07 Nov Oxytocin, Cortisol, Meeting Efficiency, and Major Gift Fundraising
7 November 2023
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
This post will be about what we lose in the name of efficiency – but first I need to complain about ZOOM meetings.
I attended a land trust Board meeting last week that was a “hybrid” meeting, with about half of the participants tuning in by ZOOM. I was tuning in by ZOOM as well. I was participating as a final step in a Strategic Planning process that had spanned the better part of ten months.
Most of the time, I emphasize that everyone – including myself – should participate in-person, because it conveys a weight to the moment. Being there in person says Strategic Plans are important. THIS Strategic Plan is important. It will guide our organizational energy for the next five years. Everyone on the Board and everyone of the staff participated. Everyone has skin in the game.
For this particular land trust, this was one of the most significant staff/Board efforts in years – maybe ever. And the day it was approved, half participated virtually. Muted. And more than one had their screen turned off. They witnessed. But they did not participate. They weren’t really there.
Most of the time, ZOOM meetings are conducted in the name of efficiency. It’s certainly true for me. It would have cost me the better part of three days to participate in that particular moment in person. It would have cost the land trust about $1,000 in travel expenses to have me there. And what’s the point, when half the group wasn’t going to be there in-person either?
But here’s the rub in my opinion: Is it really more efficient – in the long run?
A basic relationship skill is active listening. Most of us get this intuitively. Active listening definitely includes making direct eye contact, but it’s more than eye contact. Neuroscientists tell us that when we feel heard, accepted, and included, our bodies produce oxytocin – the so-called “social-bonding” chemical. We feel warm inside and warm toward the others who are with us. We are more likely to trust and develop loyalty over time. When we feel that we are NOT being heard, our bodies produce cortisol – the “stress” chemical.
When we’re not sure someone is listening – like when their screen is off and they are muted – when we aren’t able to look colleagues in the eye, when we aren’t even in the same room, when our bodies are more likely producing cortisol than oxytocin, how efficient can that be?
My favorite Board meeting story comes from my experience with TNC in Texas. It’s hard to tell people who haven’t been there just how big Texas is. But I can put it this way: few of our trustees could get to Board meetings without flying.
So Board meetings were held in person four times each year as 24-hour events. Trustees would arrive in the late morning, enjoy a project briefing over lunch, and meet as committees through the afternoon hours. There were four committees and each trustee participated in two. The trustees then had happy hour and dinner together and stayed overnight. The actual Board meeting was the next morning from 8:00-11:00, after which everyone flew back home.
If you’re thinking “bet they were all white and all rich,” you wouldn’t be far wrong, but you would be missing the point. Every Board meeting was a 24-hour event and still efficient. Board members knew each other, liked each other, and worked well together. Staff participated in the committee meetings, but the Board meetings featured presentations and discussion by the trustees. They were engaged, knowledgeable, and visionary.
That doesn’t happen by accident.
Here’s another analogy: I can tell you that for most of the conferences I’ve attended, I’ve gotten as much or more value from the table and hallway conversations as I have from the workshops. You probably have, too. Compare that experience to sitting in on a webinar. Webinars are more “efficient,” but they rob us of the human interactions that most of us report as more valuable. In fact, I would argue that webinars are NOT efficient in the long run.
The same thing is true for Board meetings – the time spent in banter before the meeting and during the break may be as valuable as the meeting content – at least in terms of building trust and loyalty. Not to mention the time we spend preparing for the meeting while getting there. And digesting what happened while driving (or flying!) back.
Regardless of your current Board culture and the way you conduct your Board meetings, think about this: Your land trust organization must last – exist – in perpetuity. That mission can only be accomplished through strong relationships – relationships built over time by spending time together. By sharing meals. By looking each other in the eye. By disagreeing and debating. By listening to each other. By respecting each other. How do your Board members do that if they never meet each other?
ZOOM meetings have their place. They just can’t RE-place in-person meetings. Looking people in the eye. Building relationships. More oxytocin. Less cortisol.
Now bring this all the way back to fundraising. (This is a fundraising blog.)
Major gift fundraising – getting to know donors as people, building relationships one by one, looking people in the eye, actively listening to them and knowing why they will say YES before we ask for money – doesn’t feel efficient. Especially next to sending out email and rapid-fire social media posts on Giving Tuesday.
But it IS more efficient. It is more effective also. At least with perpetuity in mind.
Because of the oxytocin.
Cheers, and have a great week!
PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.
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