The Elusive Meaning of Excellence

In his blog, Doulas Mclennan asks: “If I built the best-ever VCR, would you rush out to buy it?” He then answers his own question:  “Of course not. Even though my VCR might be the most excellent VCR, no one cares about VCRs anymore.

Being excellent at something no one cares about doesn’t get you very far.”

While he is talking about the arts, this is a question all nonprofits should be pondering.  We say we are excellent—but what does that really mean?  And, if your job is fundraising, how do you define the excellent work you do in a way that will resonate with your potential donors?

When I was younger and looking for a job, I often applied for things that were just a bit out my reach.  Because I carefully crafted my cover letter and make sure my resume was informed by the ad (and this in the days before personal computers), despite my lack of many of the stated qualifications, I frequently got interviews (more frighteningly, I often was offered the job).

In almost every interview, I would be asked to talk about why I thought I was the right candidate for the job.  And you know, I had no clue.  Because it sounded interesting to me?  Because I wanted to move up the food chain? Because I was unhappy where I was and was applying to anything remotely connected to what I as doing?

No, none of those would have played well.  So I would tell them that I was “very good at what I do,” and then throw out some of the qualifications or attributes they had mentioned in their job description.

“I have strong verbal and written communication skills,” was my favorite.  But I was also detailed minded (not) and collaborative (yes).  And because they had never stopped to think about what, really, they wanted the person who got this position to accomplish, they didn’t actually know what it was they were looking for.

What that meant was that they had a high incidence of hiring precisely the wrong person.

Being very clear about what you want; what you are, are critical pieces of ensuring you get where you want to go.  In fundraising, I can use platitudes if I am raising small amounts of money; but when I am talking with major donors, it becomes critical to be specific, clear and precise.  “We do good work,” may be true, but a sophisticated major donor is bound to ask you: “In what way?”

And when you answer, you need to look in two directions:  What, specifically, makes you stand out AND what about that fits the aspirations and goals of your donor?


Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity.  Learn more at