Institute for Charitable Giving

blue rule

Life’s Compass

blue rule

Finding your “True North” as a nonprofit professional

By Jerold Panas

I was reminded the other day of a parable. You’ll understand why in a moment.

It’s about a man who discovered a cocoon hanging from a tree. As he stopped and watched, there were the first signs of a butterfly struggling to force its body through the cocoon’s tiny opening. After a while, the butterfly stopped making any progress. It appeared as if it had gone as far as it could. So the man decided to help.

He took a knife from his pocket and snipped off the remaining bit of cocoon. That did it. The butterfly emerged easily.

But something was wrong. The butterfly had a swollen body and small shriveled wings. The man expected that at any minute the wings would enlarge and expand to support the body.

Nothing happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the next few painful minutes crawling around the ground, with a body badly swollen and wings that were withered. It wasn’t able to fly.

What the man didn’t understand, in his attempted kindness, is that the cocoon is nature’s protective covering.

The purpose of this fibrous material is to force the butterfly to struggle and battle in order to get through the opening. That’s nature’s way of pushing fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings so that it’s ready for flight once free of the cocoon. It is indeed a marvel of nature but a labor of extraordinary exertion, strain, and struggle.

A celebration of unshakable integrity

I thought of this parable because of what happened at Eckerd College (Florida). Very likely, you’ve heard about the travail and severe struggles the college has been through in the past few months. I can speak about this first-hand. They are a client of mine and I’ve been in the thick of the situation.

But this is not about what happened at Eckerd. There’s an important lesson there, but that’s for another day. The real story is about the board of trustees and Richard Haskins, Vice President of Eckerd. As you’ll see, the real story is a celebration of the board’s unshakable integrity and unwavering commitment. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

There must be struggle

The College had a serious problem. It needed to raise $23 million, and the board imposed on itself a deadline of only four weeks to raise it. It would be an Olympian effort. The Chair, Miles Collier was undaunted and intrepid. For him, as well as the board, it was simply a matter of integrity. He and the board could do no less.

And they raised it!

It was all given by the board, and I can tell you there were some trustees who stretched beyond anything that they thought possible. It was a noble victory for integrity— an amazing testament to the board’s dedication. The miracle wasn’t that they were successful… the miracle is that they had the courage to start.

This is what made me think of the story of the butterfly. There are times when struggles are exactly what we need. They test our fiber, our spirit, our mettle. If we went through life without obstacles and high hurdles, it would cripple us. Like the helpless butterfly, we would never be able to fly.

A board with integrity, such as Eckerd’s, doesn’t compromise. And we as fundraisers, as stewards of our donors’ gifts and guardians of their philanthropic dreams, shouldn’t either. We keep our promises. We meet our commitments. And we live our values. This is what professional— and institutional— integrity is all about.

Even when we are standing alone, we must stand up for what is right. It is what Renata Adler called the positive, dangerous virtue of steadfast character.

Peter F. Drucker, with whom I spoke recently, confirmed my feeling that the ultimate requirement of effective leadership is to earn trust. Otherwise, there’s nothing but a hollow shell of an institution. “Trust is the conviction that leaders mean what they say. It is a belief in something very old-fashioned called integrity.”

Vartan Gregorian, former President of Brown University and now head of the Carnegie Corporation, concurs. “The only things in life that are really important are your dignity and your integrity,” he told me. “Integrity is what you have left when everything else you’ve ever been taught has been forgotten.”

Then, too, there’s Bruce Heilman, President of the University of Richmond and a man who’s faced more than his share of struggles and problems. “I think people who give to the University have to trust you, have to believe what the Board tells them, “Says Heilman. “I can’t imagine a really great school that isn’t known first of all for its standards, its values, and its integrity.”

Find your own rhythm

All that any of us have at the end of the day is our name and our reputation. And reputations are longer in the making than in the losing. A small error, a problem, can blemish the record of the most successful.

We as fundraisers must have a firm focus on what is considered to be the proper direction, the right path to take. This means having crystal-clear and courageous dedication about life’s values and institutional standards.

Integrity. Ethics. Honor. You find your own rhythm, and turn those notes into music. The quality of our life is in direct proportion to the commitment to these qualities and objectives.

Impeccable and rigid standards

There is a scourging moral template. It is respect for yourself, reverence for others, a loyalty to the institution, and a responsibility for all of your actions.

Integrity is the master-weaver, a common thread, both the inner cloth of character and the outer garment of circumstance. You stand unmovable for all things that deal with your character. “Honor and character is all I ask— and I ask God for no more,” said William Blake.

True success in your career is determined by the character of your journey. It means a commitment to impeccable and rigid standards, an unwillingness to settle for anything less than enduring and unshakable principles.

Integrity is everything

It happened at Eckerd. It could happen anywhere. In today’s world, there is a great war taking place in the comfort zone. It means holding fast to what you know is right.

You are in charge of your life. Your greatness lies not in being able to remake the world but in being able to remake yourself.

We as fundraisers are visibly and constantly on trial. We must be led by infectious examples of integrity, not by charisma.

If there’s doubt about whether a course of action is right or wrong, one must refrain. “Righteousness shines with its own brilliance,” Cicero says. “But doubt is a sign that we are possibly considering the wrong direction. Integrity and character provide an incandescent path.”

What the angels know

Reputation is what others think of you. Your true character is what God and the angels know of you. All of your actions and expressions will be as simple as the truth.

“Remove the mask,” says Montaigne. “Strip away the human façade that stands between what you say you are and what you actually are and do.”

Doing the very best you can, doing what is right at this very moment, propels you in the best possible position for the next moment. Nietzsche claims that to gain respect and regard, you must preach by example. You are not punished for your sins, but by them.

Integrity is the epicenter of the fundraiser’s existence. It is what Rainer Maria Rilke called, “living life’s enigmatic struggles.”

Life is a surging, swelling sea of challenging choices and struggles. The uncharted deep. You must find your own compass for successful navigation. The poet Martin Tupper says it is, “A call from God that ignites the spirit.”

Soaring standards. Steadfast character. Uncompromising integrity. These provide the True North to life’s compass.


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