How often have you left a donor strategy meeting with your team and thought, “That was a total waste of time.” It’s an hour of everyone reporting on what they’ve done well, only sharing successes (sometimes even repeating the same ones, meeting after meeting). It isn’t an authentic celebration – it’s a parade of everyone trying to look perfect. And it’s life-sucking!

Yes, part of this is having a good meeting outline and process. But to reach a place of creativity, vulnerability, learning, and vibrant brainstorming, you need to pursue something bigger. You need a safe space for vulnerability to thrive.

Brené Brown defines vulnerability as the willingness to show up and be seen, despite uncertain outcomes. This isn’t about oversharing all your thoughts and details of your life; it’s about being willing to speak truth into a conversation, propose a new idea, point out a problem or missing opportunity in a plan, or simply ask for help and ideas from others.

Brené also talks about how she teaches about vulnerability and courage, which really are the same thing, not opposite ends of the spectrum. Each courageous act requires some level of vulnerability because you never know how it will land.

Unfortunately, many times our vulnerability gets labeled by society or our work culture as a sign of weakness or fragility. And if, on top of that, there is a culture of reprimand, criticism, or ostracization when one is vulnerable, no one will ever speak up again.

As a result, the very thing we need the most (fresh creative ideas and innovation) never get the support they need to grow because they require vulnerability. The creative ideas for meaningful ways to tell donors they are making a difference, or a big bold blended gift idea are not going to happen if your team doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable.

As a leader, it all starts with your modeling. Be honest about your own mistakes and share what you plan to do to fix it. Ask for help and ideas from your team. Show appreciation and celebrate when others on the team are vulnerable and courageous.

Here’s how you can model how to be the recipient of the team’s donor strategy brainstorming session by bringing your own challenges with a donor or board member to the table for discussion. And then you can use this formula to structure your future donor strategy meetings to be more impactful and meaningful.

  • Share what you want to accomplish, what you have tried, and where you feel stuck.
  • Ask the team to challenge your thinking with questions like, “How did you draw that conclusion? Is it a story you have made up in your head or something the donor told you directly?”
  • Ask them to each share one big bold idea, without any constraints, and then allow creativity to see where one of those bold ideas might lead.
  • When you land on an approach, ask for great questions that curiously explore that idea.
  • After brainstorming together as a team, then introduce a second part of the meeting where break it down into next steps in order to bring the idea to life.

During this exchange, you are modeling being open, curious, appreciative of ideas, and genuinely thankful for the resulting strategies and next steps that came out of the session. Come back in the future and share how their ideas made an impact. Model for your team what Brené Brown says summed up what she has learned about vulnerability in her research through the years, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; […] who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

The more you model it, create a safe container for it, and celebrate it, the more your team can step into vulnerability. And this is how you start creating transformational strategy meetings that will move your organization forward.