99: Cultivating the Unexpected: About Daring to Embrace the Art & Science of Serendipity with Dr. Christian Busch

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“The most purpose-driven, inspiring people … intuitively cultivate serendipity. They somehow see a little bit more in unexpected moments, and then they connect the dots and turn that into unexpected positive outcomes.”

– Dr. Christian Busch
Episode #99


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

Is so-called “dumb luck” really so dumb? Or is it, in fact, the result of an invitation? As my guest on this episode of What the Fundraising explains, there’s an art and science to this thing called “serendipity.” Christian Busch, author of “The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck,”  is showing us how to cultivate the unexpected, with insights about why an abundant approach opens doors (and how staying small can literally cause us to miss good fortune right in our path). In addition to sharing fascinating research, Christian is also providing concrete strategies for shifting our luck – as fundraisers and humans. As he explains, incremental adjustments in the permission we give and the environment we create can make all the difference.

And if you think luck somehow isn’t credible because, well … it’s just luck, Christian demonstrates the many ways that are not true. We can create an actionable road map to good fortune through flexible attitudes and frameworks. It serves no one to be overly attached to outcomes, says Christian, who highlights examples of organizations that have reaped the benefits of richer, more sustained connections. Make no mistake, says Christian, who also directs New York University’s CGA Global Economy Program, “You can prepare for the unexpected by creating the foundations for it.” Transformational change starts with the decision to open up our worlds and missions to results we can’t even imagine. Is your organization ready to invite – and harness the power of – serendipity?




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  • “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl.
  • More about the legacy and approach of nonprofit activist Paul Polman.
  • About RLabs — Reconstructing Living Labs, a South African nonprofit that has helped 20 million people globally to access resources and systems to improve their lives.
  • Link to the poet and philosopher Goethe’s quote about human potential here.
  • If you’d like to explore further conversation on a range of relatable topics, please join our new What the Fundraising community forum at this link.
  • If you’re looking to raise more from the right funders, then you’ll want to check out my Power Partners Formula, a step-by-step approach to identifying the optimal partners for your organization. This free masterclass offers a great starting point!
  • You might also be interested in taking my Fundraising Superpower Quiz.

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Get to know Christian:

Dr. Christian Busch is the bestselling author of The Serendipity Mindset: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck – “a wise, exciting, and life-changing book” (Arianna Huffington) that provides “excellent practical guidance for all” (Paul Polman, former CEO, Unilever) – and an internationally known expert in the areas of sustainable innovation, purpose-driven leadership, and serendipity. He is the director of the CGA Global Economy Program at New York University (NYU), and also teaches at the London School of Economics (LSE). He is a cofounder of Leaders on Purpose and the Sandbox Network, and a former director of LSE’s Social Innovation Lab. His work has been featured by outlets such as the Strategic Management Journal, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The Guardian, and the BBC. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Expert Forum, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and on the Thinkers50 Radar list of the 30 thinkers “most likely to shape the future.” 


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episode transcript

01:28 Mallory: Welcome everyone. I am so excited to be here today with Dr. Christian Busch. Welcome to What the fundraising. 

01:35 Christian: Thanks so much for having me. 

01:36 Mallory: Why don’t we start with you just sharing a little bit about your background and research and work. I was so excited to learn about everything that you do, and then we’ll just dive into the conversation.

01:46 Christian: Yea, it in a way started with, I used to be that teenager who was kicked out of high school, had to repeat a year, and probably held the unofficial world record of how many dust bins you could knock over on your way to school when you’re driving. And then one day I wasn’t so lucky anymore and crashed into four parked cars. All cars completely destroyed, including my own. And I won’t forget the policeman who came to the scene, he was like, oh my God, he’s still alive. And that idea that it was supposed to be dead, that stuck with me. And so, it took me on this intense search for meaning. And I read a lot of books and the one that really stuck with me was Victor Frankel’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, which is all about how do we find meaning in crisis, how do we somehow turn unexpected negative moments into something that still is meaningful. And so, what I realized during that period is that what I enjoy the most is connecting ideas, connecting people, and those sparks that come from doing it. And so, you know, I started out as a community builder. And then went to entrepreneurship and later into academia and trying to figure out how can I scale some of the ideas coming of it. And what I found fascinating on this journey is that the most purpose-driven, inspiring people around me, they seem to have something in common, which is that they intuitively cultivate serendipity. They somehow see a little bit more in unexpected moments, and then they connect the dots and turn that into unexpected positive outcomes.

02:59 Christian: And so I got really fascinated about, is there a science-based framework for this? All these different serendipity stories, some might have a love story that serendipity it is, some might have found an innovation that way, or you name it. The question was, when you step back, is there a pattern that they all have in common so that we can learn how to have more of that happen in our lives? And so that’s really what this work is a lot about. What is the pattern? And then also what our practices we can all use to have more of this unexpected good luck in our lives. 

03:25 Mallory: And your book is called The Serendipity Mindset. But I’m wondering before we dig into everything that you just said, what do people typically think about when they hear the words serendipity? Like, where do we get that wrong or perhaps misinterpret the meaning of it? 

03:41 Christian: Well, it’s interesting cause a lot of times, I guess people might have watched the movie Serendipity, or they might have somehow thought about luck in some way or the other, and that’s what I found most interesting. I think a lot of times when we think about serendipity, we think about it as something that just happens to us, so some kind of luck that just, okay, it falls into your lap. But it’s actually very different from that. There’s blind luck, that’s being born into a nice family, stuff like that. We can’t pick this, right? But serendipity is active luck. It’s smart luck. It’s the luck we create ourselves. And maybe to give you an example, I mean, imagine you’re in a coffee shop and you have erratic hand movements like I do. Imagine you spill coffee over someone accidentally. And they look at you slightly annoyedly, but you sense there might be something there. You don’t know what it is, you just sense there might be something there. And now you have a couple of options, right? One option is you just say, I’m so sorry, here’s a napkin. And then you walk outside and you think, ah, what could have happened had I spoken with that person? Option two is of course you start that conversation and that person turns out to become the love of your life, your co-founder, you name it. The point is that our reaction to the unexpected moment making the accident meaningful is a lot of times where serendipity comes from, we can also create more meaningful accidents. But that’s what I’m really excited about. This idea that we can learn how to make accidents more meaningful, but also create more meaningful accidents.

04:58 Mallory: Okay. I love that. And I’m curious about that piece that you said at the very beginning around that sense that we have. How does that intuitive sense, or that gut reaction, or all the things that we perhaps perceive around a situation that we can’t name or exactly put our finger on, how does that play into this idea of making the most of these accidents and creating serendipity?

05:26 Christian: I guess that there’s a lot of elements of this, but if I focus on two of them, one is we have to start expecting the positively unexpected, right? Similar to how when we cross the street, we’ll probably always still look a little bit because someone might cross the red light and we might not trust. So, in a way, sometimes we’re expecting the negatively unexpected. If we would do the same for the positively unexpected, we might find more money in the street. Kids find a lot of money in the street because they just look around, they don’t expect it to not be there. I find a lot of money in the street because I expect it to be there. People drop a lot of money. In my case, mostly pennies, unfortunately, or cents, so it doesn’t really change my life. Once you open your eyes to the positively unexpected, it starts to happen more often. And maybe to give you one of my favorite experiments here, and maybe asking you and your viewers, do you consider yourself to be a lucky person? In your case Mallory, do you consider yourself to be a lucky person or?

06:14 Mallory: I think so. Yeah, I do. You know, it’s funny as you’re saying that I don’t necessarily think I’m the person who stumbles onto a hundred dollars bill, although I’m going to start looking for that. But I consider myself, yeah, very lucky and very fortunate in my life overall.

06:28 Christian: Because that’s the interesting thing. So, in one of the experiments, they took people who self-identify as very lucky. So, people who say good things tend to happen to me and yada yada. And people who self-identify as very unlucky. So, people who say bad things tend to happen to me, I’m always in accidents and so on. And we probably all know people on this continuum between very lucky and very unlucky. And so, they pick one of each and they say, walk down the street, go into a coffee shop, sit down, and then we’ll have our conversation. Now what they don’t tell them is that there’s hidden cameras alongside the street and inside the coffee shop there’s a five-pound note in front of the coffee shop door. So, there’s money right in front of the door. And inside the coffee shop, there’s one empty seat next to this extremely successful businessman who can make big ideas happen. 

07:11 Christian: Now, the lucky person walks down the street, sees the five-pound note, picks it up, goes inside the shop and orders a coffee, and sits down next to the businessman. They have a conversation, exchange business cards, and potential opportunity comes with it. The unlucky person walks down the street, steps over the five-pound note, so doesn’t see it, goes inside the shop, orders a coffee, sits next to the businessman, and then ignores the businessman, and that’s it. Now, at the end of the day, they ask both people, how was your day today? And so, the lucky person says, well, it was amazing. I found money in the street, made a new friend, and you know, potentially an opportunity comes with it. The unlucky person just says, well, nothing really happened. And there’s a lot of these kind of experiments where you can put people into exactly the same situation, so no difference in there. You might have seen couples that go to exactly the same event, but one tends to be a little bit luckier than the other. And of course, there’s a lot of things to it, but the one is really this, once you expect that you can be lucky that there can be something good in this, in the moment, you start to see it more often. And there’s a lot of other elements I’m sure we’ll talk about extroversion and so on. But I think that openness to the unexpected. 

08:12 Christian: And the second point to your question, what I found so fascinating, so a lot of my work is with senior leaders. So, it’s around what makes someone successful, what makes someone become a successful CEO, those kinds of things. And we did a study recently with some of the world’s most successful CEOs, and we try to figure out what is it behind what makes them truly successful. And one of the key themes behind it is that they’re extremely good to have a mature gut feeling. So, they in a way say, I trust my gut, but I’m always double checking it in a way with what my brain tells me. So, if I’m sitting in a meeting, I feel like this could go well, but then my gut at some point says, you know what, on paper this looks great, but there’s something fishy here. Then I go back, I research more about the person. I get another recommendation letter and so on, to really kind of align the head and the gut. And I found that to be extremely, extremely interesting. Because a lot of times people will post rationalize. They will tell you something like, I made this decision based on all these different reasons here. Yeah. A lot of times it’s actually you just had a gut feeling; you went with it and then you made up the reasons afterwards. The point here is, once we learn to understand our guts, the subconscious that knows so much more than our conscious a lot of times, right. That might have picked other cues up that may might not have even seen. And then once we try to understand that, that’s where the real power comes into act on serendipity, that’s aligned with what we want in our lives.

09:33 Mallory: I love that. And I’m curious around your first point and that story that you told or the experiment that you told where folks saw the five-pound note or didn’t, and saw the person that they were sitting. Is what you’re saying that life in many ways is a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the expectations we hold about what we might find?

09:55 Christian: Expectations is a really interesting word. So those of you who love meditation, for example. I’m a big fan of this idea that if you in a way fall in love with a journey rather than with a destination, that’s probably what sets you up for happiness. Versus if you focus too much on a particular expectation, I want exactly this job or exactly this thing that a lot of times sets you up for disappointment. But to your point, I think if we have a certain broader expectation, right, in terms of, hey, I want to live a meaningful life, or I want to help others. Something that in a way doesn’t predefine something too specific so that in a way the failure rate is extremely likely because it’s too specific. Yes, it can really help us. And so, it’s really this kind of this study that I just mentioned. When you look at those CEOs, what they’re extremely good at is sense of direction. So, to say something like, if I am MasterCard, I want to get 500 million people who were previously not in the financial system, into the financial system, to be banked now, to be able to build their businesses and so on. So, their CEO would say, that’s what I want to do, this is my North Star. This is how I rally people around it. This is how I get them excited. Here’s a strategy, but I’m telling you already know that we will adjust this strategy based on unexpected information, based on in Cape flats in Cape Town telling us there might be a better way. And so, what they’re doing is they’re building the unexpected into the plan. And so, then the unexpected is not a threat. It’s not something that kind of disrupts your plans, but it’s part of the plan to actually become better and better and better and iterate. And that’s really kind of to your point, right? If we expect this kind of bigger idea, but then also expect the unexpected, that is actually a really effective way to rubber stamp towards really interesting serendipity ideas and solutions. What I found really fascinating is, I think there’s a lot of pressure, especially on young people, to find their purpose or their passion, you know, this kind of North star in a way, which is why I’m a really big fan of finding a key curiosity, something I’m interested in. 

11:36 Christian: Because if you look at something that you’re interested in, what happens usually is you talk to a couple of people and then they tell you something. You’re like, oh my God, I didn’t even know this existed, this could be a job for me, this could be in project, whatever. So, I think it’s kind of really to your point, developing some kind of interest or sphere of interest that then could lead you towards something, even if it’s not kind of predefining an exact expectation. But if we do that, it becomes more likely that we encounter serendipity. 

12:01 Mallory: Okay. There’re so many applications to what you’re saying to fundraisers and nonprofit leaders, and I want to dig in a little bit more around that. But one question that’s coming to mind is, when folks think about this idea, and I’ve seen some of your language in other places around this sort of opportunity focused mindset, like what happens when we believe in and see the potential for opportunity everywhere? Do you ever find that people have some fear around the adoption of that mindset or the adoption of serendipity because they’re very nervous about being let down? 

12:33 Christian: There’s actually two things that come to mind when you say this. One is that in a way, serendipity is also related to change. And change can be scary because it’s kind of, in a way, might lead you away from the path that you thought would be the path. And it always reminds me of an old mentor of mine. He always used to say, Christian, people like you, because I grew up in Germany, right? So, we are very focused on plans and we love making strategies and everything else. And so, he would be like, people like you always think there’s only one way to Rome, the city Rome. And then you realize you don’t even want to be in Rome. And that kind of idea, right? That we might aim for something, we might work for it. And then when we achieve it, we’re like, actually it’s not as exciting as I thought it would be. And so, what now? And so, it’s really kind of this idea of getting rid of this idea there’re particular things I have to achieve in life to more the idea of there’s a particular way of how I live life. There’re particular things that are nice milestones so that I know that I’m going into the right direction. But at the same time that I’m not over focusing on how exactly to do it, because that leads to that disappointment.

13:26 Christian: If you let go a little bit from the attachment of this, exactly the one thing that I need, the one funder that I need for getting X, Y, Z, like project funded. Actually, in that conversation with that one funder, if you really get along, they might tell you that their friend actually is the real person who might give you the really big grand, right? And so, the point is that a lot of times then from the most unexpected off sources might come much more interesting things if we allow to not be too kind of, oh my God, I’m so attached to this one thing that has to happen. And so, what I’m really interested in is exactly what you mentioned, that I think we all have a certain fear of change, and a fear of kind of discomfort of ambiguity, which is why I’m such a big fan of thinking about what is it in those moments that I can reframe away from what’s the worst thing that can happen if I do it? So, the worst thing, let’s say I go to a conference and I have this amazing Gates Foundation person who could give me 2 million dollars for our next project, and I bump into them coincidentally. And I might just now feel in that moment, oh my God, I don’t want to bother them, I don’t want to speak with them, I don’t want to X, Y, Z, like this would derail maybe our funding conversations and whatever. 

14:27 Christian: And what I found extremely helpful is to reframe that, to say, well, what’s the worst thing that could happen if you don’t do it? Because a lot of times, you know that potential sting of rejection that might come in a moment of this is not as bad as this feeling of regret when you walk away and you think, ah, what could have happened had I spoken with a person. Or in a meeting, when you have this unexpected idea and then you don’t bring it up because you don’t feel worthy, valuable, whatever it is. And so, then that feeling of regret is much stronger a lot of times. So, something that has helped me a lot is, for example, when wanting to overcome things like fear of rejection, is really to think about what’s the worst thing that can happen if I don’t do it, and then kind of really reframing that towards this. And then what I’ve realized is it gives you a bias to action. Because you realize a lot of times the worst thing is really the things that you regret not doing. And so, the long story short is, I think to your question, yes, I think there is sometimes a fear that I have as well that like things that can potentially quote unquote derail a certain idea, could impact life. But actually, now having practiced in a way, the serendipity mindset for the last kind of 15 years or so, I can tell you that a lot of times it opens up those kinds of joyful moments that are leading to actually even more interesting things. And so, yes, there’s this moment of slight discomfort, but that is almost needed to then allow for this kind of new door to open and become even more interesting. 

15:39 Mallory: I love what you’re saying around the way that opportunity begets opportunity and how it creates more potential for connections as even in the unknown. I think one thing I hear sometimes from fundraisers is, well, what if we raised that amount this year then next year I would have to raise even more. Like, what if Gates came in and did give us 2 million for that project? How would we ever keep up with that? And I think this idea that in those connections, in the belief in that opportunity comes so much more opportunity and those other funding, if that mindset can stay open in that way, it’s only going to lead to additional growth and additional opportunity. The nonprofit sector is so baked in a scarcity mindset, which has us hold on really tight to outcomes and relationships and the belief and fears that if we lose this one thing or this one thing doesn’t happen, folks have a hard time pulling out of what else might be possible. And there’s also, of course, a lot of traumas inside the sector. And so, what are other strategies for folks who are like, okay, I want this, but I’m feeling a tremendous amount of fear of even adopting this type of belief set. What are some other strategies that might ease them into practice here? 

16:59 Christian: So one thing, I had a session last week around this question with a big kind of philanthropic organization, and what was interesting to hear from them is that they are trying to shift away from over focusing on particular ways, particular solutions, because they’ve realized if we overcommit someone to a particular solution, what happens is that they have this kind of mission drift towards, oh, we have to do this one thing, versus, Hey, we actually found a much better way to get something done, but we’re not allowed because that’s not part of our grant. Right? And so, I think there’s kind of movement with more innovative funders to also think about, okay, how do we semi-structure projects in a way that we allow pivots that there might be more interesting things that might emerge. But to your question, I’m a big fan of strategies like the hook strategy that allow us to explore that potentiality with funders, with donors, which is all about saying, how do I create a meaningful relationship with the other person based on what they are really excited and curious about versus based on my pitch? Pitch is always kind of, you go to someone, you just throw something at them and then you hope it lands. Versus the hook strategy is about saying, how do I bring a couple of memorable talking points and they pick up the one they are most excited about? Someone who does that really well, Ali Barrett, an entrepreneur in London. If you would ask him, so what do you do? He wouldn’t just say, I’m a tech entrepreneur, or I’m kind of fundraising expert for that project or whatever it is. He would say something like, I’m a technology entrepreneur. Recently started reading onto the Philosophy of science, but what I’m really excited about is playing the piano. And so, what he’s doing here is, he’s giving you three potential hooks where you could be like, oh my God such a coincidence. We are hosting piano sessions. You should stop by. Oh my God such a coincidence, my sister is teaching on the philosophy of science, you should give a guest lecture. The point is, then we can start the conversation with something they are really intrigued about.

18:35 Christian: And what happens a lot of times, give an example of a gaming entrepreneur. A couple of weeks ago, he applied that. He came back and he is like one of my major investors. When I introduced myself, I said, I’m a gaming entrepreneur, but at the moment I’m really excited about black holes and exploring the universe. And that investor was like, oh my God, I’m so excited about the black holes and exploring the universe. Let’s talk about it. They talked an hour about black holes, which has nothing to do with this business. And after that hour, the investor said, I really like you. How can I help you? And then he was like, you know what, maybe you could invest in my business. And so, the point here is that I think it’s that kind of thing, especially with individuals and like other people who in a way base a lot of importance into meaningful relationships. Like, that idea of letting them start the relationship building based on what they’re most excited about and then building from there. I’ve seen that in a lot of different contexts where then the most exciting things happen. 


19:23 Mallory: That is such good advice. We’re going to pull out those questions. And I feel like that also lends itself to that piece with funders that you were mentioning before a little bit to say like, here’s what we do, but here’s what we’re thinking about, and here’s what we’re interested in right now, and here’s what we’re looking at. Even if nonprofit leaders are feeling nervous to divert too much away from the work of their organization, I actually still think that framework creates this ability to add more diversity into the conversation and the way that you’re talking about your organization. And allows for some space to not have to feel like an expert in something. You know, here’s what we do, and we’re also at the moment interested in learning about X, Y and Z, and we’re going down that research hole right now. And so, you don’t have to be the expert, but if the funder picks up on that and is like, we’re really interested in that too, it opens this potential connection and opportunity that would’ve never been there before and is a whole sphere of potential that isn’t anywhere near your programs yet. 

20:24 Christian: Exactly. And, we brought that together beautifully that in a way, if that is on a learning focus, then it’s also clear, yes, we’re focusing on the things you were supposed to potentially fund or what we’re known for, but also, hey, there is a kind of new stream that’s coming up here. And I found that always interesting. So Paulman, for example, right, who was running Unilever and made it a quite impactful organization from kid of pure nonprofit, more towards all societal environmental impact. And he was always extremely good at saying, you know what, I always wanted to become a priest but then I realized that business is an effective vehicle where you can see the direct impact. And so, he sometimes to people would seem, oh my God, why did he take on that project? How did that relate to this? But he was actually extremely focused, like he would say, as long as you fit into my vision to leverage Unilever to solve X, Y, Z malnutrition here and X, Y, Z thing here, this project is actually not at all unrelated, it’s actually within that umbrella. And he was extremely good at the people he needed money from, and the people he talked with to give that narrative of saying, this is how it relates to each other. And so, the only thing I would add to what you mentioned earlier was to say, as long as there’s also a clear link then to say, hey, like we’ve been focusing on this and now we’re trying to learn this because the world is changing here and this is kind of what we’ve always be excited about in a way then the funder doesn’t feel, oh, this is kind of an organization that’s like distracted, but it’s actually, it’s a natural next step to also learn more about this. And so, I’m sure everyone has had that maybe also with their own CV, right. When you look back on the CV and you connect the dots, at hindsight, you might see, oh my God, this looks all over the place. But then you realize there’s one common theme, maybe a passion for making connections. But the point is like identifying those things that you usually identify afterwards. If you try to identify that with foresight, I think that gets really exciting for people. 

21:59 Mallory: I love that, and I really agree. I’m glad you added that piece around how to make sure it doesn’t look like your sort of scattered spray fire out there. But I really liked what you said about the way that some funders are starting to think about the fact that they’ve rigidly managed their funding in the past. It has hampered the opportunity for serendipity to learn things. I’ve seen that of course, but not through this framework where organizations in the middle of a grant funding cycle, for example, stumble across something or learn something that really should pivot the direction of their program, but they don’t feel like they have the space or the ability to bring that up and explore it and get curious. So, I’m thrilled to hear that foundations are talking with you about all of this. I’m curious when you think about the change management piece around this on more of an organizational level. So, something we hear a lot inside, and I know you are used to working with executives who are running big companies. But a lot of folks who listen to this podcast are fundraising staff, they’re maybe not the number one, but number two in an organization, sometimes they’re in a bigger shop in an organization. And so, where they feel challenged, I think is adopting a mindset in a culture that doesn’t hold this mindset. And I’m curious how you think about that or strategies you have to keep folks in a space where they’re opportunity minded?

23:25 Christian: I’ve always found that fascinating. So, I work a lot at the large corporate where a lot of times you have a bureaucracy where like, wow, or governments where you have a huge bureaucracy. And then kind of smaller social enterprises where they might be quite agile, but also certain, I don’t know, there’s a founder who’s very charismatic and so everyone’s kind of somehow following that idea. And also, in a way everyone has their own almost functional fixedness in certain ways where they’re, hey, this is the one way and the rest is the highway. What I found really interesting is, is a couple of things. One is, let’s say there’s a patriarchal founder or matriarchal founder who’s one way we’ve always done it and if you do a fundraising campaign, like always do it this way and always X, Y, Z thing. I found it extremely useful to then bring in stories into conversations from the outside that kind of show other ways of how it has worked. And kind of familiarizing people with it and like legitimizing it, and sharing one’s own stories. I mean, the higher one is up in the organization, the better, of course it is, to let people feel that it’s okay to have the unexpected be part of your plan. And so, a company that has done that really well is Pixar. They create all these Finding Nemo and beautiful creative movies. And when the founder would come in at the beginning, he would say something like, at the beginning, all of our movies are bad, now start the conversation. And so, what you’re doing here is you’re giving people the license to not have the perfect idea, to not have a perfect plan from the beginning, and then kind of like in a less judgmental way, discuss about what could be an approach here, what could be a way. 

24:43 Christian: The first thing is really about how do you create the language, the vocabulary, instead of saying, oh, the unexpected happens to us and it derails our plans. No, we want to cultivate serendipity. This is an active approach to leadership. And so, it’s kind of really shifting it towards that. And then second, I think there’s a lot around this idea of how do you get people to spot the positively unexpected in the day-to-day? Example. It’s not in the nonprofit world. A company in China, they produce refrigerators and washing machines, and they receive calls from farmers. And the farmers told them, you’re crappy washing machines always breaking down. Why is the washing machine breaking down? We’re trying to wash our potatoes in it and it doesn’t seem to work. So, what will we usually do? We probably tell them, that’s not part of our marketing plan. Our plan says that you should wash your clothes in this. They did the opposite. They said, you know what? That’s unexpected, but there’s for real farmers in China and the world who have a similar problem. So why don’t we build in a dirt filter and make it a potato washing machine? And so that’s how that became one of their key products. 

25:35 Christian: The point is, if you now have a practice, for example, like asking people at the weekly meeting, what surprised you last week? A very simple practice that makes people look out for the unexpected. They might say something like, it really surprised me that people use our washing machines differently. It really surprised me that the funders that we thought would be interested, actually not interested, but like another funder might be much more interested. Those kinds of things where then people feel they’re not questioning one’s authority, they’re not questioning anything in particular, but it actually is part of the plan that they’re looking out for those kinds of opportunities. And so, I think creating a culture for serendipity, a lot of times means to bring in these small behavioral changes rather than coming in and say, let’s change everything at once. It’s more, hey, asking oneself and others what surprised me last week, and those kinds of things that then, in a way built that into the modus operandi on a team level. 

26:20 Mallory: I love all of that advice, and I’m wondering about, as you’re saying this is, are people ever resistant to the idea of luck because it just makes them feel like they have less control like, that they’re responsible for the positive outcome, that they don’t feel like they get to celebrate the positive outcome in the same way, because they’re like, oh, well that was luck and I don’t want to believe it’s luck. In the US we have this culture of like hard work, grind, hustle, that’s how you get results. So, I feel like, oh my gosh, what you’re talking about is just so much more openness and curiosity and less judgment and possibility. And I wonder if for some folks it’s like, well, if I can’t measure it and know the exact roadmap of how my overdrive created those outcomes, then do I want it? How do you bring those things together? 

27:05 Christian: What I found fascinating is that to your point, right, when you work with the higher someone is in the hierarchy, the more they want to portray control and authority and the idea that you have a plan, right? So, a CEO would come into the boardroom and say, I planned this, then I did this, and then exactly this happened. So, that gives you that feeling of control. And everyone in this room knows, ah, that’s probably not the truth, right? Because everyone is aware that life is a little bit more like a squiggle, not a straight line. And so, one of the things I found really interesting is that in my work, what I hear a lot of times when I interview people, they might say things like, I planned this and then unexpectedly this happened and then we were lucky and this turned out.

27:37 Christian: And so that’s kind of almost a way where, to your point, luck is then something that’s passive, it’s something that they wouldn’t get credit for, it wouldn’t be part of their performance review. But then when you filter it back to them and you say, you know what, you talk a lot about how the unexpected turned into positive outcomes. You seem to have a lot of agencies in that process. It seems you did a lot of dots connecting here. And so, once you filter it back to them and say, you know what, you cultivated serendipity here. You did something here. They start talking like it and they say, you know what, I’m actually creating a culture for serendipity and I created a mindset for it. And so, what’s happening then is kind of, once you make it more active in their vocabulary, they also then feel they can get more appreciated for it because then people can learn from it. You can teach people around how you can have more of this and so on. So, the first bracket really is around saying the idea that you acknowledge serendipity, not as a passive, but actually an active approach to leadership. The CEO of Cummins, large company in the US, said it beautifully that cultivating serendipity is the key approach to leadership in times of uncertainty. Because that’s the kind of one way you can plan for the unexpected, you can prepare for the unexpected by creating the foundations for it. It makes it more likely that you’re lucky. 

28:39 Christian: And I think to second point, that’s actually what I’ve been most fascinated by. That there’s always this old kind of idea of its either hard work or luck, but these people work really hard to be luckier. And I think that’s kind of really at the core of this to say, you know what, it can work really hard to have more serendipity. And a lot of my work is in extreme resource constraint setting. It is in parts of Saharan Africa where if you’re a social entrepreneur somewhere in the Cape Flats of Cape Town, you have a very different starting position. And so, in a way, your potential level of potentiality of serendipity is so much lower than, you know, me sitting here in the West Village in New York and kind of having access to networks and education. And so, while we’re talking about mindset, I’m also a huge fan of thinking about how do we create opportunity spaces for people so that we can kind of level the playing field so that if they have the same mindset, the similar kind of opportunity space. And so, one way, for example, if we talk about education, let’s not only talk about how to get someone a scholarship to Harvard, but let’s talk about if we get someone who has a kind of minority background into Harvard, how do we also have three mentors who can directly help them with a job? How do we build that opportunity space around them so that they’re less privileged again and again at every step of the journey? And so really kind of thinking more system wise there. And I think there’s so much potential here in terms of thinking about how to build Serenity into systems.

29:49 Mallory: I’m really glad that you said that. Within the nonprofit sector, but across the nonprofit sector, that’s an overarching issue as well, and I think you could easily hear this conversation and think, oh, well this would work for particular leaders in particular spaces surrounded by particular types of funding opportunities and not for others. And you’re making a point that there is more opportunity and more access with this mindset.  And there’s systems level change that needs to happen to continue to even that playing field or get it anywhere near even in. There was something else that you were saying when you were talking about curiosity that made me wonder and that judgment piece. So, when folks are starting to adopt this mindset, and maybe if you could walk us through, folks who are like, I want to start to play with this a little bit. And we’ve talked about some of the barriers that folks might feel initially to even engaging in this idea. But let’s say that they’re like, okay, I’m ready. I’m ready to dive in. What do you suggest they start with in terms of daily practices or weekly practices as an individual? You gave some great ones around teamwork as well. And then when they have their first moment of like hearing some negative self-talk around it. How do folks overcome that first mindset hurdle?

31:14 Christian: That’s a great question, and with your permission, I would very briefly also, your last point, I think it was such a beautiful one around how in a way we might assume that this mindset plays more of a role in context where it’s almost like a nice to have, right? So, in the context where we are, but actually one of the reasons I’m so excited about is actually that, especially in resource constraint settings, it’s so important. To give you an example, there’s an organization called Reconstructed Living labs in the Cape Flats of Cape Town. They have this low-cost education methodology. And they reached hundreds of thousands of people with almost no resources because what they said is to say, you know what, instead of going into local communities and asking people, what do you need, and focusing on resourcing, they go into local communities and they say, what’s already here and how can we make the best of it? They look at a former drug dealer, they see a potential teacher because that person will be very creative, resourceful. And if you turn them into a teacher, you turn a local community. They look at an old garage, they see a potential training center. And so, I’ve found it very inspired by what they’re essentially intuitively doing, but we are currently working a lot with them on is to say that’s actually a major way to create dignity and a feeling of hope that you know that if you are in such a tough environment, you can still create your own luck and you don’t have to wait for the UN to throw some kind of resources at you where you then feel disempowered. And I think to me, actually that was the biggest, biggest shift I’ve had when working with those kinds of more vulnerable communities. I went there the first time 10 ish years ago, and I asked, what should I never ask you as the kind of white do-gooder coming into your context? Like what is it that all these people who want to do good here, like ask you, but what I shouldn’t ask you? 

32:40 Christian: And the first thing that my now very good friend said was, Christian, never ask us as a first question, what do we need? Because that puts us into the role of the victim, the beneficiary, someone who needs your kind of benevolence. Because if you come in and say, what’s already here? How can we make the best of it? Then we start on the same level and then you can still think about resourcing and everything else. And so, to me that was a really big shift in thinking in terms of saying, we think about resourcing a lot of times in very traditional terms. Here’s this budget, here’s this kind of like particular resource of a skilled labor or whatever. But actually, there’s all these hidden resources that are hidden everywhere. And so, I’ve been extremely inspired by how they go about it. You know, for example, simple budget approach. When if you want within the organization 10 chairs and you want a budget for it, you have to go through a process where it asks you, do you really need the chairs or can people stand? Or if you really need the chairs, does the restaurant next door have those chairs? And only if you say no to all these questions, then you get the budget. And so, it’s really kind of, you start to connect the dots differently. If you think about resource constraints, to your point, less about scarcity and more about abundance, and I think that’s kind of really the big shift that we’re trying to do with the mindset also. 

33:43 Mallory: Okay, I have to tell you this before we go to my other question. So, I have a course. My signature course is called the Power Partners Formula, and when I was creating it, I was thinking about the fact that scarcity mindset is so baked into this sector. And when nonprofit leaders often hear the word abundance, that feels so far away, to go from scarcity to abundance feels so far away. So, I started this process inside Power Partners called Asset Mapping, where I have the organization sit down and write everything of value inside their organization, way beyond their programs, but really looking at everything from thought leadership on their board of directors to all the different skills their staff have to the size of their list or their audience. I mean, huge. They create these lists 40, 50 assets long. What’s amazing about that process, for me, it was just trying to help them cross that bridge. How do I talk to funders in a more opportunity focused way, which is, it’s all just sort of coming together in this conversation. But what was amazing about the impact of that activity was that it completely changed the feeling of the fundraiser and the power of the fundraiser and the way they showed up to those funder conversations. They started to see all of the elements of value that they had. And so, I think in many ways that was them starting to cultivate some of that serendipity because they started to see opportunity, and they started to see their own value. And so, it’s just really interesting hearing you talk about that because there’s this dual component in terms of when we’re talking that way about our work, about our assets, about all the things that we have. And when we focus on that, it changes both how people can connect to us and who we become and how we show up in those situations. So, I just love hearing that story and I’m just so grateful for it. 

35:30 Christian: And that’s so interesting, right? Because I love that kind of dot connecting. I work a lot with people who come from kind of tough backgrounds. So, imagine, you have someone who comes out of prison, you go to the next employer and you have to explain, well, three years of a gap here, what did you do in those three years? You don’t want to really say, well, I was in prison for those three years. I’d say it kind of like there’s those things. And one of the things we always started doing then is to say, let’s map the hidden social capital. So, all the kind of potential things that you could have access to if you think about how you can plug into other people’s networks because you don’t have them. For example, we would say, okay, map all the public institutions around you, like the local university who have public lectures, and then go to the key public lectures. And then go into that kind of public lecture, let’s say, of X, Y, Z, CEO speaks at the local university. You are the person who asks the first question. And the way you ask the first question, you know, you stand up energetically when they ask, does anyone have question. You stand up in a way that they can’t ignore you and not too much, but like in a way, as a moderator, you always are excited about the first person, because people are always shy. So be the first person. And then the way you ask a question is that you built in a hook where you say, thank you so very much for this exciting conversation. So, it’s all about the speaker. As someone who’s currently going through X, Y, Z, period of trying to figure out how to turn X, Y, Z into X, Y, Z, whatever one feels comfortable, right?

36:40 Christian: It might just be as someone who comes through a rough patch now wants to go into IT consulting, I was wondering what you would advise doing X, Y, Z. So again, you make it about the speaker, you ask a question. But what always happens is, in a room of let’s say 200, 300 people, that after the session, 2, 3, 4 people come to you out of the audience and say, my God, such a coincidence, my sister recently went through similar tough period, I want to put you in touch. My God, such a coincidence my uncle is looking for someone who could help him with IT, I’ll put you in touch. The point is, there’s all this hidden social capital of other people that we can also plug into. And so, I think it’s really to your point, once we start mapping those assets, both internally, what we have and what we see, and externally, it’s just incredible. The local rabbi, the local Iman, the local priest, they all have context. The local counselor, like all these people, they have so much social capital once we plug into it and cast them a couple of folks. So, I think it’s mapping that outward incredible what potentiality almost everyone can potentially develop.

37:32 Christian: But to your point, like in terms of how to get it started, like I’m a huge fan of really starting with very small behavioral shifts. So, the way we ask questions, for example, right? When we go to an event, do we ask the what do you do question or do we ask simple modifications like, what do you enjoy doing, what did you enjoy about the presentation, what inspired you about x, y, z thing? Something that opens up a little bit more about what the other person is actually interested in versus their role description, because that leads us to these kinds of beautiful, meaningful things instead of a conversation getting so like dry, you know, where you always have to ask like very kind of tough conversations sometimes. Versus if you ask them more about what you enjoyed about something or what makes them tick at the moment. Like, asking that in kind of very subtle ways, like, what inspired you about x, y, z thing, or whatever it is. A conversation becomes so easy because they’re so into it. Especially when you’re a shyer person, you almost give the other person the lead then to get excited about a topic. And so, I’m a big fan of, of really asking questions slightly differently, focusing a little bit more on what the other person finds interesting. Then casting a couple of folks whenever they ask us. I’m a big fan of really doing a serendipity journal where you just write down two or three key curiosities or two or three key things that whenever someone asks me, what do you do, or how are you doing, I just throw it in. 

38:40 Christian: So, for example, when I run a university here at the moment, and I know that I want to kind of get the book into as many hands as I can, I would always like, hey, like, it’s so great to see you, I’ve just been thinking about like serendipity mindset, how to get into more curricula, and now I’m running to this in this session. So, I’m kind of building that hook. And the amount of times people would say, oh my God, such coincidence, I didn’t even know that, my sister’s running a high school, you should give a speech there. That kind of thing, right, is incredible. And so, I’m a big fan of thinking about this before the event. And then whenever it comes up, you can cast those hooks and bring it in and makes it usually then kind of much easier. Long story short, I’m a big fan of using a serendipity journal, almost like a diary and kind of reflecting a little bit on what are the kind of key themes I’m interested in, what could I say when someone asks me something like this? But also, when I reflect on incidences where serendipity could have happened, but it didn’t. Right. So, in that meeting where it didn’t bring it up, what is it behind it? Is it the inner imposter syndrome that comes up? Is it the fear of rejection? And then really diving into that as well with friends and others. And then last but not least, I’m a big fan of surrounding ourselves with people who are almost kind of role models in that. So, who is a lucky person around us with whom I can spend more time and where I can almost like be an apprentice of how they do of that. And we can do the same in teams, right? Pairing the unlucky ones with the lucky ones and so on. 

39:50 Mallory: I love the idea of surrounding yourself with models of folks who think and ask the questions in ways that ultimately drive towards the results that you are trying to see. I also love what you’re talking about with this hook, and you’ve said it a few different times, framing something in the position of the person that you’re talking to or asking something of. Giving them sort of a lens through which to hear something about you. That’s such good advice and it’s so applicable to fundraisers. And I think there’s a big conversation happening in the nonprofit sector right now, a really important one around donor-centric versus community-centric fundraising and the fact that donors have long been too centered in the work of nonprofits, a little bit to the point you were talking about before with the funder where funders have sometimes not on purpose and sometimes on purpose, hold organizations in different directions and have put themselves sort of at the center of an issue or the organization and the community really should have been leading the charge forward. And there’s a lot of important work happening to recenter community where it needs to be centered. And I think one of the areas that isn’t being explored enough is when community is centered in the work, we as fundraisers are translating the work to donors who are not inside that community. We still need to use hooks and not in ways that center the donor in the actual work of the organization, but in the conversation, help them from their perspective connect to the work that we’re sharing. And I don’t know if you have any insight on that, but I just see so much in that first sentence that you keep offering is this lens or this perspective to help the other person tap into and connect to the second thing that you recommend them saying. 

41:40 Christian: That’s always one of the biggest issues for example, I’ve had with the STGs with Sustainable Development goals, which is a fantastic collaborative effort. And a lot of times then if you go to a community in Kibera, nobody knows what all of these things mean because it’s not the language of the person who actually should ideally benefit the most from it. And so, it’s almost kind of that translation effort between the people who got the resources, the people who got the power, and then the people who hopefully are on the receiving end of a lot of these efforts. Like, bridging that, and in a way, making sure that there’s a language that allows both to somehow function and both to get excited. I’ve seen that to be a big kind of breakdown a lot of times where there’s this beautiful Nelson Mandela idea of if you want to connect with people, speak their language. That’s really something where, when thinking about hooks and other things, I’m a huge fan of really thinking about it from the other perspective. So yes, I’m excited about this, but what does it mean for you now when I’m thinking about something like this. And so, I definitely think there’s a big piece in there and this Reconstructed Living Lab, that organization that I mentioned. What they’ve been extremely good at is to think about how do you put language into action and then in a way by visualizing it, it makes it more accessible.

42:42 Christian: If you’re a funder, you just essentially visit them and you feel it. Like you go into the local RLabs canteen and you see that former drug dealers get freshly brewed coffee.  And so, you realize, wow, they get respect. Like, someone who never in their life got respect from people who are in education or so, that gets respect by getting fresh coffee, by being part of the conversation and so on. So, I think it’s those kinds of things where in a way, yes, you can say, oh yes, it’s all about education. But in that context, what it means is you got to feel how they make people feel that they’re being respected and part of their conversation. So, the long story short being, I’m a huge fan actually of then also thinking about language is one way, right? But there’s so many other things that are more about experiences. And so, I think the more we can get into the lived experience of people on both ends, the more in a way then also we can get them excited. So, I’m a big fan of bringing them together in the respective context and then having to feel what it means, oppose to me, telling them about.

43:31 Mallory: You know, I’ve probably done 90 podcast interviews at this point, and nobody has brought up this point before. And I think what you just said is so wildly important that we can say anything we want about how people are growing or changing or developing in the work or in the services of our organization. But if we don’t demonstrate that through the interactions between those beneficiaries and the donors who are supporting those programs, if we actually demonstrate a totally different type of relationship where folks are not being shown that respect and we’re not showing, we’re not creating an experience. And not a fabricated performative one, but we’re not demonstrating what we’re saying we’re actually doing. And that I think is just really deep and important advice that I don’t hear talked about enough in this work. So, thank you for saying that. 

44:23 Christian: Thank you. No, that’s great to hear. And the core, I feel, when you think about, what are we all talking about, like if we talk about impact and if we talk about making something happen in the world, at the end of the day, like people want to feel dignified. They want to feel that they are not just kind of here because they are a prop and like, oh yes, great, I’m getting you something, and then it’s a transaction. No. Like, I’m part of a meaningful community hopefully then. And so that kind of comes to the big question, right? How do you build a community of people who are so different but at the same time ideally have similar goals? And so, to your point, I feel like having joined experiences is probably really at the core of this. And in a way, capturing this in in different ways. And I’ve always been ambivalent about them in that regard. But I think when you think about how those organizations that have done it really well in terms of adopt someone and then see them grow up, right? Like, get a video from them and things like that where in a way, when you see them grow up, it’s very different from, once a year you get an email where they say, great, like she’s now 19, well, she’s now 20. Like, versus like, no, I’m actually seeing them growing up. And so long story short, I think it’s a very different relationship when you have people be part of the process versus just some kind of outcome.

45:25 Mallory: And I think there’s no question that donors want that too. And they want to be a part of something transformational. And the more sort of quick win we get in our fundraising, the more disconnected everyone feels. I just love, and I think so much of what you teach and what your work center’s on around that opportunity mindset is a critical part of making sure that you’re genuinely building opportunities for that community and that relationship because it’s rooted in so much similar mindset that anyone can experience serendipity, that opportunity lives everywhere. Those have to be some of the core underlying beliefs to actually create that community that we’re talking about wanting. So, is there any question I’m not asking you that I should be asking you? And then we can just wrap up with you telling folks where they can find you and learn more and buy the book. 

46:16 Christian: Thanks for the wonderful conversation, for connecting so many dots together. At the end of the day, what this all comes back to is that serendipity is about potentiality. It’s about what could be. It’s about seeing a little bit more in a situation and then doing something with it. I’m a philosopher at heart. And so, to me that’s a very Goethe type. He wrote a lot of poems in Heidelberg, where I’m from. And he had this beautiful idea that if you take someone as what they could be, you make them capable of becoming what they can be. To me, this is what serendipity is about. Serendipity is about allowing people to rise to who they could be. It’s about situations to become what they can be. And so, it’s in a way, a kind of rational, optimistic way to look at the world and say, yes, we’re in a world that’s really rough and that’s tough. And I’ve had two near death experiences in life. I’ve lost people around me. I know that the world is really tough. And at the same time, it’s also this idea that, hey, there’s a lot of hope that we can make a lot of things happen. And I think, you know, everyone who’s listening to this, there’s a huge opportunity you have to literally connect those people who can make a lot of change happen with those people who hopefully then are part of that change. And so, I’m delighted to be here and looking forward to keeping in touch and hopefully be part of your journey. 

47:17 Mallory: Thank you.

Okay. I am so excited about Dr. Busch’s research and the possibility this opens up for communities and nonprofits. Here are some of my top takeaways from this conversation. 

Number one, when it comes to following your bliss or defining a dream, staying open and holding space for unexpected outcomes provides a built-in head start towards success.

Number two, if you’re anxious about outcomes or disappointed expectations, try a reframe. What’s the very worst possible thing that could happen? 

Number three, looking at things in an asset-based way creates opportunity. Now is the time of year where a lot of nonprofits get sucked into scarcity mindset. How can you think in an asset-based way right now? 

Number four, open your next meeting by asking what surprised you in the past week. It will get brains turning in new and unexpected ways. 

And number five, this is a big one. I love how Dr. Busch suggests leaders introduce themselves or you introduce yourself at an event. His three-step framework is awesome. Saying who you are and what you do, what you’re currently exploring, getting curious around or trying to do, and then another random fact about you or interest of yours. This strategy gives people three avenues for potential coincidence and opportunities to connect with you.

And a similar strategy works if you’re asking a question at an event. Use a hook. Start with something that is unique to the person you’re asking a question of. Appreciation for what they’re talking about, or a way to engage their unique lens in the question. And then say who you are and what you do. What you’re currently exploring, getting curious around or trying to do, and how would they solve that problem or what would they suggest? 

It opens up the opportunity for people to connect with you in the audience and have multiple connection points and coincidences with you in addition to getting really valuable feedback from the speaker themselves.

Okay. There are so many more takeaways and tips inside this episode, so head on over to malloryerickson.com/podcast to grab the full show notes and resources now. You’ll also find more information there about Dr. Busch and the serendipity mindset. Thank you for spending this time with us today. If you enjoyed this episode, we would love it if you would give it a rating and review and share it with a friend.

I’m so grateful for all of my listeners and the good, hard work you’re doing to make our world a better place. And if you miss me between episodes, stop by and say hello on Instagram under whatthefundraising_  Have a great day and I’ll see you next week.

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