Why did it sound like the shower was on?
“Help! Someone, help!”
I sprang out of bed and ran next door to the bathroom.
“I dropped my toothbrush,” my sister said. Water sprayed upwards towards the ceiling. “Oh no,” was all I could muster. Dara’s 1.2lb Sonicare toothbrush had fallen perfectly onto the PVC pipe connecting the toilet to the water line. It was shattered.
“Call an emergency plumber! Now!” were the next words out of my mouth.
Fifteen minutes would pass before the water stopped flowing. Fifteen stressful, heart wrenching, and wet minutes before I was calm enough to find the main water line shut off. During that time, enough water had spewed into the bathroom for it to seep into the kitchen below, and the crawl space below that. Our house had become a water park.
What does my weekend of horror have to do with your nonprofit? Not too much, although I was able to draw a few parallels; first, during stressful and hectic situations concentrate on what is most important, and second, be prepared for the unexpected. These both may sound ambiguous (that’s because they are), but my fifteen minute experience trying to mitigate water damage is eerily similar to the end of year fundraising sprint you are about to embark on. Hopefully my anecdote can be a worthwhile example of how not to handle what might come.
Let me explain.
When I first saw water gushing out of the broken pipe and onto the bathroom floor I became panicked. As would anyone. Water, when it’s in places it shouldn’t be can be intimidating. As my sister struggled to comprehend what had just happened, I jumped into “super-human” mode.
“Dara, grab funnels and buckets!” I shouted.
My brain decided in that moment that I could mitigate water damage by constructing some sort of irrigation system to funnel the water into the adjacent bathtub. (Please note that if you are ever in a situation like this and have a similar “okay I see water going where it isn’t supposed to go, I’ll simply create an irrigation system to divert it into the bathtub,” thought, ignore it).
My futile attempt at directing the water away from the tile floor and into the bathtub lasted all of five minutes. As I’m sure it’s obvious to you reading this, my initial solution was a terrible idea. Yet, for whatever reason, in that moment, my brain saw a problem and immediately fixated on finding a solution right then and there.
This is the key to finding focus. When you are in a stressful or hectic situation, your brain may urge you to act immediately (i.e. build an irrigation system), but a more shrewd approach would be to take a step back and think holistically about the problem at hand.
Which, after five minutes of feverishly filling and dumping buckets of water I realized I needed to do. The only way the water damage would stop was if I shut off the main water line to the house. In retrospect, this is where my focus should have gone immediately, to the root of the problem instead of the symptoms. When you are stressed, however, and being pulled in multiple directions at your organization, you have a tendency to focus on fixing the symptoms as soon as possible. Do your best to think holistically and outside of the moment. Identify the “main water line” in your situation before you dive head first into implementing a solution.
For me, finding focus meant leaving the symptom and my failed solution behind (physically abandoning the buckets and funnels) to go to the crawl space and finding the water line valve. This was emotionally difficult to do. My brain saw an issue and immediately wanted to address it, but the true solution required ignoring the symptom and identifying its source. That’s tricky to do when you are under pressure and stressed. But that’s a skill great leaders have.
With end of year fundraising fast approaching we are about to embark on the busiest and most stressful time of the year. Inevitably something unexpected will occur. As a leader at your organization it’s your responsibility to identify the overarching solution to a problem. Don’t be like me. Don’t fixate on the symptom (i.e. the water gushing out of the broken pipe), instead, identify the real problem and craft your solution around it.
If I had done that in my situation I may have been able to save our hard wood floors. What will it mean for you and your team?
In addition to finding the right focus, it is important to be prepared for the unexpected. This may seem counter-intuitive: How can you prepare for something without knowing what it is? But you’ll find that there are many emergencies you can easily handle by collecting the right information before you need it.
While my house was flooding I had no clue where the main water shut off was. Sure, when I went to bed that night I wasn’t expecting to need to know where it was, but it absolutely would have been helpful! If I had known where it was in advance I could have mitigated thousands of dollars in damages. Was I unprepared, or was this simply a terrible accident? I’d argue both.
Being prepared doesn’t mean you know exactly where everything is at any moment in time. No leader is capable of storing that much information. Rather, it means you understand the systems at play. In my case that meant having a baseline understanding of how water flows into our house (guess what, I didn’t really understand that before this happened), and in your case, it may be understanding how your consultant works with a print vendor to mail out your direct mail appeal. Systems have inputs and outputs. Great leaders have an understanding of how theirs work and what roles different sections take.
Being prepared means you understand your systems. If you are sending out a direct mail appeal what pieces are a part of the puzzle? If something were to go wrong could you identify who you would call to fix it? Know and understand your systems to mitigate future issues.
What does this mean for you?
October, November and December are incredibly busy and stressful months in our field. With nearly a third of all charitable giving occurring in December alone, and twelve percent coming on the final three days of the year we are all heading into the “busy” season without a doubt. Hopefully, and I mean this genuinely, no “pipes burst” at your organization. In a perfect world everything you’ve planned and prepared will run smoothly. But, in the event they don’t, perhaps my anecdote will help you feel more prepared.
Just remember, if and when something goes wrong:
- Find focus. Look beyond the immediate issue at hand and think holistically about a solution.
- Be prepared. Understand how your organization operates and what processes and systems are in use.