Brass Tacks vs 30,000 Feet

March 13, 2017



Written By: Jason Fry

By Jason Fry

The origin of the phrase “getting down to brass tacks” is most often attributed to the haberdashery trade where “…in order to be more accurate than the rough-and-ready measuring of a yard of material by holding it out along an arm’s length, cloth was measured between brass tacks which were set into a shop’s counter.”* This technique allowed for more accurate measurement and a much more efficient process in custom hat-making.

On the other hand, the much-used phrase in corporate strategy meetings of a “30,000 foot view” is more easily understood to originate from the cruising altitude of commercial airplanes. It, of course, alludes to seeing the big picture.

These two metaphors each characterize a type of perspective. In an organizational setting, they could be referred to as operational versus aspirational. In a dynamic organization, it’s critical to know when to zoom in on something, and when to zoom out. Too much focus on the specifics is stagnant. It leaves little room for vision and excitement, which are both needed to motivate a team (as well as major gift donors). Too much emphasis on visionary aspects, and the day-to-day details that form the foundation of the organization will crumble (which is disastrous for donor confidence).

As part of making your case, whether for a capital project or an annual appeal, there must be a thoughtful balance of aspiration and operation. Who wants to fund a beautiful new building that cannot be sustained? Likewise, who wants to fund an organization that hums along but cannot describe where it’s going?

Usually the aspirational and visionary exercises are associated with the fun, creative side of the brain. It’s the whiteboards, the sticky notes, drawings, blue-sky . . . and the views are amazing!

Operational discussions, on the other hand, are considered wonky, detailed, tedious and mind-numbing. We have to figure out how to count and measure our objectives, maintain accountability and report on progress.

The best teams have a balance of perspectives – and most importantly – they respect each other’s differing points of view. It’s easy to have brainstorming sessions with a bunch of people who are visionary and creative; try having one with a group who take a more grounded (or brass tacks) approach and you’ll find considerations that are significant to defining a more holistic picture.

Having recently kicked off my work with the Donor By Design team, I am impressed with the genuine team-centered approach that engages 30,000-foot views with brass tacks mentality. Let us know if you would like to talk more about either perspective that will help balance your case.


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3 responses to “Brass Tacks vs 30,000 Feet”

  1. Pete Mitchell says:

    Great perspective and very informative. In your opinion is it ever appropriate for volunteer board members (specifically treasurers) to drop below the hard-deck? At what elevation do you recommend a treasurer buzz the tower to get close enough to understand the brass tacks without breaking any major rule of engagement with staff. Specifically micro-managing staff and the brass tacks and risking failure to engage with other volunteer board members who are like to cruise at a higher altitude?

  2. Thom Thom Peters says:

    It is wonderful to hear your voice as a member of the DBD Team. Your having been a CEO gives a great perspective to the vision of an organization from the pilot’s seat.
    Welcome Aboard.