“Go watch an ant! Observe her behavior and become wise!” (Proverbs 6:12)
What makes Amazon so exceptional? It’s the empty chair! Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is famous for bringing an empty chair into meetings as a reminder that at Amazon everything begins with the customer and then works backward. They obsess over their customers![i]
What if non-profit boards regularly set an empty chair in their boardrooms? What if a congregations stewardship committee began their fundraising planning by focusing on the people sitting in their pews and inquiring as to how they perceive what’s happening and what it is that motivates them to give.
It was my friend and fundraising mentor Don Johnson who taught me the wisdom of the empty chair. Fundraising consultants call it a feasibility study. We were ready to kick-off a multi-million dollar capital campaign. Our need was clear, or so we thought. Our architect had drawn up our preliminary plans and our governing board had given us the green light. We were standing at the starting line; then came our comeuppance. Don simply asked: “And what feedback are you getting from the people who will fund the project; what do they say and think?” Suddenly the traffic light on our fundraising program flashed red.
We put our campaign on hold and stepped back to listen and learn. Later, when the light went green,we more than met our goal and dedicated the new addition debt free. Take away the empty chair and we would have failed to meet our goal and been saddled with a debt payment for years to come.
Empty chairs are truth-tellers! Sadly, many church boardrooms have no empty chairs; its seats are filled with insiders where group–think prevails. The genius of the empty chair is twofold. First, it puts the fundraising focus where it should be, on the giver or donor. Second, it blesses a congregation with insights it might otherwise miss as it distills outside-the-box truths that ultimately make for success.
At the next meeting of your fundraising committee make a space for the empty chair. Experience how it changes the conversation!
[i] Jeanette Thebeau & Sara Chojnacki, Act Like X: Amazon Edition, p. 6.