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How 1 Simple Change Took Her Annual Event from $100K to $300K

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Today we’re welcoming back guest author Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising for her ongoing series featuring helpful insights and advice from top nonprofit professionals.

In today’s post, Mazarine sits down with Kishshana Palmer to discuss how finding your strengths can make you a better fundraiser than you ever thought possible. 

Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I am so psyched today to introduce to you Kishshana Palmer, who is going to be presenting at our conference in April, and so excited. Goosebumps. She is just fantastic. She presented last year, and so I want to give her a chance to tell you who she is, what she does, and more about what she’ll be presenting on. So Kishshana, thank you for being here.

KP: Absolutely. Hi, everybody. Maz, I’m so glad to be taking some time today to talk with you, and to begin to this amazing conference. Everyone who’s listening to this interview, if you have not signed up already, as soon as that link goes live I need you to press it. I need you to sign up and take all of the classes, because they’re just awesome. They are rocking. So thank you so much for letting me share some space and time with you this morning, Maz.

MT: Oh, thank you for being here. Miss Kishshana, who are you and what do you do?

kishshana-palmer-glasses-467x700KP: Sure, so I am the VP of External Affairs for an amazing organization called Food Corps, and that is my day job where I am in charge of our fundraising team, our communications and marketing team, and our policy team. It’s a really exciting organization that just does really amazing work around helping kids to grow up healthy, to know where good food comes from, to fall in love with it, and to eat it every day. So I’m really focused on the next generation of healthy Americans. So that’s something that’s really, really important to me. So I’m excited to be there. Then I’m also the principal for Kishshana and Co. So before I joined Food Corps, I was consulting full time where I worked with amazing nonprofits across the country on figuring out how to have their next bright idea for their organization around fundraising and around executive leadership and around board development and board governance, and I am a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer. I just really love what I do. So that’s me in a nutshell.

MT: Wow, wow. That’s incredible. So what do you find most fulfilling about your consulting, when you have time to do it?

KP: What’s so fulfilling? You know, it’s something that really just resonates with me. There’s something about being able to help the leadership of organizations sort out what they’ve been doing that’s working, what isn’t working as well as they’d love, and how do they take the great work that they’re doing to the next level? You know, a lot of times I step into engagements where we start talking about fundraising work, and oftentimes I find out it actually is a leadership challenge that the organization is having. So my ability to be able to help them work through that, and anybody who’s worked with me will tell you that my style is – I call it OHD. Open, honest, and direct. So I keep it real. I know my stuff, and I really work hard to make sure that if we’re going to really try to tackle the big rocks that an organization has to carry, that we do it in a way that folks feel healthy and they feel introspective but action oriented, and they’re really able to bring their best selves to the work that they’re doing on behalf of their really great organization. So that’s why I love what I do, because it’s just an opportunity to help lots of people do something they really care about in a way that is meaningful and sustainable.

MT: I love that. So that kind of leads into what you’re best at, which is helping people. One of the things you’re best at, which is helping people make their teams more effective. So what are you teaching at the Fundraising Career Conference in 2016?

KP: Sure. I’m going to be teaching a course on operating from a place of strength, and how to be an amazing fundraiser when you really understand your strengths and you don’t operate from a place of improving your weakness. I think that there’s an idea that when you are not good at something, that you really should spend all your time working on that thing you’re not good at. Years and years ago, I stumbled across a leadership concept that really said, what if you just put that aside and you learned to really focus on your strengths and use that as the jumping board for how you really operated as a professional in any workspace? I found that it was just so powerful in fundraising, and it’s something that I’m going to be teaching leaders how to do for themselves and how to do for their teams. So it’s something I’m really excited to be teaching on at the conference this year.

The secret to being an amazing fundraiser? Find your strengths. Click To Tweet

MT: Wow. So some of our listeners may have read a book called The Strength Finder 2.0 based on the Gallup poll with millions of people over 30 years. This book is all about how to figure out which five strengths apply to you. So for example, my five strengths according to this book are individuation, which means I treat people as individuals. Positivity, ideation, which means I’m good at having ideas, strategic, like strategy, and focus. I can focus. So what are your strengths according to this system?

KP: Well, hey, that’s why you and I get along. We have a couple in common already. So my top five strengths, and if I think back as early as a kid, I have to tell you. Things just kind of show up. You do learn everything you need to know about the world by kindergarten, I’m convinced. Are strategic, an activator. I just get stuff done. Same like you, individuation, where I really believe in the power of the individual and what they are able to bring to the table. I find good and powerful things in every person I interact with. Futuristic, so I have my eye on the ball of the future. I’m thinking five years out, ten years out, twenty years out. It has served me well, and sometimes it has nipped me right in the butt, and relater. You know, I’m able to really clue into the special thing about each and every person and form close relationships with folks. I just kind of get people. So these five things have allowed me to really hone my skills as a fundraiser, as a mom, as a friend. The list goes on and on, and so I found it to be a very, very multi-purpose tool in my life and in the lives of the teams that I have led over the years and am leading now.

MT: Wow. There’s another book called Go Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. He says in that book that there are certain ways people can discover their strengths at work. What have you learned about this?

KP: Sure. You know, I think that being able to think about what you’re really good at and applying it to work has been such a releasing tool for me. When I say releasing, I mean it has allowed me to really focus in on the things that I know that I excel at and not be so bogged down with the things that I’m never going to get good at. It’s allowed me to really focus on the projects and go after the types of opportunities that I know really play to the things that I’m amazing at, and not worry about chasing opportunities or being passed up for things or not being in line for things that actually at the end of the day don’t really serve me well. I’m not the best positioned person to do it, and actually somebody probably could do it better. Discovering my strengths at work has allowed me to be a better coworker. It’s allowed me to be a much, much more effective manager. It’s allowed me to be a really great leader and really just be able to be what I call focused and being able to listen and be present at work in a way that before I really stepped into this kind of thinking and thought processing work, that just didn’t occur in the same way,

MT: Wow. So with that, I love that. You’ll be teaching people at the conference exactly what you mean by this and how to use their strengths at work. But why should you not improve your weaknesses? I’ve always heard that you could improve your weaknesses and then you’d be good at everything. So why should you focus on what you’re already good at or enjoy doing?

KP: Yeah, I will say that you should never improve your weaknesses. I think there’s some things that if you suck at, you really need to just kind of get your mind around. But if you’re really not great at something, even if you bust your butt and put all your time and your energy into it, the probability is you’ll go from really bad off to sort of middle of the road. It’s a lot of effort to put behind something that you go from being terrible at to being, you know, maybe average. I really believe and have seen that when you take that same amount of energy and you focus it on things that you’re good at, and you get great it, that it really just carries you so much further. When you get really good at identifying the places where you’re not that awesome, and they’re just not the things that you really rock at, you also get really good at figuring out, well, who is good at it? And really being able to be released to allow them to do the things they’re really good at and also support them in those ways. Because for every strength that you have, you have a weakness, and for every strength someone else has, they have a weakness. So to me it allows for much more collaboration, much more focus, and I think when you focus on what you’re really good at, even in the times particularly at work and particularly as a fundraiser, when work is really tough and the no’s are coming in, or you really have a lot on your plate. It allows you to really enjoy work. It allows you to really think, oh my gosh, for most of the time I’m doing something that I really excel at, and if I focus really hard on this thing it’s going to turn out well because I’m actually playing in a space that actually really works for me.

MT: I love that. Wow. So what are some strengths as applied to fundraising work, in your opinion?

KP: Sure. Well, definitely. I’ll just use mine because we’re here and I think everybody has different strengths. So the fact that strategic is one of my top strengths is something that really plays well for me. So I’m really able to think about what is the big picture? What does it look like in order to make this move versus that move? What’s the cost and benefit? Also to be able to think really critically and not just tactically about what has to get done. So when I talk with my team, I talk about look, guys. We’re playing a game of chess, not a game of checkers. And for all of the folks who love checkers, I love checkers. That’s what I call the short game. When you are playing the long game, you’re really thinking strategically about what’s going to happen four, five, six, seven steps down the road if you make this particular move now. So that strength has really tied in well with my futuristic strength, which allows me to be thinking about the big picture, therefore being able to sort of backwards plan what is necessary in order to be able to achieve certain outcomes. I think that’s really worked well. And the last one that I think is really important in my strengths is around being both an activator and a relater. So folks who work with me know we just get it done. We have a plan. We are focused. We work. But at the end of the day, there’s no sort of excuses that actually hold any water in our world. We just make it happen, and I recognize as a manager that your personal will seep into your work life at times. Being able to really understand people for who they are and wanting to have connection with folks, particularly folks who are on your team and work with you, is so important to be able to see when folks are not at their best and to be able to empathize with them and really support them at that time. So being able to have that human kind of understanding and touch and awareness has really served me well, not just internally within my teams, but externally with donors. I think that that’s something that’s really, really important. So I’ve been able to really think about my strengths in an applicable way, and funny enough, one of the career fields that my strengths suggest is that I’m a fundraiser, which I think is hilarious.

MT: Which strength is that? Is that strategic?

KP: It’s all of them. It’s the combination of the five. It says that a career field that you would really excel would be a teacher or a fundraiser. And I was like, huh, would you look at that. I wanted to be a teacher. I am a fundraiser. How about that?

MT: And now you’re teaching about fundraising.

KP: Now I’m teaching about fundraising. Look at that.

MT: So this is wonderful, I think, from a psychological perspective in learning how to motivate your team. But you know, we also have to think about the bottom line. So what changed for your team when you encouraged them to follow their strengths?

KP: I think they just stopped paddling really hard underwater. Like there was lots of tyranny of the urgent and scurrying and activity, and I think that whether you’re talking about the fundraising side of the house in an organization or the programmatic side, we tend to focus a lot on output, the things that happen, the bean counting we do, and not on outcomes. Lives change, behaviors change, etc. And I think that being able to think about, okay, in a development team if we have these 12 functions that in summation, get us to this goal of in this case $10 million, for example, what are the 12 things that must be done? Great, we have a team of three. Who is best suited to do what things? Let’s say each person is best suited to do two or three things, and then we have three things left over. Are the three things left over things that we can carry equally among the team to be able to really produce? Are there things that go into what I call the bike rack, that can really wait? Does that mean that now we have a human capital need and we have to hire for that? What are the implications of that? It allows us to be able to really get clear about how do we move the ball down the field in the most strategic way, in the quickest way? Particularly when you’re thinking about hitting goals and who is best positioned to do it, and less about oh, this is my title and this is what my job description says I should do, therefore I should do it. It really kind of releases you from the confines of that. It’s a little risky, and you know, maybe a little unorthodox for some. But I have found with my own teams that being able to manage from that position has really allowed me particularly when we had some really lofty goals that we needed to meet, to really be able to do it in a way that left folks feeling really energized, really successful, and really feeling like they could do it.

MT: I love that. So I mean, on top of that, I happen to know that in the last several years, you had a goal of raising $100,000 for an event. Then due to this approach, you actually raised significantly more than that. So that’s something that I’d love to ask you more about just briefly. What happened with that? Was that part of the strengths that people found?

KP: Yeah, definitely. So I used to work with an organization. We had a few hundred thousand dollars that we had to raise, net, for an event. I had a pretty green team and they were awesome folks, but they just were doing the job that they were hired to do. Good at some pieces of it, not good at other pieces. I would notice that when it was time to do certain projects, that folks who were really good at these particular types of projects regardless of their actual position would volunteer to do them. So we had this really big event that we needed to do, and I decided to do a staff sort of retreat prior to going into this really heavy season we were going into, to just kind of take a second to take stock and to just get folks rejuvenated, to get out there and start doing some really hard work. I used Strength Finder to be able to do so, and I found that I was able to basically within my own team just kind of resort the functional responsibilities that people had to do for this event and for some other things that we had upcoming for that six months. Because I was able to do that and I had the freedom to do that, I had team members who maybe it wasn’t in their job title working on particular pieces of the event. They were just darn good at it, and they are the ones that got it done. They can get it done in half the time or a quarter of the time and still do other parts of their work, and it ended up that I was able to rejigger most of the job descriptions and functions where every single person on the team for about 75% of their job was exactly what they needed to do. It was in their wheelhouse. It was something they were jazzed about. It really played to one of their strengths, and we used that model for that year and we were able to – I think we did almost three and a half times the amount of the budget that we were expecting to bring in for that event. It was really through the power of just releasing folks to be able to operate best, knowing that we have a goal. Having a plan, figuring out who is going to be the owner of each piece of the plan, and really aligning ownership to who was best positioned to be able to get it done. I used the Strength Finder to be able to support that work.

next level

MT: Wow. That’s incredible. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KP: Yeah, sure. I think that this is a little bit art, a little bit science, but also just really speaks to a belief with your manager in really making it possible for your team and yourself to be their best selves. I think that mindset, going out of fundraising, one thing I was taught early on was the first thing about getting a gift is you’ve got to believe you deserve it. So I was like, oh. That made such a big difference once I made that from one of my mentors, and it stands true around strengths. You’ve really got to believe that it is possible to be able to operate from a place of strength and not a place of improvement all the time, to be able to set your teams up for success, to be able to really challenge them to be bigger, badder, better in their work, and to achieve outcomes that you didn’t think were possible. So I really hope that this little introduction to what we’re going to be talking about in greater detail with some action steps, for how to start tomorrow. Once you take the class, it’s something that folks can get excited about and want to know more about. Sign up to take the conference, because that is what is awesome.

MT: Oh, thank you so much, Kishshana. I really, really appreciate you coming today, and I can’t wait for people to learn from you. I’m just so excited. So thank you, thank you again. If people want to get in touch with you, how can they reach you?

KP: Absolutely. So you can give me a shout at kpalmer@kishshanaco.com, or you can reach me at Food Corps, which is kishshana.palmer@foodcorps.org. You can follow me on Twitter @funddiva or check me out on LinkedIn, Kishshana Palmer.

Hear more from Kishshana at the Next Level Fundraising Conference on April 4-5, 2016. She will be presenting along with Molly Ola Pinney, John Urschel, Hamlin Grange, and many other nonprofit experts. Learn more about the conference and register here.

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