book finds that optimists remain healthier, they live longer. And in sales environments, people who score highly in optimism scores tend to at minimum outsell between 20 and 40% compared to those who are more pessimistic. The research says that people with high grade scores tend to be relatively more optimistic people. If you’re curious or sceptical about this, I highly recommend you read up on the academic research by people like Seligman and Meier, to find the depth of those studies and just to prove to yourself that there is some substance there.
Through my courses and my coaching, I have the privilege of seeing some fabulous fundraisers work hard and get some wonderful results. One person who springs to mind is someone called Caroline from Action Against Hunger. She’s a fabulous fundraiser. On our Major Gifts mastery programme she told the story about putting in a proposal to a particular trust and it failing and being rejected. She then had the courage and optimism to look at that proposal and galvanise effort within herself and her colleagues to completely rewrite it. And to take it back to that same trust a few weeks later. At that point, having improved the messaging and made it more simple and much more real and emotionally meaningful to the readers of that proposal; that second time, rather than getting zero money, they got the gift of £300,000, which is the largest gift that Caroline had ever received at that stage of her fundraising career.
And whilst part of this story is about how she changed the proposal and the particular technical things that we teach on our courses, in a sense the more interesting thing is how Caroline managed to galvanise the courage and the energy in herself and others to start from scratch at all. And I would say that was because of her optimistic mindset. I think optimists do three things: firstly, they’re able to see things as they really are, or, crucially, not worse than they are. She didn’t see the initial proposal is better than it was, she was honest about it. But crucially, unlike a pessimist, she didn’t see it as worse than it really was. Secondly, she’s able to see things as better than they are. So believe in and see a proposal and the result that would be much better. And that’s why optimists do better, I believe, because if you can then see it that way, then you have a fighting chance of step three, making it that way and doing the work to actually make those improvements.
So if you’re listening to this and you’ve decided you would like to be as optimistic as possible, and you’re wondering, ‘but what can I do about it?’, I’ve got a couple of ideas. Firstly, if you’re in a large charity or a medium sized one, then network like crazy and seek out people in your organisation who do seem to achieve more success. And you’ll find that almost always, a lot of that success came from them being resourceful and optimistic in the face of challenges and therefore overcoming them. If you’re not in a larger organisation, then network as much as you can outside of your organisation. And in the meantime, make sure you access examples of people being resourceful and overcoming challenges by reading blogs and listening to other podcasts that help you, at an emotional level, to believe that an optimistic approach or resourceful approach pays you back. And secondly, if you would like to think and feel and act more optimistically and more positively, I would say a key to that is to ask yourself a better question. At one level, the level of meaning, ask yourself, what else could be going on here? What else could this mean? It feels like I’ve failed, it feels like this problem is just impossible to solve in the context of this particular charity of this particular donor. But is there another interpretation of what appears to have happened? And then even more powerfully, at the level of focus, ask yourself a question along the lines of ‘what else could I try? It feels like I’ve done everything. But if I knew I had more options, what else could I try to get the result that I really, really want?’ And I’ve got a couple of tips to make these questions work.
If you ask these questions in the same state as you were in when you first experienced the difficult situation, and when you first felt overwhelmed by it, you’re really unlikely to get a different and better answer. So one key thing is to change your state. It is as simple as getting up from your desk, going for a walk, going to talk to a colleague you get on well with – just move, do something. And when you come back in that slightly different state, I suggest you will have a far better chance of asking these questions on your own with a notebook or even with a colleague, and finding different and better answers in that new state.
Well, as I near the end of this session, I’d like to thank you so much for listening to my ideas about how any of us can go about growing our resilience. As you can tell, there are no quick fixes. But I hope that if nothing else, I’ve helped you to notice your own resilience and to value this quality just as highly as any of your other talents. To briefly recap the main ideas, I’ve talked about the implications of Professor Dweck’s findings in terms of three things.
Firstly, mindset and why and how you might nurture your growth mindset.
Secondly, optimism, with some ideas for practising and nurturing your ability to look on the bright side, even and especially when things aren’t exactly going according to plan.
Thirdly, meaning: finding a different meaning for what happens and how that makes it easier to respond resourcefully.
If you’d like to go back to the key ideas I explored in this episode, take a look at the show notes on our Bright Spot website. And if you found today’s episode helpful, it would be fantastic if you could leave a review so that other people are more likely to listen and benefit from these ideas. Thanks again for listening, and best of luck growing your ability to be gritty and enjoy your fundraising. I look forward to talking to you again next time.