I was a few years into my fundraising career when I found that I was suddenly totally stuck. Nonprofit fundraising strategy is typically pretty straightforward, but my work situation was unusual. Usually you have some combination of relationships and programs to draw on to make your plan, but I only had the most minimal assets in either area combined with surprisingly ambitious organizational goals. Every plan I drafted had what seemed to me to be an almost insurmountable number of problems, and I couldn’t figure out how to move forward.
To make matters worse, the stakes felt really high. I was raising money for an order of sisters, people who had literally given their lives to the service of others and now needed things like nursing facilities and home repairs. It seemed like it should have been easy, but for a variety of reasons (chiefly aging), many of their relationships had eroded over the years, and their willingness to re-engage those relationships and become active participants in the fundraising process was low. And who could blame them? Fundraising is hard for anybody, let alone people who have taken vows of poverty and understand their vocation as the helpers, not the helped.
One of the benefits of working in a religious environment is that there’s always coffee available somewhere. I was getting a mid-morning cup when one of the sisters I was closest to also walked into the kitchen. We were catching up and she could sense that I was struggling with something so she asked what was going on.
I didn’t really want to go into it, and I recall giving some vague answer about not knowing the right way to handle a project that was on my desk. She paused for a moment and then said, “We have a saying here that we use whenever we’re a bit lost. We say, do the next right thing.” And then she walked out.
Not going to lie, I never really figured out how to be totally successful fundraising for those sisters, and eventually passed the position off to someone who was better situated to take the organization where it needed to go. But doing the next right thing got me farther than I would have guessed. I realized that I was trying to do the best thing, and as a result of not knowing what the best thing was, I was also failing to do the good things that I could more easily identify. Doing the next right thing freed me from my planning and my overwhelm and created a clear short-term focus for my energy.
There’s nothing as powerful as a clear plan with achievable short- and long- term goals. But there’s also no reason to let confusion, lack of clarity, or even the lack of a plan impede all progress. By focusing on the next right thing, you create momentum in the direction of your goals. You iterate. You grow. You make some progress. And hopefully, eventually, the energy you put into the next right thing will light the path towards your dreams.