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2nd - 4th July 2018
The Barbican

Why we need to put the same energy into initiating people into our organisation as we do supporters

: Sarah Carter

In the fourth of a 5-part blog series on mindful leadership and organisational culture, Sarah Carter, Director of Wisdom Fish, explores one of the building blocks of culture – initiations – in more depth and starts to think about how the concept might just help us attract more talent to the fundraising sector.

My previous blog introduced the idea of five building blocks of culture: storytelling, initiations, rituals, symbols and practices.

As a reminder, these building blocks give you a direct route as a leader to influence and transform your organisation. They enable you to create an environment and culture in which people begin to feel more engaged, where buy-in is reinforced.

I’ve written previously about the power of storytelling, but this blog focuses on initiations – why human beings search them out, the potential benefit of making them more conscious and embedding them more firmly into the fundraising sector and our organisational cultures. Because if we admit that one of our problems as a sector is attracting and retaining new talent, then surely one of the areas we need to focus on is how we invite and accept people into our ‘group’ and the opportunities that entering it bring for personal growth and transformation.


What is an initiation?

Initiation is, of course, the process of being formally invited into and accepting your place within a group or organisation.

Whilst they’re often used as an excuse for a celebration, in traditional societies initiations have much deeper meaning. They introduce people to the values of the community, its myths, traditions, history and legacy. When initiations lack any depth or meaning people can feel cut off, isolated, disenfranchised, like they don’t belong.

Great thinkers like Carl Jung, for example, believe that personal growth and transformation are intrinsic to them and it’s these two things that make initiation such a fundamental need in human beings. Initiating people into a group on a psychological level gives a bigger sense of who people are, feeding their identity, giving them a role and purpose to play in the ‘tribe’.

So how can we initiate people successfully into our organisation and culture?


An opportunity for learning, personal growth and transformation

Initiations aren’t only about new learning; they’re also about a series of ordeals the individual has to go through to win their place within the group. We see much-publicised distorted versions of this when people join gangs or enter cults. But when connected to universal values, initiations can and should be life-affirming.

So in the first instance this is about creating groups that people want to be a part of, that they are scrambling to be initated into.  We need to offer something attractive to the individual; think about what we can give to them and not just what they can give to us.

Let’s appeal to people’s values and belief system, communicate clearly in our marketing, in the conversations we have, in our training and entry criteria the power of the group we’re a part of and the pride people feel for being part of that group, rather than apologising for or excusing it. That doesn’t mean that we only try to attract people with a degree education and build our programmes around that; as a group we have the power to redefine what we’re looking for in those we intitiate into the group based on those values, behaviours and traits that we hold most dear. 

In many groups that people aspire to be a part of – medicine, law, accounting – for those top of their field as sports players and musicians, for example - entry is never easy. People have to stretch themselves, make an effort, take on the challenges thrown their way. So this is perhaps a question we need to ask ourselves as a sector – in order to attract new people do we want to make it easier or do we want people to strive? We need to ensure that we offer the opportunities for real personal growth and transformation, an environment where people can see that they will be able to achieve and we need to recognise that initiation isn’t just about what happens when someone joins, but is needed repeatedly to ensure people feel continually connected to  and part of the organisation. 


Sharing our learning and wisdom

Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, talks about the process of initiation as the ‘hero’s journey’ with a number of distinct stages.  One of these stages involves retaining the wisdom gained on the journey, integrating that wisdom into one’s life and then sharing it with the rest of the community.  We certainly see plenty of examples of inspirational people like this living and sharing their wisdom within the not for profit sector – people that are committed to and feel passionate about the cause. But the cause on its own will only hold people for so long. The work they do, the group they belong to, has to also take them as a human being on some kind of transformational journey. 


Initiation and the fundraising sector

If the sector is to answer the needs we have as human beings to feel part of something, to be bought in, connected to and invested in it, we need to develop our own self-confidence a bit. It’s taken some knocks over the last few years; it’s time to stand tall and be genuinely proud of what we do.

Repeatedly, I hear phrases describing individuals as ‘not just a fundraiser’. Surely, what this potentially does is undermine the group we’re trying to initiate people into; it says fundraising is ‘less than’ rather than ‘more’; that fundraising on its own isn’t enough.

We need to celebrate and shout out about our values, our history, our myths and heroes, the legacies we leave, the opportunities it brings for personal growth and transformation. Charities already do this brilliantly when it comes to their work or beneficiaries, but could your organisation be more creative when thinking about who we want to ‘shout out’ to as potential employees, trustees, volunteers, as well as supporters. Who do we want to initiate into our ‘group’ and why? What ‘trials’ and challenges do we need to build in so that entry becomes something to aspire to, the profession we all know it to be - ‘When I grow up I want to be a fundraiser’ - and not a ‘stop gap’ career or one of easy entry. 

Sarah Carter, Wisdom Fish

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