Nonprofits Plan for the Worse

December 20th, 2009 by Admin

Originally posted in The Washington Times on December 16, 2009.

By Christopher Gergen and Aaaron K. Chatterji

Even as the economy shows glimmers of recovery, a recent survey by the nonprofit consulting firm Bridgespan reminds us that the social sector has been particularly hard hit by this recession. The survey results, while sobering, also provide important management lessons for social, business and government leaders.

First, the numbers. Among the 100 responding organizations, 93 percent said they were experiencing the effects of the downturn – up from 75 percent last year. A reduction in charitable giving, foundation grants and government cuts also has taken its toll, with 80 percent of nonprofits saying they are working with less funding this year and 48 percent reporting that they are eating into their cash reserves to make up the deficit, up from 19 percent…(read more).

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A Countess with a cause

June 13th, 2009 by Admin

So it turns out the princess that every little girl dreams about being actually exists.

Countess Albina du Boisrouvray — a Bolivian tin magnate’s granddaughter who’s related to Monaco’s ruling Grimaldi family — has a big heart to go with her deep pockets. In 1988, her 24 year old, helicopter-rescue-pilot son was killed in a helicopter crash in Mali.

Devastated by the loss, the Countess decided to continue his work of rescuing people. She sold her business holdings and real estate and put $50 million towards creating FXB (her son’s initials), a Swiss charity that helps children that have AIDS, or could be orphaned by AIDS, by helping their families build microenterprises.

So far, 86% of the families funded have earned enough to rise above their country’s poverty level. Read the rest of the story here… (link to Forbes article)

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Seek meaning, service in life

June 10th, 2009 by Admin

From The Washington Times, Wed., May 20, 2009

As millions of American students graduate from high schools and colleges in cap-and-gown ceremonies both solemn and festive this spring, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on their prospects for successful living and working. Of course, those entering the working world are doing so at a time of great uncertainty and financial distress, with tight employment and credit markets.

It’s possible, though, that the recession could be a fleeting concern compared to a more personal and lasting challenge they face: finding their moorings amid a sea of choices in a culture that sends them profoundly mixed messages. Decades ago, the life and career paths of the young largely were spelled out in advance, but today’s youth must forge their own path. That can be liberating and unnerving for young people without much basis for making such vital decisions.

Graduation speakers across the land already are dispensing lessons learned and wisdom earned. What have we learned in recent decades about how to live – about how to lead productive, successful, rewarding and fulfilling lives?

Fortunately, a lot.

Not long ago, a sea change swept through the field of psychology, flipping the focus from debilitating conditions and diseases (i.e., what makes people suffer) to happiness and success (i.e., what makes people thrive). The emergent “positive psychology,” led by such luminaries as Martin Seligman (author of “Authentic Happiness”) and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (author of “Flow”), resonates not only with new research on youth and adult development, but also with surveys of key factors leading to success in life (from books such as “Success Built to Last”) and studies of people in their twilight years reflecting on how they lived. It also gibes with ancient ideas of happiness dating back to Aristotle and his concept of “eudaimonia,” or a full flourishing of self through excellence and virtue.

One could synthesize this convergence of research and thinking with two key words: meaning and service. That is, find ways to have meaningful connections with and make significant contributions to others. Meaning and service.

Fortunately, there is evidence that the rising generations get this. Countless surveys have indicated they are civic- and service-minded, and that many are not only “life shoppers” – searching for a lifestyle that suits them – but seekers of meaning and connection as well as success and wealth.

Take, for example, two high school seniors who recently received AXA Achievement scholarships: Joshua Wortzel and Brittany Bergquist. Mr. Wortzel started the Garden of Giving, which grows and donates organic produce to local homeless shelters via a solar-powered greenhouse located at a Pennsylvania retirement home, with 20 students and 10 senior citizens running it. The project fosters intergenerational connections while serving homeless people and cultivating environmental stewardship in the community.

Ms. Bergquist started Cell Phones for Soldiers with her brother, Robbie, when they were 13 and 12, respectively. To date, they have raised almost $2 million and distributed more than 500,000 prepaid calling cards to soldiers overseas. The project started when they were getting ready for school one morning and saw a TV report about an Army Reservist in Iraq who unknowingly racked up a cell phone bill of more than $7,600. Outraged, they ran upstairs, drained their piggy banks, hit up their friends at school for donations, and got to work. (continued…)

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10 Talks that will knock your socks off

May 28th, 2009 by Admin

Need a shot of inspiration? Then head over to this top-ten collection of last lectures and commencement speeches, which is sure to get you excited, inspired, or maybe both. 

You will not regret it. Check it out here

Many thanks to Kelly Sonora for putting this together.

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Human capital concerns stifled by shifts in volunteerism and culture building

December 30th, 2008 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek

As a final installation of our blog series catching readers up on our recent writing, we offer two more pieces that we wrote for the Washington Times – both dealing with important human capital concerns.  The first addresses the opportunities to harness the full potential of “volunteer capital” and highlights two organizations that have created national models for realizing the full potential of volunteers in highly creative ways.  The second shares the story of a remarkable shoe company that turns culture building and leadership development on its head – and offers a lesson to other organizations looking to recruit, develop, and retain the best and brightest.

“More Than Licking Envelopes,” Washington Times, June 7, 2008.

Two years ago, Nick Cotter retired as a senior executive at Exxon Mobil. Before retirement, he had managed activities in nearly 200 countries. Yet when he volunteered for a local nonprofit, his role was restricted to sorting food and “lugging boxes around.”

Confident he had the energy and experience to have a greater impact on those in need, Mr. Cotter started exploring other ways to help. He got tapped into Greater DC Cares, an organization that coordinates volunteering and business philanthropy in the District.

With the organization’s guidance and support, Mr. Cotter came up with a game plan to develop a set of governance workshops for area nonprofits, drawing on his years in the for-profit sector. Based on a successful pilot program last year, he is scaling up the program through a network of fellow executive volunteers who serve as management coaches and mentors to local nonprofit leaders.

Alas, stories like Mr. Cotter’s are too few and far between.

To view the entire blog, click here.

“Zappos Culture Sows Spirit,” Washington Times, July 16, 2008.

In today’s challenging economy, business and social entrepreneurs are becoming reacquainted with the importance of “culture,” of addressing the spirit of the place and not just the numbers. Developing a culture of excellence and engagement is notoriously difficult – yet critical for organizational performance.

One jaw-dropping example – with salient lessons for organizations across the sectors – comes from, the leading online shoe retailer. There, all new corporate employees receive four weeks of customer loyalty training – answering phones in the call center – before starting their actual job, whatever that may be.

After the training, they are offered $2,000 to leave the company – no questions asked. This “quit now” bonus, which started at $100, is designed to ensure employees are there for the right reasons. About 97 percent of trainees decline what the company calls “the Offer.”

To view the entire blog, click here.

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18 Minutes

June 18th, 2008 by cgergen

18 minutes to give the talk of your life.  Go.  This is the challenge that speakers at the annual TED conference take on.  But these aren’t just your average speakers.  These are some of the most creative, path-breaking, life entrepreneurs on the planet ranging from Jane Goodall  to Bono to Stephen Hawking .  Started in 1984, the TED conference aspired to bring together leading thinkers from the three worlds of technology, entertainment, and design.  Today, the annual gathering attracts over 1,000 attendees to Long Beach, California who sign up well over a year in advance.  The format is relatively simple: over four days 50 people are invited to give their 18 minute talk.  


At TED’s main website one can check out over 200 of these talks under the theme of “ideas worth spreading.”  There are dozens worth watching but among my favorites are Amy Tan’s reflection on creativity and the powerful personal journey of Bill Strickland  rising up from inner-city Pittsburgh to create the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, one of the most successful and innovativejob placement programs in the country.  A reader of our blog also alerted us to Jill Taylor’s fascinating story.  A brain scientist who had a front row audience to her own stroke, Taylor lived to tell about it and is now driving her work in highly creative directions due to the enhanced activity of her right brain.


Let us know which ones are your favorites.  The only caution is that this is an addictive resource.  Though it may just be the inspiration to craft your own 18 minute story…

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Preparing to Live to 100

April 6th, 2008 by cgergen

Over the last few months, I have come to really enjoy reading the blog of Ben Casnocha.  Frequently insightful and thought-provoking, it’s a great view of life from a young guy making a big splash.  Today he had a real doozy of a column that I want to pass along.

Titled The Centenarian Strategy: Life / Career Issues When You Will Live to 100, Ben draws upon a 1996 Rutgers University commencement speech by David Mahoney, then chairman of the Dana Foundation – a brain research organization.

The commencement speech’s  premise is that members of Generation X and Y (and beyond) have a relatively strong chance of living to 100.  And that our “fourth quarter” is going to be an active one.  So, rather than working like a dog and preparing for “retirement” at 60 – we are far better served to “create a strategy for a lifetime of alertness that lasts a whole century.”

I encourage you check out Ben’s blog to get his take on this provocative speech but I wanted to share the top five ideas from Mahoney’s talk (and link them into our corroborative research from Life Entrepreneurs):

1. Diversify your career from the very beginning. 

In his talk, Mahoney advocates for creating a vocation (i.e. career) as well an avocation (a creative pursuit outside of your formal work).  This, he suggests, gives us more options down the line.

“Stop thinking of jobs in series, one after the other; instead, think of careers in parallel. That means planning your vocation along with your avocation, and keep them as separate as possible. If you want to go into business, plan an avocation of music or art; if you are inclined toward the law or the media, diversify into education or landscaping. If you want to be a poet, think about politics on the side, and study it seriously….a real avocation is a subtext to a career, and a part of your working week to pursue with a certain dedication. Why? Not only because it gives balance to your second quarter, but because it positions you for the time that will come, in the third or fourth quarter, to switch gears.” 

In a world where the majority of us will have multiple careers in an ever-changing world, this advice is right on.  Among many of the Life Entrepreneurs we interviewed, they pursued multiple passion and pursuits.  Billy Shore poured his heart into addressing global famine while he was managing Gary Hart’s presidential campaign.  When that blew up, he turned his avocation into his full-time job, launching Share our Strength,which has since become one of the largest anti-hunger organizations in the world.

2. Take advantage of your opportunity to wind up a millionaire.

Part of creating a long and fruitful entrepreneurial life is being resourceful and determining your long-term needs.  This includes your financial needs.  This requires setting goals and being strategic.  Mahoney encourages taking advantage of some of the investment vehicles we have at our disposal – as well being an aggressive saver: 

“Financial independence will take a lot of pressure off that fourth quarter and make it something to look forward to… To the centenarian, credit-card living is out, leveraged saving is in. Use your tax leverage to make your savings grow exponentially. In this savings race, the tortoise beats the hare; by taking full advantage of the plans out there now, and more sure to come in the next decade, you need not be a rocket scientist to become a millionaire – in real terms – by your fourth quarter. Especially if you’re part of a two-income family.” 

Speaking of which…

3. Invest in your family dimension.

“As life gets longer, young people are getting married later. Fine; that deliberation about a big choice should ultimately reverse the divorce rate. But make a commitment early in your second quarter; the smartest thing you can do in diversifying your life is to stop playing the field.  The wave of the future, in the Centenarian Strategy, is to frame your life in traditional family settings. Do your market research in singlehood, choose for the long term and then commit to marriage; have kids; avoid divorce; raise your likelihood of having grandchildren. Following this course, you can expect at least a couple of great-grandchildren to enjoy, to work with, and to help as you approach the century mark. If you plan properly now to protect your wallet and your intellect, you can be a family asset, not a liability, later; and your family, with all the headaches, will enrich your life.”

The Life Entrepreneur develops a vision for every aspect of his or her life.  Family is an incredibly important dimension of this.  Mahoney’s advice strikes a chord – and provides a an important reminder about where a long-term family plan fits into the larger scheme of things.

4. Pace yourself: it’s a small world and a long life.

For the Centenarian and the Life Entrepreneur, life is a journey.  It has many chapters and there are several important things to keep in mind: 1) Take time for reflection and pay close attention to your authentic self and discovering your core identity (especially purpose and values), 2) stay switched on to opportunities and pursue your passions proactively and strategically, 3) actively maintain a healthy support network, 4) have the courage to try, and 5) remember to have fun along the way.

Along these lines, Mahoney’s advice to the Rutgers grads rings true (particularly the last line):

The centenarian thinks about success differently, with a longer view. He or she measures success in getting to personal satisfaction, which does not always mean getting to the top of the heap. Making money is important, never derogate building an estate that you and your progeny can use. But developing long-term loyalties in all the strands of your career and avocation and hobbies and recreation pays off in that satisfaction. Those loyalties also make life easier later; you can get things done across the different strands, helping someone in your avocation who has helped you in your career.  Ask yourself along the way: Whose approval is important to you? Whose is not? The Centenarians do not stop to smell the flowers; they carry the flower along.”

5. Plan for at least one thoroughgoing discombobulation in your life.

Life happens.  It has its highs – and as Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas write in their book Geeks & Geezers – it has its crucible moments: moments in life when we are exposed to an extreme challenge (a death, an illness, a significant setback, etc.).  How we react to these moments can help shape who we ultimately become.  Throughout our book, we saw consistently how entrepreneurial leaders became stronger through adversity – or were able to seize upon new, life-changing opportunities through something we call “purposeful spontaneity.”  The key is to recognize that we can’t predict a lot of life, but we can be prepared for it.

In his closing, Mahoney shared,

“Success, or a resounding setback, in one career can lead to success, of another kind, in the parallel career. That, in a nutshell, is how to cope with a challenge no graduating class has ever had – the challenge of a life with an active fourth quarter. Medical science will give most of you the body to blow out a hundred candles on your birthday cake, and the brain scientists will give you the life of your mind. That active memory will be their gift to you…. You will be able, in the poet’s words, to enjoy ‘the last of life, for which the first was made.’ It’s up to you to make sure you have a varied life that’s worth remembering.”

And so – as we look to the future it is worth gazing at the distant horizon.  For we may just get there – and all the better if our journey has been as rich as it has been long.

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