We All Fundraise Together - An Interview with RJ Caswell
In this episode, Andrew chats with RJ Caswell, a leadership coach and organizational consultant from Charlotte, NC. Andrew and RJ discuss the importance of succession planning, leadership development, and collaboration. Together, Andrew and RJ also ponder the unique challenges of small nonprofits, specifically the fact that everyone on the nonprofit staff is a fundraiser, whether they have the title or not!
RJ has extensive nonprofit experience as almost his entire career has been in the nonprofit sector. His expertise ranges from private school counseling to adoption support services to pastoral ministry in churches. RJ started his own nonprofit focused on adoption counseling and education, and from that experience (and his experience in church leadership), RJ learned all about nonprofit organizational structure, staff management, and flexible leadership.
Church Ministry and Collaboration
Relatively soon after starting his nonprofit, RJ was called to join the staff at his church as the outreach and missions director. While the move was unexpected, it was a blessing, and in this position, RJ learned the value of collaboration and mentorship. RJ came to the position with very little ministry specific experience, and his success in the position resulted from his tenacity and his willingness to reach out to others who had more experience in the role than he did.
Stepping Up in Leadership
After serving in outreach for a few years, RJ moved up in his church’s leadership to become executive pastor. Once again, RJ stepped into the role with little formal training, and he found himself managing a large staff and becoming involved in just about every aspect of the church. RJ learned how to do his job by jumping right into the fire. Again, he reached out to other, more-experienced executive pastors in the area, and he used his network to build his professional skill set and to serve as encouraging (and challenging!) support for his new role.
During RJ’s time in leadership, the church’s senior pastor decided to retire. Through this experience, RJ learned the importance of preparing for leadership transition. A successful transition requires a lot of time and forethought, and it might introduce lots of unexpected emotions and tensions within the organization’s membership. RJ notes that succession planning is a difficult subject to broach, but he wishes more nonprofits and ministries would give it the attention and preparation it deserves!
Andrew and RJ have a long discussion about the challenges that today’s leaders face. In his coaching, RJ often sees leaders struggling with loneliness and isolation. They wonder who they can trust with their concerns, and they are often looking for a safe space to share their struggles and receive encouragement. RJ shares about how it takes time to learn effective leadership, and leaders need to learn to be patient with themselves as they learn and grow. Just because a leader cannot perform perfectly from the beginning does not at all mean that the leader is not qualified to lead.
RJ and Andrew close by talking about how, especially in the nonprofit and ministry realm, everyone who works for an organization is a fundraiser, even if they don’t wear the title of a development professional. So much of fundraising depends on how senior leaders and program managers are spending their time. Are leaders meeting with donors? Are program leaders running effective programs and building fruitful relationships? Development officers face a strong headwind if there’s dysfunction on the programming side.
- If you could fundraise for any organization or cause at any time in history, what would it be?
- I would raise funds for something around child advocacy and vulnerable children.
- I don’t have a specific person in mind, but I would love to meet with someone who is in the upper echelon of wealth (Bezos, for example). I would love to pick their brain on how they approach wealth and generosity.
- Absolutely! We have a generous God who will provide everything out there. All of the resources are from God, and we are here to be the dispensers of generosity.
- I’d tell myself to ask more questions of people who are in my role and who have done it before. It took me a while to get to this, and I really wish I’d done it earlier in my career.
- The executive pastor who hired me was my most influential mentor. He taught me, he believed in me, and he trusted me to do my job. He also showed me that I was called to my ministry. I also had a boss on the opposite end of the leadership spectrum, and he was critical and authoritative in his management. He taught me about the type of leader I did not want to be!
- I lived in England for a summer. I love to travel with my family, and traveling opened my eyes to the fact that I don’t know how to do everything.
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It’s a phenomenal book that had a profound impact on my counseling and my leadership.
If you would like to connect with RJ, please reach out to him on LinkedIn. Send him a message or make a comment. He’d love to connect!
Wow! RJ and I had a fabulous discussion, and I’m glad you’re here for my takeaways from our chat. I probably could have come up with a few more takeaways from this one, but I’ll give you my top three!
The timing of this podcast episode is awesome. I recently spent a few days in Belton, Texas facilitating a gathering of campus ministry staff from the Diocese of Austin. We had a great time of reflection about campus ministry, its successes, best practices, and the challenges that campuses face. It’s amazing how many of the themes from that gathering came up in my chat with RJ, and that duplication means they must make it into my takeaways. My first takeaway from my discussion with RJ is about collaboration and mentorship. RJ shared how, when he was thrust into roles in which he had very little formal training or prior experience, he prioritized reaching out to other people who were doing similar roles but who had been doing it longer. He asked questions, he shared ideas, and really, he built friendships, and because of the help of these mentors, he was able to do his job effectively. RJ was open to learning from others, and he was not shy about his lack of expertise. The recent campus ministry gathering highlighted this need for mentorship and relationship as well. Often, I come to this podcast talking about the relationships we need to build with donors. Today, however, I’m going to challenge you to build relationships with other professionals who do work that is similar to yours. If you’re a campus ministry, reach out to other campus ministers in your area. If you’re a nonprofit fundraiser, call up a development professional from another local nonprofit. Your goal in initiating these relationships is to create space. You’ll create space to share ideas, ask questions, share challenges, and accept feedback. Use the expertise of others to improve your own work. There is absolutely no shame in reaching out for help or advice, and more often than not, people are happy to share what they know. Think of it in reverse as well. If someone calls you and seeks your expertise, I want to encourage you to give them some of your time, share your wisdom. You never know what you might learn from them as well.
For my second takeaway, I go back to one of the first very wise things that RJ shared. He was describing his experience of starting his own nonprofit, and he said, “Everybody in nonprofit work is a fundraiser. You may or may not have the title!” Truer words have never been spoken. This idea of everyone in an organization being a fundraiser speaks to a variety of situations. First, in small to medium organizations and ministries, you may not have a specific staff position for development. The executive director or the pastor or the campus minister may be the driving force behind fundraising, whether they like it or not. There’s no one else to do it. Second, even if you do have a development professional or two on staff, the development office does not work in a silo. Fundraisers can only be effective when they have the support of the entire staff. If the pastoral or programming staff doesn’t offer fruitful programs, there are no stories or metrics to share with donors. Or, sometimes potential donors have a better relationship with a pastor than they have with a fundraiser. In that case, the pastor must work with the fundraiser to ask for a major gift. It could be the pastor’s presence at a meeting that encourages the donor to give. (We discussed this very topic at our gathering the other week, specifically as it applies to the relationship between pastoral and development teams in campus ministry. Too often there’s the inclination to divide the teams based on role - development staff raises money, and pastoral staff spends the money on programs. There’s a lack of intentional relationship building, and both teams suffer when they assume they don’t play a larger role in the work of their counterparts. Development staff or no, all staff create the environment, produce the programs, and embrace the vision of the ministry. All of this contributes to the ability to raise money!
Finally, I leave you with a takeaway from RJ’s reflection on leadership. He shared about the isolation that he sees in many of the leaders he coaches. We commiserated about how it’s lonely at the top of an organization because of the constant need to innovate and tackle new things AND the lack of people in the organization who know what you’re doing. We talked about how development professionals often feel the same isolation for many of the same reasons. They’re often thrust into a job for which they don’t have specific training; they might just be fairly organized and have passion for the organization. They’re not trained, and other staff don’t know how to train or support them. They have to figure things out on their own, and that’s a scary place to be, especially if the need for money is urgent. These fundraisers might think they’re incapable of being successful, and they might be tempted to give up. But, RJ reminded us that it’s necessary to take a learning period and accept that funds might not come in during this period and that’s okay. It’s okay to take time to learn and try new things, and it’s okay to take time to reach out to mentors and find a professional networking community. I love how RJ said it, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe you’re perfect for your position and you just need to give it time to grow.” Thus, I leave you with this takeaway - take the time for professional development and collaboration. It might reduce immediate funds coming in, but in the long run, with what you’ve gained, you’re likely to find more sustained success.
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT BELOW:
01:39.36 aggierobison: Howdy, everyone, and welcome back to another episode of the Petrus Development Show. I'm thrilled that you're with us here today. Today, I have a special guest, rjcaswell. RJ is a leadership coach and a leadership and organizational consultant. Um, he lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and you will hear his Charlotte, North Carolina accent when he's talking on the mic, which is nice and silky smooth. I love it, and we're going to talk about fundraising, talk about leadership, talk about all the things that. Ah, RJ has done in his life and his career, and I'm excited. So RJ, thanks so much for being here on the call today.
02:15.69 RJ: Ah, it's great. It's a privilege. Thanks for inviting me.
02:19.90 aggierobison: Great. So we usually start by telling us a little bit about your background. So tell us about your background. How did you come to be in the position you are in life and in your career today? Yeah, ah.
02:30.10 RJ: Wow! Such an easy question to start with, right? Um, so I've always been in nonprofit work, although in very different sectors. I spent the first, goodness, probably 8-10 years in private schools, independent schools, a couple of different schools. My background is actually counseling. My graduate degree is in counseling, and so I used that in two different faith-based schools early on, was married graduate school, thankful for my wife to teach and put me through graduate school, and then I was gonna use my counseling degree for my entire career, right? That was my thought at the time, and do it in schools. I loved adolescence. I loved the energy, vibrancy of schools, and did that for 4 years in Tennessee, and then that brought us actually to Charlotte, where I've been since 2004, working at a different school as our journey as a family. So actually, right, my family intersects my profession. Um, we started our family in 2004, and that was through adoption. And so now we have four kids who are actually all teenagers. Um, but we adopted all four of our kids really between 2004 and 2007-8, and it was through then, again, I was a counselor at the school, but I was also doing...
03:54.95 RJ: Some private practice on the side to earn extra money. Schools aren't always a lucrative profession. It's a nonprofit profession, but it was not necessarily lucrative, and I was doing some counseling therapy on the side and ended up getting really entrenched in the adoption community. And so I actually left schools. I thought I was going to be in school work, school-based nonprofit work my entire career, but left that in, um, '07-'08 and started my own nonprofit organization focused on adoption counseling and education. So I really thought that was going to be it. I worked with a lot of adopted families, adoptive Christian adoption agencies, faith-based adoption agencies. We did training on attachment trauma, working with families interested in adoption, working with teenagers who were adopted, walking through grief crisis, you name it. Um, and of course, I had my family as well. We were an adoptive family. I worked with couples with infertility, and again, that really... experience, if anybody started a nonprofit, you can identify. But I really started this on my own. I remember googling how to write bylaws.
05:06.92 RJ: Googling how to fill out a 501(c)(3) application. I advise everybody now, and I've been fortunate to help other folks probably start 7 to 10 nonprofits over the last fifteen to twenty years. I always say, raise $2500 and pay an attorney.
05:10.20 aggierobison: Ah.
05:23.68 RJ: To do all your paperwork. So yeah, that's just a side note, nothing about fundraising, nothing about anything else, but save yourself a lot of time and effort and get somebody to do that paperwork for you. But I was doing everything, and that was really my taste of, I would say, direct fundraising.
05:26.30 aggierobison: Ah, yeah.
05:39.85 RJ: Um, really, schools are large and they have their own departments, and I would still say everybody in nonprofit work is a fundraiser. You may or may not have a title, but I think it was more pronounced when I was running my own organization. So I was doing the fundraising. I was doing the counseling. I was doing the marketing. I was doing the business, which I shouldn't have done. The business, the accounting. Um, right, you name it, I was doing that, and really thought that was going to be the path for my career, right? And that only lasted a year and a half.
06:14.80 aggierobison: Wow.
06:16.30 RJ: Which is not normal for a nonprofit, right? A founder. Um, and actually got asked to come on staff at my church that my family had been attending for the last couple of years. And so in 2009, ended up joining the church as an outreach missions director and ended up being a pastor but involved in missions and outreach. It was weird, right, to start something and close it a year and a half later. Um, my wife will remind me that the church job came with benefits, and we had...
06:37.50 aggierobison: Yeah.
06:42.89 aggierobison: Yeah, yeah.
06:53.28 aggierobison: Ah, and an accountant, right?
06:56.20 RJ: Right, all of that. All that helped support. We had four young kids, and you know, benefits were hard to come by for insurance and those sorts of things where you're just trying to make things work month to month, so didn't know it at the time, didn't set out to work at a church, but it was a gift.
07:08.88 aggierobison: Um.
07:14.67 RJ: And so did that role for 2 years, and I think that's really where I found my sweet spot, which was really on strategy, on vision, helping really see the future for an area and taking an organization somewhere different. And got to do that, had a blank slate, had a phenomenal mentor who was my boss, and really gave me free rein to create, mess up, build bridges, build partnerships. So I was able to travel to China, to Ethiopia, develop some really unbelievable partnerships through that. And that really, right there, is where to me, I found I love collaboration, I love partnerships, and if done well, it takes time, it takes effort, it takes trust, you can do more together than by yourself and go.
08:06.15 aggierobison: Yeah, that's well said. No, that's well said. That is sometimes especially as the, yeah, as, and you know, as a founder or really any type, you know, in leadership in ministry, in particular, it seems like, you know, you're always short-staffed. There's always...
08:10.76 RJ: You gonna say something, right? It's messy.
08:23.52 aggierobison: You know, a need to do more work, and you think, well, you know, we can't bring anybody else on to do it. So I'm just going to pilot on, do it myself, and it really is about finding a team and finding partners. Um, that can help you out and allow you to do what you're really good at and what you're called to. And, um, find other people that can support in that work as well.
08:44.47 RJ: Absolutely. It was actually then, I mean, when I came on staff at the church, I never worked at a church, never thought I was going to work at a church, and never done the job they gave me. And so I was like, I'm on an island. Um, had a great boss.
08:59.53 RJ: But um, I started asking around in Charlotte, going who else is doing this job that I can call? And somebody introduced me to somebody who's become one of my closest friends. Now we've known each other for 15 years, but at another church who had the same job, and I literally cold-called him, called him up, and said, somebody gave me your name. Um, can we go to coffee? And he said yes, yeah, he said yes, and we ended up doing lunch and realized we're from the same hometown, um, similar backgrounds. He had been doing the job at the church for about, at that time, 13 years, a little further down the road for me, and um...
09:21.50 aggierobison: That's awesome.
09:39.32 RJ: Thankfully, he let me pepper him with questions, and that ended up turning into a lifelong friendship with a colleague and helped actually helped us partner our churches a couple years later with other churches and start a whole other organization that brought churches together in Charlotte to pray for each other, know each other, not be isolated.
09:55.85 aggierobison: Um, ah.
09:59.15 RJ: And so it was ah a really amazing experience to see how God can use relationships, partnerships, collaboration if we can kind of open our hands a little bit through that. And so did that job only 2 years, and then the executive pastor for large churches, you know, kind of the person who runs...
10:07.61 aggierobison: No, totally.
10:19.19 RJ: The organization um, left, and I was asked to be an executive pastor again. No training for that. But I don't know if there is training for that. Definitely not in college. I didn't go to seminary, but not even in seminaries do they train to be kind of ah an executive at a church. Um, so stepped into that overnight. Um, you know, was responsible for 50 plus staff, had 12 direct reports. Um, every ah area of the church reported up to me from finance facilities, HR and finance, to all the ministry areas all of our our pastoral staff. As well. And so um, really learned um, literally by jumping into the fire of that first year.
11:04.81 aggierobison And did you do something similar? Did you reach out to other pastors or build a network to pepper them with questions or to build that community to help yourself grow? Yeah.
11:14.89 RJ Very quickly. Yeah, one was actually my mentor who was the executive pastor who left. We're still friends. He still texts me, and I still ask him for advice. So even though he moved to Tennessee to work at a different church, I was calling him every month. And then I quickly got connected to a group for executive pastors within our denomination. So I joined that group and also became a part of the leadership network, which is a large church-based leadership group, and they had some programs for executive pastors. So I tried to jump into the community and professional development to learn how to do this job well. And I had a blast. We were really growing, so I got to do a lot of exciting things. We had different locations in the city of Charlotte, so I learned about real estate, lease agreements, leadership development, reorganizing the organization, and even managing staff transitions. It was challenging at times, but I was blessed with a supportive team. My leadership team during that season could stand up against any other team. We worked together, trusted each other, and had a blast. I ended up serving as an executive pastor for a little over 10 years. During that time, we also focused on succession planning, which I wrote a lot about on LinkedIn because it's an important but often overlooked aspect in nonprofits and churches. It's usually an afterthought, which becomes a significant challenge for organizations to move forward. In our context, when our senior pastor retired after 42 years, it posed unique challenges. The research I did showed that anytime a leader has been in charge for 15 years or more, it brings about unique dynamics. So much of the culture is built around that senior leader, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It becomes ingrained in the fabric of the organization.
13:37.30 RJ Absolutely, especially after 42 years. He was the church for probably 90% of the people who attended. They had never had another pastor. He was the pastor, and then he was gone. It made people question, "Who is our church? Who is leading us?" It was a challenge for us, but it also presented opportunities.
14:21.45 RJ It was a challenge, but I'll give him credit. He's the one who actually came to me and said we need to start talking about my transition. He didn't love the word "retirement," he said "transition." But I'll give him credit; he recognized this was going to be honestly hard for him.
14:28.49 aggierobison Great.
14:36.74 aggierobison No.
14:38.45 RJ Even though it was going to be time in the next couple years, but really hard for the church for all those reasons. So we did a lot of work, took a couple years doing research, putting together some teams and committees to figure out how to do that well. How to walk through that, all those pieces, elders involved, committees involved. Yeah, yeah, it was a couple years, yes, but I would still say it takes that long, especially for somebody if the succession's going to be the retirement of a longstanding leader.
14:55.33 aggierobison So you spent a couple of years planning for the transition. Wow, okay, that's pretty rare as well.
15:13.68 RJ Whether it's again nonprofit, I would even say for-profit or church, it takes a while because it surfaces emotions and tensions and things you never thought were going to come up that were important either to that leader or to the organization. I think it surfaced so many sacred cows or elephants in a room. Whatever words you want to use, people say, "Oh, that can change," and then you start changing and they really didn't mean it or they forgot about this one thing that was unsaid.
15:34.79 aggierobison Yeah, right.
15:46.94 aggierobison And...
15:50.40 RJ And so I really do think it takes a couple years to really walk through those pieces and try to surface as much as you can. And I think we did a good job, and we still didn't surface all of what was to come, which ended up being a church merger. So I did.
16:03.52 aggierobison Um, yeah.
16:07.79 RJ We had been working on succession planning and implementation for a couple of years, and then I ended up leading a merger of two churches as part of that plan for four years. Merging any organizations is hard, but when you add people's faith community and where they worship to the equation, it becomes even more challenging.
16:13.60 aggierobison Um, wow.
16:26.82 RJ It was interesting, and that was hard because we were changing the culture. Both former churches had their own culture, and now with a new leader and merged staff and elders, we had to navigate merging the cultures. We also had new mission, vision, and values that we tried to establish as common, but one church had a 45-year history while the other had a 10-year history, and everyone brings their own history into the mix.
16:33.36 aggierobison Um, yeah.
16:46.77 RJ We could talk about the positive and the future, which I'm prone to do as a futurist and strategist. For me, it was easy to focus on moving forward. But I learned a lot about grief and transition for many people.
17:02.11 RJ And um, how you need to take a lot of time, and we probably did not take enough time on how to approach grief for staff.
17:29.56 aggierobison Well, it's interesting because you know, right? There are five stages of grief, right? And I'm sure you could tell me what they all are, right? But one of the ones that comes out a lot of times is anger, and you don't realize that people are, you know, when they're angry about a transition, it's...
17:34.56 RJ Um, yeah, yeah.
17:49.25 aggierobison A lot of that anger is just born out of sadness and grief about loss, and that's the hardest thing. That's probably the hardest thing because that anger really stings, and it makes you, you know, in some cases, dig in and say, "No, we're doing this. I don't care what arrows are coming at me as the leader."
17:50.84 RJ Um, it's exactly right.
18:05.76 aggierobison And then, you know, the other side is like, "Alright, well, maybe I'm doing it wrong. Maybe I'm not making the right decision, and we need to, you know, undo some of this." Um, and you know, either way has pros and cons to it. But it's hard because you take that anger personally as the leader or as the leadership team. Um, when in reality, helping people process their grief is what is going to help move through that transition the best.
18:23.57 RJ Um, yes.
18:35.99 RJ I would agree we needed you at the time. Let's walk through that. But because I do think it, right? So much is loss, and what I also found is so many people write life is all about change, whether it's jobs, family, kids.
18:38.29 aggierobison Yeah, yeah.
18:52.50 RJ Moving cities, whatever it is, and I think they, so many people, and I would say I'm in this camp too, even though I was working for the church and a member of the church, they don't want the church to change. They want it to be the constant for them. So any change is perceived as a threat. In their faith tradition, in that church, synagogue, whatever it might be, they really, I think, have an expectation for that to be a constant place for them and an anchor. And in many ways, it still is and can be.
19:20.94 aggierobison Right, right.
19:26.93 RJ But going through periods of change and transition, I think magnify what you just shared about loss and sadness. That was my time to exit. Yeah, well, and I had the...
19:32.24 aggierobison Yeah, yeah. So you went through a merger, and then was that your time to exit that role? Ah, yeah.
19:45.18 RJ You know, the church was wonderful. I actually had shared that when we started doing succession planning, that I thought I would help get them through succession and transition. What ended up being a merger, and my time would probably be done, and they asked me to stay, asked me to walk through that, and I did. So I knew on the other side of that, it was a new leadership team. We got that in place. I felt like there was stability for this new church, and it was my time to go. Okay, I felt pretty comfortable that God had said, "You've done what I've asked you to do, and let's move on." And so, honestly, that was fall 2021.
20:06.57 aggierobison Um, yeah.
20:22.74 RJ Time of Discovery. I had some time. The church blessed me and was looking at how do I use who I am in this next season. Ended up getting connected with the folks at Infinite Giving as a startup and really looking at, you know...
20:40.42 RJ Helping nonprofits think about sustainability, which I love. Um, so even though I worked in a church for 12 years, you know, I helped start probably 12 different ministries in the city, either startup funding, advising, consulting, or on the board. I sit on three boards now. Um, so I'm really passionate about that process and about sustainability for nonprofits, and went, "This is a space that needs some disruption and needs services to small-medium-sized nonprofits." And so I did that for a year. Um, revenue probably wasn't there to...
21:13.50 aggierobison Um, no.
21:18.66 RJ Sustain positions and move forward. The economy didn't help, some headwinds with helping nonprofits consider investing in a recession. But I learned a lot.
21:28.98 aggierobison Oh yeah.
21:35.33 RJ Honestly, that was my kind of foray into LinkedIn and writing things I've never done before, and I really felt like I added value. It helped me process my career through writing, and so I found a love connected with you through LinkedIn and many other amazing leaders across the country. I highly value the past year, and I think it's setting me up for what's to come.
22:03.54 aggierobison That's awesome. Well, I appreciate you sharing your story and your journey. So I'd love to go back and dive into a couple of those pieces because I think they're pretty fascinating. One is the adoption aspect, right? That's one of the ways that we found common ground in some of our LinkedIn connections.
22:07.50 RJ Um...
22:20.28 RJ Um, with...
22:21.47 aggierobison Your kids are adopted. I have one that's adopted, and sharing about the positives and challenges of that has been really fruitful and helpful. But what was that experience like starting an organization specifically to help families be able to adopt?
22:43.90 RJ Sure, I mean, it was, right? Our experience as a family, we have four kids. They're all teenagers now, and they were all adopted. We knew, growing up in the south, our family looked really different visually. My two older children are both Guatemalan Latino, and my twins, who are in ninth grade now, are from Ghana, so they're Ghanaian. So as a family, the reality is when we went to Trader Joe's or the grocery store or Target, it was two white parents, two Latino children, and two black children. So when they were babies and small, there was an experience there for all of us on how to walk through that. With my counseling background and heart for serving people, we received a lot of questions, and my wife did as well, about adoption in general. Then we started getting referrals to go.
23:23.87 aggierobison Yeah.
23:40.28 RJ Hey, can you talk to this family? They're really struggling, or we know somebody who adopted a much older child and that child's struggling. Can you step in? So I started researching what's out there to support families and realized that at that time, this was again...
23:51.43 aggierobison Yeah, yeah, yeah.
23:57.39 RJ ...around 2006, 2007, there was not a lot. So I talked to a couple of other friends in the counseling world who encouraged me to go, saying that there's space for this. Let's go support families.
24:13.97 aggierobison Yeah, well, when we started our adoption journey, it was an introduction to a world that gave us an education in adoption that I didn't even know I needed.
24:16.61 RJ We're in.
24:24.23 RJ Right.
24:27.43 aggierobison And we learned about all the different paths to adoption, from foster to adopt, international, domestic. There are a number of different ways. And one of the things we specifically learned about with domestic adoption is the idea of open adoption. That was something that we never knew anything about and were really terrified at first.
24:42.14 RJ Um, yep.
24:47.15 aggierobison The agency that we ended up working with had been around for 40-45 years at the time and had been one of the pioneers of open adoption. They gave us books and resources, and we...
24:51.33 RJ Um.
25:05.41 RJ Um, yeah.
25:07.70 aggierobison ...read them and dove in. It was so helpful. Now, Nora is 8, and we've been to Arkansas 7 times to visit her family. They send birthday presents, and we've met her birth father who lives in New York. It's been a wild ride, but that experience... I don't know that we would have been open to it without some of those resources you're talking about and having received that education on how this could be beneficial if we were open to it.
25:38.45 RJ I mean, I think you make a great point. When we were going through it as well, we wanted to be parents, and that was our path. We started down the path of international adoption because, honestly, at that time, around 2002-2003, as we started processing, praying, and talking about family and how that was going to happen, the process for international adoption was really long. So even though we brought our oldest home in 2004, the process really started in 2002. Like you, when we heard about open domestic adoption, we were fearful as well, which is so unfortunate because it's not typically the case. In fact, as I jumped into the clinical side of it years later, I realized that the best outcomes for families and children in domestic adoption come from having an open adoption option.
26:13.20 aggierobison Um, you have agreed, yep, correct.
26:30.40 RJ And so we actually didn't get really good wisdom and counsel, and I'm thankful for my kids. I mean, it all worked out, and I love my family, but at that critical point, to what you're saying, there weren't many resources for us to grasp onto. We ended up meeting with an attorney, and they were the ones giving us advice. Nothing against attorneys, but they didn't know the world of attachment, trauma, and research.
26:58.18 aggierobison Right, right. Yeah, they know the laws and the legalities behind it. Yeah.
27:15.60 aggierobison Sort of recognize this is how we can be the best parents to our kids and this is how we can help other families, which I think is just really powerful.
27:25.21 RJ Absolutely. I mean, that's it. It was right. I had a good job, and I remember going to the head of the school and saying, "I'm not coming back next year," and he said, "What? What are you doing?" And I shared, and he just couldn't understand it. And honestly, probably, I couldn't fully understand it, but I knew there was enough there to go, "There's a big gap in serving families in this way, and why not me?"
27:51.17 aggierobison Yeah. Well, I appreciate you sharing that, RJ. I know that everybody's story is personal, and I appreciate you sharing it with me and with our audience. I'd love to now shift to another part of the story that you're talking about, and this is the idea of leadership. And then I think we could probably even dial in even closer into this idea of succession. So now you're a leadership coach, you work with people professionally, you work with people as volunteers, as board members. What are some of the most critical components of leadership, and it could be particular to the nonprofit or ministry space or not, that you see leaders either actively struggling with or looking for solutions to that you've been able to help with?
28:38.11 RJ Sure, and I think probably it's right. My experience is how I end up getting shaped in this. I remember when I stepped into this role, it was overnight. I had 12 director reports and was responsible for 50 people. What in the world? I didn't have a category for that.
28:50.18 aggierobison Um, yeah.
28:55.89 aggierobison Right.
28:58.11 RJ And so I think a lot of my coaching ends up being with other leaders who step into that and don't know where to turn. I think quickly for leaders, and this is for new leaders and leaders who've been leading for 40 years, isolation and loneliness.
29:11.64 aggierobison A.
29:17.30 RJ And I think that's not something we talk about much. I don't see it written about much, probably because it doesn't sound strong. But I think a majority of leaders, and I was one of them, deal with isolation and loneliness. Who can I trust? Have I built a place that I can trust? Can I trust my board? Can I trust my leadership team? If you're in a nonprofit, you have a lot of constituencies, especially in a church, members, staff, boards, and you feel...
29:45.79 aggierobison Oh.
29:54.77 RJ ...like you shrink your world really quickly and try. I think that's why I'm so passionate about coaching. It provides a safe place to process, reflect, look in the mirror, get encouragement, and realize you're not crazy. You can do this. So when I think of coaching and organizations, I think so much of it revolves around loneliness, isolation, and trust.
30:18.78 aggierobison Yeah, and I would agree with that 100%. Everybody knows the phrase, "It's lonely at the top," and it's not because it's, you know, it's not true, right? And to kind of take this to, you know, a lot of our audience is fundraisers, so I think the same issues apply to fundraising.
30:24.30 RJ Um, yeah.
30:35.34 aggierobison Right. So fundraisers, they struggle with that loneliness, that isolation, and that trust as well. Because, you know, in many ways, they're kind of put into a position where they haven't been trained, but they love the organization.
30:35.84 RJ Um, if not for my kids.
30:47.89 RJ Um, yeah.
30:52.97 aggierobison We think you can fundraise, so come be our fundraiser, and then they're not trained, and then nobody else in the organization really knows how to help and support them. So they're kind of on an island, figuring out our fundraising, and you know, we need this much money. Go find it. And then there's just a very clear, it appears to be very clear from a fundraising standpoint, are you successful or not? Did you raise the amount of money that we need or did you not? And if you didn't, well, guess what? People are going to lose their jobs, and that's really stressful and creates a lot of anxiety and isolation. And I see some of the things that I try to do both personally and professionally through Petris is just try to build community, try to be there and support people and say, you know, there is a period where you're going to have to learn how to do this, and that means there's not going to be as much money coming in during this period. But you're going to be learning, growing, and building those relationships for down the road. And don't throw it, you know, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater too quickly, right? Because maybe you're perfect for this position and you just have to give it time to grow. I'm sure it's the same for your experience, probably early on when you were in the executive past role. There were probably many times when you were thinking, "I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know if I'm the right person, they made a huge mistake." But you were able to build community and stick with it, versus being alone and saying, "I don't."
32:15.60 RJ Upfront.
32:23.57 aggierobison I don't know what I'm doing. Nobody else can really tell me that I know what I'm doing. I guess I must be the wrong person. I'm out.
32:26.97 RJ I think you hit on it. It's finding community in all those roles. I think when I think of fundraisers, especially this past year, I've met so many in my work with Infinite Giving and then now actually meeting with one yesterday who was very successful, right, with metrics. But then he said, "New fiscal year starts next week. What if?" And so he was literally trying to ramp himself up because it was a successful year and now going back to a clean slate. We're back at 0.
32:49.38 aggierobison Um, what have you done for me today?
33:02.67 RJ And I think that there are a lot of challenges within that, especially for organizations that really aren't set up as a team. Every team member has a different function, and fundraising should be one of those functions. But I think typically it's approached in silos. Fundraisers go get us our money, program people go use the money, and you have an executive director trying to figure out how to talk to both of those as separate entities instead of a really unified organization. I know that's tough. So it's easy to say build an organization as a team, but doing it is different. But I do think fundraisers are on the front lines, and that isolation and loneliness, am I supported or not supported? I didn't get the big gift, so am I out of a job or not out of a job? So trust, that same idea of do I trust my leader or not. And if you've been burned once, right, it's even harder to trust.
34:02.57 aggierobison You said earlier that everybody in a nonprofit is a fundraiser, whether they have the title or not. Were there things that you did during your time in leadership that you found to be particularly helpful in helping people who were not the frontline fundraisers understand that and be able to support fundraising?
34:21.21 RJ I think it comes right in how that senior leader spends his time or her time, what they're doing with it. Are they also meeting with people? Are they meeting with the team regularly? Are they sharing in team meetings that we're doing this together? And so when a programmatic type person is interacting with a client or customer, is it at a level that the volunteer actually sees that interaction? So you have that volunteer there, and they're watching a staff person in real time. So I'm a full believer in so much of leadership is action.
34:53.40 aggierobison Um.
34:58.62 RJ Oriented behaviors. And if we're leaving those behaviors out, if we're not living them, people see that. And that's fundraising because that volunteer is going to go, "Wow, that was powerful." And so that programmatic person has no clue they're helping fund the organization.
35:06.67 aggierobison Um.
35:18.28 RJ But if they're taking the steps of being a good leader, it's going to happen. And so I think, go ahead.
35:21.12 aggierobison I mean, if you think about a university or a high school, right, and somebody's an alum of a program, and they are approached, you know, 20 years after graduation and asked for a gift, well, their experience, what?
35:27.94 RJ Did.
35:38.34 aggierobison They're going to decide part of what they're going to use to form their decision about whether they want to make that gift or not is based on the experience they had in their classroom twenty years ago, right? The teachers, they cared for me, the administration, they gave me the support that I needed. My counselor, you know, listened to me when I was struggling. Like those are the times that really matter.
35:43.48 RJ Um, yep.
35:57.66 aggierobison And in that scenario with that alum, whether they're going to get the development office or the fundraiser is there to help cultivate the relationship now and help them see the impact, which is important, but it all starts with those that program twenty years before, ah, you know, or however long ago. It's the same thing in church, right?
36:10.44 RJ Are.
36:15.24 aggierobison People are going to make their decisions about whether they are, how generous they want to be based on their experience on Sundays, based on their experience in the programs on Wednesday nights and everything else. And then when the fundraiser approaches them, that's all going to factor into it. So it's so important that the programming be.
36:23.27 RJ Um, yeah.
36:33.44 aggierobison Be done well, but then also, it's so helpful if those programmers recognize, "What I'm doing right now is feeding them today, what they need. But I'm also setting them up for future growth and future generosity that may come back to our institution, but certainly may go to other institutions as well."
36:52.65 RJ I think that's right. I mean, I think of that fundraiser, major gifts officer who's out there cultivating. They're going to be fighting a strong headwind if you have dysfunction on the actual program side or leadership or.
37:05.56 aggierobison Um, right? Yeah
37:09.36 RJ Even the CEO or executive director's side, if you have somebody who's pushing change or abrasive, or doesn't understand emotional intelligence and walking through sensitive places, you're making the actual job of the major gifts officer or advancement officer so much more difficult in cultivating that relationship. Because now they're actually putting out fires instead of sharing vision or sharing opportunity for funding.
37:38.95 aggierobison Yeah, I think those are all great points. Um, I want to spend the next probably four or five minutes talking about succession planning. So you said that in your work, as the, uh, as the one taking on your role as pastor, you went through this succession planning process.
37:54.47 RJ Um, and you, uh...
37:56.40 aggierobison What were some of the best things that you guys did, and what were some of the things that, when you're working with somebody now that's going through a transition or preparing for a transition, you say these are the most important elements to consider and plan for as part of that.
38:09.89 RJ So I think when we started going through it, one, I think it really is awareness of a board and a leader to go through it. I think I had this conversation yesterday that so many boards don't want to talk about it, especially if it's their CEO or their executive director. They're fearful. They're also volunteers. There's only so much capacity. They're not experts. But I think they're fearful of bringing it up because they think the CEO is going to think they're getting pushed out. The CEO doesn't want to talk about it because it brings up identity issues and what's next, and maybe they'll just push me out quicker. So I think, again, I used the word a lot, trust has to be a foundation of good succession planning. And I think the other thing I learned is succession planning really needs to be part of the fabric.
38:49.27 aggierobison Me.
39:04.23 RJ Of the organization, and not just from that top leader position. It needs to be, I need to be looking at who's who am I developing behind me. So maybe I move to a different place in an organization or lead an organization, that there's an opportunity for growth. Not that you can't do outside hires, but that you're really looking at the entire organization from a succession planning model. That we're always looking at what's next, growth opportunities. That's all part of succession to me. I think that was a realization as we were going through it because we used a really good consultant who actually didn't just meet with the board and senior pastor, he met with leaders throughout the organization. And it really helped me understand, actually, I had somebody who was ready to go work at another church, and we were able to embrace that and celebrate that and encourage that and not see that as loss and...
39:59.10 aggierobison Yeah, yeah, go ahead? Yeah, I mean, I think that's super helpful, and that's something that, you know, I hadn't really thought about in terms of succession, but you're right, creating that culture. Um, I worked at a, I weighed tables for um...
40:01.70 RJ So now go ahead.
40:54.71 aggierobison One of our kitchen managers started, you know, 20 years before as a busboy at one of the locations. But it was just like this, I mean, you know, it didn't dawn on me till you just said that, but it was this culture of "you can wherever you start." Ah, you can learn, you have to bloom where you're planted, right? That's the first thing, right? Do.
41:12.86 RJ Um, weep.
41:13.58 aggierobison Be successful where you are now. But if you do that, there are opportunities for you to move up, and then there are opportunities for you if somebody leaves, we're going to celebrate that and we're going to plan. We're already going to have a plan in place for how to, um, how to, how to, not replace, that sounds, you know, like the wrong word, right? But how to fill that need because we have a stable of people that we've been cultivating and nurturing all along.
41:33.42 RJ You're right, right.
41:45.17 RJ Right? So I think succession, right, is typically looked at as that senior leader, and that's vitally important, especially in probably the next 5 to 7 years in nonprofits as we look at boomers and age. We're going to have a lot of succession, whether they're planned for or not. My hope is, um, that boards and leaders can kind of put fear aside and start having conversations about it because I think it's just going to be a healthier process than fear, and fear drops so much.
42:15.88 aggierobison Yeah, just one more question on that. Do you, just from a tactical standpoint, do you think, because I think you're right, like the questions of "do we start talking about succession" can be perceived negatively by either side. But from your experience, do you think that it...
42:25.92 RJ Um, yeah.
42:34.20 aggierobison Usually comes better as that conversation starting from the executive director that might conceivably be looking at a move, a transition, or do you think it's better from that board volunteer or other staff position to say, "We're not saying you're moving on, but we want to start planning for it in the case that it does." Just tactically, where do you see that as being kind of the better place to start, or is there a better place? I...
42:57.23 RJ Um, yeah, gosh, phenomenal question. Um, I went back and forth as you were talking on how to answer that. I would probably, still, at the end of the day, board has to be responsible for the organization because that's how nonprofits are set up. So I would love to see more boards engaging their leaders out of a place of relationship and trust about that conversation, then the other way, because that's where ownership will end up happening. And so I would still say, at the end of the day, I would love to see more board chairs engaging that conversation, even if it's a plan for that leader who's only been there 3 years and you're just looking at succession down the road, like, even if it's not a detailed plan, but a conversation that leads to a plan.
43:31.99 aggierobison Um.
43:51.86 RJ Um, because we're all going to need succession, whether you're in the role for a year or 42. I think what happens is a void occurs, knowledge goes out the window, and you have all the other pieces creeping in to affect culture and...
43:56.57 aggierobison Right? And healing.
44:11.15 RJ Not that a plan is going to solve all that, but at least there's some confidence to walk through it.
44:15.70 aggierobison One of the best things that I did personally this last year was I read a book called "Clockwork" by Mike Michalowicz, which is a great business book. He's got a whole line of really powerful business books, but this is about not necessarily succession planning, but how do you allow your...
44:22.28 RJ Ah...
44:34.36 aggierobison Institution, organization, business, whatever it is, exist and operate at the highest level without being so reliant on one person, which is typically the founder or the executive director. Which, to your point, it's really hard to transition when that's the culture. And he has got...
44:40.60 RJ Um, yeah.
44:52.70 aggierobison He's got a lot of great information and insights in that. But one of the ways that you kind of pressure test this idea of how reliant everybody is on the founder or the person in charge is you take a sabbatical, take a month off, plan for it, be gone, and be out of... You know, plan the key is to plan for it.
45:06.94 RJ Um, I mean...
45:09.68 RJ Um, yeah.
45:12.26 aggierobison And then do it and then triage afterwards. To me, but I did that this last year. I took the month of August off, and it was incredible. And not just, you know, I mean, it was no relaxation for me. I've got four kids. We potty trained one, and I changed more diapers than I can, you know, shake a fist at. But, um, but it was great. To build trust with the team, right? I trusted them in a new way to be able to handle things while I was gone. They trusted me to be able to, ah, get out of the way when they have an idea or they have some initiative they want to work towards. Um...
45:34.52 RJ Um, is that...
45:46.55 aggierobison And that was a really, you know, powerful experience for me. And then afterwards, you know, I was talking to one of my buddies, and he said, ah, he goes to a church out in West Texas, and he said they do the same thing with their pastors. One, it's to rest, right? But I think that, to your point, Andrew, what you're trying to get out of it, I think that it's...
45:57.99 RJ Um, right.
46:05.46 aggierobison To empower the staff as much, right? So um, and I just thought that, you know, it's more common than I thought. I just didn't realize it, but I thought that was just a really powerful experience for me. And, you know, who knows what the future holds for me at Petris, and you know, I plan to be here for a long, long time. But, right, if I'm hit by a bus.
46:06.74 RJ Maybe.
46:19.54 RJ Right.
46:23.93 aggierobison Tomorrow, like I want the company and the good work that we're doing to continue, and being able to empower the team to do that is important.
46:29.85 RJ Well, I think your points were I mean, something like a sabbatical, whether you call it that or not, you're flexing a muscle for the organization that's not normally flexed, and I think that just ends up being a healthier organization for it.
46:37.36 aggierobison No.
46:44.79 aggierobison Yeah, well cool. Well, RJ, this has been fantastic. I have appreciated your insights and your advice on fundraising, on leadership, on transitions, on succession planning. We've covered a lot of different topics, and I certainly do appreciate it.
46:58.34 RJ Um, well thanks. It's ah, it's a blast. Always love it, and it's good to actually have a face-to-face conversation with you instead of, ah, through comments on LinkedIn, which is awesome too. Um.
47:08.79 aggierobison Yeah, good. Well, what do you say we transition to our lightning round now? Great, all right. First question of our lightning round: If you could fundraise for any organization or cause at any point in history, what would it be?
47:11.26 RJ But it's been fun. Let's do it.
47:25.80 RJ It would be. It would definitely be because, um, you might have asked this on LinkedIn or somebody else did as well. I can't remember who or where I saw it, but it would be something around vulnerable children. I mean, that's kind of been everything I end up touching, whether my family supports it in Ghana, Guatemala, different places in the world. It would be child advocacy, vulnerable children, um, in some form or fashion.
47:47.24 aggierobison Huge, huge need out there. So I believe it. Yep. Question number 2: If you could get a donor meeting with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be with?
47:58.22 RJ Yeah, so you prepped me a little bit for these, and I've been thinking on this for hours, and I still don't have a great answer. I don't know, that's terrible, but I don't know. I would want to pick somebody honestly who is in that really upper echelon of wealth to pick their brain on how they approach wealth. And not so much to try to get a donation out of them. But I think there's so much wrapped into that high net worth on what's your number and always chasing and always chasing. And trying to get in that mindset. So whether that's, I don't know, Bezos or any of those guys, like, what's driving this because you're not taking it with you. You can buy another yacht, you can buy another jet, that's fantastic. But we all know because we read it in the news, you can be gone tomorrow, and so what? What is that view of generosity? So probably not a great answer. That's what I have for now.
48:53.50 aggierobison So...
49:00.78 aggierobison Yeah, no, it'd be fascinating. Yeah, question number 3, is there enough money out there for every organization that's doing good work? Why do you say that?
49:10.47 RJ Absolutely, absolutely. Well, my faith tradition, I believe we have a generous God. God's going to provide everything out there. It's I think we're the ones who hoard, we're the ones who pull back, me included, doesn't really matter. Regardless of salary, regardless of those pieces, I think if we all have approached that resources are from God, and we're here to be the dispensers of generosity, I just fully believe all the resources are there.
49:44.97 aggierobison Great question number 4, if you could go back in time and offer yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
49:51.73 RJ Ask more questions, and ask more questions of people who are in your role, who've done it before.
50:04.35 aggierobison Yeah, well, it sounds like you've done that just to some extent. So the fact that you want to do it more? Ah yeah.
50:06.00 RJ It took a while. Yeah, yeah, it took a while for me to get there, but early in my career, I wish I had done that much earlier. I kind of had blinders on until that point.
50:20.48 aggierobison Well, you know, you sometimes, ah, right? Um, seeking advice like that is necessitated by just your situation, right? So you don't think you need to ask the questions until you need to ask questions. But...
50:22.44 RJ Yeah, um, right? That's right, yeah.
50:33.14 aggierobison Developing that practice, developing that muscle as early as possible is great. Yeah, okay, great question number 5, who are 3 people who have most influenced your professional development?
50:46.62 RJ I'd say by far number one, and I'll probably go with 2 um, the first is the executive pastor who hired me at the church, who ended up leaving. I took his role, and he's still a mentor. He still texts me and reaches out. Um, but early on when I became an outreach and missions pastor, a job I had never done before, two instances stand out. Early on, I was meeting with him in our weekly one-on-ones and asking him a hundred different questions. Finally, he stopped me one day, probably six weeks into working for him. He called a time out in the meeting and said, "RJ, I have no idea how to answer any of these questions. That's why I hired you, and I believe you can figure it out." What he was saying is, "I'm not the outreach missions pastor, I'm the executive pastor."
51:33.92 aggierobison Ah, man. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
51:40.89 RJ And I'm here to support you, but I don't know which partner to take, I don't know all the pieces. Go learn it. Go do it. And so it was just an ah moment for me to go, "Oh, he believes in me, and I need to go do this." So that one, and then another time I was meeting with him and I was complaining about how much I had to do. I was overwhelmed, spinning a lot of plates that didn't really seem connected at the time. Again, he stopped me in my tracks, stopped the meeting, and looked at me and smiled, which was really odd, and said, "You know you love this, right?" He put a mirror up to me on how I was wired, and he was right. I realized I love variety, building bridges, and partnerships. I was overwhelmed and didn't have good systems, but the message to me was, "You're actually doing what you're supposed to do. You're wired for this." Those two moments from him to me, I still talk about all the time, so he's there. And I would actually say another one who had an influence is actually a boss who was not my direct boss. I was on a leadership team. I won't name the organization. It was a long time ago. But he was the opposite, and I remember sitting in leadership meetings where he would berate people.
53:12.83 RJ Um, we'd have four-hour meetings. I was never his target, but I watched how he navigated other leaders. It was very domineering, thought authoritative, and I really thought, "Is this what leadership is?" It really helped me go, "That's not who I want to be if I'm ever leading people."
53:35.31 aggierobison Yeah, both of those are very powerful. You see the model and then you see the model you don't want to be. So, great question number 6: What is something interesting about you that people may not know?
53:39.21 RJ Yeah, that was it for sure.
53:52.39 RJ Oh boy, um, I've already mentioned that all my kids came to us through adoptions, creating a very different-looking family that we love. Um, what's something people don't know about me? Um, I lived in England, so for a Southerner living in England, that was an experience. Um, you know, not too much of a fun fact, but I love to travel with my family. So, traveling the world opened my eyes to the realization that I don't know how to do everything and that my culture is not the only culture.
54:30.16 aggierobison Yeah, that's great, I love it. Question number 7, what is one book that you think everyone should read?
54:38.95 RJ This one's easy for me: "Man's Search for Meaning" by Victor Frankl. It's a phenomenal book. I read it probably my senior year in college or maybe the first year out of college, and it had a profound effect on me. Um, even when I was in my counseling program, that book was one of the best counseling books I read, even though it's not a counseling book. Um, it's one of my favorite leadership books, even though it's not a leadership book. Um, I just think his story and the way he told it is powerful.
55:03.33 aggierobison You said it.
55:12.33 aggierobison That's awesome. Well, RJ, this has been a treat. If people want to get a hold of you or learn more or track you down, where can they find you?
55:20.87 RJ Right now, LinkedIn is the best way. So if you're not on LinkedIn, I encourage you to jump on, connect with me, shoot me a message, comment, and I would love to meet anybody who's out there and says, "Let's get together."
55:36.76 aggierobison Great. I can testify that RJ puts out great stuff on LinkedIn, so definitely follow him for a lot of inspiration and insights. So appreciate you being there and being present, and appreciate you being on this call. I appreciate you taking the time, and for all those listening in, thank you very much for joining me and RJ.
55:45.17 RJ It was a joy. Thanks so much.
56:11.26 aggierobison If you have any questions, you can hit me up at [email protected]. Otherwise, God bless you, God bless your work, and we'll see you next time.
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