social justice

Connect, Then Ask Without Shame

Nonprofits must always be asking for support.  The majority that fundraise for their budgets craft compelling proposals to foundations, generous individuals, and government funders.  Those that advocate for change ask for our attention and our actions. From my very first months in my first nonprofit job, where I was involved in fundraising, I learned from my mentors the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) practice of relationship cultivation leading up to "the ask."

Here is a wholly fresh take on the art of asking, in the form of a phenomenal TED talk by the musician Amanda Palmer.  She's talking to her fellow artists, but I think her insights fall into the "general instructions for enlightened living" category and certainly have relevance to nonprofiteers.

She says: Connect. Then ask without shame.

Connect.  Then give people the opportunity to support your work.

Connect.  There are people who will gladly underwrite what you are doing -  and who will be grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Asking isn't always easy, but there is a way for it to feel fair, meaningful, and connected on both sides of the table.


From the Vault: Pondering Purpose in the (Jewish) New Year


For those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, now is a time of reflection, of returning to that which we value most, and of reconciling our best intentions with our actions. 

In the spirit of the holiday, I offer this post from the vault: Pondering Purpose in the New Year.  Whether or not you are celebrating the birth of a new year this week, I invite you to take a moment to step back and reflect with this exercise.  

How can you call upon your purpose to do your best work in the year to come?


Today I've been revisiting some of my favorite perspectives on the concept of purpose.  I am particularly moved by these words by choreographer Martha Graham:

[quote] There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action.  And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares to other expressions.  It is simply your business to keep the channel open.[/quote]

Reflecting upon these words, what resonates?

  • What is the unique energy or action you will contribute to the world?
  • How can you more fully express it in the year to come?
  • How have you blocked its expression in the past?
  • How will you remove these blocks this year?
  • What's the possibility you create when you "keep the channel open"?

Happy New Year.

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Photo credit: loop_oh on Flickr.

Pondering Purpose in the New Year

Today I've been revisiting some of my favorite perspectives on the concept of purpose.  I am particularly moved by these words by choreographer Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action.  And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares to other expressions.  It is simply your business to keep the channel open.”

And some questions to ponder-

  • What is the unique energy or action you will contribute to the world?
  • How can you more fully express it in 2011?
  • How have you blocked its expression in the past?
  • How will you remove these blocks this year?
  • What's the possibility you create when you "keep the channel open"?

Happy New Year.

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Peter Block Asks You to Bring Surprise into a World that Wants Control

Last week organizational consulting guru Peter Block spoke at my school.  Block, the author of numerous books (most famously, Flawless Consulting) has over the past decade turned his attention to creating communities "that work for all," most notably in his own community of Cincinnati, OH.  Block describes his work as "bring[ing] change into the world through consent and connectedness rather than through mandate and force." Block is someone who invites his audience to experience what he's preaching in real time- in this case it meant spending 10 minutes in a circle with two strangers ("knees no more than 9 inches apart") asking and answering compelling questions.

I am still absorbing/wrestling with some of the ideas Block put forward that night (particularly as they relate to social justice) but I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

What follows is directly from my notes, so while it is not a transcript, it should be considered a pretty close paraphrase of Block's words as I heard them.  These are the points that most resonated with me.

Organizations are patriarchal. Organizations/institutions are inherently patriarchal.  The essence of patriarchy is this: I know what's best for you.    The belief that The Boss = Cause of any given situation and Subordinate = Effect is a false one.  We give power to people above us because we think they are "cause" and that they set culture.  In reality, we re-produce patriarchy through our participation in it.  There is a collusion between patriarchy and our wish for safety.  Leaders must work with people in a way that makes them feel that they are the creators of their own experiences.

Relatedness is everything. Get obsessive about connecting people.  Our work is to create circles of possibility within the hierarchical structure of institutions.  The circle is the symbol of an alternative culture.  The circle says: we all matter.  Our eyes connect.  All voices are heard.  Group people together with strangers, because hierarchy is supported by like-mindedness.  I cannot be surprised if I am connecting with people I already know.  Bring surprise into a world that wants control.  In the circle, create a world that is an example of the larger world we want to inhabit.

Questions bring us together, answers drive us apart. Create a moratorium on doling out advice or help.  Working on problems isn't powerful - ask questions instead.  Get curious, be interested, pay attention.  Ask questions that have an edge to them.   Ask, "why does that matter?"  Other powerful questions:  "What is the question that is animating your life right now?" "What is the crossroads you're at at this stage of your life?"  "For the thing you're complaining about, what's your role in creating it?"

Slow down and connect with people. Building connections with one another takes time. People will say it takes too much time, that there are more important things to do.  Speed is the argument against love, against relatedness, against democracy.  Doing is a defense against being.

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8 Great Uses of a Snow Day (Or Other "Found Time")

My former boss used to talk about the wonderful feeling brought about by "found time."  Found time is when you unexpectedly gain free time -- because of a cancelled meeting or a postponed lunch date -- and get to decide how to use it.   As over-scheduled as most of us are, a few hours of found time can feel pretty luxurious.

Much of the East Coast is getting some found time this week in the form of a snow day (or three).  Why not make the most of it? While I wouldn't suggest doing ALL of these things in one day -- after all, you should relax -- I guarantee that taking on two or three of these activities will make you feel more energetic and accomplished than, say, a whole day spent watching HGTV (ahem).

  1. Do one task you've been putting off. Crossing something off your list will feel so good, you might even be inspired to do something else. For me, this will be finding out how to change the address on my driver's license.  I moved two years ago, so I expect that finally doing this will feel pretty good!
  2. Plan your charitable giving for the coming year. Many of us only make donations at the end of the calendar year or when disaster motivates us to give.  But nonprofits need our generosity year-round for the work they do day in and day out.  Think about how much you are able to donate this year, and consider donating now or in installments over the course of the year.
  3. Pick a small area to declutter. What space in your environment aggravates you, embarrasses you, or slows you down? It could be your desk drawer or your sock drawer, the pile on the kitchen table or that black hole where you toss instruction manuals.    Pick a manageable area that you can declutter in an hour or less, and get it done.
  4. Check in with your New Year's resolutions. It's February: how are those resolutions going?  It's okay to refine your resolutions or  drop one altogether.  Just be intentional about it!  If you did any end-of-year reflection, revisit your notes from that process.  What's changed already since 2010 began?
  5. Do a brain dump. When was the last time you got everything off your mind?  Sit down for 15 minutes and write down everything that is taking up your attention right now - from upcoming birthdays to grocery lists to the broken dining room chair.  Then, identify the next action needed on each item, and put it in your trusted system (a sure-fire process brought to you by David Allen).
  6. Create something. Make soup from scratch, build a shelf, assemble homemade Valentines, crochet a scarf for your dog.  There is little as satisfying as creating something from start to finish in one sitting.  Short projects provide instant gratification and don't hang over your head like that sweater you started knitting two years ago.
  7. Set a date.  Not to get married (though a blizzard engagement would make a nice story) but to get together with that person you've been meaning to see.  Look at your calendar, find three dates that would work for lunch or for coffee, and suggest to that long-neglected colleague/cousin/college buddy that you finally get some face-time.
  8. Write down ideas for how you'd like to use your next block of found time and put your list in a find-able place.

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What are your favorite uses for found time?  If you have a snow day today, how will you use it?

Could You Be Happier If You Tried?

How happy are you?  Could you be happier if you tried?

Is it selfish to want to try?

While on vacation in the happiest country on earth, I read Gretchen Rubin's thoroughly absorbing (and now bestselling) meditation on these questions, The Happiness Project. Armed with research that about about 30-40% of our happiness is actually within our control (50% of happiness is pre-determined by genetics, another 10 - 20% by life circumstance) Rubin takes us along, month-by-month, on her one year quest to maximize her own sense of well-being.

The book is fun to read; it's also a treasure chest of useful tips, ideas, and frameworks for thinking about one's own happiness.  Rubin's articulation of the four stages of happiness - anticipate, savor, express, reflect - resonated as spot-on as I happily splashed about in the Pacific Ocean.  Her experiment with enacting a "week of extreme nice" is particularly amusing, if daunting.  Throughout, as she tries on the advice of philosophers, parenting experts, and self-help gurus (often to comic effect), Rubin's cardinal rule, "Be Gretchen," ensures that she remains grounded in what she knows to be true about herself.

But isn't all this focus on personal happiness kind of... selfish? Rubin addresses this question at length, and points to research that indicates that happier people are more likely to engage with the world and help others.  In Rubin's words,

"One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself."

I would go further and say that personal happiness is key to our ability to make change in the world.  For folks who feel called to create a more happy, sustainable, and balanced world, ignoring your own personal happiness, sustainability, and balance will limit your ability to act as effectively as you could.

Happy, self-aware change leaders create healthier organizations and more thoughtful social change movements. When we fail to pay attention to our own happiness -- an all too common phenomenon in the social justice field -- the results are burnout, frustration, and  organizational dysfunction.

Gretchen Rubin's book is a great reminder that in order to change the world, we must change ourselves first. How many unhappy leaders do you know, and how much more powerfully could they lead if they were leading from a happier place?

MLK's Three Dimensions of a Complete Life

Almost exactly a year before he was killed in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a stirring sermon at the New Covenant Baptist Church in Chicago.  King preached that day about The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life. King began, "you know, they used to tell us in Hollywood that in order for a movie to be complete, it had to be three-dimensional. Well, this morning I want to seek to get over to each of us that if life itself is to be complete, it must be three-dimensional." A complete life, King explained, requires attention to three levels - length (self-care), breadth (concern for others) and height (spirituality).

Here is one of my favorite passages, about finding what you are meant to do and doing it with all your heart:

After accepting ourselves and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do. (Oh yeah) And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems. (Yeah) And after we’ve discovered what God called us to do, after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. (Oh yeah)

Now this does not mean that everybody will do the so-called big, recognized things of life. Very few people will rise to the heights of genius in the arts and the sciences; very few collectively will rise to certain professions. Most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories and on the streets. But we must see the dignity of all labor. (That’s right)

When I was in Montgomery, Alabama, I went to a shoe shop quite often, known as the Gordon Shoe Shop. And there was a fellow in there that used to shine my shoes, and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, "This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe shining." (That’s right)

What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."

You can read the entire sermon here.

Looking to strengthen your own leadership?  To live a more multi-dimensional life?  Learn more about working with me.  

What Matters Now

Seth Godin asked 70 "big thinkers" from business, social innovation, and technology to answer the question, "What Matters Now?"  Their answers - one page essays on topics like fear, generosity, gumption, sleep, and willpower - are available in a free e-book. You can get the free e-book here.

To Manage Workload, Right-Size Your Goals

A great takeaway from the Selah/Rockwood refresher training I attended yesterday: Workload = Goals / (Timeframe x Resources x Efficiency)

If your workload is unmanageable, the best way to tinker with this equation is to right-size your goals.


  • The timeframe available for our work is often externally mandated.  We have to get the report done by the date of the board meeting, or the RFP is due on a certain date.
  • Resources are something we also often have limited control over.  We only have $100,0oo in our budget, one part-time staffer to help with the event, etc.
  • Efficiency is a place where many of us love to tinker but actual gains are modest.  Our ability to be more productive or efficient certainly helps move work along (and can greatly improve one's mental state), but doesn't really reduce workload if we have taken on too many commitments.

Our goals are where the biggest shifts are possible. How much are we committing ourselves to do?  Do we have three strategic goals for the year or seventeen? If our goals are unrealistically ambitious from the get, it is unlikely we will be able to make sufficient alterations to our timeframe, resources, or efficiency to regulate our workload.

Right-sizing goals can be hard -- especially for us social change folks, who have such big and long-term goals.  But we all know the alternative: burnout, disillusionment, and reduced effectiveness.  To be able to sustain ourselves as change agents over time, we need to make sure we are regulating our workload, and that means being more realistic about the goals we set for ourselves and our organizations.

On Being an Effective White Anti-Racist Ally

I've been thinking a lot this week about what it means to be a white, anti-racist ally to people of color.  Though I try to live everyday in a way that reflects my values about ending racism, as is the case for most whites, on a typical day I do not have to leave my comfort zone around race.  Every once in a while my mettle as a white ally is tested, and I have to reflect on how well I am really doing.  I have done some training, read some, and thought a lot about what it means to be a white anti-racist ally, but it is something different to have to put those values into practice in real time.  Here are some ideas that feel alive to me right now around this topic: It's Easy and It's Hard It's easy because often it is just as simple as reaching out and connecting with another person in a human way.  Checking in with a colleague or friend of color, showing support and acknowledging what feels challenging.

It's hard because it requires that we stand up in a public way that feels uncomfortable.  Racism is perpetuated, in large part, by the silence of whites.  Saying something that calls attention to our whiteness, and acknowledges our connection to the legacy of white racism in this country can feel risky.  It can also alienate us from other whites, which can feel painful.

It's Not About Being the Good White Person One thing that many whites feel is the need to be viewed as "The Good White Person."  Especially prevalent among liberals, this syndrome is driven by an extreme fear of being perceived as "racist."  The Good White Person couldn't possibly have any racism in her heart because she is so enlightened and anti-racist.  The Good White Person really gets it and wants to make sure people of color and other whites know that.  The Good White Person often ends up making every race conversation about himself.  This stance is not only unhelpful, it is dishonest.  None of us is without racism in our hearts. We cannot be so tied to appearing innocent or evolved that we make the conversation all about us.

It's About Making the First Move and Not Having the Last Word A common white person behavior is to sit back and not talk about race until a person of color brings it up.   Then, we expect the person of color to educate us about racism and tolerance.  This puts all of the burden and risk on people of color, allowing white folks to disengage until we are presented with the subject in a way we cannot ignore.   To be an effective white ally, we must be willing to take on the risk of talking about race in a real way and not always leave it up to others.

White allies must also learn that we cannot always have the last word.  When it comes to race, most white people wish that the issue would just resolve itself and go away.  In heated dialogues, often we try to have the last word in an attempt to "solve the problem" so that we feel better.  One way we do this is by focusing on trying to resolve the individual conflict ("If the two of them could just talk and resolve their issues, everything would be fine") rather than addressing the messier underlying issue ("My colleague is feeling the pain of racism and I can't solve that").  Being an effective white anti-racist ally means listening to, and sitting with, the uncomfortable realities of racism and realizing that no amount of our talking is going to tie everything up in a neat little bow.

Interested in your feedback in the comments.  Thanks.