Creating a Safe Space: Incorporating Mindfulness and Inclusion Into Your Leadership

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By Sharise Harrison, Santa Clara University

Life can be stressful in this rapid, ever-changing world. As prospect development professionals, we are expected to understand and translate these changes in real time to identify the best prospects and provide fundraising staff accurate information to cultivate, solicit and close gifts. Personally, I work best when I am confident, centered and focused. Believing I may have missed something when completing a profile or an analysis project will wreak havoc for days (or weeks) at a time, translating to a loss of productivity. My solution to avoid falling into a chaotic abyss was to incorporate mindfulness. I found that mindfulness not only increased my focus but organically led to inclusion, transforming my leadership style.

According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine, “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” Mindfulness is intentional, and you must train your mind to work in this way. This article will focus on awareness of your surrounding environment.

Your environment is not only the physical space around you, but the constituencies you serve. As prospect development professionals, we strive for objectivity. We are all human, which understandably implies that our internal biases influence our work. Mindfulness creates awareness that this is occurring in order to address it in a productive, positive manner.

Last year, a request was made by the head of International Development to evaluate three non-U.S. countries, to determine if a long-term strategy was feasible. First step: pull the data. I expected the strategy to focus on two of the countries, known for their wealth, with potential for identifying a few prospects in the third country, a developing country.


 Being mindful also applies to storytelling. Read Andrea Topham's "Engaging Donors Through Strength-Based Storytelling." 

As I compared the data, it became clear that the developing country was overwhelmingly the place we wanted to invest our time and efforts. I went back, checked my data, and sure enough got the same results. Why was this the opposite of what I hypothesized? I realized then that the messaging I have received through the media largely informed my opinion. Further, I realized that I could have easily asked for input from individuals on staff who identify with the culture of this country.

Acknowledging my own limitations (I cannot be an expert on all cultures), showing respect (understanding that each person is an individual, and there are unique cultural experiences that shape each of us), and trusting the data produced a concise and informative recommendation for implementation.

It was during this project that I realized how mindfulness organically leads to inclusion. Not a week goes by where a company must publicly apologize for an insensitive (sometimes offensive) ad, activity, tweet or campaign, leading to mandatory diversity and inclusion training until the next problematic episode. However, training around specific events without incorporating mindfulness is incomplete. As prospect development professionals, we have to understand and process inclusion in our own unique way. Our data is used to ensure our organizations are donor-centric. We almost never interact with the constituents that we analyze or research. A donor-centric approach is limited in effectiveness if there is no focus on inclusivity. Lack of inclusion inhibits the ability to fully engage and maximize giving from our constituencies.

This is where the role of leadership comes into play. In my 17 years of prospect development experience, I have heard numerous fundraisers claim that certain groups do not give, or they are not “good” with certain types. To address these claims, always come armed with data. Data should include a comparison of the giving and engagement activities of the groups involved and a control group. It is an easy way to show that lack of giving or engagement is not tied to identity, but rather how a group is treated by the organization.

We can act as a voice for those constituents and dispel biases by turning to data. Whether you are an individual contributor or manage a team, proactively changing the conversation around these prospects makes you a leader. Additionally, if you manage a team, self-evaluation through mindfulness is invaluable. Openness to others, as well as self-awareness, increases trust and improves communication.

The path from mindfulness to inclusion is straightforward, reaping significant benefits.  The intentionality of mindfulness creates a safe space for your co-workers, yourself and those who may never be aware of you but may reshape or even advance your prospect network: the prospects. 

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