ar-ro-gant, adjective

1. Having or displaying a sense of overbearing self-worth or self-importance.

2. Marked by or arising from a feeling or assumption of one’s superiority toward others.

You’ve met them.  They’re everywhere – buried inside so many good organizations.  People puffed up with unreasonable and inordinate self-esteem, people who regularly show scorn and contempt for others, folks who are domineering, overbearing and downright difficult to like.
And many of them are managers and leaders.  I don’t know how they got there.  In the company I owned, I would weed these people out, no matter how good they were!
But there they are and you have to deal with them.
Why am I talking about this and how does it relate to major gifts?
Well, two reasons.  First, I have been seeing a lot of it recently and it has me thinking.  And, secondly, it is something that can happen to any MGO when he or she lands a large gift and I want to inoculate us all against this so it doesn’t happen any more.
And, by extension, when a major gift program is successful, I have seen managers and leaders just change before my very eyes into arrogant monsters – not all of them, but enough that it merits writing about it.
Why does this happen?
Well, I’m not a psychologist, but I know enough about myself and my journey to know that I used to think most of my success was about me.  Used to.  Then I went through the counseling I needed to go through and discovered how desperately inadequate I felt, how low my self esteem was, and how I was awkwardly trying to give myself value by grabbing as much attention and credit as I possibly could.
In the early days of the company my business partner and I founded, I remember feeling so jealous of the attention my partner was receiving as a result of getting clients for the business (sales), that I insisted in being involved in sales even though I wasn’t good at it!
My business partner graciously allowed me to make a fool of myself by letting me play a major role in a sales presentation for a large prospective client.  I messed it up royally and was so embarrassed.  It wasn’t till later in our business relationship that I found peace with my gifts and my role and was able to not do this attention grabbing thing I was doing way too frequently.
So one reason for the arrogance we see could be that the person thinks it’s really all about him or her.
Another reason is fear.  I have seen MGO’s, major gift managers and grant writers who are filled with so much fear about their jobs, their performance or the performance of a colleague that is they believe to be so much better than they are, that they fill their environment with bluster and swag, as if that will protect them or change the circumstances they find themselves in.
Another reason for the arrogance could be a simple lack of awareness.  (I’m trying to be really generous here!)  Let’s say a MGO has been working hard with a donor and the donor finally decides to give a large gift.  BAM! – the MGO thinks it’s all about him.  And so he struts around like a rooster in a hen-house loudly displaying all his achievements in this situation.
He is not aware of the rather mystical, I would say, mysterious thing that happened in the donor’s heart and mind that caused the gift. True, the MGO made the case and presented it. But I think that is less than half the reason the gift actually happened.  It was the donor who found comfort and connection with the idea – it was the donor who found fulfillment and outlet for his or her feelings of compassion and caring for our planet and its people.  It was the donor whose heart and hands opened up and let the funds spill out and bless the organization.
Goodness!  How we forget about the donor!
Just to be clear, I am not saying a MGO should not take satisfaction with securing a large gift.  Nope.  It is a fact that, had it not been for that MGO’s actions, the transaction would likely not have occurred.  So that is something to be proud of and feel good about.
In fact, when MGO’s call me and tell me about a gift coming in I genuinely celebrate with them in a loud, generous and dramatic way.  And I build them up and tell them they have done good work.  I also remind them how thankful we need to be for the donor’s generosity.
So, how should we deal with arrogance in the major gift workplace?  Here are my suggestions:

  1. When you see it, try to move from a place of judgment to a place of compassion.  This is very difficult to do, especially if you are experiencing the effects of the person’s arrogance.  I try to look past the behavior to the heart of the person.  They are hurting.  They are feeling alone.  They feel small even though they are trying to look big.  Move towards compassion.
  2. Talk about these thoughts and principles in your workplace.   Do it in meetings.  Do it in your emails.  Fill your work environment with thoughts about serving, about the special role of the donor, about humility.  Model the behavior.  It will catch on.
  3. When a large gift comes in because of work you’ve done, fall on your face with thankfulness and humility.  I don’t mean to do that literally, although you could. I mean in your heart. Sit for a moment with the wonderful thing that has just happened. Marvel at the greatness of it – that someone could part with that sum of money, that you have been blessed to be a part of it, that something really special just happened that will bring tremendous joy to others, and that you are so lucky to have a job that brings you so much joy and fulfillment.
  4. Quietly thank yourself for the good job you have done.  And be ready to receive the thanks of others.  You deserve it.  You have been part of something big and meaningful.
  5. Watch yourself, so that you don’t take all of this too seriously or so you don’t take too much of the credit.  Be balanced about it.  Even talk to others about the important role the donor played, and the important role others played, like those who helped you write up a case etc.  Just watch yourself so you don’t go down a track of getting puffed up.  Also, keep in mind that, as humans, our natural tendency is to be ego-driven.  And often, when the ego is in the driver’s seat, the team is dishonored, people are hurt, everyone is made small and the organization suffers.  There is one situation right now that Jeff and I are aware of in which the top person is so consumed with herself and her ability to raise money that she’s resorted to asking for six and seven figure gifts via email.  And the donors are getting very upset.  This is a situation where the MGO’s need to watch themselves – they are totally out of control.

We are so lucky to be involved in this kind of work!  Every morning, when I wake up, I start my day feeling thankful for life, for those who love me, for the lessons I am learning from those who don’t like me, for the hard situations I face and for the work I get to do.  What a great place to be!