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Aviation + Philanthropy: Keep your cool, Fly the plane

You may or may not know it, but I’m a bit of an aviation nerd. Although I don’t have my private pilot license (yet!), it’s sure to come sometime in the next 10 years after a little more convincing of my husband.

(Me sitting in the student pilot seat of a WWII trainer aircraft, the T-6 Texan)

I can lose myself reading about aviation - - anything from commercial jetliners to single engine Cessnas. And don’t get me started on the hours I can spend watching cockpit videos on YouTube!

There’s an interesting correlation between being a great pilot and being a great development professional and it hinges on keeping your focus.

Just fly the plane.

That’s a phrase beginning pilots are reminded seemingly ad nauseum.

Is the airplane’s engine sputtering and making sounds you may not have heard before? Just fly the plane. Did your radios go out and now your communication with the ground is significantly reduced? Just fly the plane. Is there a passenger on-board having a severe medical episode? Just fly the plane.

While these are not immaterial considerations when you’re “sitting left seat” (the pilot’s seat in most planes), you really must stay focused on aviating. If you, as pilot in command, are not laser-focused on safely flying and landing the plane, then who is? This is not the time to lose your cool, and thus lose your focus. The outcomes could be disastrous.

Just fly the plane.

Whether you are the CEO, Vice President of Development, Director of Development or Annual Fund Manager, you are responsible for a certain task. You have been hired to fill a particular (and very likely unique) role at the institution, and should you become distracted by another aspect, you risk taking your eye off of what you were hired to do.

Now, this is not to say that collaboration and being a helpful colleague isn’t both appropriate and to the benefit of the company, not to mention a good way to build capital with your colleagues.

Is the dinner service at your $2,500 per person gala running 30 minutes late? Don’t run around like a chicken without its head, be the pilot in command (if that is your role) and get the event order back on track.

Did half of your staff come down with the food poisoning in the midst of a donor stewardship trip through Europe? Triage the situation and ensure your generous donors don’t catch wind that there’s a situation.

Each of us is given opportunities daily to stray from the task at hand, to abdicate our duty to the institution and those being served. The distraction may be very real, and it may be sizable. Very likely that distraction also feels hugely important at that exact moment!

When unexpected obstacles or even major crises surface, assess the situation, identify a solution and keep flying the plane. A crisis is no time to take your hands off of the yoke (the steering wheel of the airplane). At that moment, the other souls on board are counting on you more than ever to do exactly what you were trained and are prepared to do.

Consider going even one step further by equipping your colleagues to think in this way also. How can you instill this principle with members of your own development team? Even better, consider how you will trumpet this strategy across the entirety of your organization as you work to build the culture of philanthropy with your eyes focused on the task at hand.

Just fly the plane.

Michael Pettry


Cape Fletcher Associates

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