Rob Sheehan

  Rob Sheehan


“Some people see things as they are and say ‘why?’ I dream things that never were and say ‘why not?’” – George Bernard Shaw

[Editor’s note: Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy often concluded his speeches with this quote, a slight variation on the words from a George Bernard Shaw play.]

Most people and organizations do not dream. They rarely take the time to ask themselves “What do we really care about?” “What are our aspirations?” Instead, they look at the ever-changing world around them and try to figure out how to adapt themselves to it most effectively.

I believe in the power of dreams. This is why I recommend that organizations create visions for their future using an Aspirational Mindset – a “healthy disregard for the impossible” – that explains what their organization would look like if they could have it any way they wanted it, with no constraints. The problem we too often face is the expectation that we can simply forecast the future environment in which our organization will exist. This is folly. Change today is much too rapid and chaotic. And trying to predict the future is much less important than first doing the soul-searching work to discern your aspirations. Another excellent George Bernard Shaw quote comes to mind:

“The reasonable person adapts themselves to the world. The unreasonable one persists in adapting the world to themselves. Therefore, all progress is due to the efforts of the unreasonable person.”

So, rather than trying to forecast the future and planning to adapt to it, we need to decide what kind of organization we want to be and create the circumstances we need to make it happen. We need bold visions for the future.

Vision plays many important roles in an organization. One of those is that it inspires people to work toward a common future. It can also inspire donors – especially major donor prospects – to help fund these big dreams. My first experience with the power of this Aspirational Mindset approach occurred quite by accident – thirty years ago. Here’s the background for the story:

My first experience as the CEO of a nonprofit was in 1981-90 when I served as CEO of Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity and the Alpha Sigma Phi Educational Foundation. I inherited an endowment fundraising campaign that was having a difficult time. By 1985, after a lot of hard work, by a lot of people, we eventually raised $1.1 million. This was a lot of money for an organization which had never known a true endowment previously.

During the next year we realized that we needed to plan more for the future. We didn’t know much about strategic planning, but we stumbled onto an Aspirational Visioning exercise. We thought it would be helpful to bring in various leaders and stakeholders for a weekend of brainstorming to get creative about what new programs we should create in the future. By the end of the weekend we had come up with a great set of ideas for new programs. Once we put price tags on them, they came to about $750,000 in additional annual costs — requiring at least an additional $15 million to endow them. We didn’t plan to start a new campaign again soon, but we wanted to have some ideas about the direction we wanted to go in for the future.

So, one morning I am reviewing the results from a volunteer phone-a-thon from the night before, I saw a note that said Mr. Howard Kleinoeder had made a $1,000 pledge and that he wanted to talk with someone about making a bequest. I phoned him and he reiterated his interest and added “You shouldn’t wait too long. My health is not so good.” In my wisdom, I made an appointment with him right then and scheduled my flight.

Mr. Kleinoeder lived on a thoroughbred horse farm in Florida. Other than that, I knew he was a member of our Fraternity at the University of Washington in the 1930s and that he had only recently started making gifts to the Educational Foundation. I didn’t know much more about him.

I met Mr. Kleinoeder at his home. I started the conversation by thanking him for his previous gifts and updating him on some of the things that we were doing. After we talked for a while he said something to me like “How much money do you fellas need anyway? You just raised a million dollars.” “That’s true, Howard,” I said, “But that was just the beginning. Some of our leaders got together recently and came up with a list of programs we need that will require an additional $15 million in endowment.” I went on to describe some of the programs we had on the drawing board and how they would make a difference for our students. He didn’t jump up and cheer at the ideas or anything, but he seemed satisfied that we had some good ideas we were working on.

I made a few additional visits to see Howard over the next couple of years. When we started our planned giving society he agreed to sign a statement confirming that he had provided a bequest for the Educational Foundation in his estate. But he declined to list the amount. All he wrote was: “Depends on the value of stock.” The last time I saw him he took me to dinner at the Elks Club where they had the fish dinner special that night. I think my meal cost about $7.00. He was a frugal guy who lived on a thoroughbred horse farm. I had no idea how much he had in mind for the Educational Foundation in his will, but I thought maybe six figures — a lot of money.

I was out of town when the phone call came. When I phoned in for messages, I was told that an attorney had called and that Mr. Kleinoeder had passed away. I returned the call to the attorney and he told me he estimated that the Educational Foundation would receive about $6.4 million once all of the stock and property was sold.

Wow. That gift was six times our annual budget. Is that a dream come true or what?

This was a very generous gift, to say the least. And it turns out that Howard Kleinoeder gave his entire fortune of $20+ million to three different philanthropic organizations when he died. Now, who knows what he had in mind when he asked to speak to someone about making a bequest to the Educational Foundation? Maybe he was thinking about giving us the entire $20+ million, but he was so unimpressed with me that he cut it in one-third. Who knows? But here is what I wonder. I wonder about when he asked how much money “we fellas” really needed. I wonder what he would have done if I had said “You’re right, Howard. We are finally in decent shape financially. But we are hoping to keep increasing our annual fundraising results by five to ten percent a year.” I wonder that if I had said something like that whether he would have given anything at all to the Educational Foundation from his estate.

The lesson: Create Aspirational Visions that can attract people with the resources to make some dreams come true. Even as the environment changes, the vision is your true north and you can continue to point in the direction of your dreams. This is what rallies everyone – staff, volunteers, Board members, and donors – to do everything in their power to maximize your Mission Impact.

Another important role that vision plays is setting the context for establishing an organization’s goals. Goals are what help bring a grand vision into reality. To learn more about using the Aspirational Mindset in goal setting, check out this link for an article I wrote entitled “The Power of Goals”:

Good luck in achieving all of your visions and goals!

Dr. Rob Sheehan is Academic Director of Executive MBA Programs at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland – College Park and Affiliate Professor at the University’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. He is also Principal of Sheehan Nonprofit Consulting. Rob has more than thirty years of executive management experience, including eighteen years as the CEO of two nonprofits. His book, Mission Impact: Breakthrough Strategies for Nonprofits, provides a cutting-edge, innovation-based approach on strategic planning for nonprofits.

This article is reprinted from Issue #4 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!

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