Enablers Do the Right Stuff

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If you want to be a really good professional—a development officer, or an executive director—you have to be a really, really good enabler. Did you read my last column, “Enabling Volunteers to Do the Right Stuff?” Read it first before you read this column, as the two belong together.

Here’s the summary: Enabling is the process of empowering others. Enabling means giving people the wherewithal, opportunity, and adequate power to act. Synonyms for enabling include investing, endowing, and authorizing. Synonyms for power include ability, influence, capability, and authority. When you empower someone, you distribute and share your own power. Power shared is power multiplied.

And here’s what I describe as “Enabling Function #6:” Provide direction and resources. Explain why, not just how. Identify and remove barriers. Help develop skills.

Enablers provide direction and describe the specific tasks necessary to complete the work; enablers provide appropriate and adequate resources, be it clerical support, telephone numbers, or answers to questions. Equally important, enablers ensure that volunteers understand why something is being done as well as what is being done and how to do it. Without an understanding of why, a task may seem senseless or unclear.

The same holds true for understanding the connection between the big picture and the tasks. The enabler describes the big picture and then translates that into action steps and manageable tasks. Enablers remove barriers that stop volunteers from succeeding. Enablers cannot always make the work easy. But they do make it interesting, challenging, and dynamic. Also, many tasks require special skills. Your volunteers may need training to develop those skills. Acting as a teacher, the enabler provides the training, both formally and informally.

Here’s another: I describe “Enabling Function #7” as coaching and mentoring people to succeed. A good enabler is both a coach and a mentor. And there’s a distinction between the two. In business, coaching refers to the process of strengthening work behavior—for example, teamwork, communication, and leadership. The coach needn’t have expertise in the particular work-knowledge (e.g., fund development). Coaching happens one-on-one or in groups. Mid-level and senior-level employees coach other employees. Staff members coach volunteers.

Mentoring, on the other hand, means a more experienced individual shares advice with a less experienced partner. For example, you mentor a professional fundraiser or a volunteer in fund development. This can be done formally or informally, and usually face-to-face. The mentor has expertise and experience that she shares with the less experienced or expert individual.

Enablers coach and mentor for success. As effective leaders, enablers also allow for failure. Enablers know that success depends on taking reasonable risk, thus supporting potential failure. Enablers allow for failure because we tried, not because we did nothing.

Enablers don’t abandon volunteers to their own devices. I hope you don’t. I hope you aren’t that development officer who told me, “I’ll be damned if I’ll follow up with those volunteers. They’re adults.”

Effective enablers stay in touch with their volunteers. Ongoing contact and support. Advice about how to proceed. Brainstorm solutions. Sometimes, staff just call to say hi and touch base. One of my students at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota summed this enabling function up so well: “An important part of enabling is to uphold a volunteer’s integrity and self-respect whenever possible.”

  • Simone Joyaux

    Today I received a very kind email from a colleague working in the recovery community. He commented that the concept of “enabling” has a pejorative meaning to many. Yes, I know it does. And back when I was first articulating my thinking in the area of “helping volunteers do work for us,” I explored alternative terms. I asked many fundraisers what term to use – and none of us could think of anything that incorporated leadership and stewarding and facilitating and guiding and directing and supporting and empowering. So I kept the term “enabling.”

    Often when writing about my concept of enabling, I include the disclaimer / explanation. I didn’t in this column and I apologize. I urge people to get a copy of my book STRATEGIC FUND DEVELOPMENT…especially the third edition (published by John Wiley in March 2011). There you will see all the explanation, all the meaning, all the details, and examples.

    Sometimes words have more than one meaning. Sometimes the right word is, too, not so good a word. I use “enabling” for my concept. And it’s meant as good, very very good.