"I'm an audience member looking at my life on a stage." These were the words of a coaching client I was working with. Not surprisingly, she's a lover of theater; hence, the metaphor. Her comment was the culmination of a conversation we were having about her interest in finding more purpose in her life. She was clearly committed to her work. Further, she was willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure its sustainability and success. Yet, when I asked what she was looking for, her answers were centered on her business. "I get that you're committed to your work" I shared. But what drives you? What are you personally trying to create in the world? On reflection, my client said that when she looked at the stage production of her life she saw lots of interesting scenery, several interesting acts but nothing necessarily pulling them together into a bigger more purposeful story, narrative or direction.
The timing of this conversation was ironic as I had just finished "Life Is In The Transitions", a book by one of my favorite authors, Bruce Feiler. In this book which I highly recommend, the author shares a number of insights. The overarching theme is topical and connects to a concept that's hot these days: Storytelling. It seems that whether you're in fundraising and nonprofit work (the zone where I spend lots of time), retail, tech, or just about anything else, you need to learn and master the art of Storytelling. We observe our lives and pretty much everything through the narratives we create about them.
Feiler looks back at the way life stories were told before there was a more realistic understanding of life trajectories. He sites the the 1970's best-seller "Passages" by Gail Sheehy as symbolic of this prior thinking. "Passages" describes our lives as a series of linear and predictable life-stages based on our age and milestones we achieve (or don't achieve). In fact, this book helped usher in the idea of the mid-life crisis as there was a clear beginning, middle and end to most people's lives. It all seems rather tidy. Bruce Feiler counters that in reality, our story lines are rarely neat and clean. Not so different than my client's description. We don't simply move from place to place, one life passage to the next. Instead, our lives oscillate. Things go up, down, sideways, forward and sometimes backwards. It's the narrative we weave around them that give them definition and in the best case, true meaning and even definition.
I agree with the idea of oscillation and our need to create meaning out of all of it. My life certainly fits the latter description. It would be wonderful if the trend line of my own life looked like stock in Amazon; however, it's been anything but. My twenties were fun and exciting. My daughter was the greatest gift I could have gotten for my thirtieth birthday. That was followed up by messy mid-thirties - in fact looking back, there was a brief downward spiral. I'm fortunate to have met my wife a few years before I had forty. I still had some hair, there was a lot more of me to love and I had very little idea of where my life was headed. Observing the joy she took in her work inspired me to find work I found meaningful. But even after finding meaning as well as the love and support of friends and family, there have been plenty of shocks to the system. This year alone has given me more life lessons than I've ever wanted to learn. I'm sure I'm not alone on that one.
So, the above begs the question: Do you truly need a clear and definitive life purpose to be happy and successful?
Napoleon Hill seemed to think so and made a name for himself by being an advocate of this sort of thinking. His book "Think and Grow Rich" is one of the oldest self-help guides for success. It continues to be one of the best-sellers out there. One of Hill's key points was that to achieve anything, someone needs a Definite Major Purpose. And it certainly doesn't hurt. The idea took hold and since then, we've seen a steady stream of outside-in driven approaches to being happy, successful and triumphant. Whether leveraging the Power of Positive Thinking, Discovering our Why or Fire Walking with Tony Robbins, we're always in search of what can drives us and keep us moving forward.
And this idea of having a purpose is instilled at an early age. As a matter of fact, a few weeks ago I wrote What's The Big Deal About Believing in Myers Briggs? . I talked about our need for assessments which can provide an immediate sense of what someone is and isn't good at. Children are even subject to these. This in turn allows us to make an early determinations of "what we should be when we grow up" and "what our purpose should be". As I said then and will say again, these can be helpful as tools, not rules. My hunch is there are more than a few people out there who decided on their purpose based on what Myers Briggs or their Enneagram suggested. Our society and culture installs the value of purpose. Individuals with strong purpose are highlighted as the true leaders; the one's with direction, tenacity and other valued qualities. Those without a stated purpose are labeled as lost and wandering.
Please know that I'm not knocking those that do have a clear purpose - it's a beautiful thing and there's much we can learn and respect from this that do see far forward.
But what if a life lived fully as you discover your purpose - maybe even later in life - can be equally satisfying? What if what Bruce Feiler suggests is true? Like the experience of my client, I believe that when we observe our lives, much like the audience she describes, we see all kinds of scenes. Beautiful ones. Scary ones that might even be a little hard to look at. Moments of triumph. Others of frustration and failure. Then, like that play or production, we have the privilege of our thoughts helping us create a narrative that gives it meaning.
While purpose can lead the way, our thoughts and the stories we create provide an ongoing path to meaning and deeper understanding. And who knows, you may even bump into purpose along the way.
“Sometimes there are no silver linings.” This is what my daughter said that helped me understand more than I ever have about the Three Principles. Even though my daughter never heard of them, she inherently understood and was able to articulate the concept of innate health.
Earlier this week, I had to put my dog Sabrina to sleep. Sabrina was our little “street dog”. She was tough and scrappy yet incredibly sweet. For almost fourteen years, she was the most consistent part of my daily existence. This doesn’t take away from the joy my family brings to me but in my day to day, she was my constant. Even when my wife and daughter were away for work, relocations, or school, Sabrina was the one living being I was with every day with the exception of overseas travel.
I knew this was day was coming for awhile. In the beginning of 2020, she had a cancerous tumor removed. The surgeon told us that he probably didn’t get all of the cancer. It was likely to spread and we’d be fortunate if Sabrina made it through the summer. While she continued to deteriorate — walking had slowed to a crawl, very questionable hearing and seeing — her spirit was still there. But in the last week, our dog’s once voracious appetite had faded and she could barely move from arthritis. There was no fighting it. It was time.
As I shared with my daughter what I needed to do, I did my best to put on my brave face. I added my best positive thinking noting we should be grateful that here we were, a year later and she was still with us. Finally, my daughter just said “Dad, sometimes there are no silver linings.” She wasn’t saying that to be negative or overly philosophical. In her mind — and as I’ve reflected on it — that is a truth.
While I can share all of the above — gratitude for the extra time with her etc — it still feels like a gut punch. And sometimes things in life will just be that way. For that moment, there may be no bright side and we just have to sit with these feelings. This recent experience has convinced me about the reality that your thoughts help create feelings. You can’t simply push out your thoughts with new, better and wonderful thoughts. So much for the magic of “positive thinking.”
But the Silver Lining thing is what connected some dots for me. If I’m innately healthy, I have the ability to truly experience things — good and bad. I can have thoughts about them — and then not have them as it may happen. So, when we decide we need to think positive thoughts because we’re feeling down, or we should do XYZ because it’s someone’s expectation, we’re acting out of something besides our innate heath. Guilt? A need to please? Whatever it is, it’s going against our true nature. This aspect of being is decisively human and the most beautiful part of our make-up as human beings.
So, have I listened to this inner wisdom in the past few days? Yes and no. I can’t deny that I’ve still tried to think positively. Sabrina is in a better place. Her pain is gone. She’s back with her three doggie brothers (she outlived them all). Yet each time I try this “strategy” my need to create new positive thoughts only serves to remind me about the content of my true thinking.
The strategy is that there is no strategy. There is only our innate healthy ability to feel what we feel when we feel it. Innate health means understanding and accepting that losing someone we love dearly just plain hurts. A lot. Sometimes for a long time. But innate health also means I’m capable of sitting in that hurt and accepting that’s where I am today. I’ll move through it as I can. And I will heal when I heal.
A healthy body works to heal itself in it’s due time depending on the damage done. I believe our hearts do as well.
A few days ago, I was in conversation with Amy Soper who serves as the Director of Volunteer Growth for Women Doing Well (www.womendoingwell.org). Among the many things that has impressed me about Amy and this new organization is their approach to developing their volunteers and their team. Amy mentioned that at the beginning of this year, their President, Julie Wilson shared that their theme for this year is Pace. In other words; their leaders should be looking at their own Pace,helping others with their Pace, and even perhaps occasionally questioning the Pace of the organization and its growth.
Something about the word Pace immediately resonated with me. At a simple or surface level, I tend to think of the word as it applies to running, one of my passions. And in that arena, Pace is simply another way of saying how fast you’re going — or the average speed you were running for a given training run or race. Pacing can also apply to many other areas of life as we pursue personal goals as well as results we want to bring into the world. So, as Amy and I talked, we went a bit deeper.
Since this was actually a coaching conversation, Amy and I were discussing the priorities she was establishing for her new role. In terms of her work, we discussed what activities and relationships could contribute to the Pace of her recruitment and training of volunteers. As we explored, I found myself again paralleling this with running and improving your pace. I say this because I know intuitively, there are things that will help improve your pace. For good measure, a quick google search brought me to an article called 7 Expert Tips to Improve Your Running Pace. If you’re a runner, I encourage you to click on the link. If you’re not, stick with me, as there’s plenty beyond running coming up….
My point in sharing the above is that if you’re like me, there are times you struggle with priorities. You question whether doing more of this or less of that will get you to the results you’re looking to create. This is true whether it’s something as critical as your organization’s mission, a personal goal like writing a book or running a marathon, or perhaps just finding some inner peace and calm. It begs the question of what do you truly need (to do, be, or focus on) and what you can truly leave behind.
For example, to build your pace in running it’s worth focusing on your cadence, arm swing, and posture. You probably don’t need to worry about things like your height (you can’t change that anyway!) or running “harder”. The same goes for delivering on your mission. No doubt having quality programs helps, strong servant leadership can make a huge difference and a sustainable financial position is critical. At the same time, you could spend less time securing the best bagels for your fundraiser, having the snappiest website around, and tweeting once an hour and still have a substantial impact on those you serve. And finally inner peace and tranquility? I’ll leave that to you but suffice to say getting stuck believing you are your thoughts and vice versa probably won’t help.
Like all good articles, you’ve got to have THE BIG TAKEAWAY and here it is. I created an acronym to help you as you work to find the optimum Pace in your world. I truly hope it helps.
P — Priorities; Have you identified what results you want to create and how critical it is that you create them?
A — Actions; Do you have a clear sense of what you need to do to create those results?
C — Clarity around Challenges; Have you identified the obstacles you’ll need to overcome and what you don’t need?
E — Effort and Energy; Are you truly ready to Expend the Effort and Energy?
So, what do you need to find your Pace?
After the disappointment and financial failure of Rocky V in 1990, Sylvester Stallone put out a series of well, let’s put it politely, even more disappointing movies. He tried his hand at something like comedy with “Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot”. He then went for something a bit more dramatic with “Oscar”. He did several others before recognizing that his strong suit — and the place where his talents were more appreciated — were playing his signature characters such as Rocky and Rambo as well as other action-oriented roles. In fact, there are numerous less memorable projects he was involved in throughout his career — many more in fact than what he’s best known for. Yet, those are the standout. That is what he’s known for.
What are my credentials as a movie reviewer and why am I sharing the above with you? To the first question, I have no credentials — I’m merely sharing my fan-based opinions. As to the second question, I’m spending a lot of time in my hometown of Philadelphia these days. Philly is one of my favorite cities to run in and today I was doing one of the most inspiring routes that ends up at — you guessed it — the Art Museum and those steps that Rocky ascended so many times. So, my mind was on Stallone and the Rocky movies which I’m not ashamed to say are some of my absolute favorites. Reality based? Who cares! You can’t watch them and not believe that dreams can come true — and more importantly, every one of us has the ability to make our own dreams come true.
And perhaps most important, what’s my point?
After those brief flirtations with other opportunities, Stallone moved back to the zone of action-oriented films. Ultimately, he doubled down on the whole Rocky-thing. He brought him back to the screen in 2006 with the well-received film “Rocky Balboa” even giving the character more depth with a plausible story of a late-in-life comeback (think George Forman). And Rocky was given new life in 2015 with the introduction of the Creed movies with the now elder boxer coaching his former opponent’s son.
If you’re tired of the movie stuff, we’re done with that so stick with me. Take away all of the film stuff and what you have is a story that is a great example of recognizing our true nature (though I have a a hunch the actor never studied up on Syd Banks and the Three Ps). Stallone realized that he enjoyed the freedom to try other roles. At the same time, he stopped running away from the type of acting and creative work he seemed to embody that came to him so naturally and with ease.
We can do the same thing. I am all about personal growth and development and especially taking on new challenges. I hope you are too — it’s what keeps life really interesting! If I didn’t like getting a little uncomfortable and helping others stretch, I certainly would be in the wrong line of work as a consultant and coach. But there is a certain beauty and ease to understanding, accepting and even leveraging our truest selves. That’s the self that emerges when we’re doing the work and the creating that comes to us as an extension of ourselves.
How do you know when you’re in that magical zone?
Here are a couple good markers — or at least what I’ve found to be true for me. You know it when time stops mattering. You’re not rushed and you have plenty of time to do exactly what you’re doing. You know it when there’s no gripping and no tension. You know it when you find people asking you to do more of whatever your thing is (and they’ll probably say something like “hey, that’s your thing!).
The other point to remember is that you’ll certainly know when you are NOT in that zone. Much like that “Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot” moment for Sylvester Stallone, you’ll instinctually feel it when you’re going against your true nature. And it’s great to test those boundaries every so often to see where else we can make a difference. However, if we get that gift of knowing where we make our most impactful contribution and can truly be of service, there’s much to be said for making that our life’s work. I hope you are on the way to finding your inner Rocky.
Note: I've included this post here and in Nonprofit Now Today! as I typically put the longer posts here - just want to be sure you get to read this wherever you end up on the site
There are no small parts, only small actors....
I started my day by learning that this quote, which I had identified with an episode of Seinfeld titled "The Burning", originated with Constantin Stanislavski, a prominent Russian theater practitioner. I had actually been mistaken about the quote; in the episode George riffs on this and says "I guess there are no small diseases, only small actors". He's referring to Kramer and his buddy making some extra money acting out diseases for medical students at a local university. I guess this gives you a sense of where my cultural references come from - I need to do some work on that.
So, what in the world does the above have to do with nonprofits or my coaching work?? Actually quite a bit....
I had been speaking with a nonprofit yesterday that's been around for nearly three decades. They do groundbreaking preventative work on a health issue for which there is no cure. They've raised anywhere between $500,000 and nearly $1 million annually. And yet during our introductory conversation, the individual I was speaking with noted that "We're just a small nonprofit."
Beyond the fact that size in general is always a relative, I'd like to suggest new thinking around this idea, particularly for nonprofits. And the reason it's relevant to the quote above? Small is a state of mind. Small is a choice you make. To go back to our acting connection, the literal meaning of this (as I see it) is that an actor who chooses to do so, can take a small part and make it big. One great example (and more fun trivia): Anthony Hopkins only appeared in Silence of the Lambs for sixteen minutes out of a run time of two hours and eighteen minutes - he was on there for just 12% of the movie...Talk about an actor taking a small part (in terms of screen time) and making it big!
So, back to nonprofits. I'd suggest that nonprofit organizations start to look at and in fact, measure themselves in new ways. And even more so, move away from labels like Big and Small that diminish (both internally and externally) the value they bring to their communities and the world. Here's a start:
I hope you were at least mildly amused by the pop references - I think a little lighter thinking serves as well when we're all amped up about well, you know that thing that happens in a few days. In the meantime, I hope next time you're thinking about a nonprofit, forget about size and consider measuring them in some of the ways above.
I was coaching an enthusiastic and talented client who is at the beginning of her nonprofit career. Given her passion around several issues, she asked if it was better to work for an existing nonprofit or start her own. I couldn’t help but take off my coaching hat and speak from the heart.
I shared that when I launched Teens Run Yonkers (TRY) it felt like a once in a lifetime moment where my work, passions and interest in serving diverged perfectly. I was running in the Philadelphia Marathon in 2008, saw firsthand the impact of Students Run Philly Style (www.studentsrunphilly.org) and was inspired to replicate their program in Yonkers NY, my hometown at the time.
That “entrepreneurial spark” seemed to occur in a singular moment following the marathon. In reality, it was the next step on an accidental but meaningful journey. My nonprofit career began as a funnel with the simple intention to “do good stuff”. My first stop was launching a fundraising operation for a nursing home. From there, my experiences enabled me to narrow my focus to work supporting young people with a special interest in their health. Not a big surprise here as I was born with a congenital heart defect and often questioned my potential.
Just a few years prior to starting “TRY”, I participated in a transformative program called Leadership Westchester. During this nine-month program, I spent time with twenty other leaders understanding our own mission, vision and values while being introduced to the many services in our community. I came away understanding the many opportunities to serve and how I wanted to do so.
Part of the program was doing a service project. Working in partnership with an organization where I served on the board, we created a local model of YouthBuild, a national program that helps young people change their lives through education and training. Unfortunately, our proposed program didn’t receive the funding to launch. While It was frustrating, I now had a taste of what it felt like to create something new with the potential to have a positive impact. Around the same time, I had developed a passion for distance running. Running became “my thing” and I never tired of sharing the joys of it with others.
I probably couldn’t have intentionally created the path I just described. Yet the series of actions and events contain steps worth following in pursuit of creating something entrepreneurial. You can’t force that Entrepreneurial Spark but you can do things to Nurture it. Here’s what I suggest:
Wikipedia describes a Creative Spark as a small but noticeable and desirable quality or feeling. If you really want to find that spark, make sure you are forever nurturing its potential
The challenge of the coronavirus grows daily and continues to be very much top of mind. We’ve awakened to a conversation about race and equality that is way past due and sorely needed. With these challenges becoming our daily reality, we sometimes need to seek out special opportunities for gratitude, positivity and forward thinking. One way I do this - in fact, one of the true joys of working side by side with nonprofit leaders - is to enter their world of possibility, optimism and creativity. At a time when some in the nonprofit sector struggle to see beyond the current moment, I wanted to highlight these inspiring leaders and skills we might want to cultivate:
Scaling the Smart Way - Starting Small and Learning Big: When I met Peggy Welch about a year ago, she was incredibly motivated to launch her new nonprofit Justified Ministries. Peggy had plenty of ideas and passion for having a positive impact on women who were leaving prison. After developing her focus, she’s been able to hone down her programming to her best offerings. She’s launching her operation with a simplified yet powerful model where she and her team will work closely with a cohort of four women and build from there. Peggy has also started to raise the funds necessary to support this approach. Equally important, it allows Justified Ministries to be a learning organization, perfecting its’ model before scaling up.
Adaptability - Making the Most of the Current Environment: Billy Coleman, Matt Benford and Barry Tonge head up the leadership team at Today’s Youth Matter (TYM) a youth development ministry that provides year-round services in West Contra Costa, CA. As I highlighted in another post, the team did a fantastic job of transforming their annual fundraising walk into an engaging and inspiring virtual event. Next on their agenda is reimagining TYM Summer Camp, their signature program, into a virtual experience for kids. Given their commitment to providing a holistic transformational experience, the team moved quickly to meet the new reality and is hard at work creating an engaging online experience for the nearly 200 young men and women they serve through this impactful program.
Creative Leadership - Building Connections and Community - As an adult with congenital heart disease, the work of the Adult Congenital Heart Association is extremely important to me. The ACHA is committed to improving and extending the lives of folks like me through education, advocacy and research. Beyond the high quality programming however, what’s stood out to me during the last four months is the dedication of Aliza Marlin, one of their national board members. Since the beginning of April, Aliza has been creating and sending a weekly calendar of virtual events that volunteers like me can participate in and connect with others. This includes ACHA Cafe, Yoga Classes which she leads, a Trivia Night (I’m really bad at these!) and so much more. She has provided true leadership in building a connected community through these events, a true gift during this time of separation.
I hope the stories above provide you with inspiration of the possibilities that are there for us even in difficult times like these.
This past Saturday, I had a wonderful experience at a nonprofit’s fundraising walk. The kickoff was a great opportunity to learn about the nonprofit. We were introduced to the leadership team when they provided their background and told us what role they played at the organization. Then we heard from the Executive Director who shared a bit of history and clearly articulated the mission and vision of the nonprofit. Once the intro was done, we learned about the details of the walk, the day’s activities and options available. Finally, one of the children who has participated in the nonprofit’s programs led us in a warm-up including jumping jacks, mountain climbers and sit ups (it was tough!). And then we were off
Does the above sound like the beginning of the typical charity walk that’s become the anchor event of so many nonprofits? Having spent much of this past decade doing these walks, as well as bike and run events for charities, I would say so. In fact, I’ve just described what went on at Walk For Their Future, the 10th Anniversary of the fundraiser done in support of Today’s Youth Matter (www.tymkids.org) This year’s very appropriate theme was Moving Forward and like most of the fundraising events taking place, it was moved from a live to a virtual event. Yet despite the miles and distance, I truly felt a part of something very special.
As a very committed runner, I’ve done several virtual 5K’s and half marathons as substitutes for the live races on my spring schedule due to the coronavirus. It’s been a nice way to support charities I care about and add extra incentive as I do my solo runs. Yet, I have to admit that I’ve been quietly skeptical about the ability for nonprofits to create an impactful experience that provide participants with a sense of community when moving their events from live to a virtual platform. This past Saturday, I was pleasantly pleased to see how wrong I was!
I wanted to share several best practices based on my experience with Today’s Youth Matter (TYM). And in the interest of full disclosure, I am a fan of TYM as I provide grant writing services for them. If you’re in the process of moving your event from live to virtual, I hope the following can help you create the best possible experience for your volunteers, fundraisers and donors:
And most importantly….
While there are other key components to crafting an engaging virtual experience, these are some building blocks that will create a strong foundation for success.
It started when the same ad kept coming up in my Facebook feed after I became a certified coach. A self-described master coach continuously invited me (and many others I’m sure) to her free seminar. She offered participants the “secrets to client acquisition success using sales techniques she learned closing customers while selling mops at a big box retailer.” And no, I’m not kidding! This was the culmination of my fascination - or perhaps call it what it is - my Love to Hate relationship with the myriad of gimmicks and tools aimed at professional coaches. They dangle magical and oh so top-secret shortcuts as an alternative to offering real service as the key to creating value as a coach.
But I don’t want to single out this individual coach. The truth is you could spend endless hours (and $$) plowing through get rich quick books, seminars, and workshops geared towards making success seem like something you can grab for three installments of $39.99 (or fill in some ridiculous price). As long as you ACT NOW!!
Don’t get me wrong. There are many fantastic individuals out there offering very real support in helping individuals like me develop their coaching and consulting practices. In fact, I’m incredibly grateful to be working with several of them such as my wonderful mentor-coach Angela Cusack of Igniting Success. I’m also thrilled to be joining Melissa Ford for her Game-Film group coaching program. Melissa’s book Living Service: The Journey Of A Prosperous Coach has been an absolute game-changer for me in the way I approach creating clients.
As an aside, this experience takes me back to my early days in the nonprofit industry when I was getting my start in fundraising. I was bombarded with invitations to programs that would teach me how to be a better fundraiser, craft the perfect ask and opportunities to mingle with other fundraisers. I have absolutely nothing against learning and networking. Yet, I wasn’t quite clear how I was going to become a better fundraiser without spending the bulk of my time well, fundraising!
Here’s my point: Whether you’re a coach, consultant or fundraiser - or pretty much anything else, You’ve Got To Do The Work. Yes, it’s worth capitalizing. No matter what you do, there will always be someone - or several someones - telling you there’s an easy way to do it. There will always be distractions from the real essence of what you do. But remember: reading and talking about coaching isn’t coaching. You become a better coach by coaching. Similarly, learning about and networking with those who fundraise isn’t fundraising.
As for me, the only way I know how to do this is the following (spoiler alert: a lot of this is crazy obvious but still worth staying)
As I’ve been coaching leaders during the coronavirus crisis and observing others, I’ve noticed that they tend to fall into one of three categories in terms of their response to the times:
It won’t surprise you that I’m a huge fan of #2 and love #3 even more! The reason I love doing what I do is that I’m always amazed and inspired by the leaders I work with. In fact, I thought I’d make this week’s an opportunity to inspire others by highlighting the actions and approaches I’ve noticed among the amazing leaders I work with over the past two months:
I hope these quick stories serve as reminders that the work of you and your organization is important. That was true before this crisis, even more critical while we’re in the midst of it and still will be when it’s over. If I can help you and your organization navigate through these challenging times and plan for better ones ahead, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Grabel is the President of Nonprofit Now! You can find his posts here and at www.robertgrabel.com
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