Initiate kindness

The open hands of a child

Photo by Jyn Meyer

It’s that time of year. Graduates are graduating and dreams are being flung toward the heavens along with those tassled caps.

Probably that’s the reason for a series on Linkedin called #IfIWere22. The likes of Richard Branson and Robert Herjovec appear to be participating.

Came across Herjovec’s recently and it made me think of all the things I wished I knew then that I know now. As most of us know, some things are better left unknown until “that time” in your life when you’re mature enough to handle them.

Glass half-full

But other things, like assuming the best in people – while I wish I’d “had it” earlier, for me, came with time.

Maybe I was jaded from losing my father young — maybe on guard and grieving in my early adult years? Maybe it was a sense of identity loss, since I also married young.

While I don’t feel it’s true now, it does seem like I lived too much of my life with a glass half-empty. Still, that’s what I’d tell myself at 22. Here’s why.

Do unto others…

Funny. I always thought I knew what the “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” axiom meant, but the more “judgy” our society becomes, the more important I think it is for each of us to just take the initiative to act on that premise – first.

By that, I mean to assume the best in others – that they are more than likely good people, probably will like you, take interest in you as a fellow human, whatever – and act on it. Initiate kindness.

We have the power

A long time ago – while my dad was still alive, in fact, we were at a conference together. This one speaker talked about how the interactions we initiate lead to positive or negative reception by others. In other words, how we treat someone will likely manifest itself in a similar reaction from them.

So why would we wait on the other person to show kindness?

Ghandi said it best: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Just decide to do good, and then do it.

But how about when a situation is hard to read and you’re the new kid on the block? Last one to the party? What then? It can be terrifying (even for this flaming extrovert).

That doesn’t mean the risk isn’t worth the payoff, though. And it doesn’t let us off the hook if we really want to see change.

Being kind first just means you’re extending an open hand that says, “I have nothing to hide or hold back. At this moment, at this time, I’m here … for you.”

Some people won’t feel it. Don’t take it personally. It’s their problem – really. Others will need it. It’ll be like manna from heaven for them. And you’ll know because they’ll light up the moment you show you care. It could make their day and yours.

So what would I tell myself at 22? I’d tell myself to initiate kindness as an act of faith in others.

And I’d finish with a reminder that it’s nearly impossible not to reciprocate in the same, kind way. If someone doesn’t want to engage in a little kindness today…it really is their loss.

Can’t we all just get along?

Rodney King caricature. He speaks into a mic

A little throwback in light of the week’s events in the U.S. Painful then, painful now. No more. Image Cass Anaya via Creative Commons.

To board or not to board? That is the question

Woman dressed in suit talking in meeting

A few years ago, I joined my first board. As a strategist, I looked forward to contributing to the success of a nonprofit.

Like with anything new, I had questions about “how this works” and what I should expect. Most of those surfaced as I served and learned the ropes. Along the way, I asked people I knew whose board experience I could learn from.

Based on their experience and mine, I decided to share a few pointers – especially for people looking to give back to their community and beyond. It’s not an exhaustive list, but good food for thought. I’d love to hear yours, too, in the comments.

Dos and Don’ts of joining a board
If you’re considering joining a board, it’s good to go in with eyes wide open. Because engaging in this kind of work really should come with a clear understanding of commitments and the real needs of the organization from its trustees.

  • DO join a board if the organization’s mission is something close to your heart. It helps if you’re knowledgeable in the space it serves, too.
  • DO join a board if you have specific skills or a network that can be helpful to its advancement. Are you networked with like-minded people? They might be able to support the org or even be committee or board candidates themselves.
  • DO, in most cases, expect to do some fundraising. That means at some point, you’ll need to pound the proverbial pavement with your contacts and others, in hopes of helping your organization reach its revenue* goals. It means asking for money. Lots of folks are very uncomfortable with this, but let me tell you – if you have the right potential donor, they want to be asked. I’m a pastor’s kid, so I grew up hearing calls for offerings. And apparently the “ask” rubbed off on me, so I’m not at all shy about it – especially if I know someone has demonstrated interest in lending financial support before.
  • DON’T join a board without a clear idea of what your time commitment will be. If you only have 2 hours per month that you can devote to it, make sure it will fit into your schedule so you can maximize your time and make the best contribution possible. Nothing breeds resentment like demands that exceed your availability or don’t consider your time.
  • DON’T join a board that has not clearly outlined and agreed to domains and responsibilities of staff and board members.

What would you add to this list if someone asked you whether they should join a board?

*Don’t be fooled by the word “nonprofit.” Like any for-profit, a nonprofit needs income (revenue) to meet expenses like payroll, program administration, marketing and donor development. Many parallels are clear, too: Donors = customers; program development = product development. At a high level, the needs are basically the same.

Photo credit: UN Ebola Task Force meeting on 19 September 2014 via photopin (license). No derivatives.

Let nothing be lost

Wool quilt "Nothing Lost" quilt by Paul Loebach

“Nothing Lost” quilt by Paul Loebach. Image Design*Sponge.

In the last couple of years, I acquired a newfound love for modern quilting. While this beauty here is made of wool, its construction embodies the biblical quote (John 6:12) it comes from.

In the passage, Jesus had just fed a crowd of 5,000 with two loaves of barley bread and five fishes, before asking his disciples to pick up the leftovers, so nothing would go to waste. The barley bread leftovers filled 12 more baskets.

I am so mesmerized by the beauty of this quilt and its existence as a metaphor for that miracle. (I don’t think I want to know how much it costs, however.)

And we thought blogging was risky business

meerkat on yellow backgroundAs if life with social media weren’t real-time enough. I never thought I’d be curious enough to jump into video, let alone real-time video.

For the moment, I’m not. Not personally, anyway. Heck, I hardly take selfies, much less video of any kind. But I am fascinated by emerging technologies and their potential uses.

I’m sure the response to live video tweeting tools is something like it was back when blogs and social media were winding up, especially in corporate environments:

  • Too risky: Who’s gonna control outgoing content?
  • Too raw: Great. Now we need another editor.
  • Too transparent: The execs will never let us do it.

And yet, just like social media, opportunities abound. If your marketing or communication needs call for the immediacy of video, it’s official: the tools are here.

The space is definitely evolving, but between Vine (edited), Meerkat and Periscope (both real-time), a few practical ideas that come to mind are:

  • Conferences, concerts, sporting events: Real-time action & “reporting” (I cringe to use the term, but hey, these tools make citizen reporters of us all, with or without contextual info)
  • Farmers (or any) markets: Stream what’s at market – today only
  • Flash sales: Discounts on new or limited inventory; viewer-only discounts
  • Restaurants/Food Trucks/Food Service/Cooking Classes: Watch it being made; drive instant traffic
  • Disaster response & fundraising: Show what it’s like “on the ground” (depends on availability of communications services, which can be a tall order in a crisis)
  • Oh and of course – law enforcement. Can’t forget that.

The possibilities are really endless and don’t necessarily have to be invasive or high-risk, although for those of us unaccustomed to putting our entire lives out there, this can feel pretty voyeuristic.

Some folks will “go there” and it will be interesting to see how responsible users will be. But I’m more excited to see how this space matures and the good things it has the potential to do. My mind’s wheels are definitely turning.

“I just want her to be somebody.”

Painting of woman in pink dress holding yellow and white flowers

Meet Esperanza*. She’s a wannabe.

Well, kind of. I believe the artist actually wanted her to be like the girl in this Fernando Botero painting. Her proportions are similar to a Botero, but Esperanza appears notably more Caribbean.

I bought her for USD$50 at the foot of the hill where the original Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, used to be perched. (Here’s the Montana today, rebuilt after the massive 7.0 earthquake in 2010, which killed more than 250,000 people and which I still can hardly talk about. Maybe soon.)

Anyway, that trip was my first trip to the developing world – and, surprisingly, my only trip to Haiti (hopefully not my last).

Learning to tell stories
It was where I began learning from the best — like photojournalist Chuck Bigger — things like the composition of a great photo. It’s where I learned how to gather and tell an organization’s story from the point of view of its “customers” — those who benefited from its services.

It’s where my eyes were opened to the many opportunities we take for granted in the United States and developed world. It’s a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless: Most of the world is not born into opportunity like Americans are.

Common ground
But parents everywhere still want the same for their children – to be healthy, to be loved, to belong, to have a better life than they had.

I can’t tell you how many mothers or caregivers I’ve interviewed who only ever wanted their children to grow up to be successful. When we would ask what their dreams were for their child, most replies inevitably included:

“I just want her to be somebody.”

I used to think that meant they thought their children weren’t “somebody” already. But I believe it’s more that the child’s potential hadn’t yet been uncovered. When it was, stories changed. Families changed. Futures changed.

For some families, it may mean a child has completed primary school and can work in the local market selling goods that help the family with income (not an ideal situation but certainly a real one). Or a high school education, which may mean a more technical vocation. A university education means a young person can become “a professional,” with a sustainable income to support even an extended family, including education for siblings and others.

Children are the key
When a child’s potential is developed, they become somebody who can bring health and hope a family hasn’t seen, lifting them out of poverty. And it doesn’t stop there. It ripples out to the community too, and sometimes even nations.

That’s why I call Esperanza a wannabe. Because I believe she wants to be somebody. Maybe somebody like a Botero – only better.

*Esperanza means “hope” in Spanish. This painting was named by my talented friend Kris, who kindly stretched the canvas she’s painted on. The canvas, by the way, is reused upholstery fabric.

So you wanna work in nonprofit?

Woman holds up handmade jewelry for display

This proud mom in Dominican Republic shows off her handmade jewelry – skills she gained through a microenterprise program for single parents implemented by one of Compassion International’s church partners. Her small business helps her sustain her family’s livelihood.

It’s become such a romantic idea to work for a good cause. So romantic, many Americans would probably rather work for a cause than for the Man.

It’s certainly noble.
It’s definitely rewarding.

But don’t be fooled. It is also hard work. And I don’t just mean long hours.

I’m convinced there is an evil in the world that doesn’t want to see good to come of anything – including whatever good things you set out to do.

Whether it’s more red tape than is necessary to get something done to logistical nightmares to communication misunderstandings, it’s good to be prepared for whatever comes your way.

As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. Be alert and wary that the good work you do will meet resistance.

That’s when you pull up your big-girl/boy panties, stand up tall and fight your way through. I’m confident you will find reward on the other side. Fatigue too, but it will be the best fatigue you’ve ever felt.

Hunger is hunger, wherever you are

Yesterday I attended a wonderful fundraiser for Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado. I call them the food bank to the food banks across much of our state.

In an exceptional move in 2012, Care and Share arranged direct distribution of food to families affected by the Waldo Canyon Fire. I was unemployed at the time and volunteered with them over several months following the fire to organize food distribution to hundreds of families and local food banks .

The heat was unprecedented that summer — nearly 2 weeks of 100+ temperatures strung together, punctuated only by the frighteningly persistent sound of fire trucks, up and down the Front Range.

Everything was brittle. Temperatures, foliage, patience, tempers. So many had lost so much.

care-and-shareIt was during this season I gained a whole new respect for Care and Share’s work, their work ethic and their vision for tackling hunger in Colorado. This focused food distribution was one of the most compassionate things I’d seen done in a major, local crisis.

It’s not uncommon with major disasters like typhoons or earthquakes to gather goods of all kinds to distribute, but I’d never seen anything like this  on a local level. What vision and leadership.

It truly gave affected families one less thing to worry about and one less encounter each week that would require them to explain “how they were doing” after they’d just lost everything.

Fast forward
At yesterday’s luncheon, we heard stories from individuals who’d benefited from Care and Share’s extensive services to food banks around our state:

  • One young mom who’d quit her job to get a college education so she could make a better future for her family. In the process, she found herself and her family in need of basic food and nutrition;
  • One poet who, though she didn’t “look the part” of the person suffering from hunger, she went through college married, with a family, and without food at least a couple of days a week; and
  • A very successful, young businesswoman, who had grown up “off the grid” in Colorado and – very long story, short – ended up getting many meals from dumpsters.

While the last story was the most dramatic of the three, hearing all their accounts reminded me of one thing:

Hunger is hunger, wherever you are.

When you’re hungry, you can’t focus on the task at hand. If you’re in school, it’s hard to learn when your body is focused on its most basic needs – not to mention your brain doesn’t fire on all cylinders without the proper fuel.

If you’re trying to work a job but can’t make ends meet enough to put food on the table, chances are good you’re missing things at work and you aren’t able to perform at your best.

When you suffer from food insecurity, the odds are stacked wildly against you and your dreams.

Third-world vs. First-world hunger?
I’ve witnessed first-hand hunger in circumstances of extreme poverty, where people have next to nothing and food is yet another thing they lack, among other essentials like clean water or access to medical care. Sadly, hunger usually comes with the territory.

But looking at someone who may be hungry and knowing I might see right through them because they look or act just like me is a much tougher concept to grasp. It takes attention and focus.

My lesson: More often these days, it is hard to know that people around us may need food, shelter or even a job. My hope is that we will respect our common bond of humanity enough to be sensitive to each others’ needs. Today I needed this reminder.

Why the Surprise Journal Is a Great Nonprofit Storytelling Tool

Welcome to my #3 post for the #YourTurnChallenge – the best kick in the pants ever.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my career in nonprofit communications — building, scaling and realigning content programs for rapid growth.  Later in this blog, I hope to outline some ways to build and improve comms for nonprofits large and small, taking a deeper look on occasion at Hispanic philanthropy and causes.

In this post, I want to focus on a new journaling technique called the Surprise Journal (great Pinterest post and the original Fast Company article) and how this approach is the perfect tool for nonprofit storytelling.

Surprise Journal basics

The point of the Surprise Journal is to write down and record the things that, well, surprise you – and then examine the reason for it. It gets to the heart of assumptions and expectations, helping us reset our thinking accordingly.

It works great in brainstorming or team building settings. For Julia Galef, CEO of the Center for Applied Rationality: “I started thinking about surprise as a cue that my expectations were wrong.”

“I started thinking about surprise as a cue that my expectations were wrong.” — Julia Galef, CEO, Center for Applied Rationality

So what does this have to do with nonprofit storytelling?

To show how they make a difference in the world and in people’s lives, nonprofits use storytelling to paint a picture of what that change looks like — with skin on. Ideally, it accompanies good data the story embodies. (That’s a different post.)

If you’re a nonprofit communications person tasked with story gathering and storytelling, sometimes it can be hard to recognize the change when you witness it in gradual steps, day in and day out.

Frankly, it can feel like you have blinders on and are powerless to take them off at will.

However, there’s one set of tools every nonprofit should have: Volunteers, donors, board members – other people who share our passion for the cause but who may not see it every single day .

They notice the differences over a period of time, so let’s ask them. Here’s how.

Observing up-close and personal

At one organization I worked at, our donors and sponsors often visited the international work they supported, and even the children they sponsored through sponsor tours, where sponsors of individual children could meet them and their families in person.

That was a prime opportunity for our field writing team to learn from the first-hand experience of the visitor who didn’t often get to see the work they were enabling us to do and the difference they were making.

Our comms people were nationals, many of whom had grown up facing the circumstances of poverty the children we served dealt with. So, at first, it was hard for them to see how we could tell stories about change and contrast – the proverbial “before and after.” How could they tell a story of how the donor was making a difference? Different from what?

To train on the “surprise” element, we would send a comms person on those trips and ask them to observe visitors, capturing their surprise and what they were reacting to. Maybe they’d never witnessed extreme poverty conditions like lack of sanitation or access to clean water, or child labor.

Visitors’ reactions ranged from gasps, hands over mouths, sudden quiet, silent tears. It ran the gamut. There was no doubting their surprise. In fact, surprise was kind of an understatement for what they were experiencing.

It’s the journalist in me, but that’s where the gold is, folks. In our case, we would ask people, respectfully and via casual conversation, what they were thinking or feeling at that moment.

  • What had caused their reaction?
  • Did they see poverty like this in Australia or the Netherlands or America? If not, what did it look like there? How was it different?
  • What were they comparing their present experience with?

The rule applies here, too

The same works whether your work is across an ocean or in your own back yard.

To know the things you need to tell stories about to help others understand your mission and its impact, capture the reactions of your organization’s stakeholders as they experience your program’s work first-hand. This is especially effective of more newly engaged donors, volunteers or board members who are invested in the cause but still learning about it.

Their reactions will speak volumes while providing plenty of insights and material to work from.

I’d love to know some of your tips on telling a strong story that shows change and how you gather content to produce it. It’s hard, rewarding work whose impact – thankfully – has the power to leave an impression that lasts a lifetime.

This is a test. This is only a test.

A friend put me up to this, and I’m not fully certain it will stick. Lord knows I’ve tried a bazillion times to blog, only to run into roadblocks – mostly in my head.

Not that they’re gone. If anything, they’re bigger today than ever. Hence the challenge. (I hate competitive people.)

No promises this time, just a mustard seed (if that) of faith that it could work.

Oh – the blog title. It’s from my grandma. She made up stuff all the time. The line “Poor Mexican Gone” comes from one of her best ones:

musico
Cuando hitty con un cartucho,

no come back.
Cuando de repente pún,
poor Mexican gone.

Loosely translated from the ugly Spanglish:

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