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 alexcounts09@gmail.com.

 

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”

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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.