Summer Reading (and Book Reviewing)

One of the things I have liked to do in recent years is to review books related to social change that I liked and/or that I thought were important.  For example, I reviewed Rupert Scofield’s The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook and Jacqueline Novogratz’s The Blue Sweater and you can find my analysis here.  Similarly, I commented on Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel’s book More than Good Intentions and published my views of it here.  And I wrote a comprehensive review of David Roodman’s book Due Diligence which the author praised as “thorough and thoughtful” despite not being uniformly positive; you can find it here.

I have also enjoyed it when people have reviewed my books, such as this lovely review of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind.  (Like most authors, I appreciate it when people take the time to write short reviews of my books on Amazon – just yesterday another one appeared related to my latest book.)

Earlier this week, I had a review of the much talked about critique of philanthropy Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World published.  I have been encouraged by the response it has gotten, including this tweet by the founder of BRAC USA.  You can find the review here

And speaking of Susan Davis, the founder of BRAC USA, no post like this would be complete without a mention that her book (with David Bornstein) Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know is one of my favorites of all time.

I encourage people to dive into any and all of these books and reviews during final summer reading pushes.

How I Found My Terrific Publisher ... and the Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

Since my book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind came out, a number of people – most of them authors or aspiring authors – have asked me about my marketing budget and strategy and about how I found and chose my publisher.  I have answered the question on marketing in this blog post and I thought I should publish something now on how I came to work with my publisher.

The simple answer is that my publisher is Rivertowns Books, though one might also say it is Kindle Direct Publishing, an arm of Amazon.  In order to understand a more nuanced and complete response, a little background about the publishing industry (or at least my experience of it) and how it has evolved since the 1990s is in order.

I got my first book contract from Times Books, then a division of Random House, in 1993 with the help of my terrific agent at the time, Joel Fishman.  Random House outbid three other publishers for the right to publish Give Us Credit (later republished by John Wiley & Sons as Small Loans, Big Dreams).  I received a $20,000 advance (equal to about $34,000 today), of which Joel got 15% and I received the remainder in three installments. 

Back then, it seemed that publishers were often willing to take a chance on first-time authors with writing ability and a decent idea.  I loved getting the advance (as it helped underwrite my simple lifestyle in Bangladesh for two years), outstanding editorial support (mostly from a man named Ian Jackman), and other quality and value-added services such as marketing, cover design, legal review, and so forth.  (Though as I mentioned in passing in another blog post, the marketing effort was effectively suspended within a few weeks of publication since my book was not selling fast enough.) 

What I didn’t like so much about going with a traditional publisher was the long time it took to turn a completed manuscript into a published book, and the fact that over time they let it go out of print without ever coming out with a paperback version that would be more likely to be assigned as a secondary text in college courses. 

Now, fast forward to the present day.  Traditional publishers (and even literary agents) appear much less willing to take chances – by which I mean putting time and effort into books by authors who are not yet proven money-makers for them.  They tend to demand ironclad promises to have other organizations promote the book and for authors to commit to buying a certain number of their own books at a discounted rate (but high enough that the publisher makes money on those sales).  The bottom line is that authors that can finagle a contract with a traditional publisher get less and have to promise more, compared to twenty years ago – unless they already have a track record of selling lots of books.

The other major development is that it is much easier for authors to self-publish today.  I discovered this when I was getting at best lukewarm responses (sometimes after waiting for up to three months) from traditional publishers and as a result, began looking for alternatives.  In the past, self-publishing was the domain of rich people who could pay whatever it took to get their manuscript turned into a book, which they might use as promotional tool professionally or as a way of writing up their life story for their extended family and future generations. 

Through Kindle Direct Publishing and similar avenues, self-publishing is now within the reach of many more people.  It is cheaper and faster than it used to be, and has several noteworthy advantages over going with a traditional publisher.  These include that your books are faster to market, lower cost to consumers, never go out of print, and are available in paperback from day one. Furthermore, corrections can be made to the manuscript anytime and all future copies sold will reflect those enhancements. And not least, there are higher royalties to the author.    

Last fall, I was studying how I could take advantage of the self-publishing option.  I learned that once you master the process, you can turn a Word document into a book available on Amazon (both as e-book and as a print on demand paperback) within a matter of hours.  I was gearing up to learn how to do that (in part by buying and starting to read this book).  But I had concerns, too.  At the time I had 800 pages of material that I was struggling to edit into book of reasonable length and quality.  I also didn’t have a lot of spare time to learn how to interface with Kindle Direct Publishing, and to also figure out how to get a good cover design and in general, how to ensure that my book not appear or be perceived as amateurish. 

Around this time, I reconnected with Karl Weber, a literary heavyweight who had collaborated brilliantly with my mentor Professor Muhammad Yunus on this last three books (the most recent being this one).  I had a friend who was looking for a “ghostwriter” and asked Karl if he would have an exploratory conversation with him.  During the conversation, Karl asked me about the status of my book, which I had told him about a few years earlier when I was just embarking on it.  I was impressed and flattered that he had remembered it, and told him where it stood and that I was seriously looking at self-publishing. 

Over the course of that and a few more conversations, he proposed a hybrid solution that would involve a partnership with him as part of a new line of his literary business.  Basically, after reviewing my manuscript, he proposed that in exchange for a fee, he would publish my book on the KDP platform. 

This would entail him providing significant editorial support and also leveraging his knowledge of how to work with Amazon, cover design artists, bulk order firms, and other distribution channels (Barnes and Noble, wholesalers that serve independent bookstores, etc.).  While his price tag for all this gave me momentary pause, I was thrilled to have this option and in short order we had signed a simple agreement that involved no lawyers or other formalities.

Essentially, Karl agreed to become my editor and publisher.  I was the second author he worked with in this way, and by the time my book came to market, he had named this line of publishing his “Rivertowns Books” imprint.  Overall, I have been thrilled with his support.  He has earned every penny I have paid him, and then some. 

He has been a model professional, and on the few occasions he made mistakes or realized that he still had kinks to work out in his model (e.g., he has since decided that he should hire someone else to proofread the book to ensure that few if any typos litter the published work), we worked through them in a transparent and collaborative way.  Along the way, he provided many affirmations, pieces of advice, mild and constructive criticisms, and valuable insights about publishing and life in general.  As much as possible, he made a demanding process stimulating and fun.

Over time, other literary types of his caliber will offer similar services, and a few are already.  They represent a fertile middle ground between self-publishing on your own and going with a full-service publisher.  Karl can provide more, fewer or different services than I received, based on the needs of the author (though he of course reserves the right to not take on a client). 

The only two caveats I can see are these: First, I would have been reluctant to have someone I didn’t already know well to rework my manuscript, which was what was required.  Since I had seen Karl’s work with Professor Yunus, I had little doubt that he could do a great job.  (And he did.)  Second, the fees I had to pay him will mean it will take much longer to get to break even on the entire project.  These are things other authors should consider being going down this road with a collaborator like Karl. 

Overall, I am very satisfied with the final result and have already recommended a few aspiring authors to contact Karl and explore this option.    

Eight Reasons Why I Don’t Believe in Minimum Giving Levels for Nonprofit Board Members

I sometimes say that my beliefs about nonprofit governance span the gamut from very traditional to highly non-traditional.  (There are also quite a few issues that I do not have strong opinions on.)  For example, one of the “out of the mainstream” views I hold is that term limits for board members often do more harm than good.  I have come to believe that they are at best a crude and slightly effective way of dealing with the issue of “dead wood” on nonprofit boards – and issue than I think can be dealt with much more effectively in other ways.  However, as far as I can tell, most people who have given thought to issues of nonprofit governance believe the opposite.  (I explain my rationale and alternative approaches in chapter 12 of my book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind).

Another of my nontraditional views is that setting minimum annual donation levels for board members is usually counterproductive.  The argument for this policy, as far as I can tell, rests of the idea that it helps ensure that there are no “free loaders” who don’t contribute financially (because, for example, they volunteer a lot of their time or serve as a spokesperson for the organization in the community and believe that is a sufficient “contribution”).  Moreover, such a policy avoids the pitfall of some board members giving a token amount, and it makes it unnecessary, or less necessary, for the CEO or Board Chair to personally solicit each board member every year (thus freeing up some of their time and making what for many is an awkward conversation feel superfluous).

For most boards, I strongly prefer the following approach: making it an explicit part of the board member job description (also known as director responsibilities) that each individual on the board is expected to make a “stretch financial donation in accordance with their means” on an annual basis

Below I will give my top reasons for preferring this to having minimum giving levels.  But the common thread to a number of those arguments relates to this dynamic: many donors and board members feel that professional staff, especially in medium to large sized organizations, undervalue their ability to contribute to the mission in ways other than making monetary donations. 

Over the years, dozens if not hundreds of board members have complained to me that the organizations they govern “leave value on the table” by relegating them to doing two things: (1) attending meetings (during which there is often scant room for authentic discussion and debate about the organization’s future and during which few real decisions are actually made) and (2) making financial contributions. 

In short, they feel like they are treated like a human “ATM” rather than as a fully committed resource with significant monetary and nonmonetary value to bring to the organization.  As a result, I go to great lengths to engage board members in as many ways as possible so as a curate a meaningful experience – which also, by the way, helps ensure that they give as much money as they possibly can, for as long as they can.  (I describe one great example of this approach working well in chapter 13.) 

With that general notion as an essential piece of background to my philosophy, here are my top reasons why I prefer my approach to the one advocated by most nonprofit governance experts.

1.       By setting a minimum quantitative threshold for financial stewardship, but not for other elements of board service (e.g., meeting attendance and preparation, committee participation, being an ambassador for the organization in one’s circles of influence), the organization is implicitly saying that donating is significantly more important than other aspects of board service.  (Setting quantitative goals for these other areas is one way to address this, but in practice I think it would be unworkable.)

2.       People of limited financial means who have many other things to offer will be unable to meet the minimum donation threshold (unless it is so small as to be meaningless).  The result will be either that they won’t join or that they will be granted an “exception” from the policy (which is likely to become highly problematic for reasons that I may explore in detail in a future blog post and which I touch on briefly as part of point #4 below).

3.       For one’s wealthy board members, the minimum donation amount is likely to be far below their capability.  If that is the case, they may pre-emptively give that minimum amount as a way to forestall any other discussion of their donations in a given year, or in general. 

4.       Bringing a policy like this in effect years after a board is formed will lead to the temptation to “grandfather” older board members in – meaning that they do not have to meet the new minimum donation threshold.  This can, however, be highly problematic for many of the reasons that the “exception” mentioned in #2 above can be – in that it creates two categories of board members with different rules applying. 

5.       It creates an excuse for CEOs, Executive Directors, Board Chairs and Development (Fund-Raising) Committee Chairs to avoid open and action-oriented discussions with board members about their financial stewardship of the organization – including around what would constitute a “stretch donation” for them each year. 

6.       It does not take into account that fact that some board members have significant changes in their income and ability to give during the course of their board service – which might make the minimum giving level too high some years and far below their capacity at other times. 

7.       Most organizations that have minimum donation levels do not have a clear policy or approach for what to do when a director fails to meet the minimum giving level, and as a result do nothing in such cases.  This considerably weakens the ability of the policy to achieve its objectives.

8.       It helps ensure that most if not all board members come from a similar socio-economic strata of society, which often leads to collective blind spots and poor decision-making. 

A common alternative to setting minimum levels for board giving is to say that each board member is responsible for “giving or getting” (meaning, contributing or raising from others) a certain amount of money.  But I find this also to be problematic.  First, board members who lack their own financial resources often similarly lack easy access to people from whom they can raise significant funds.  Even more important, it creates incentives for board members to “appear” to be raising money by exaggerating their relationship with a prospective donor or by insisting that they be involved in cultivating or soliciting a someone in cases where it may not make sense.  Ultimately, attributing donations to individual board members can be divisive and/or a waste of time, especially when fund-raising is best thought of as a team sport.   

In my mind, it is far better to have an explicit expectation of a “stretch financial gift” each year (based on each director’s means during that year) and to have leaders of the organization speak to each director annually about what that would look like so they make the largest possible gift in the most satisfying way for both the board member and also the organization.  It takes time, but it will usually result in more money for the organization and a more unified board, all other things being equal. 

In reality, nearly half of the 1.5 million non-profits in the United States (according to a 2007 survey by the terrific organization Board Source that is summarized here) do not require either a minimum donation or any donation at all.  However, I suspect that the estimated 28% that do have minimum giving requirements constitute some of the largest and most influential nonprofits, and I believe that many of them would be better served by the policy that I advocate. 

Additional Success Strategies Related to Health, Financial Security & Crisis Management

As I have mentioned previously, at one point while working on Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, I started writing down distinct lessons I had learned that ultimately totaled around 400.  To make them less unwieldy, I grouped them in more than a dozen categories.  Earlier I have posted some of my favorite lessons in areas such as fund-raising, nonprofit management, building a great governing body, effective public speaking, being a contributing member of society (outside of work), travelling smart, and facilitating meetings.  These are areas where I have experience and arguably, some hard-won wisdom to share.  While some of these lessons appear in the book – and a few are spun out with illustrative stories – many of them were “left on the cutting room floor” so to speak. In all cases, these were mindsets and techniques that I used consistently for years, rather than simply things I had read about or observed others practice.  

There were some additional lists on topics that I arguably don’t have any special professional expertise or training in, but that nonetheless felt meaningful for me and potentially useful to others.  I have extracted sixteen of my top lessons that were originally grouped into one of the following categories: getting and staying healthy, financial well-being, and managing setback/crises.

 1.      Spend money liberally and without guilt on a few things that bring you joy, and be frugal in all other areas of your life.  Periodically reevaluate whether the things you have been splurging on still bring you joy.  If they don’t, scale back or discontinue spending freely in those areas, and splurge on other things that bring you more pleasure and satisfaction. 

 2.      Start saving for retirement early.  Max out your contributions to your 401K/403B retirement plans, IRAs, and other tax-free or tax-deferred vehicles.  If you can’t do that, put away as much as you can.  Make it an automatic deduction from your salary if possible, so you don’t have to think about it each month.

 3.      Exercise aerobically as many times per week as you can.  Try to build up to working out six times per week for 45-90 minutes each time.  Invest in a well-designed, comfortable and hardy stationary bike or treadmill for your home if that will help you maintain this during times when the weather makes it challenging to exercise outdoors.  Once you have made exercise more convenient and habitual, you will probably experience stress relief and many other health benefits.  Combine your formal exercise with as much walking, stair climbing, and other light activity as possible. 

 4.      Add at least one new healthy habit per year, or break one unhealthy habit.

 5.      Spend as much time as possible around people who admire you, whom you learn from, and/or who make you laugh.  Give yourself time to recover if you must spend time with people who are on the other end of the spectrum (i.e., they drain your energy, stress you out, or are otherwise unpleasant to be around).

 6.      Identify a primary care physician and stick with him or her unless you move or are dissatisfied.  Have your doctor give you a full physical as often as he or she recommends.  The same goes for seeing your dentist for regular cleanings.  Push yourself to practice as much of what they recommend as possible, without falling into the trap of excessive self-reproach.

 7.      Don’t forget that the human body is a peculiar thing.  Sometimes it aches or feels strange or does not respond as you are accustomed.  Don’t panic, as it will probably right itself fairly quickly.  Worrying only prolongs the episode.  Obviously, if discomfort persists, see a trained health care professional.

 8.      Even if you aren’t a confident in the kitchen, learn to cook at least a few things that are reasonably healthy.  Make big batches on the weekend that you can eat throughout the week.  Realize that each time you make a dish, shopping for the ingredients, doing the prep work, and cooking it becomes easier, especially as you discover patterns and short-cuts.  You don’t have to be a master chef to have 4-5 dishes you know how to make easily and that you and the people you live with enjoy.  You’ll save money and be healthier, and cooking may become something of a meditation for you, a way of shifting from the pressures of the workday (or even weekend day) to a more relaxing evening with loved ones or alone. 

 9.      Despite what some people may tell you, there is no “right” way to vacation, though not taking vacations at all makes no sense, especially for those who have demanding jobs.  Find your favorite way or ways to vacation to replenish yourself, and then apply what you learn.  What works as a vacation in one phase of your life may not work as well in other eras.

 10.  When you learn about what appears to be a setback, even one that feels significant, take a deep breath and recall some example of things in the past that initially appeared to be setbacks but that either (a) turned out to have been blessings, (b) were much less problematic than you initially imagined, and/or (c) turned out to be profound learning experiences.   Then consider the possibility that this could be another one of them before getting too stressed out or responding prematurely and potentially unwisely.

 11.  Before delving into self-pity when faced with a crisis or setback, think about others who are impacted by it, or who may feel responsible for causing it.  Then think about what you can say to them, do for them, or signal to them that will make them feel better, and ultimately more motivated to help address the situation.  They will likely remember you turning your thoughts to them in that charged moment when others were thinking only or mainly about themselves. 

 12.  Develop list of things you do or people you can be with that help replenish or support you after a setback, and then do things on (or spend time with those people on) that list when you experience one.  Figure out what you did to cause the setback and let me people know that you recognize that you played a role, even if others were more responsible for it than you.

 13.  In a crisis, begin by taking at least one immediate step to improve or resolve the situation.  This will give you a sense of agency and progress, even if what you are doing is not necessarily the most strategic or impactful thing that needs to be done to set things right.  (Your reason for avoiding those more essential actions may be that you have not figured them out yet, or that doing them will be too draining or taxing for you at that early stage.)  Give yourself time to discern what the most strategic things are and prepare to undertake them, even while you are making modest but tangible progress by doing whatever you decide to start with. 

 14.  In stressful situations or crises, take deep breaths and do your best to remain calm.  Observe your environment and quickly assess your options, rather than panicking.  Resist the temptation to over-react by taking some dramatic, high risk action to resolve the situation in one fell swoop, or go to the other extreme by under-reacting, becoming passive (or even paralyzed). 

 15.  When you find yourself in a crisis, quickly develop hypotheses about how you can survive it and then test those hypotheses however you can.  Try to avoid doing that in ways that commit you to any particular course of action or that unnecessarily alarm people or build up their hopes unrealistically.

16. Congratulate yourself for any progress you make in resolving a setback or crisis, even if in small ways. Resist the temptation to rebuke yourself if you do something that temporarily makes it worse. Surround yourself with people who can practice these disciplines with you. When you have made progress in resolving the crisis, let people know – don’t assume that they recognize that the situation has improved.

Attention Frugal Authors: Twenty-Seven Tips to Promote Your Book on A Tight Budget

I have published three books in the United States, one in the 1990s, another (basically an updated version of the first) in the 2000s, and most recently, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship (Rivertowns Books, $14.95) in April 2019. 

While the publishing industry has certainly changed since my first book came out, some of the methods I used many years ago to promote my books inexpensively still work.  You can actually make a small amount of money go a long way if you are creative.  For example, Random House budgeted $1,000 for what they expected would be a one-event “tour” in a single city in 1996.  But I surprised them by stretching that sum to support 21 events in 11 cities using some of the techniques outlined below.  During that first effort, I sold a decent number of books and had a lot of fun.  I’ve reprised some of those approaches during my current tour that began last month.

This post aims to share tips with newer authors about how to create traction for and buzz about their books without spending much money.  Let me preface this by saying that if you go with a traditional publisher, which I did twice, be hopeful but also realistic (i.e., skeptical) about their promises to promote your work.  My experience is that if your book doesn’t start selling well within around three weeks, most publishers scale back their promotion efforts and quite a few will discontinue them entirely.  Unless you are an author with a proven track record of selling a lot of books, it’s pretty safe to assume that you are largely on your own, regardless of whether you go the traditional or self-publishing route. 

Further below, I will offer some ideas and tips related to embarking on a low-budget book tour.  But there are quite a few things that you can do to promote your book without ever leaving town.  They include:

1.      Check out online resources, such as this one, that list methods to inexpensively promote your book.  (Some of the ideas below are ones I took from this and other websites and had success using.) 

2.      Once you have a title for your book, advertise it (initially as a forthcoming work) as part of your email signature, on your business card, and on social media platforms you use.  You can add something to the bottom of each email you send that can be as simple as, “Author of [Book Title], forthcoming in [Month, Year]” and perhaps a description of the book if the title is not self-explanatory.  Once your book is published, change this tagline to include a link to someplace where people can purchase it. 

3.      Where possible, name people in your book (especially in the acknowledgements section) whom you may later ask to help promote it.  (Remember that you can refer to people by name when you have something positive to say about them and omit or change their name if it is something that might embarrass or offend them.)

4.      Ask people to edit, react to, or comment on parts of or the entire book while in draft form once it is in pretty good shape.  This will make them feel a part of the project and it might improve the manuscript as well.  Later, they will probably be more likely to buy, review, and promote the book. 

5.      If making money on your book, or limiting the amount you lose on it, is important to you, be cautious about giving away too many free copies – it is a slippery slope that once you start down can be difficult to control. 

In terms of organizing a low-budget book tour, here are my tips:

1.      Make a list of people you could ask to host and/or help organize book promotion events in cities around the country (and even beyond).  The list may include friends, family, acquaintances, people you know who are in a field that the book is relevant to, colleagues, former colleagues, people you have served on boards of directors with, people who organize speaker series, and others. 

2.      Prioritize that list, taking into account the varying costs involved in travelling to different cities.  Don’t be too fast to discount people’s interest in helping you – if you ask, you may be surprised how interested they are in doing so.  Then start contacting those at the top of the list.  Express appreciation if anyone offers to help, but don’t be too quick to agree to come to a city until you have a critical mass of quality events confirmed or close to being confirmed.

3.      If possible, schedule events at times when you won’t feel like you have to serve refreshments – such as in the mid-morning, the mid-afternoon or the late afternoon/early evening.  However, if you feel you must serve something, your host may be willing to foot the bill –though you should offer to reimburse them any reasonable out of pocket costs they incur. 

4.      Schedule events in venues that ideally have the following characteristics: are free or nearly free, permit you to sell books, are big enough to accommodate a decent-sized crowd if your event gets some traction, and where you can have food and drink if you and your host decide to provide that.  Universities, for example, are usually great for most of these items except for being able to sell books – so be sure to check that before you commit to such a venue.

5.      Be cautious about doing events in bookstores.  In many cases, they will not promote your book signing much (if at all), and instead expect you to turn out a crowd of a certain size or larger.  In such cases, doing the event in another venue that allows you to sell the books (and earn more on each sale) makes more sense.

6.      Bring (in your luggage) or ship (as cheaply as possible) books that you have bought at the author rate to your events, unless you or your host can convince a reliable bookstore to handle sales.  Bring a supply of black Sharpie pens to sign books that people buy.  Have them write their names on an index card before you sign the book, so as to ensure that you don’t misspell their name in the inscription.

7.      If people that you approach aren’t in a position to organize an event for you, they can still show up at an event organized by others, put you up for the night, or promote the event to people they know. 

8.      For each event, develop a webpage to advertise it and allow people to register (which helps you plan for how many books to bring and how many chairs to set).  EventBrite worked well for me, but there are others.  Also, develop a flyer and make it possible for people to go from the online version of it directly to the registration page.  Keep in mind that the number of people who turn up at events is usually somewhere between 50% and 110% of the number who register in advance.  EventBrite has functionality that makes it easy (or even automated) to send reminders to people who signed up 1-2 days before the event, and/or to send messages after the event is over where you can thank people for coming and ask them to publish reviews. 

9.      In addition to creating a website event invitation, take a few minutes before each trip to send some personal emails inviting your target audience (individuals and organizations) to your author talk event; or better yet, give them a call.  Consider who you want your target readership to be and what contacts or relationships you might want to build for the future. Develop a list of names and organizations and then check the websites or LinkedIn. Often an organization’s website lists the email addresses of leading staff, and it only takes a moment to send a personal invitation to your event.  Never underestimate the value of an invitation, especially to a free event, regardless if the individual can attend or not.  And if they reply and are interested, you have a new relationship and contact.  Even if someone cannot attend your event, they might have strong influence over their network to promote your book/message.

10.  Set up an account on Square (or other payment service) and get a credit card reader to plug into your phone so you can take credit card payments.  It’s free and the fee on each transaction is only around 3%.  Test the reader with your own credit card when you receive it, and again 24 hours before each event.  Have your Square username and password handy if you need to sign in (which sometimes happens if you haven’t used it in a couple of weeks), as well as the telephone number for their helpline. 

11.  When you have an event, encourage but don’t pressure people to buy one or more copies of your book after you complete you author talk.  Even more important, tell them how grateful you will be if they become an evangelist for the book by talking it up to other potential readers, which can include writing online reviews on and other platforms. 

12.  If people give you leads about potential places to speak, especially if they have in-built audiences so that you are not solely responsible for generating a crowd, follow up quickly and aggressively.  Also, be sure to keep the person who generated the idea informed and make them feel appreciated, even if it does not pan out but especially if it does.

13.  Consider signing up for a credit card if the sign-up bonus for free flights or hotel rooms far exceeds the annual fee.  You can always cancel the card after getting the bonus.  This will help reduce the travel costs for your tour.

14.  Be discriminating about offering discounts on your book – for example, I only give them to people who are students and/or interns.

15.  During your author talk, try to make people laugh in the first five minutes.  The laughter will probably relax them, and they will pay closer attention and enjoy the experience more.  (One of my recent lines: “And if you don’t buy a book now but prefer to go home and buy a Kindle version, I can sign your arm if you want.  I don’t necessarily recommend it, but I will do it!”)

16.  Consider using social media platforms that you don’t normally engage in to create buzz.  For example, I have a LinkedIn account but rarely used it until I realized that it was a great way to promote the book among a certain segment of my potential readers. 

17.  Prioritize cities where you have other reasons to visit beyond selling books (e.g., you have friends or family there, or it has other attractions of interest to you).  Consider scheduling a book event in a city you were already going to visit on business or as part of a vacation. 

18.  Some companies bring authors in to talk as a perk for their employees, and buy books as a giveaway for the first few dozen people who sign up to attend – so be on the lookout for such opportunities. 

19.  Ask bloggers to review your book, or alternatively if they would agree to publish a review by someone you identify.  When people positively review your book online, even if it is just two sentences long and on, thank them quickly.  Always encourage people who review your book to create a link to your website and/or a place where they can buy your book. 

20.  Don’t take too many questions after your talk, since quite a few people may want to buy a book and get on with their day at that point.  A prolonged Q&A period dominated by a few people may cause you to lose sales.  Tell everyone at the very end of your presentation that you will stick around as long as people have questions to ask you one-on-one (assuming your schedule allows for that). 

21.  Tell people not just about the book, but also about the process of writing it – especially things that were surprising/unexpected and that could be useful to other aspiring writers. 

22.  If there is a small turnout for one of your events, don’t feel bad about it.  It’s an opportunity to do your talk with low stakes, potentially trying out new stories or presentation techniques.  I have found that in intimate events, the percentage of people who buy books if often higher than in larger ones, and I also seem to make the best new contacts. 

So there you have it – twenty-seven strategies I have used and had success with.  Good luck with your books and let me know what you learn from applying these as well as your own techniques.  Don’t forget to celebrate when your book is published – that’s a big deal! – and when you have even modestly successful promotion events, reviews, and the like.

I would like to thank Susan Stearns for inspiring me to write this post and for helping to edit it and also for adding valuable content. 

Being A Contributing Member of Society (Outside of Work)

Everyone should seek to make society better, but in my opinion it is especially important for those who lead mission-driven organizations. For those who hope to achieve impact and receive increasing responsibilities (including potentially becoming a CEO) in the non-profit world, I believe it is essential that there be a high level of consistency between their professional behavior and goals on the one hand, and how they conduct themselves outside of the office on the other. 

Contribution to society (even in very small ways) should ideally be habitually woven into your day-to-day activities, rather than something you do only “at the office.”  Otherwise, people may sense a lack of coherence in your behavior that can raise questions about your ethics, likely longevity, character, and motivations. 

Non-profit leaders – and ethical leaders in other domains – have an opportunity to live their values as consistently as possible, and in so doing inspire more intense loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for the good of the mission under your leadership.  Below are eight of the twenty-three* techniques of personal contribution that I have integrated into my life to such a degree that they have become habits. 

1.      Continually look for ways to make the society you are part of better, even if they are in very small ways.  If you see a need that you have ability to address, and that you would take satisfaction in having solved, push through the inertia or any other barrier and get it done.  Even if you have been putting it off for years, if you see a block of time when you can finally get it done, go for it.  Keep in mind that you are doing these things as much for yourself as for your community.  In addition, develop at least one habit of doing something on a regular basis to make your community a little better, such as regularly picking up trash on the sidewalk and putting it in the next garbage can you see. 

2.      Experiment with asking relative strangers something other than what they do (professionally) as a conversation starter.  For example, you can begin with an inclusive and open-ended question, such as, “What are you doing that you are most excited about right now?”  It is much easier for people whose career is less important to them than it is to you, or who are unemployed, or who are caregivers or homemakers.

3.      Err on the side of generosity with your listening, your money, your time, and what you say.  The universe will pay you back many-fold.

4.      Try to avoid the lazy trap of talking about the hardship of work travel or managing modern life, as they lead conversations toward self-pity, often among people who are quite privileged, especially in a global context.  Experiment with alternatives that guide conversations away from self-pity and in more positive directions, such as, “What are you grateful for?”

5.      When you consider whether to affirm a friend, colleague, family member or stranger, assume that your affirmations will be five times more meaningful for them than you think they will be.

6.      Each day, try to accept one request to help someone that you are initially not disposed to accept, and also accept one offer of help that you are initially not inclined to accept.

7.      When anyone makes a request of you or invites you to some event – regardless if they are family, friend, acquaintance or stranger – resist the urge to immediately decline and think about what you might gain from it, including making the day of the person inviting you.  Accept at least one request or invitation per week that your initial reaction was to decline.

8.      Aim to make someone’s day – anyone’s day, whether they be a close friend or a stranger – as often as possible.  If you are feeling down in the dumps, do this even more frequently – it will help you get back on track.

* If you would like the entire list on this topic, send me evidence that you have bought my book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind.  If you want all 403 lessons on all the topics, send me evidence that you have bought at least three copies of the book.

Alex's Top Ten Tips on Achieving and Sustaining Contentment

As I wrote down my “lessons learned” as part of the process of completing Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, there were a bunch that for a time were relegated to a category I called “miscellaneous.”  Finally, I realized those lessons were about something so fundamental that at one point I considered making it the first chapter.  Ultimately, for lack of a better term, I decided to call those thirty-seven lessons ones dealing with contentment.

Many people talk about so-called work/life balance.  I have never cared for that phrase, as it suggests that work is not a part of one’s life, but something separate to “balance” with your life.  Especially for those of us in mission-driven organizations, work is very much a part of our lives – in fact, it is far more than a paycheck but actually one of the most meaningful things we do.  The trick is to define for yourself how you (and only you) want to balance all of the things you are passionate about with all of the other things you must do. 

I have found that achieving meaningful things while generally being contented is related to adopting mindsets and habits that serve to ground, satisfy and support you and the people around you.  Below are ten of the thirty-seven* such ideas and techniques I have used successfully during the last decade or two of my life. 

1.      Keep in touch with the people who have helped you at earlier stages of your life, and share the highlights of your life journey with them.  Remind them how their assistance continues to shape and benefit you and people in your life.  This can include significant gestures, such as tracking someone down to give them a copy of a book you wrote that was in part inspired by them, and many smaller ones, such as dashing off quick email to let someone know that something you saw them do or heard them say several years ago helped you solve a recent problem.  Doing so will make them – and you – feel better.  It will also give you motivation and confidence to meet new challenges as well as a reminder that we accomplish very little entirely by ourselves.  

 2.      Sometimes, if you think long and creatively enough about a conundrum where you feel you have to choose between two things you want, you will find that you can have both.  Friends and other advisers can often help you see past false dichotomies so you can see both/and instead of either/or scenarios.

 3.      Do your best to keep people around you who can credibly puncture your over-confidence by pointing out that some of your accomplishments are not as unique nor as significant as you believe.  These same people can give you a morale boost when you need it by pointing out the positive things you have accomplished that are much more unique and meaningful than you had imagined.

 4.      Sometimes good is good enough – meaning, perfectionism is sometimes unnecessary, or even unhealthy and unwise.  On the other hand, on occasion good is not good enough; in other words, perfectionism is required.  One of the key challenges of life is to increase your skill in assessing tasks and determining which scenario your most important activities fall into.

 5.      There are many things you should do immediately, while fresh in your mind, rather than procrastinate, perhaps in search of the perfect technique or the perfect mood to do them.  Otherwise, they may never get done.  These include writing and mailing hand-written thank you notes to people who did something for you, providing praise to people who deserve it, and more mundane things like applying to receive promotional rebates that you are due but that many people never collect.

 6.      Identify those things (food, people, experiences, gadgets, etc.) in life that you really enjoy when they are of good quality, and that you often enjoy even when they are not.  Find ways to surround yourself with them.  If they cost money, splurge on them even as you are frugal in most other areas of your life. 

 7.      When you are stuck professionally, emotionally, or in a relationship, identify something easy, fun and/or challenging that you can do to address it, even in a small way.  This action need not be the most strategic or high impact in terms of solving the issue.  Then focus on doing that as a way to get momentum.  You can build to doing those higher impact things once you feel some momentum and confidence.

 8.      Avoid over-reacting to developments that initially appear to be very bad, or very good.  Realize that when something appears to go wrong, it is rarely as bad as you first imagine it to be, and that it might end up being a blessing.  Also, when something appears to be a positive, be on the lookout for how it might end up being a problem or even a curse in some way.   Finally, in moments of frustration, crisis and even despair, remember that many problems, even ones that seem insoluble, resolve themselves if you don’t try to immediately solve them and instead give them time to work themselves out.

 9.      Identify at least one place that allows you to temporarily slip into a different persona and way of living that gives you more or a different kind of joy than you normally experience.  It need not be a physical place.  For me, it is Key West, Florida or listening to live music in intimate venues.  For my wife, it is skiing, virtually anywhere.  For others it is being on a particular stretch of beach, or any beach, or being in a meditation retreat.  Then make it a point to go to these places on a regular basis.  If they stop giving you the joy they once did, then find someplace else that does.

 10.  It is painful when another human being thinks poorly of you or even wishes you harm.  But this is inevitable when you live your life as someone who takes risks, fully expresses themselves, is spontaneous, and is not overly cautious.  Try not to think about those difficult relationships too often, but rather focus on the ones that are healthy and soulful.  However, if you see a way to improve a poor relationship, consider the pros and cons of doing so, and how best to do it, seeking the advice of a trusted friend who knows both of you, if possible. When the time feels right, make a move to improve it.

* If you would like the entire list on this topic, send me evidence that you have bought my book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind.  If you want all 403 lessons on all the topics, send me evidence that you have bought at least three copies of the book.

Eight Tips on Being a Great Meeting Facilitator

In my experience, most meeting facilitators are either too passive or too heavy-handed.  I probably err more towards the latter, but over time I have learned to strike a good balance most of the time. 

Being a facilitator is much more art than science, though it has elements of both.  As in public speaking, a lot of things are outside the facilitator’s control, so avoid getting too worked up if things go very well or poorly during some session that you moderate. 

This list is especially geared towards facilitating meetings that go on for several hours with people who do not meet together that frequently, though some of these techniques can be adapted for standing meetings with recurring agendas and regular attendees.  It contains the eight of my top seventeen lessons* about effective meeting facilitation. 

 1.      Try to get to know the people in a meeting you are facilitating before the meeting begins.  Something is better than nothing; a few words before the meeting starts is not as good as an hour-long discussion a week earlier, but it is something.  Even if you know the group well, try to get a sense of their overall disposition and the issues they are most concerned about (especially if related to the meeting agenda but even if it is not) going into the meeting you are leading.  If they are people with any kind of public or online profile, read some of things they have written or a speech that they have given recently as part of your preparation.

 2.      If a particular conversation or agenda item is proving especially fruitful, let it go over time even if you want to stay on your original schedule and doing so will make that difficult.  It’s worth it.

 3.      Figure out ways to get the people who have a tendency to dominate the meeting to listen, and those who are prone to remaining silent to speak up.  Sometimes it is as simple as periodically asking the quiet ones to weigh in on whatever you are talking about, or encouraging someone privately, on a break, to weigh in.

 4.      During a meeting lasting one or more days, end the day with a session with a quick go around the room where every participant gets to reflect on the day, its highs and lows, its accomplishments and failures, and their own emotional state, for no more than 2 minutes each.  It often works well to start with the person on either side of you and go around clockwise or counter-clockwise, ending with you, where you can both share where you are but also acknowledge and reference some of the things you have heard.

 5.      Start the meeting with a mixture of formality (welcoming people), good governance (asking for approval of and any amendments to the written agenda), and context setting.  A great way to set the context is spending a few minutes reflecting on the journey that the group is on together, how far they have come and what lies ahead, and what must be accomplished in the session they are beginning now.  Show that you are trying to tune in to the emotional states of each participant and that you have given the meeting a lot of thought.

 6.      Encourage people in a group you are leading that will come together periodically to attend as many meetings as they can, and discourage people not in the group from just dropping in unexpectedly.  Having an ever-changing group around the table is generally not helpful in building cohesion and a sense of team and momentum.

 7.      At the beginning of the meeting and then periodically throughout, thank people who are being helpful to moving the group forward, either through their preparation, the quality of their presentations, or their wise comments.  This includes thanking people who are not in the room.  For meetings of governing bodies, propose formal resolutions to recognize outstanding contributions and have them included in the minutes.  This will help make appreciation a group habit, which will help build the trust and comfort necessary to tackle hard topics and have difficult conversations. 

 8.      Be a fairly militant time-keeper most of the time, and tell people in advance that you will do this, as a way to be fair to the agenda items at the end.  When you want to move on, ask people’s permission but don’t wait too long for them to object.  Tell them at the outset that if they feel you are squelching discussion of an important topic, to speak up and you will probably change your approach in that moment. 

 *If you would like the entire list on this topic, send me evidence that you have bought my book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind.  If you want all 403 lessons on all the topics, send me evidence that you have bought at least three copies of the book.

Top Ten Lessons on Effective Public Speaking for Nonprofit Leaders

The recent blog post about my top lessons related to building a great board reminded me that I have a combination of some very traditional views about nonprofit governance (which is not to say that those ideas are widely practiced) and also some very nontraditional views.  One of the out of the mainstream ideas – that term limits for board members are usually not necessary and are potentially harmful – is explored in my new book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind.  A nontraditional view that I left out of the book is this: I don’t believe minimum donation levels for board members make sense for most organizations.  I will be exploring that in a future post. 

Today, I am going to share ten of my top twenty-six lessons* related to another critical skill for nonprofit leaders: public speaking.  In this area as well, I have some widely held views and some that are less popular, appreciated or practiced. 

Let me take a step back.  Early in my career, I was a self-conscious public speaker, though occasionally had moments where I was very effective.  It took time to understand why my speeches worked so well on occasion but were mediocre or worse the rest of the time.  This led me to reflect on what things were in my control as the speaker and what was not. 

I tended to mimic the styles of my mentors, whom I had the ability to see speak on multiple occasions and observe how they varied their speeches from how they spoke in normal conversations.  Being a clone of a good speaker can work reasonably well, but it can sometimes be grating on an audience and come off as inauthentic or contrived.  Gradually, I developed my own speaking style, incorporating and making habitual some generic good public speaking practices supplemented by my own preferences and quirks. 

Perhaps most important, I learned that as a speaker, there are many things that you don’t control that can make a given speech or presentation a real or apparent hit or flop, which was another reason not to get too self-satisfied or depressed from any single speaking opportunity.  Anyway, here are my top ten lessons learned on this important topic:       

1.      Speak from an outline, not from a script, unless you absolutely have to get the wording exactly right.  Jot notes in the margins of your outline if good ideas pop into your head, even minutes before you begin speaking.  Those who read speeches (unless they are very skilled at doing so) often sound scripted and formal (i.e., boring).  In general, when an audience notices a speaker is reading from a script, they tune out.

 2.      In many types of public speaking, it works better if you start with your conclusion (i.e., your bottom line message), rather than slowly build up to it over the course of your presentation.  It puts the audience, probably populated by not a few “attention deficit disorder” types, at ease since they know where you are going.

 3.      Understand and appreciate that the effectiveness of a speech or speaking opportunity has as much to do with the quality of the audience – that is, their interest in the topic and affinity for the speaker and his or her points – as it does with the quality of the speech itself.  Don’t take too much credit if it goes well, and don’t feel too bad if it does not.

 4.      Rehearse your speech in private and then revise your outline during the 24 hours before you go on stage.  This allows you to catch and rework awkward or unclear formulations as you listen to yourself and to experiment with word choices that are clearer, more poignant, funnier, and flow better.  Calibrate your level of preparation and rehearsal with the magnitude of the opportunity for impact on your goals and public profile.  Speaking opportunities where the stakes are not high are great opportunities to try out new stories, arguments, and techniques.

 5.      Once you start speaking, vary from your outline and from what you rehearsed based on how the audience is reacting.  Linger on a point, take a tangent, or cut out entire sections on the fly based on the needs of the moment as you see them on stage.  In other words, go in with a plan but be ready to modify it, which is easier to do when you are speaking from an outline than from a prepared text.  A speaker’s ability to improvise increases over time and with experience – indulge this approach more as your confidence grows.

 6.      Dramatic pauses can be powerful, so don’t rush through your remarks.  Try to look some members of the audience in the eye while you pause and let your point sink in or the anticipation build for what you will say when you resume.

 7.      Making an audience laugh can relax them and make them more receptive, but don’t force a joke if you can’t think of one or if it does not fit the mood of the event.  Sometimes, in the course of giving a speech or presentation, if a funny thought pops into your head, go with it.  It may work well; and in any case, it will likely add a sense of spontaneity.

 8.      Stay within the time limit you are given, plus or minus 10%.  (Meaning, if you are allocated 10 minutes to speak, do not exceed 11 minutes.)  Since most people don’t do that, it distinguishes you as someone who is disciplined and respectful of your audience, which magnifies your influence.  Experienced speakers can usually gauge the extent they are keeping to their allotted time without a time-keeper or stop-watch, but these can be helpful tools for those with less experience.

 9.      Avoid throw-away lines about how you will be brief, especially if you are not sure that the length of your remarks will be considered brief by your audience.  Generally, any remarks that last for more than 3-4 minutes are not considered brief.

10.  If you are being interviewed on camera or in front of an audience (e.g., a “fireside chat” with a moderator), don’t over-prepare by spending a lot of time predicting what you will be asked and then overly rehearsing your responses.  If you do, you may be caught flat-footed if unexpected questions are asked, and you may seem robotic or unsure of yourself.  Think through your main messages but remain open to different ways the conversation will unfold so you can go with the flow.

*If you would like all 26 lessons, send me proof that you bought my book and I will send them to you. If you send me proof that you bought at least three books, I will send you all 403 lessons learned on all topic areas. My email is


Book Preview #6: Building a Great Board of Directors

As mentioned in prior blog posts, I am sharing some of the 403 work and life lessons I derived during the process of writing Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind.  The book itself goes into seven dozen of these lessons in depth, through story-telling about how I came to have a particular insight and how I applied it.  As a free online resource, I am publishing a more complete list of the raw lessons.  If you send me evidence that you have bought the book, you can have the complete list on any particular topic, and if you send me evidence that you have bought at least three copies, I will send you all lessons on all topics. 

This section deals with building a great board of directors, which is covered in narrative form in chapter 12 in the book.  After a brief introduction below, I highlight 8 of my 22 most important insights about building a great board and nurturing it once you have it in the shape you want it.   

Let me begin with my depressing assessment: Most nonprofit boards are either entirely or somewhat dysfunctional.  There are surveys that back this up, including one by the Urban Institute in 2012 that spanned more than two thousand organizations.  But if you ask people who have served on boards or as senior staff of nonprofits, you will find rather quick confirmation of this sad state of affairs. 

A rather benign version of this dysfunction is where the board is supportive of the CEO but feels underutilized, and the CEO believes that while the board doesn’t interfere much, it also doesn’t add as much value as he or she would like (especially around fund-raising).  This level of dysfunction is usually stable until there is some crisis, where it can quickly devolve into finger-pointing, distrust, and mutual recrimination. 

Another relatively benign variation is where there is little open animosity, but rather spheres of influence where one or more board members cluster around certain areas (say, Latin American programs or a project they are funding) and don’t pay much attention to (and are certainly not conversant in or actively supportive of) any other part of the organization.  My mentor Susan Davis referred to this as a “balkanized” board, where few if any of the members feel a sense of ownership of the entire enterprise – leaving it to the CEO to be the lonely holder of the energy for the organization as a whole. 

The basic problem with most boards is that CEOs invest little in either the group as a whole or in the individual members (unless an individual board member also happens to be a major donor), while expecting more from them (individually and collectively) than they have a right to.  Board members then tend to respond to neglect from the CEO by becoming passive, delegating their authority to the chairperson, withdrawing, becoming argumentative when the opportunity presents itself, gossiping with like-minded board members, or engaging only in areas of interest (such as a program they like or are supporting financially, or a committee that makes them feel valued and valuable). 

For a non-profit organization to reach its full potential and to avoid most crises (and overcome those it can’t avoid), a high-performing board is a necessity.  I had this drilled into my head by some influential consultants and mentors, and my third board chair at Grameen Foundation who earned my trust and coaxed me into taking a leap of faith by investing heavily in my board.  The result was an outstanding group that I am prouder of with each passing year as I observe other boards.  I have since run another organization and served on the boards of several others, and their governing bodies span the gamut from almost entirely dysfunctional to reasonably good.  My top insights about building and maintain a high performing board are summarized in the remainder of this post.  

 1.      Make peace with the fact that there are few if any shortcuts in building a great board or governing body.  They are built one good member, one good meeting, and even one good agenda item at a time.

 2.      Most board members go through three phases: (1) orientation, (2) high engagement and contribution, and (3) coasting.  Your goal should be for them to get through orientation quickly (which will require effort), make the second period as long and productive as possible, and then ease them off the board when they hit the third phase, while making some modest effort to keep them involved as board alumni.

 3.      Encourage people on your board to speak their minds (even if their view is unpopular among other directors or in the minority), listen to others with an open mind, and to vote their consciences.  Contrary to the conventional wisdom, vigorous debate and occasional disagreement, tension and non-unanimous votes are generally not the signs of a dysfunctional board.  Rather, they are often signs of a high functioning board.  If people do not feel that they can be contrarian or vote for what they think is best, they may respond by disengaging or acting out.

4.      Give board members structured opportunities to show off to their peers how engaged they are in the organization and the quality of their ideas for improving it.  This will help spur friendly competition and accountability for being involved and contributing intellectually.

 5.      There are people who like you and your organization and will support it, but, if you probe enough, you will also discover that they don’t want to serve on your board even though you know they would be a great addition.  Rather than try to convince or manipulate them into joining the board, accept and respect their preferences and create a unique and customized way for them to serve that suits their engagement preferences.

 6.      The optimal size of a board and whether to have term limits are highly overrated issues.  Many small boards wish they were larger, without knowing the pitfalls, and many large boards wish they were smaller.  Likewise, many boards with term limits wish they didn’t, and vice versa.  Don’t get bogged down on these issues.    

 7.      If a member of a governing body reflexively and without serious consideration consistently either defends or attacks the CEO (or the entire staff) during meetings, he or she should be asked to step down (and possibly serve the organization in another way).  You want critical and independent thinkers who approach each issue that comes before them with curiosity and on the merits, rather than as a means to express loyalty (or disloyalty) to the leader.        

 8.      When someone leaves your board, make an effort to organize a farewell ceremony and gift that is calibrated to their length and quality of service, and their preferences.  Remember that sending someone off in a proper and respectful way is as much for those who stay on as for the person who is leaving.

Playing Well With Others in the Workplace and Beyond

Now that my book is published (Yay!), I will continue to share some of the “raw material” that the book is based on – the roughly 400 lessons I catalogued as part of the process of reflecting on what I learned during the last 30 years of my life (and especially during the last 15).  One category of lessons related to working effectively with others, in the workplace or in any other setting.  I came up with 44 distinct ideas, techniques, or habits that I ultimately put into practice and seemed to work much better than other things I had tried previously. 

Ultimately, this book and the larger project it is part of is about leadership.  Developing oneself into someone who can lead an organization effectively requires many things: intelligence, curiosity, energy, public speaking talent, the ability to sell an idea or product or vision, and a willingness to take calculated risks.  But I believe that a fundamental building block of leadership is simply being someone who works well with others.  What does that mean? To me, it means being a person who leaves far more people that they come into contact with better than they found them, rather than worse.  Such people create a growing network of individuals and groups who want them to succeed, who assist them when they can, who overlook their flaws, and who are loyal to them through the tough times. 

Sorry – there are no magic bullets here. Rather, there is an approach to life where one habitually and instinctively tries to be helpful to other people – both in small ways to anyone (including strangers) and in significant ways to friends, family and colleagues.  By the time a leadership opportunity comes their way, such people have skills, habits and connections that make succeeding in their jobs much easier. Anyway, here are my top 10 (out of 44) lessons related to “playing well with others.”

1.      When someone tells you about an important and deeply personal issue, your biggest contribution may be to hear them out, let them know you have understood their dilemma, perhaps share some principles that might guide their decision on how to resolve the matter, and affirm that you are confident that they will make the right decision.  Giving them specific advice to how to deal with it may not be needed or even appropriate.

2.      If you are in a conflict or difficult negotiation with someone, take some time to try to see the situation through their eyes.  Instead of assuming they are being difficult for no reason other than spite or lack of consideration, develop a hypothesis about how they could be taking their position based on a principle or value that is important to them, and that you yourself would respect in some situations.  For example, someone who is being highly critical of you in a group setting could see themselves playing the important role of a courageous truth-teller who channels the concerns of other people who are afraid to speak up.   

3.      An apology with the words “if” or “but” in it is actually not an apology, and sometimes it is worse than saying nothing at all.  As Adam Grant has written on his delightful Twitter feed, “‘I'm sorry if...’ isn't an apology.  It's an expression of doubt that you did anything wrong.”  Avoid cluttering and diluting your apologies.  When receiving an apology, accept even watered down or otherwise imperfect apologies graciously, as it is often the best a person can do.   

4.      If someone whom you have or wish to develop a positive relationship with makes a mistake that impacts you, err on the side of having grace for them.  Whether they show it or not, they will remember that.  (They will also remember if you don’t.)  Keep a mental list of those people who had grace for you when you made a mistake that impacted them – they are among your truest friends and allies. 

5.      When you are one of the popular or powerful people in a group or otherwise have high status, look for opportunities to visibly reach out to and include those who are less popular and powerful, or have lower status.  It sends an important signal to everyone.

6.      Most people like to positively influence others, whether be it something small like trying a new restaurant or recipe, or something major like making a choice to change your career or marry someone.  Let people influence you with their good ideas, suggestions, advice, the behaviors they model, and then let them know how they influenced you and how it benefited you, even if it is years later. 

7.      If you take risks in your personal and professional relationships with others, which you should, you need to make peace with the fact that some of those relationships will suffer.  Rather than seek to have all your relationships be healthy all the time, seek during any period of your life to have a significantly greater number of people thrilled with how you have treated them (compared to their expectations) than the number who feel you have not treated them well.  In other words, don’t make your highest priority minimizing the number of people that you upset, offend, or turn into enemies.  That will make you too risk averse and cautious in your dealings with others, and rob you of spontaneity.    

8.      In conversations with others, boldly speak your truth, but don’t confuse it with the truth.     

9.      Encourage people to build on or criticize new ideas you come up with.  Use humor to convey that you will not take offense if they don’t think it makes sense in its current form.  You can preface it by smiling and saying something like, “This might just be my worst idea of the day/week/month/year, but here goes….”

10.   If you can help someone, say, a friend of a friend, an acquaintance, a professional peer or even a stranger, and it will take you under 30 minutes to do so, go for it.  If you become so busy that this is impractical, lower the threshold to 10 or 20 minutes. The universe will pay you back for your reflexive generosity many-fold.

The Opening Pages of My New Book: A Free Sample

With the release date of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship now upon us, I have decided to publish the first five pages now on my blog as a way to give you a taste for the book.  It ends with me at a crossroads in my life, at age 33, needing to decide how to arrest my downward trajectory – which evoked a dramatic and tragic end for one of my heroes that is where the book opens.

 “Hello, this is Alex,” I answered hurriedly from my desk in a small office near the U.S. Capitol. It was a Friday afternoon in July, 1990. Back then, before the advent of caller ID, most people just picked up their phones, not knowing who to expect on the other end.

At the time, I was nine months into what would be a three-year interlude based in Washington, D.C., between my two stints in Bangladesh. I was the legislative director for RESULTS, an aggressive, controversial, but widely respected international nonprofit organization dedicated to anti-hunger advocacy. It was a preposterously senior role for someone who was just 22 years old, but my previous association as a Fulbright scholar with Grameen Bank and its illustrious founder, Muhammad Yunus, was already opening doors for me.

 “Hi, Alex, this is Mitch Snyder,” said the voice on the other end of the line. That got my attention.

Mitch was the driving spirit behind the Center for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), an organization that served and advocated for the homeless. I had read about Mitch and his battles with President Reagan. In one successful confrontation, he’d gone on a hunger strike in order to pressure the administration into giving an abandoned federal building in Washington to his group for a homeless shelter. Fifty-one days into Mitch’s fast, the government agreed to his demands. Like many in the nonprofit world, I considered Mitch Snyder a legend.

“Can your organization sign on to a letter about homelessness that we have prepared?” he asked. I was a bit surprised—and impressed. Here was a celebrated provocateur and activist doing the spade work of calling around to get co-signers on a rather mundane advocacy letter. I’ve always admired leaders who don’t delegate all of the unglamorous, practical parts of their work to others but rather pitch in themselves.

“Sure, fax it over,” I promptly replied. I planned to talk to my colleagues about endorsing the letter after reviewing it over the weekend.

It didn’t work out that way. On Monday morning, I read in the Washington Post that Mitch had hanged himself over the weekend.

The news left me shocked, dismayed, and confused. How could Mitch be diligently plugging away at his latest project one moment only to take his life a few hours later? I wondered whether I had been the last person he had spoken to.

It was a sobering lesson about the psychic toll that dedicating your life to a noble cause can sometimes take. But seeing what can happen to another person isn’t always enough to make us change our own behaviors.

In little over a decade, I found myself facing my own existential crisis. I had returned from my second tour in Bangladesh, which had lasted five years. I was running Grameen Foundation, an organization that I had founded a few years earlier to advance the humanitarian ideals of Muhammad Yunus, the iconic Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, which I’d adopted as my own. On the surface, things were going well. But just below the surface, trouble was building fast.

Starting during my final years in Bangladesh, when I was behind a desk more and exploring the realities of the rural countryside less, I had been gaining three to five pounds per year. This was just one symptom of the contradictions I was living. I exercised fairly regularly, but not enough to stave off ballooning weight and borderline high cholesterol. I had the job of my dreams, but often was a bundle of nerves. I was driving my employees and family crazy, and I had virtually no interests beyond my work. I’d been successful at raising more money than ever before, but I was also feeling increasingly insecure and anxious.

From time to time, I wondered whether I might I end up like Mitch, plugging away on some project to advance the common good one moment, hanging from the rafters the next. My worries only deepened as I observed other nonprofit leaders battle depression, adopt unhealthy habits, get divorced, belittle their own achievements, and become enveloped in cynicism.

My crisis came to a head in December, 2000. At Grameen Foundation’s annual holiday party at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, I rose to give a thank-you speech to the staff. I attempted to strike a balance between our big fund-raising successes that year—most notably pulling in $1 million for our work in India with the help of Steve Rockefeller, Jr.—and all the things we had not yet accomplished. Sometimes I give very effective speeches to teams I have led, but this was one of my worst ever. The team members in attendance applauded politely, then went back to partying.

At around nine p.m., someone announced to everyone still at the party that we had paid for more alcohol than we had consumed. The bar was open for business, big time! Seeking some fun and release, I started drinking shots with colleagues. For the first and only time since my college years, I concluded the night by throwing up.

The next morning, one of the first people I saw was Howie Erichson, a brilliant law school professor who was in town on business and had stayed overnight in our basement apartment on Capitol Hill. Howie had served as a mentor of mine since I was fourteen, and he’s one of the people I most admire. I was deeply embarrassed to let him see me stumble home and, the next morning, in my hung-over state. After he left, I did something else I had never done before: I cancelled a business trip I’d planned for that day. I was feeling too miserable to travel.

A few weeks later, it was New Year’s Day, 2001. After a morning workout, I jumped onto the digital scale in the Atlantic Health Club on the Jersey shore, and I saw a really big number shouting back at me. My years of self-neglect now meant that I was 25 pounds overweight.

Driving back to Washington later that day gave me a chance to reflect on what had happened to me.

I was a mess. My mental and physical health was fragile, at best. My wife Emily and I had little in the way of savings. I had a small but stubborn credit card debt that I never seemed to be able to pay off. I buried my worries in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream each night and then rallied myself to show up at work the next morning to pump the adrenaline needed for me to play the part of the leader who had all the answers—despite the fact that I sometimes felt as if I had few answers to give my small but growing staff team.    

This profile of inner stagnation and decay wasn’t unfamiliar to me. Mitch Snyder wasn’t the only gifted social activist I’d seen in similar straits. I had once sat with a microfinance legend, often mentioned in the same breath as Yunus, who lamented to me that he felt that everything he had done for the past 40 years had essentially failed. Now he was hoping to make up for all that carnage with one final Hail Mary pass—a domestic lending initiative that ended up being a fiasco. It was a tragic waste of money and energy, and a needless blot on what had actually been an admirable and accomplished career.

I observed another leader pick up a succession of bad habits due to the stress of running an activist organization. At one point she had to change jobs—but not before letting her health insurance lapse and experiencing a health crisis that has caused her to suffer from intense pain and be unable to work ever since. Years later, over a cup of coffee with me, she reminisced about her journey from being a nationally recognized advocate for low-income people to someone who sometimes had to choose between buying food and medicine.   

Now, at the age of thirty-three, I was becoming one of those leaders: successful enough to attract some funding and talent, clever enough to make even modest accomplishments sound significant, but unhealthy and unhappy to the core.

I realized it was past time for me to turn things around.

To read how I turned things around, and much more, pick up a copy of my book today.

Book Preview #4: My Top Lessons on Running Mission-Driven Organizations

Perhaps I should clarify what these book previews constitute.  They are highlights of about 400 lessons I learned and catalogued about running nonprofits and personal well-being during the first 30 years of my career.  My forthcoming book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, is a collection of stories that illustrate how I learned and applied a few dozen of the most important of those lessons. 

I thought it would be interesting to share, in raw form, these discrete tips, techniques and mindsets – both those that are elaborated on in the book, and those that fell to the cutting-room floor during the editing process.  As mentioned earlier, if anyone would like the full set of lessons learned on any individual topic, send me evidence that you have bought the book.  If you would like to have all 403 (!) lessons spanning 14 topics, then send me evidence that you have bought at least three copies. 

This category centers on what I learned about effectively running nonprofit and mission-driven organizations.  I distilled 64 distinct lessons while I was working on this project.  Below you will find twenty really important ones. 

By way of background, I was completely unprepared when I become the founder and president of Grameen Foundation in 1997.  As I describe in the opening chapters of the book, I lacked most of the skills required.  All I had was my work ethic, self-discipline, and achievement orientation.  I had a few assets, such as the Grameen brand, my knowledge of microfinance (at least as practiced in Asia), and my relationship with the iconic social entrepreneur Professor Muhammad Yunus.  I forged ahead and made a ton of mistakes, but also gained insights, mentors, and confidence with each passing year.  If I had learned what is described below earlier, I would have accomplished much more, much faster.  I hope you find them useful. 

Think of these as things I would tell myself at age 30 as I was undertaking my first leadership role.  They may or may not be applicable to you as a nonprofit leader in this form, but perhaps they will get you thinking about your own philosophy or preferred techniques.  (Many of them are applicable to the for-profit sector and government, and may be helpful even if you are a board member, non-executive employee of, or simpy an active volunteer in a non-profit.) Please share your feedback and your own lessons learned.

1.      Always be on the lookout for ways that you can develop ongoing sources of earned revenue to supplement donations.  This is especially important during times when you don’t need that additional revenue, such as when you are fund-raising, because you will have some discretionary resources to put into testing earned revenue ideas and investing in the infrastructure needed to turn any ideas into reality.    

2.      On a regular basis, share with your senior team and board your worst mistakes in recent times and what you feel you learned from them.  Encourage them to do the same with their direct reports.  If you feel comfortable doing so, share these with a broader group of organizational stakeholders.    

3.      During moments of organizational conflict, change and risk, invest heavily in talking one-on-one with the people you need most to successfully navigate the turbulence.  Tell them why are you are leading the organization the way you are, and also ask for their advice and act on the best ideas you get from these sessions.   

4.      As a leader, I believe that being decisive is a strength.  Oftentimes, a good decision made quickly is far better than a great one made after a long delay.  But it is also important to remember that sometimes muddling through and kicking an issue down the road is the best course of action. 

5.      Don’t be the kind of leader who commits to meetings with colleagues or speaking at convenings organized by industry peers and perpetually shows up late, unprepared, or cancels when something better comes up.  Instead, develop the discipline of showing up on time (or close), being prepared, and keeping commitments even when something better emerges that conflicts with your prior commitment.  Don’t call in sick unless you are really sick; suck it up and show up whenever you possibly can.

6.      The essence of good leadership of a non-profit is to first convince yourself, your staff and your volunteers that the change you are seeking to make in society is important.  Second, convince them that those changes are possible, but not inevitable.  Third, help them to believe that you have or are developing a credible plan and team to make those changes and that your organization will receive some credit for – or at any rate can take pride in having contributed to – those changes.  These messages need to be continually reinforced in various ways that take in account people’s different learning styles.

7.      Since mission driven organizations lack the easy measures of success that commercial enterprises have – such as profit and stock price – take care to build in ways to credibly measure the success of your organization and all of its projects from the beginning, when it is much easier than when it is already underway.  When developing success metrics, put a premium on simplicity and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

8.      There are two types of organizations – those that regularly experience self-inflicted wounds and admit it to themselves, and those that regularly experience self-inflicted wounds and don’t admit it to themselves.  While avoiding unnecessary self-flagellation, strive to be the former rather than the latter.

9.      Some employees in mission-driven organizations are renters who intend to stay and contribute for a few years while they build their resume and then move on.  Others are owners – they will settle in for a long period and relate to the organization as if they founded it.  Strive to have at least one-third of your middle and senior management be “owners,” and be forgiving about their faults in ways that you might not be with renters.  Having too few owners can be dangerous, but renters also have important roles to play.   Sometimes their lower level of affinity for the organization allows them to see its flaws and be willing to talk about them openly without fear of retribution (since they are likely leaving at some point in the not too distant future anyway).

10.  Everyone knows you should reward success, though not all leaders do it (either because they worry it will breed complacency, define success too narrowly, or because they play favorites).  But there are times when it is just as important, if not more important to reward failure.  If someone shows that they have learned a profound lesson from a setback and have emerged a stronger professional, give them more responsibility, not less.  (Few things teach lessons on a deeper level than experiencing failure when you expected success.)  Doing so will demonstrate that risk-taking is encouraged and that growth (even if through failure) is recognized and rewarded. 

11.  After a major project or event is complete, have the discipline to schedule a post-mortem where everyone on your staff who was involved can have their say about what went well, what didn’t, why, and what the lessons are the for the future.  As a leader, it is important that you ensure these sessions happen, that you participate, and that divergent and unpopular views are welcomed and digested rather than driven underground.  This helps promote a learning culture focused on continuous improvement, and also a culture of celebration for those things that go well. 

12.  Be visible to your staff and, to the extent possible, your clients.  For leaders that need to travel frequently, as many roles require, this means being present and available as much as possible when you are not travelling, and being responsive to them by phone and email when you are not.  I recommend almost never working from home (unless you don’t have a physical office). Even when you are in the office, make an effort to be accessible, walk around and say hello to people, attend staff-organized social events after work, and eat lunch in the common area (rather than at your desk) so that people can come up to you and talk about anything on their minds.  It also means going into work even when you feel a little under the weather. 

13.  Respond to people’s calls, emails and letters quickly (and don’t make excuses when you fail to do so).  This will reinforce that you are paying attention to them, give them priority, and do not overthink things.  But if a message is about a contentious issue, it is often best to delay responding for a day or two, in order to seek advice and reconsider whether your initial reaction is the best response.

14.  Never allow colleagues to criticize people who used to work at your organization but have left.  Above all, it isn’t fair, since they are not there to defend themselves.  Model this behavior yourself.  This is not to say that people can’t discuss factual things about the service record of past employees if it is necessary.  But avoid gratuitous exploration of former employees’ mistakes and expressions of opinion (especially if negative) about how they performed.

15.  Be optimistic, but never stop trying to see the organization through the eyes of your staff and board who are worriers, pessimists, or generally unhappy with the internal status quo.  This will ensure that you remain credible with them and gradually improve their experience in the organization.

16.  Encourage dissent at all levels in your organization, but ensure that it is typically presented as an attack on an idea, not at people.  Otherwise, the dissent will be driven underground – it rarely “goes away.”  At the same time, it is important that people don’t reflexively dissent from the ideas put forward by leaders (or anyone else) in the organization, but rather give them a hearing and approach them with an open mind. 

17.  Energetically engage in at least some the debates in your field.  Have the courage of your convictions if your views about those debates are not currently in favor among the majority of your peers or opinion-leaders.  In such cases, explain to your team why you are taking a contrarian view.  It can become a point of pride and differentiation, but that will not happen automatically.   While arguing your case publicly and privately, remain open to getting new information that could change your point of view.

18.  As a leader, you have a special responsibility to see that people are given farewells from the organization that are generous and that calibrated to their tenure and their level of contribution and effort to the mission.

19.  Some good and great employees will stay loyal to your organization well beyond what would be in the best interests of their career and earning potential.  Try to figure out who those people are and make an effort to compliment, reassure, support and listen to them.  Don’t ever take them for granted.  Even if you can’t match what they can command on the open market, if you pay attention to them and do what you can for them, they may continue to work for you and put forth their best effort.     

20. If you like to send emails to your staff on weekends and holidays, make it clear to them whether you expect them to respond before the next working day. In general, a good approach is to say that you don’t expect (but will happily receive) responses over weekends and holidays, except in rare cases when they must be responded to. You will make it clear when those rare cases occur.

Book Preview #3: Ten Mindsets and Tips about Traveling Smart on a Nonprofit Budget

For some nonprofit leaders and even mid-level staff, frequent travel is required.  Over the years I learned strategies, tricks, and mindsets that made travel less taxing and more enjoyable – some of which can be applied to leisure travel as well.  When you log as much as 200,000 miles flown per year, as I did for many years, you learn some things through trial and error, or simply in an effort to survive.  (These are especially relevant if you need to be cost-conscious while travelling, as most nonprofit leaders must be.)  Only a few of these lessons made it into the final book.  But I share them on this blog since I think current and future “road warriors” may find them useful.   

I think it is poor manners to complain about how much you travel for work, especially since many of us who have this opportunity now longed for it earlier in our careers.  That is not to say that travelling 10-15 days per month is easy, especially when you don’t fly business class or stay in fancy hotels (and even when you do).  In my 20s, I would get tense as my departure date neared, making my wife crazy, and once underway I would get progressively more tired and cranky. Upon return, I would feel depleted while urgently trying to catch up on everything I missed.  I made myself and those around me miserable.  Over time, I experimented with new approaches and gradually learned quite a few techniques and strategies for making travel more enjoyable, less stressful, and more productive.  Today, I often return from most trips with more energy than I had when I left, and usually am quite productive while on the road. 

Below are 10 of my 26 travel-related lessons.  If you send me evidence that you have bought my book (which should be possible by May 1, if not before), I will send you this complete list (or any other list you ask for).  If you send me evidence that you have bought at least three copies of my book, I will send you all 403 lessons across 14 categories (this being one of them).

1.      Figure out ways to build in daily physical exercise while travelling.  Except for the most important tasks, sacrifice a bit of quality or preparation for your meetings and projects on the road in favor of letting your body work out its stresses in a physical way through exercise.  Be wary of sacrificing sleep for exercise, though sometimes it makes sense to do so.   Light exercise is better than nothing if going to the gym or for a run is impractical (and it is often more practical than you think if you get creative and ask people for help).  Simply walking up a flight of stairs rather than taking an escalator makes a difference if you do it frequently enough.

2.      When travelling alone, don’t feel obligated to visit sights or buy gifts for your spouse or life partner unless you or they truly desire it.  Get home faster, rest more, and save your money instead.

3.      Periodically look at your calendar and think about friends and family who live in places you will visit in a few weeks.  Then consider contacting them to set up a time to meet in person with as much advance notice as possible, since people with complicated lives like yours don’t appreciate last minute requests to get together and often can’t accommodate them.

4.      Figure out what you want from airlines, trains, cabs, and hotels and without a trace of entitlement, ask for those things courteously.  You will be surprised how often you will get what you ask for.

5.      Don’t stress yourself out by needing to get everything done perfectly before you leave on a trip.  Realize that oftentimes, good is good enough.  By engaging in unnecessary perfectionism, you may drive your friends, family and colleagues crazy and undermine your ability to perform at a high level.

6.      As a conversation starter while waiting for others involved in a business meeting to show up, talk to people about their hobbies and yours.  This can lead to them making suggestions about how you can indulge your own hobbies in their city, and if you happen to share a hobby with them (e.g., listening to live jazz or biking), they may invite you to join them for something fun and this can make a trip more enjoyable and deepen a business relationship at the same time.

7.      If you are nervous you may leave something (like a cell phone charger) at home before you leave on a trip, or in your hotel room before you leave for a day of meetings or while checking out, leave it very close to or inside something you cannot leave without, like your car keys or shoes.

8.      Pack one more set of underwear than you think you need, a bathing suit, and exercise clothing (even if you think that your trip won’t lend itself to working out).  If you are going to check luggage, bring a Swiss Army knife.  If you discover that you like certain seasonings or garnishes with your food, pack some.

9.      If a service establishment like a hotel or restaurant seems to care about its reputation, firmly but gently insist on good service when you are getting something below some reasonable standard.  Don’t raise your voice or become abusive, but ask for supervisors until you find someone who can address the situation.  Usually someone will if you stay patient, insistent, and respectful. 

10.  When you leave your hotel for a few hours with an intention to return (i.e., you are not checking out), bring any credit cards, cash or identification you might need before you return, but leave everything else locked up in your suitcase.  They will probably be safer there.

Book Preview #2: How to Fund-raise Effectively and Joyfully

As mentioned previously, while writing my forthcoming book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, I spent several months writing down lists of lessons learned in what ended up being 14 categories.  The second longest list was about effective and joyful fund-raising.  Jt was comprised of 42 lessons I had learned from raising tens of millions of dollars with teams from Grameen Foundation, Fonkoze, American India Foundation and other organizations I have been associated with.  As I wrote all those down, I often recalled in my mind a time when I didn’t use these ideas and tactics, and how that made me a much less effective fund-raiser compared to what I became later. 

I have always maintained that fund-raising is 80% intuitive for most people.  In other words, be diligent, thoughtful, rigorous, and ethical.  That is not to say that all fund-raisers practice these fairly obvious things – they take discipline and focus.  But for most people involved in fund-raising, 20% is counter-intuitive.  And it’s not the same 20% for everyone.  Becoming a great fund-raiser involves figuring out what about fund-raising is counter-intuitive for you and then unlearning those instincts and developing new ones. 

Whereas most people dread fund-raising and do anything to avoid it, I have joined a minority of people who actually love asking people for money.  The non-profit world has far too many CEOs who are reluctant fund-raisers and treat bringing in big donations as a “necessary evil.”  This attitude usually confines their organization to scarcity and small-scale operations.  I became an effective and enthusiastic fund-raiser by applying in a disciplined way the methods I learned from an excellent consultant named Cedric Richner.  As my confidence grew, I made adjustments to his methods to account for my own style and preferences. 

Below are 10 of the 42 lessons.  If you send me proof that you have bought my book (which should be available around May 1), I will send you the entire list electronically.  If you send me proof that you have bought three or more books, I will send you all 403 lessons.

1.      Don’t think of fund-raising as taking something away from someone else.  That mentality is based on win-lose or zero-sum paradigms.  Instead, think of fund-raising as being a broker to a transaction where everyone can get something of value and come out ahead.   

2.      Never, ever ask for money (or anything important) apologetically or hesitantly!  Have the courage of your convictions and passions.  Excitement can be contagious, even if it may not be immediately obvious that you have excited someone to consider giving, as we all show our feelings differently.  

3.      If you are meeting with a donor to ask them for money, it usually makes sense to get the ask (including the specific dollar amount) out on the table in the first five minutes of the meeting.  If the meeting is over a meal at a restaurant, make the ask within five minutes of placing your orders.  (Typically, the time before orders are taken is time for chit-chat that helps everyone ease into a conversation.)  After you ask people for money in a solicitation meeting, just be quiet and let them speak, even if that results in an awkward silence at first. 

4.      Thoroughly document what happened in every meeting, phone call or substantive email exchange with a donor.  Share that information with people who can help you advance the relationship.  The report should not just be a summary of what was discussed, but also describe the mood of the meeting, what you learned about the donor from small-talk, family members dropping in, or their photos and decorations on the wall.   

5.      When a serious mistake is made with a major donor, or for some other reason they are unhappy with your organization, realize that this is no time to give up or stick your head in the sand.  Rather, use it as an opportunity to distinguish yourself as a fund-raiser and an organization that responds to problems in a creative, pro-active and pragmatic way.  In so doing, you may be able to turn a negative into a positive.   

6.      Spend 4-8 hours preparing for a meeting with a major donor, excluding travel to and from the meeting.  If you do less than that, you are effectively winging it.  The meeting and relationship may suffer as a result.  Your organization deserves having you prepared to meet with your most capable and committed donors and prospects.   

7.      If it feels too aggressive to ask someone for, say, a million dollars – an amount larger than you yourself could ever give to any cause – then ask people to “consider” donating that amount.  For some people, including me, that slight adjustment helps make the words come out easier.   

8.      Be confident that if you ask someone for more than they can or are prepared to give, their most likely reaction will be to feel flattered and to increase what they had planned to give you before you asked.  People are rarely offended by overly aggressive asks, especially if they are made thoughtfully and in a spirit of service to mission and to the relationship with the donor.  Far too many funding requests are for too little, especially from inexperienced fund-raisers who value making the donor feel comfortable than advancing their organization’s mission.    

9.      Talk through donor cultivation strategies with knowledgeable people you trust, since the initial ideas of even the best fund-raisers are occasionally mediocre or worse.  It may take others to help you see that and then adjust.  

10.  When you have a reasonably close relationship with a donor or a prospect that predates them coming on your organization’s radar screen, it is often best to let someone else manage that relationship.  At a minimum, get a trusted colleague with knowledge of good fund-raising practices to advise you so you avoid letting your personal agenda with them influence your professional agenda.

Book Preview: Section on “Being a Lifelong Learner”


At one point during the writing of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, I took a break from writing stories and analysis, and focused on writing down discrete things that I had learned related to professional achievement in a nonprofit setting and about personal well-being and self-care. Later I went back to writing more standard prose, but off and on I added to the lists. After a while, I thought I had exhausted every lesson, trick, or insight I’d learned. Then a few more came. In sum, there are 403 lessons across 14 categories. Yikes!

A few of those learnings appear at the end of the final chapters of the book. Others are the basis for stories told in the book, and appear in some form. Many didn’t make the final cut, but may be of interest to readers.

So, I am going to publish my favorite lessons in each of the 14 categories over the coming weeks. For anyone who sends me proof that they have bought the book (which will be on sale in about one month), I will send the entire list in any category they request. If anyone sends me proof that they have bought three or more books (say, one for themselves and two for friends who are involved in nonprofits in some way), I will send the complete list of 403 lessons by email.

As mentioned above, this list is about being a lifelong learner, which I find to be an important factor in growing as a professional and also in being a reasonably contented person. I chose to start with this because Cindy Shore responded to a request on my Facebook page to request a topic to start with. Thanks, Cindy!

This is one of my shortest lists, with only 14 lessons total. Below are my favorite six, prefaced by a few reflections on the importance I have come to attach to being a lifelong learner.

As I go through life, the thing that I have come to associate most with achievement, happiness, personal and professional growth, and ability to work well with others is curiosity.  While other traits such as wealth, physical attractiveness and raw intellect may be more celebrated, I have found that people who are continually trying to learn new things, develop skills, deepen their knowledge, and try new things are those who get the farthest in life and have the best time doing so.  

I first heard the term “lifelong learner” from David Lawrence, the Florida-based children’s advocate who previously was the publisher of the Miami Herald.  One day when a colleague of mine and I were meeting him in a diner for a cup of tea, he was sitting there reading a book.  He told us that he read one book per week, and had done so for decades.  I suppose I thought that at some point, people like him would know enough that they could stop learning and focus on writing, teaching, and pontificating.  What I realized was that once your curiosity diminishes, so does your ability to work well, teach, and relate effectively to others.  

Norm Tonina, a former colleague and a mentor, used this term in another way.  In highly charged personal conflicts, people tend to harden their positions, become self-righteous and indignant, make conclusions about other people’s motivations, and become fixated on a single acceptable resolution of the situation will be.  I have certainly fallen into that trap.  Norm said that a powerful way to navigate such situations is to remain curious.  Be open to new information, different interpretations of what is motivating others, and creative resolutions that haven’t yet occurred to you.  Like most people, I have found that advice hard to apply at times.  But when I have, it has often worked wonders.  

Unlike some traits, it is not something you are born with, but it can be developed.  Being a lifelong learner is something that you can develop, mainly through an orientation to life supported by a series of habits.  

  1. On a regular basis, put yourself and your immediate family in situations that are unfamiliar to you and around people who have significantly different experiences, values and beliefs than you do.

  2. Throughout your life, always engage in at least one thing that you are an amateur or beginner at.

  3. Be on the lookout for useful ideas, values and principles in religions, philosophies, spiritual practices, ideologies, and other belief systems that you do not subscribe to.  For example, even for those of us who like to have a glass of wine, many of the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous are brilliant and worthy of study and practice.

  4. Surround yourself with, regularly expose yourself to, and support art that touches you and takes you to different, more reflective, playful and joyful places.

  5. As you go through life and learn things through trial and error and by developing habits that serve you and breaking ones that don’t, create your own list of lessons learned (as I have done as I worked on my book), add to it as you have new insights, and share it with people.

  6. Be open to the existence and appearance of the super-natural (especially if you don’t tend to believe in such things) and to other phenomena that do not neatly fit into your current belief systems.

Let’s Get This Blog Going

Thank you for checking out my new blog.  I only have a rough idea of how it will evolve, but I am going to do everything I can to make it be fun and informative, and I hope that you engage with it and contribute ideas. Click on the title of a blog post to comment and see what other people are saying.

I also hope that you take some time to explore my entire website.  I have pulled together resources that I have been referring people to for years in one place.  Included, for example, are links to blog posts I have written about impact investing, enjoying Key West, Florida, and getting a job in the international humanitarian sector.  I also profile (among many other things) my favorite nonprofit organizations, articles on philanthropy, and conservative columnist (despite my liberal leanings).

In the days ahead, I am going to publish some resources related to my book coming out in May: Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship.  It will include a Foreword by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhamad Yunus. 

At one point early in the five-year journey it took to complete this title, I wrote down around 300 lessons related to topics as diverse as running a nonprofit organization effectively, raising money, travelling smart, and leading a balanced and healthy life.  Basically, I exhausted each and every thing that I have ever learned that I thought could be valuable to others – especially those in leadership positions with nonprofits, though most of the tips and ideas have applicability to other disciplines. 

A few of those discrete lessons are in the final chapters of the book, while some of the rest have been woven into the stories that I tell.  I will be publishing some of these practical tips and powerful ideas in a highly digestible list format on this blog in the days ahead, starting with 10 related to fund-raising, followed by others on different topics.  More complete lists of lessons will be available for free to people who buy the book. 

I am going on a book tour.  Public events have been scheduled in Chicago/Oak Park (May 9), Portland (May 29), Seattle (May 29-31), Key West (June 7), Sanford, NC (June 20), and Los Angeles (July 6).  Information about these author talks and book signings, and ones yet to be confirmed, will be posted soon.  I hope to see you at one of these sessions. 

I practiced my author talk at Columbia University earlier this month and the response was great, though I will be making some tweaks.  If you would like to host me in your city, send me an email and I will try to make it work.  Nonprofit organizations can also host me for a webinar for their supporters and/or for a brown bag lunch for their staff or board.      

Again, thanks for joining me on this journey.