Path To Success Often Looks Like Failure

When the load becomes too heavy to carry – literally or figuratively – people must keep moving forward in spite of the pain or failure. In her book, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” there’s a point when Cheryl Strayed realizes that her pack is so heavy she can’t lift it. “In that scene is what ‘Wild’ is all about,” she said. “In that moment when you can’t lift the pack, that’s where you’re making the leap from a personal story to a universal tale about what it means to be human.”

Strayed spoke to a packed house at the 8th annual Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising, where more than 1,400 fundraisers gathered at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md. Fundraisers and direct marketers can learn from Strayed’s experience: It’s not just about your organization, it’s about connecting with donors in a shared experience. How can you, your donors and your constituents share in the human condition?

Strayed’s book, published in 2012 about her 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert in California to the Oregon-Washington border, is about many things: the death of her mother, the implosion of her marriage, her loss and subsequent finding of herself. It’s about accepting her failures, her pain, her mistakes, and moving forward anyway. “The direction is forward,” said Strayed.

Rarely is the path to success a straight line but instead a winding road. “Much of it looks like failure,” Strayed said. “I kept returning to that experience on the trail to say, ‘I’m going to keep going’ even though there’s so much doubt.” Fundraisers can relate: in smaller ways, like the relentless testing of marketing material before you hit the right combination, and in large ways, like the painful process of jettisoning what doesn’t work.

“There’s a sense of risk-taking,” said Strayed. “People think I was crazy. Maybe I am crazy, but part of being successful is being crazy. There is that connection between us, when you’re trying to tell your story or get your message across, what you’re doing is risking that connection. You’re saying, ‘I am going to tell you something true and I hope you recognize it in yourself.’ It involves vulnerability, keeping the faith, one step at a time and being humble.”

An advice columnist, Strayed once wrote to a reader to “keep the faith, do the work and stay true blue.” She left the audience of fundraisers and marketers with those words. Nonprofit fundraising is more than just a job, and the mission-driven people who do that work understand that. “It’s about finding the truest version of yourself you can express through the work you do.”