Silencing Doubt: My Validation Wall

Sean Valentine
Director of Stewardship & Donor Relations
Wilbraham & Monson Academy


Stewardship and donor relations can be stressful. Anyone who has ever spelled a donor’s name wrong, forgotten that a specific board member’s spouse can’t eat fish, left someone off an invitation list or (inhales deeply) out of the annual report, knows of what I speak. It is just part of the deal; as fulfilling and vital as our work is, it is not delightful 100% of the time. Paraphrasing President Lincoln, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But for me the challenges are more complex. 

In addition to everything our work throws at us daily, I have a +1 that I bring to the stress party: my own diagnosed mental health challenges. Yes friends, like so many people around the world, my noggin plots against me. At work, its favored way of doing so is by giving me a terrible case of imposter syndrome. This is ridiculous, not to mention inaccurate and unwarranted. A masters degree, work as a mentor, satisfactory yearly evaluations, and a solid career across multiple organizations say otherwise. “Regardless,” answers a voice, “you don’t know what you are doing!” It is a persistent little bugger, and sometimes it is LOUD. 

So, I have had to develop ways to shut it up. One of my methods is something that anyone who needs a little morale boost, mental health challenges or no, could employ. I call it my validation wall. It is nothing grand — just a cork board I salvaged from an old cubicle and then hung on the wall beside my computer. On it are things that make me smile, laugh, or feel proud. Whenever I feel a bit down, or find myself questioning my ability or worth, I let my eyes wander over the board and remind myself of what matters, who I am, and what I have accomplished. There are drawings and artwork from my daughter, for example. I’m especially partial to the portrait of me in shirt, tie, and academy vest. It made a great Zoom photo to confuse (or frighten) my coworkers during the height of the pandemic. It also reminds me that creativity is partly inherited, so I must have at least some. There is my “no whining” pin, which always puts a smile on my face and reminds me of my mother. She was a ski patrol officer for many years, and wore this pin on her radio harness as either a warning or to produce a chuckle. It helps me remember perspective; I hold no one’s physical health in my hands. I’m not treating broken legs, sprained ankles, or concussions. Two event invitations stand out. One is for the groundbreaking ceremony for the school’s new library. This was the first event for which I had primary oversight. I was terribly nervous about the whole thing, as I had never done an event of that kind before. The other is from a gala thrown in honor of a longtime donor and board member. It took a year to plan with orders of magnitude more complicated than anything I’d had a hand in. They both went off smoothly and taught me a lot. Next to the invites are thank-you notes I received from attendees. 

There are other items too, like recognition pins developed for our consecutive donors, the new welcome packet for our planned giving society, and information pamphlets for scholarship recipients. All of these remind me of how much I have contributed to our stewardship program, and that sometimes progress takes time (five years in this case). Lastly, there is a photo taken by one of our students in which she perfectly aligns a black and white image of our oldest school building over a modern full color version, making a “then & now” snapshot. I love this photo, not just for its artistic value but because it reminds me that this place has been here a long time and survived a lot, so perhaps I don’t need to put so much unhealthy weight on whatever decision I wrestle with. Does it always work? No. But many times it does. My validation wall refutes the voice in my head with visual evidence. I do know what I am doing, or at worst, I can learn what I don’t already know. Furthermore, just because I don’t have the answer to a pressing question today does not mean I won’t ever have it, nor is it always solely up to me to provide it. Stewardship is very much a team sport, after all. Lastly, my wall reminds me to “zoom out” occasionally. Although my work does make a difference and is appreciated, it is just a small piece of what defines me as a person. 

So, look around your own office. Is there a spot for your own validation wall? Even a small area will do. It need not be big physically to have a big impact emotionally. Find it. Fill it. You’ll be glad you did.

Do you have a validation wall? Share photos with the ADRP community in the comments!


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