A Grateful Heart Is What Fuels Change


For a lot of change making organizations, it can seem like loss and pain are the driving force behind their work. So many nonprofits and NGO’s start because their founder lost someone they love to cancer, to heart disease, to suicide, to war…the list goes on. My own organization, Big Love Little Hearts, is in honor of my sister, who passed away at just 37 days old from an undiagnosed heart defect.

But viewing loss as the impetus of change misses the mark. What really fuels changemakers is gratitude and grace. Being so thankful for the time you had with someone that you’re driven to give the gift of time spent with loved ones to others. Being so thankful for the advantages you’ve had that you want as many people as possible to also have them. Being grateful for your education, the food on your plate, your mentors, the support of others during a hard time….these are the things that truly make the world grow.

Hospitals grow because the people who received excellent care there donate so that others may receive the same. Scholarships are funded by people who are grateful for what education has made possible in their lives. Organizations like Imerman Angels are built by people who are thankful that they had the support they needed while fighting cancer. Organizations like mine are funded by parents who know how lucky they are that their children were born in a country where lifesaving care is abundant.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of changemakers in my years as one, and the common thread among all of them is not a bleeding heart…it’s a grateful heart.

We are all meditating on the things we’re grateful for during Thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving what I am most thankful for is simply the act of gratitude, because that’s what is improving and often saving the lives of millions of people all around the world.

If your heart is thankful this week, please consider sharing your love with a grateful photo or gift over at Epic Thanks (an organization whose entire philosophy is that love and gratitude are all that’s needed to change the world).


Putting On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

When you get on any airplane, before takeoff a flight attendant goes through safety procedures and tells you that in case of cabin pressure loss oxygen masks will be dropped. They instruct you to put your own mask on before helping others.

I fly a couple times a month on average. I’ve never once seen a passenger raise their hand and object to this idea. Who would? The fact that you need to be breathing in order to help your fellow passengers isn’t a hard piece of logic to digest.

Yet as non-profit leaders we overwhelmingly don’t do this. We think it’s our duty to work 20 hour days without eating. To go on less than 4 hours of sleep for weeks on end, give up going to the gym, the doctor, seeing our family and friends…or any other part of the outside world in the days or weeks leading up to big campaigns.

We are responsible for delivering impact into dozens, hundreds or thousands of lives yet we’re not taking the time to make sure we’re nourished enough to do so.

I’m not writing this from some high horse, urging you to follow my exemplary footsteps. I’ve had a horrible time internalizing this idea in the years I’ve devoted my life to making change.

Last fall I was immobile for almost a month from ignoring my own needs in exchange for my mission’s. I didn’t listen to what my body needed, which certainly wasn’t to stress my injured back by 10,000+ miles of travel and multiple speaking engagements in less than a week.

Did my organization get some great things because I didn’t listen to my body? Sure. But I also had to leave one of our fundraisers because I couldn’t stand I was in so much pain. I was at less than 25% capacity for work output and my days were cut in half to accommodate my physical therapy schedule for an entire month. That doesn’t seem so great for my non-profit or the children I work so hard for.

Being a good leader means not being a martyr. We all know this in our heads – it’s time to internalize it in our hearts.

What do you do to take care of yourself?

*This post also appears inside the #NPZen Sandbox at 501 Mission Place. Want to poke around there? New subscribers to our free newsletter get one month of premium membership free with no-strings attached.

Cause Competitiveness: Keep Your Eye On The Prize

Who's Getting Off First?


by Estrella Rosenberg & Geoff Livingston

If the last two marathon weeks of cause-related conferences are any indication, competition isn’t just something the for profit sector is thinking about – the cause community is too. How do we compete for market share? How do we compete for visibility? How do we compete for more money? Much has been said about competitiveness in the for profit sector, but what is the right role of competition in causes? Is there a right role?

Some would have full on competition, while others would have singular causes or coalitions within each sector. Are either of these right? They both are in a way. Competitive spirit definitely has its place: Finding the fastest, most efficient, most impactful way to resolve the problem the cause addresses.

Non-profits are not in business to make money. They are a business to be sure, but unlike a for-profit, which seeks to dominate markets and yield profits, a cause or social enterprise seeks to provide a solution. When a for-profit business is successful, it keeps its doors open for years and expands and keeps looking for more market share. When a non-profit is successful it should close its doors because its business – or mission – has been completed.

Are you competing just to raise the most money? Competing in the sense that a cause seeks to beat out its competition helps no one. It actually hurts the cause space by creating distractions and wasted resources.

Consider Komen for the Cure’s use of $1 million spent to legally enforce its rights to term “for the Cure.” How does that help anyone resolve health or larger issues? Worse, last year during The Cause Marketing Forum, Komen for the Cure proclaimed that it was their mission to reclaim the pink ribbon from other non-profits in the breast cancer space – organizations that they themselves support with grants! Imagine if that money and energy went towards finding the most innovative way to discover the most impactful solutions in breast cancer?

Competing to be the first to the finish line with the same approach as ten other organizations in your cause space isn’t the right kind of competition either. Wealthy founders and well meaning activists who think they can do it better without any unique theory of change are creating distractions too and just making more choices for donors, often paralyzing them. Yet another voice with nothing new to add creates a longer path to the answer.

The ability to see the problem and a unique answer to it (or a part of it) is at the heart of social entrepreneurship. Innovation means finding better faster ways to provide answers. In essence, this is the Ashoka model of social entrepreneurship where a changemaker seizes on a unique approach to a problem and deploys ambitious actions for wide-scale change.

For these social entrepreneurs, and for forward thinking non-profits, competition means cooperating with other organizations within the same space when they have to because they have their eye on the prize: an answer to whatever problem they’re trying to solve. That doesn’t necessarily mean sharing resources, but it does acknowledge that everyone is trying to reach the same end goal. Forming coalitions and cause verticals can have great impact if each organization is working on their own piece of the puzzle.

Ultimately, causes should want to end their business by resolving their problem. They shouldn’t want to be the organization who uses social media the most cleverly. They shouldn’t want to be the organization that raised the most money at their annual event. They should want to shudder their doors. Period.

What kind of cause are you? Are you competing to make change or just competing?


Leading With Vision Over Mission

All of us love the word “mission”. We use it a lot. Our organizations are “mission-driven”. Our work is our “mission” in life. When we make decisions we ask if it will help advance our mission. Mission, mission, mission!

Mission is good. Mission is great! It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us up late at night. It informs our entire organization, our donors and our beneficiaries. But our mission isn’t really where it’s at. Vision is what actually got you into the non-profit world. Vision is the pie-in-the sky goal that will do away with the need for your non-profit. Mission keeps your organization in business. Vision moves your organization forward.

What do I mean by that? My organization’s mission is to provide lifesaving surgery to children with heart defects in developing countries. But that’s our mission because most children in developing countries don’t have access to it. My vision is that all children born with a heart defect will have access to lifesaving care no matter where they live or what their economic status.

I get lost in mission a lot. It’s hard not to – I have to spend most of my time finding help for the children who need us or they’ll die. But if all I ever do is raise more money to fund more surgery all we’ll ever be is a band-aid. One million children are born with a heart defect. Half of them need surgery. There’s less than a thousand surgeons in the entire world qualified to help them. It’s not hard to do the math. Funding is the least of my cause community’s problems.

When I lift my head up from mission and look at my vision I start to think about solutions. The funny thing is, they’re not really that pie-in-the-sky. They may take a long time and they may take a lot of support, but vision breeds support. Fanatic support.

Your donors, your Board, your volunteers – they want to be part of a solution.

If you can communicate your vision to them effectively you’ll have a band of disciples ready and willing to help with vision and with mission. My organization is in the beginning stages of working to change how doctors are certified to become congenital heart surgeons. We have an uphill battle to be sure, but I’ve shared our vision with leaders of other organizations in our cause space and we have the support of every last one of them. It’s energized us. It makes saying no to 35 families a week and only saying yes to five bearable.

Spend some time today clarifying your vision for your cause and then let your organization know what it is and how you’re going to lead them to it. Inspire yourself, inspire your community and go build change!


(Non-Profit) Health Month: It Begins

Health Month

It’s no secret I’m a fan of foursquare. My organization, Big Love Little Hearts, ran a campaign called #100X100 last April via foursquare that raised $25,000 in 24 hours and incited significant advocacy action. That idea came out of my personal obsession with the location-based application, and my fondness for all things foursquare is also what led me to Health Month.

Before I tell you what Health Month is let me give them props for being the smartest brand using foursquare. In order to earn a badge from Health Month you have to play the game every single day for a month. If you want all four badges you have to do that for four months. That’s the longest, most consistent usage by far that any brand requires to get the goods. Kudos to Buster Benson, the brains behind Health Month (and awesome app Locavore too)!

Health Month is a new game that helps you make small changes to your health habits. I checked it out because I wanted their badges and when I saw what it was I immediately fell in love. It’s fun and whimsical. It’s not about counting calories and figuring out percentages or about cataloging your workouts – it’s about setting small goals to improve your health. I started playing in earnest last month and chose rules that revolved around taking better care of myself: early bedtimes, eating whole grains, eating enough bright vegetables, saving more money, practicing gratitude, etc…

Not long into it I thought it would be pretty cool if there was a non-profit focused version of Health Month where the rules reflected small organizational goals. I asked Buster if he would create something like that for me and he gave me the best “no” ever: he was too focused on growing Health Month right now but he’d be happy to advise and share information with any other developer who wanted to take on the project for me. So, um – if you’re a developer reading this and you think this would be a super cool project, contact me!

Since I don’t have a developer working on this yet, I tweaked my rules for February to be my own personal (Non-Profit) Health Month. Leaders of nonprofits are notoriously bad at taking time to recharge and tend to themselves. Over at 501 Mission Place I’ve talked a lot about putting on your own oxygen mask first as a leader – Health Month has been a truly effective tool to help me do so! I used my custom rule to get organization-specific with my goals and the rest ensure that I’m in top shape to lead my team and execute Big Love Little Hearts’ vision.

So what are my rules?


Health Month


  • Write a personal thank you to a past donor or sponsor 5 days a week.
  • Read a professional capacity building book for 30 minutes 5 days a week.
  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep every day.
  • Eat breakfast every day.
  • Take a multivitamin every day.
  • Walk one mile a day.
  • Meditate for 15 minutes a day.
  • Drink 3 glasses of water a day.
  • Drink no more than one diet coke a day.
  • Study Rosetta Stone French  for 20 minutes every day.
  • Relax for 30 minutes every day.
  • Eat whole grains every day.
  • Eat only organic meat, and only eat meat 5 days a week.
  • Only have processed foods one day a week.


I committed to share this particular journey as an official Health Month blogger to inspire my readers – that means YOU – to think about doing your own (Non-Profit) Health Month.

What would that look like for you and your organization? How could you take better care of yourself so that you can be a more refreshed, energized and effective leader? What small behavior change can you strive for in your organization?

Are you up for the challenge?

I’ll be blogging my progress every couple of days, but you can check out how I’m doing daily here.