Reluctant Rolodex Syndrome


by Ami Nahshon

How long has it been since you — or anybody you know, for that matter — used a Rolodex for anything other than to keep loose papers from sliding off the desk? And yet “Rolodex” continues to be one of the most widely used terms among development officers and fundraising consultants — not to mention one of the most anxiety-inducing words in the English language for nonprofit board members and major donors. How could it be that mere mention of a once-critical but today ignored office product — as in, “Can I count on you to open your Rolodex?”— can create both optimism and terror in the hearts of development professionals?

I kid, but most everybody reading this knows exactly what I mean. To the development professional, an organization’s most powerful fundraising asset is its pool of “true believers” — committed friends, board members, donors, and funding partners who are already convinced that the nonprofit’s mission, programs, and effectiveness are worthy of generous support. In a game where getting through the door is 90 percent of the challenge, common sense tells us that an introductory call from a friend will almost always be more effective than a cold call. Think of it this way: how many basketball players will launch a half-court shot when the defense has left the lane wide open for a layup? (Not you, Warriors fans.)

At the same time, many of us understand that our true believers aren’t always eager to share the good word about an organization with others or are willing to go out of their way to extend an invitation to their friends and business associates to support — with their time, money, or both — a cause close to someone else’s heart.

Why is it that true believers are so often reluctant to share philanthropic good news with their friends and associates? And what can we, as development professionals, do to reduce their level of anxiety and nudge our board members and donors into opening their Rolodexes a little more readily?

With your indulgence, let me introduce you to a theory I call the Three Big Fears of Major Donors and Board Members — a theory that, in my opinion, goes a long way toward explaining what I call Reluctant Rolodex Syndrome.

Fear #1: The Fear of Being Asked to Solicit Money

It never ceases to amaze me how many people who routinely pitch multi-million-dollar investments to acquaintances or friends break out in a cold sweat when they’re asked to solicit those same acquaintances and friends for a $25,000 gift in support of remodeling a local homeless shelter, providing job training to displaced workers, or some other equally worthwhile cause. Shouldn”t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t it be easier — much easier — to ask someone for an investment that benefits others in need than to ask them for an investment from which you and your partners personally hope to profit? Go figure.

It’s a paradox, a quirk of human psychology, and I’ve given up trying to understand it. Instead, I’ve developed a simple solution to the problem that almost always works: I reassure true believers that I’m not asking them to make the actual ask — I’ll take care of that, thank you very much — but instead simply need them to broker an introduction to their deep-pocketed friends and acquaintances that helps me get through the door. For many true believers, that’s all the reassurance they need; for others, it’s not sufficient to break through their resistance. In which case…

Fear #2: The Fear of Asking Rather Than Giving

In his best-seller Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Wharton Business School phenom Adam Grant maps out the distinction between “givers” and “takers” in the workplace, and argues that giving typically is productive, except when carried to an extreme. “One of the critical distinctions between self-sacrificing givers and successful ones,” Grant observes, “is the willingness to seek help from others.” (By the way, I encourage you to check out one of Grant’s TedTalks.)

Although I can’t prove it, I assume that the nonprofit true believer tends to be more of a “giver” than a “taker.” (Isn’t that true, after all, of most people who are active philanthropists?) Helping our self-sacrificing giver understand that the ask is not for themselves but rather to benefit others in need can be an effective tool, in Grant’s way of thinking, for cultivating givers who are willing to seek help from others — in this case, by cracking open their Rolodexes. For the uber-idealist, asking another person for something can be understood as giving the other a gift — in this case, the opportunity to help someone in need. And yes, that argument sometimes has been met with a good-natured “Nice try.” Moving on…

Fear #3: Fear of the Terrifying Quid Pro Quo

Saving the most problematic for last, it’s been my observation that fear of the quid pro quo — namely, the price the true believer expects he/she will ultimately have to pay in exchange for soliciting the support of others — is a powerful contributor to the Reluctant Rolodex Syndrome.

There is no antidote to the quid pro quo virus. It is, after all, not unrealistic to expect B to ask A for a future gift to his/her favorite charity when A has successfully leaned on their relationship to solicit B for his/her own cause. But here, too, there is a solution: keep your true believer out of the ask, unless, and only if, he/she is prepared to take that risk. There’s no question that the most productive solicitation typically occurs when the true believer has leverage over the prospect, but we all need to understand that there is a cost to that approach. If the cost is too high for some, the next best thing is a warm introduction and handoff.

So, to all my philanthropist friends out there, understand that your support is likely to have the most impact when it involves both the opening of your checkbook and the opening of your Rolodex. And for those doing the double ask, don’t forget to be sensitive to the complexity of what you are asking: for many people, the latter is more stressful than the former.

Ami Nahshon offers a portfolio of coaching and consulting services designed to help nonprofits optimize their philanthropic mission, strategy, and performance. In his last post, he wrote about the strategic thinker-leader. For more information, contact him at

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Time to stop whining and get on with the hard work

by Ami Nahshon

The center of gravity of our Supreme Court is in the process of shifting hard to the right. Not because of the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, but as a simple and direct consequence of the election of Donald J. Trump as our 45th president.

This should come as no surprise, not to the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump – that’s what they wanted from him. Not to the 66 million who voted for Hilary Clinton – that’s what they feared about him. And not to the 90 million eligible voters who stayed home – that’s what they apparently didn’t care about.

It’s a safe bet that the role of the Supreme Court as the champion of civil rights and minority rights will be weakened for the foreseeable future. Rights that have become enshrined in our American legal culture over the past five decades and more. Rights that have protected the freedom of women to choose; of African Americans and others to live, study and work where they please; of same-sex couples to marry; of labor unions to organize.

So yes, demonstrators will fill our public squares, and I’ll march with them. Candidates and organizations left and right will raise money on this issue, and I’ll support some of them. And Democrats will do whatever they can to stall the confirmation of Trump’s nominee to fill the vacant seat, to no avail. All of that is important and legitimate. But none of those strategies will change the new reality one iota, or protect the rights-at-risk of women, same-sex couples, minorities, and workers.

A very different strategy is required if we are to protect those rights; a realist strategy that understands that the Supreme Court’s super-power lies in its ability to put limits on the bad behavior of our 50 states. To prevent states from violating those fundamental rights protected by our Constitution.

So, while railing against Trump and a right-wing Supreme Court might feel good, shifting our focus to the states might be the most effective way – perhaps the only way – to protect those precious rights. Because if the high court won’t do it, it will be up to we the people and the institutions of our American society to do it instead.

We the people – with our economic power, our civic and religious institutions, our corporations, our tourist dollars, and our philanthropy – will compel good behavior and prevent states from violating our most cherished rights.

Case in point. When North Carolina passed a 2016 law requiring individuals to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate, the governors of New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Washington banned nonessential travel to North Carolina. Eighty major corporations, including North Carolina-based Bank of America, expressed opposition to the law. After a year of convention and sporting event cancellations, the law was substantially repealed.

In that same year, Georgia’s $6 billion film industry was threatened by a boycott of the state after its legislature passed a “religious freedom” bill.  Under pressure from threatened cancellations and boycotts both within and beyond the entertainment industry, Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the bill.

But the power of we the people extends far beyond economic boycotts. We can and must elect legislators in our states who will preempt the federal impulse to take away rights. We will use our power to extract campaign pledges from every candidate – local, state and national – to sustain and expand critical rights, at the state level and federally.

We will in time flip the House, flip the Senate and flip the White House to provide an effective counter-weight to a regressive Supreme Court that we are likely to live with for decades to come. (With two of our current four liberal justices nearing or beyond 80 years of age, a 7-2 conservative court is not a stretch of the imagination.)

It appears that states’ rights proponents of a weak and limited federal government will get their way, at least for now. But if the rest of us are smart, we’ll use the machinery of ramped-up state power to assert our political demands which, coupled with the power of boycotts, can compel good state behavior in the absence of a Supreme Court safety net. Such a sustained effort will require a reboot in our thinking along with the leadership, collaboration and resources needed for movement-building. Civics 2.0.

I agree with Trump and the right about one thing: elections do indeed have consequences. Now that we see what they are, let’s stop whining and get on with the hard work.

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The Strategic Thinker-Leader

by Ami Nahshon 

The Thinker PicFor those who read my recent piece titled “5 Reasons Why ‘Strategic Doing’ Beats Strategic Planning”, it will come as no surprise that I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, critiquing and doing strategy. Truth be told, strategy is a bit of an obsession for me; more a creative art and less a science, despite what the bean-counters and McConsultants would have you believe.

Like other creative arts, great strategy springs from inspiration. And inspiration comes in its own good time rather than during scheduled meetings: while we’re arguing with a friend, thinking about a problem, noticing something we missed before, sometimes even when we sleep. (OK, maybe that last one is just me…)

And, perhaps more to the point, strategy isn’t a thing, a plan, a committee, a document. It’s a way of thinking about change; a way of imagining that demands action. Because, at the end of the day, strategy is nothing more than a language for translating ideas to outcomes.

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Posted in Charitable Giving, Executive Coaching, Nonprofits, Philanthropy, Strategy, Uncategorized

The Empowered Leader…or 5 Reasons Why ‘Strategic Doing’ Beats Strategic Planning

Strategic-Plan-Poster Edited2One of these days I’m going to sit down and write a treatise on why I believe strategic thinking and strategic leadership are more valuable than strategic planning — particularly, but not only, in a not-for-profit context. I’m going to do it, I promise, but not today. I’m too busy doing stuff.

So apparently was Southwest Airline’s legendary founder and CEO Herb Kelleher, who held that “strategy is overrated, simply doing stuff is underrated. We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” Or, as management guru Tom Peters puts it, “the thing that keeps a business ahead of the competition is excellence in execution.”

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Going Long: Building a Legacy of Family Philanthropy

Fam Phil Pic

by Ami Nahshon


For a substantial number of wealthy Americans, establishing charitable foundations and family funds has become an attractive and tax-effective way of channeling philanthropy, and the proliferation of such vehicles has reached unprecedented levels.

In the US alone, roughly 100,000 private foundations and 250,000 donor-advised funds today hold some $1 trillion in assets. (For perspective, that’s more than $2,500 for every man, woman and child in America.)

The bulk of these assets are typically set aside in long-term portfolios whose income drives charitable grants in perpetuity. Let’s call this strategy going long. Increasingly though, spending down of charitable assets during one’s lifetime – going big – has become an attractive option for growing numbers of philanthropists.

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Confronting Our Neighbor’s Suffering…and Our Own Moral Failures

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How could it be that, in this richest country at the richest time in human history, some 49 million Americans are hungry, including 33 million adults and 16 million children? In New York City alone, 1.4 million – disproportionately represented by women and children, the working poor, the elderly and disabled – rely on soup kitchens and food pantries to meet their basic food needs. How could that be? And how could we – as caring human beings – have allowed ourselves to become immune to the suffering of so many?

I’m as guilty as the next guy, reflexively averting my eyes when I pass a homeless, destitute person on the street while I take inventory of the moral failures that give me an excuse to turn away. He’s an alcoholic or a drug abuser – bad choices that have put him here. She’s not really hungry – just hustling. Or, he won’t use the money for food – he’ll just buy booze and smokes. (By the way, if that last one keeps you from helping, try carrying around a few fast food gift coupons.)

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Mass Incarceration, Criminal Justice & Police Reform

Prison Inmates

Not long ago, a couple of months before Baltimore, I attended a public forum at the New School University’s Milano School of International Affairs and Urban Policy titled “Beyond the Rage: Strengthening Police-Community Relations”. The timing of course seemed particularly relevant in this new post-Michael Brown, post-Eric Garner era, perhaps even more so for whites who are just discovering police abuse of young men of color.

Only a few weeks earlier, I’d concluded a dozen years at the helm of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a leading advocacy group working to level the playing field for Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian-Arab citizens. For the past decade, one of the organization’s hallmark initiatives was working with the Israel Police to reform policing policies and practices to more effectively recognize the fundamental rights and needs of Israel’s 20% Arab minority. As part of the police reform initiative, groups of senior commanders and station chiefs studied police forces in transition in locales from London, Belfast and Madrid to Los Angeles and Washington DC.

What emerged from these learnings, whether in Belfast or in Baltimore, is that policing is at once an analog, a symbol and a barometer of the state of majority-minority relations within divided societies.

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40 Reasons Why Our Jails Are Full of Black and Poor People — by Bill Quigley, Law Professor, Loyola University (published on HuffPost Black Voices, June 2, 2015)


While I would normally post other people’s work under the “Quick Hits/Links” section of my blog site, this new long-form piece by Loyola School of Law Professor Bill Quigley is so thoroughly documented and hyperlinked that I’m posting it in full below. (Here’s a link to the Huffington Post page.) I encourage any of you interested in the issues of mass minority incarceration, criminal justice and police reform to spend some time with this important piece.

“What does it say about our society that it uses its jails and prisons as the primary detention facilities for poor and black and brown people who have been racially targeted and jail them with the mentally ill and chemically dependent?

“The current criminal system has dozens of moving parts from the legislators who create the laws, to the police who enforce them, to the courts which apply them, to the jails and prison which house the people caught up in the system, to the public and business community who decides whom to hire, to all of us who either do something or turn our heads away. These are our brothers and sisters and cousins and friends of our coworkers.

“There are lots of proposed solutions. To learn more about the problems and the solutions go to places like The Sentencing Project, the Vera Institute, or the Center for American Progress. Because it’s the right thing to do, and because about 95 percent of the people who we send to prison are coming back into our communities.”

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Congratulations Donald Trump – You’ve Already Won

by Ami Nahshon

Trump Blog Pic

Because, regardless of the final vote tally tonight and without having to spend even five minutes carrying the burdens of the presidency, you’ve already made your mark on America. And a dark stain it is.

You’ve made racism, xenophobia, sexism and discrimination against handicapped and LGBT Americans acceptable again for nearly half the American people.

You’ve persuaded tens of millions of hard-working Americans to vote against their own self-interest by supporting tax cuts for the wealthy, reducing spending for health insurance and other critical services on which they rely, and by opposing affordable college tuition and a higher minimum wage.

You’ve shown our children and grandkids that bullying, vulgarity and threats are somehow OK after all.

You’ve legitimized with a wink and a nod the racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rantings of the extreme, ultra-nationalist rightwing.

You’ve lowered the standard of political discourse in our country and shaken the confidence of your supporters in the electoral system and in American democracy itself.

And you’ve caused our international friends and foes alike to doubt America’s commitment to global security and shared responsibility.

You’ll probably – hopefully – lose today’s election and stomp off in a huff amid cries of rigged elections and who knows what else. And you’ll of course figure out how to profit from your new celebrity – perhaps your greatest skill.

But it will take enormously hard work for the rest of us – and for our real leaders – to repair the damage of your campaign, and even harder work to confront the core question raised by your candidacy: how could this remarkable country of ours come so close to electing an ignorant, mean-spirited neofascist as its president?

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American Political Decay or Renewal? by Francis Fukuyama


American Political Decay or Renewal?

The Meaning of the 2016 Election

By Francis Fukuyama

Two years ago, I argued in these pages that America was suffering from political decay. The country’s constitutional system of checks and balances, combined with partisan polarization and the rise of well-financed interest groups, had combined to yield what I labeled “vetocracy,” a situation in which it was easier to stop government from doing things than it was to use govern­ment to promote the common good. Recurrent budgetary crises, stagnating bureaucracy, and a lack of policy innovation were the hall­marks of a political system in disarray.

On the surface, the 2016 presidential election seems to be bearing out this analysis. The once proud Republican Party lost control of its nominating process to Donald Trump’s hostile takeover and is riven with deep internal contradictions. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, the ultra-insider Hillary Clinton has faced surprisingly strong competition from Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old self-proclaimed demo­cratic socialist. Whatever the issue—from immigration to financial reform to trade to stagnating incomes—large numbers of voters on both sides of the spectrum have risen up against what they see as a corrupt, self-dealing Establishment, turning to radical outsiders in the hopes of a purifying cleanse.

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Israel’s Self-Inflicted ‘Catch-22’

Catch 22 Image

Obsessively following the Israeli media during this time of crisis, as is my habit and addiction, it’s truly painful to witness the deterioration of the Jewish-Arab discourse within Israel; yet another victim of the current violence and of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And now I’ll say something wildly unpopular, compelled by my lifelong love and commitment to Israel and to peace.

Israel — with intentionality and as a matter of policy and strategy — has cornered the Palestinian movement into an impossible “Catch-22” crafted deliberately over a period of decades, where the Israeli response to both Palestinian violence and Palestinian non-violence is one in the same: maintaining and deepening the occupation.

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Donald Trump is More Than “Not Funny” — Trump is a Dangerous Proto-Fascist

Kudos to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi for, well, telling it almost like it is in his recent piece titled “Donald Trump Just Stopped Being Funny — Win or lose, Trump’s campaign threatens to unleash the Great American Stupid” (August 21, 2015).

Truth is, I was beginning to write a blog on much the same subject when I found Taibbi’s piece and decided that he’d written much of what needs to be said on the subject, at least for now. Except that he got the headline wrong.

I was going to title mine “Donald Trump: An American Proto-Fascist”. There. I’ve used the f-word to describe Trump, and I feel much better.

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Postscript: Would Somebody Put Down Their AIPAC Talking Points for a Minute and Give Us an Achievable Alternative to the Iran Deal?

Since recently posing the question above, here and on my various social media pages, I’ve been accused of all manner of sins ranging from naivete to demagoguery; all for asking a seemingly straightforward question.

What do you believe is a better achievable alternative to the Iran nuclear deal currently on the table?

Since many of the comments seem to cluster around a few common themes, let me try to combine my responses around a few main points.

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Would Somebody Put Down Their AIPAC Talking Points for a Minute and Give Us an Achievable Alternative to the Iran Deal?

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) talk before a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool? - RTR4V8U3

I’m very disappointed in #SenCharlesSchumer (D-NY) #RepNitaLowey (D-NY), #RepTedDeutch (D-FL) and #RepSteveIsrael (D-NY) for announcing their intent to vote against the #IranDeal, when no one — in the US or Israel — has yet to propose a better viable alternative. 

Is one of you out there prepared to put aside your AIPAC talking points for a minute and outline for the rest of us what would constitute a better achievable option for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions? (A quick definition first: “achievable” does not mean fantasies, such as Iran rolling over and renouncing its regional ambitions, embracing the US and Israel as its BFFs. If you don’t know what that means, ask a teenager.)

Just a few more rules: you can’t use the words “they’re the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism” or “they’ll use the money to build bombs” or “they’re anti-Semitic and want to destroy Israel” because none of that is relevant to the question at hand — what is a better achievable option? And no, whining about how it’s such a bad deal doesn’t constitute a viable alternative. 

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The Iran Letter I Would Write if I Were Still a Federation CEO

Antique pen and inkwell

by Ami Nahshon [Published July 20, 2015 on the]

As a lifelong Zionist and a former 19-year Jewish federation chief executive, I was dismayed by the decision of the Boston and Miami federations to encourage members to urge their congressional representatives to vote against the Iran nuclear deal, as has been widely reported in the Jewish and Israeli press.

While I can imagine that federation boards and executives are under no small amount of pressure to weigh in on this important issue, I believe that taking such intensely political and largely-partisan positions by organizations established to represent the shared interests of their diverse Jewish communities is a mistake.

Were I still serving as a federation CEO, this is the letter that I hope I would have the courage to send to my donors and community members:

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Go, Bernie, Go!

As I wrote in the weeks before the last Israeli elections, running for office these days has devolved into a game of slogans over substance.

The rules of the game are remarkably simple. Be all things to all people. Speak in the most populist and vague terms about the issues that plague us without committing to bold policy solutions that might raise eyebrows among one or another constituency. Focus more on the failings of the other side and less on your own novel ideas. Play it safe. Take few risks.

And above all else, do everything possible to deny voters the opportunity to choose between clear alternative futures.

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A Few Simple Questions for My Anti-Iran-Deal, Obama-Bashing Friends in the US and Israel

Just a few simple questions for my anti-‪#‎IranDeal‬, Obama-bashing friends in the US and Israel.

1) Do you understand that a military strike against Iran, setting aside its global game-changing consequences, would only set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions for a couple of years? Then what?

2) What is your better idea? Not in the abstract, but an alternative that can be realistically implemented, supportable by the P5 allies, and that has any real chance of containing the Iranian nuclear program?

3) Are you familiar with the expression that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, and that there can be no “perfect” outcome in this situation?

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What the Upcoming Israeli Election May – or May Not – Be About

Israel ballot box pic

As the 2015 Israeli campaign reaches a last-minute fevered pitch, it might be worth briefly reflecting on what this election might be about. Here are a few possibilities.

A referendum on Bibi Netanyahu. Throughout the sturm und drang of this campaign season, the only clear question that seems to be up for a vote is whether Netanyahu should be rewarded with yet another term at the helm of a largely dysfunctional Israeli government. If he’s denied, it probably won’t be because of his wife’s shenanigans with bottle deposits.

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Postscript: Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Washington

Netanhyahu congress pic

Scarcely a week ago I argued here that by putting his political survival ahead of every other consideration, PM Netanyahu has indeed put the quality of the US-Israel relationship at risk.

How I wish I would have been wrong, as some argued. That this transparent and self-serving stunt was a regrettable yet ultimately harmless pre-election floor show staged for the benefit of the voters back home. But how the Senate Republicans have today blasted that fantasy out of the water.

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Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Washington

Yes, I suppose that everything’s already been said or written about the impact of Netanyahu’s Washington invasion this week. But because a number of you have asked for my personal post-game assessment, here it is in a few sentences.

Bibi Netanyahu knew exactly what he was doing when he addressed the US Congress on Tuesday. He was refocusing the remaining two weeks of the Israeli campaign on just about the only issue where he still polls well: the Iranian nuclear threat. That’s all he set out to do — no more or no less.

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