Answering the Call

The last few days have been some of the hardest in my cause community since I started working in this space. In just the last 24 hours, nine I children I know died from their heart defect. Nine. I’ve had weeks where I’ve known 14 kids that lost their battle with their heart defect, but nine in one day is a record. A painful, terrible, paralyzing record. If there was ever a day where I wish I could walk away from the work I do – today is it.

But I can’t walk away, because this is not a job – it is a calling.

I didn’t always know this was my calling. My sister died when I was 10 years old from an undiagnosed heart defect. It affected me and my family profoundly, but I didn’t decide then that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to save other families and other children from that fate.

I grew up, went to college and ended up a jury consultant. While on a business trip I met a little girl at a golf tournament. She was hitting farther than the grown men on the course and when I went to tell her how incredible I thought that was, I found out that was hardly the most incredible thing about her.

I noticed a heart with two stick-figure kids on either side of it embroidered on her golf bag and when I asked about it she told me she had two open heart surgeries before she was two years old and that it was her mission to raise one million dollars to fund research for children with heart defects. Did I mention she was 10 when I met her?

I made a donation to the non-profit she was raising money for, The Children’s Heart Foundation, soon after and soon after that joined their Board. I started volunteering at their office and while I became more and more invested in the heart families I was meeting, the extraordinary research we were funding and what that could mean for children born decades after my sister….that piece of the heart defect world was not my calling.

One day I got a letter from a father in Ghana whose son needed heart surgery. No hospital in Ghana had the equipment and no surgeon there had the necessary skills. His son was dying and he was sending letters to every organization he could find that had anything to do with children and hearts.

His letter was desperate. I didn’t know how to help him but I had a computer and I had access to a Board full of the finest congenital heart surgeons in the world – these were things he didn’t have. It only took me a few days to find a surgical mission team going to Sudan and only a few more days to figure out how to get him from Ghana to there.

That’s when my calling found me – but it’s not when I answered the call.

I got letters like that frequently, but it wasn’t my daily work and I was glad because most of the time it took a lot longer than a few days to find help for someone. Many times it took a month or more and sometimes help was simply unable to be found. I spent whole days crying when that happened and countless sleepless nights hoping that one more email or phone call would turn up some new solution.

It was the thing I was most passionate about spending my time on, but I was terrified.

I remember the day my sister died like it was yesterday. The almost 27 years that have passed since then have done little to dull the pain of it. I watched a part of my mother and father die with her that will never – and can never – come back.

The stakes were very personal to me. I knew exactly what would happen if I couldn’t find help for a child who needed it. I knew how forever changed and incomplete their family would feel. Every time I couldn’t find help for someone – every time a child died – I was taken back immediately to the day my sister died and all the unbearable pain that came along with it.

It took me almost two years to get over that fear and actually answer my calling. My fears weren’t unfounded. When I left Children’s Heart Foundation and started my own non-profits, the amount of letters I got from families who needed help grew, but the amount of help available did not.

The horrible truth is that on average, every other day I know a child that has died from their heart defect. That’s not just a horrible truth – it’s a hard and crushing truth that sometimes makes it hard for me to breathe, eat, sleep or do any of the other things a normal human being does to take care of themselves.

For a brief moment last night in the aftermath of nine lives lost in a day, I wondered if I could really do this anymore. I wondered what to do period because there’s no manual that tells you how to deal with that.

Good friend Megan Strand reminded me exactly what to do:

“You take a deep breath and know that you have a calling on this earth and nine more angels to guide you.”

If this wasn’t my calling I couldn’t put myself through another night like last night again. But it is my calling. And because I answered it, the wonderful truth is that on average, every other day I get lifesaving help to a child with a heart defect.

Most everyone I know who works in nonprofit is there because they answered their call. Have you answered yours?


Our Town, Our Heroes: What Authentic CSR Feels Like

Last week I was the lucky recipient of a vehicle loan from General Motors as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program, Our Town Our Heroes. OTOH launched about a month ago under Driving the Midwest (there is also Driving the Heartland, Southeast and Northeast) and it works like this:

Anyone can nominate a local hero, and every two weeks three finalists are announced who then compete for the most votes. Whoever gets the most votes, as well as the person who nominated them gets a GM vehicle for one week, a full tank of gas plus “a few other surprises”.

I’m generally not a fan of any kind of cause related contests and certainly not a fan of asking people to vote for me. I didn’t enter Big Love Little Hearts in Chase Community Giving or Pepsi Refresh and the last time I asked people to vote for me was in Junior High for Student Council (along with the childhood friend who nominated me for Our Town, Our Heroes).

But I was a fan of this. As both an observer and a recipient, Our Town, Our Heroes feels like authentic CSR from General Motors. Why?

Strong Brand Alignment.

From their website: “We are celebrating the local heroes who inspire you and drive positive change in your communities.”

GM brands Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac are hometown cars and trucks. They’re dependable. They can work all day long and look good doing it, and they’re not afraid to get dirty. They’re just like the people Our Town, Our Heroes celebrate.

Even the award of the vehicle itself is in line with brand value. What makes a hometown hero a hometown hero is that they spend their days doing a lot of the same things you do – driving their kids to and from school, soccer practice and playdates, running to the bank or the grocery store, cooking, keeping a house, going to softball practice or visiting friends and family. Things they need a dependable car that can keep up with them for.

It’s Personal.

When Driving the Midwest first let me know I was nominated we talked about some of my charitable activities, and when I mentioned the Little Leo Project I explained that my Volvo Sedan didn’t have room to bring enough stuffed animals for an entire children’s hospital so I usually just brought enough for the cardiac floor.

When they told me I won they said they were giving me a Chevy Suburban for a week so I’d have a vehicle big enough to bring all the stuffed animals I wanted to the children’s hospital. I excitedly said that I’d be going to Hope Children’s Hospital first, because they let me bring a couple volunteers and with room for that many stuffed animals – I’d certainly need the extra help!

Before they came to drop the Suburban off to my house, they called the hospital to find out what kind of stuffed animals were allowed. Then they went out and bought a few dozen stuffed animals of all shapes, sizes and colors and filled up the back of the truck with them. I had no idea they did this! While they were showing me all the features of the truck we walked around back so they could show me how to open the rear hatch. When they opened it and I saw all the stuffed animals I burst into tears! I was beyond touched.

It’s Not a Public Relations Campaign.

At least not a heavy one. In fact, you can’t find any information about this on the General Motors website – not even under Corporate Responsibility. You’d have to have already heard of the campaign to find the Driving The Midwest website. There’s no Driving the Midwest or Our Town, Our Heroes facebook page.

The OTOH team wasn’t aggressive about asking for P.R. material and there was no requirement. When they dropped off the car they asked if they could take a couple pictures to put on their site in a blog post and record a short video. They said that if I wrote about it on twitter, facebook or my blog to be sure and let them know and they’d share it, but they never made me feel like that was part of the deal of winning.

Too many CSR initiatives feel hollow these days and indeed the ones that have felt the most hollow to me have been peppered with controversy. Our Town, Our Heroes is a project that’s truly about brand value and mission. Because of that it’s also a project that works: I haven’t driven a GM vehicle in years. I loved driving the Suburban. Loved it. It was fast, it was sleek, it was comfortable and it drove phenomenally. Couple that and the very positive feelings this experience generated in me towards GM with the fact that my Volvo is on it’s last legs…and you have a consumer currently shopping for a new Chevy or GMC. 

What other CSR campaigns feel really authentic to you? Which ones don’t?

Much gratitude to General Motors, Driving the Midwest and Chevrolet for making this possible – you made a whole lot of children smile!

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!


Super Sized Brand-Building on a Value Meal Budget



During Mardi Gras last year Big Love Little Hearts wrapped up Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week with a trip to New Orleans: Big Love in the Big Easy.

Since Mardi Gras is going on as I type I’m remembering how much fun I had there but I’m also remembering how many valuable lessons I can share with you from the how, what and most importantly – why – we did what we did.

When you’re a small organization and especially when you’re a new one, every last dollar counts. While your impulse is to use every dollar raised for program and mission, you need to invest in brand building and awareness raising. What matters is that you’re smart in how you spend it and maximize the opportunities you choose to the nth degree.

As an 8 month old organization (our age at the time of Mardi Gras last year) we had four concerns: building good programs, funding those programs, building our brand so the public associated us with the cause of heart defects, and raising awareness of heart defects so people knew they were a problem that needed fixing.

I chose to do a brand-building and awareness campaign at Mardi Gras because it fulfilled all four of those.

We had interest from several students at Tulane to start a fundraising chapter for us in New Orleans so I had already planned on being there at some point. I really like to maximize my travel expenses and whenever possible build in multiple purposes – that’s what I did here.

I arranged meetings with the students and appointments with several venues and potential partners for the days following Mardi Gras to make it a worthwhile trip on the fundraising side.

On the program side, I made appointments with pediatric cardiologists and cardiovascular-thoracic surgeons who could help us accomplish the meat of our mission: delivering lifesaving heart surgery to children in developing countries.

The last two goals, brand-building and awareness, are why I chose to go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras though.

When raising awareness for your cause the chief goal is always to raise that awareness among people who don’t know about it. Brand-building has the same goal (along with increasing brand position among the people who already know about your cause).

Both these share a similar problem: reaching people on a broad basis outside of a narrowly confined demographic can be expensive. It’s a challenge to find an event, venue or platform that encompasses people from all over the country and from all walks of life that isn’t already inundated with cause messaging (like facebook).

Mardi Gras is filled with people from every corner of the country (and beyond!) and people from every demographic you can think of.

My cause, heart defects, has an incidence of 1 in 100. Few of the nearly 40 identified defects have genetic links and do not correlate to any demographic. For us, everyone is our demographic.

We brought 1500 Mardi Gras beads and a couple hundred t-shirts with our branding to New Orleans with us to give away during the parades. While that alone would have exposed us to a large and diverse audience, we did some things that really amplified our impact and made the dollars we spent wiser.




Smart Branding.

We tried to make our beads unique. They were red with a big heart pendant where we printed our log0 and our web address. They needed to be unique enough for people to want to take home with them where they might look us up online.

We printed our logo and web address on the backs of our t-shirts. People spend more time behind someone than they do walking towards them. Our t-shirts are made of soft, high-quality cotton and fit well…people like to wear them, and they like to wear them most to the gym – where someone might spend up to an hour behind them on a treadmill staring at our logo and web address.


Talking To, Not At.

We didn’t stand on a balcony or a float and throw beads and t-shirts at people. We put the beads on people’s necks for them. We told them who we were. They asked us what we did and who we helped. We had conversations.

Similarly, we had conversations with the people we gave the t-shirts to. Having to ask them what size they’d need started a dialog and every last person who got one wanted to know more about us.

Just by having conversations we created an experience for them that differentiated us from the hundreds of other businesses and groups  throwing beads at them – this gave them a reason to remember us and talk about us to their friends.


Being Different.

Besides differentiating ourselves by engaging with the crowd, we were the only cause there giving out beads and t-shirts.

When you do something  no one else is doing, even when it’s as simple as giving out beads at a parade, you let people know you’re forward thinking. Never underestimate the importance of this: innovation and out of the box thinking are key to solving social problems. Donors want to see you think this way everywhere.


We did the most we possibly could with this opportunity and it paid off. We saw a huge spike in page visits and newsletter sign-ups in the days following Mardi Gras and started receiving donations from new supporters immediately.

How can you maximize your brand-building and awareness spending?


(Less Than) Transparent Fundraising: Is This Ever Okay?


Last night on Valentines’s Day, the All Need Love Festival took place in Chicago. Held at the Field Museum it was supported by a PR machine – in less than one month they had built a very strong social media presence, had successfully reached out to and partnered with dozens of media outlets and had worked out a deal with Groupon to help in ticket sales.

I noticed the social media buzz and had seen it mentioned in the Chicago Tribune and The Sun Times. The All Need Love “profile” on foursquare had even sent me a friend request. Still, I didn’t pay too much attention because it fell on my cause community’s awareness day.

Once my work day was done last night I went on their site to figure out what exactly it was. On the bottom of the page along with the logos for the event sponsors and partners I noticed a logo I recognized, SFK: Success for Kids. They used to be named Spirituality For Kids and I had contributed to a project of theirs, Kids Creating Peace, in the past.

Naturally I wondered how they were involved…there was no mention on the home page that a portion of proceeds from this event would benefit a charity, no mention on the information page for tickets and no mention on the purchase page for tickets (priced from $96-$260). The event site has 10 pages and I didn’t notice it anywhere.  I tweeted them to ask, emailed their press contact and called the event hotline. No luck. I checked their facebook page and their tweet stream. Not a single word about it. I went back to the event website and finally found a page that mentioned a portion of proceeds would benefit SFK.

To be honest, at first I thought this was an interesting tactic. SFK was founded in 2001 as a related entity to The Kabbalah Centre. I knew that SFK had been working to make the public perception of the organization less about The Kabbalah Centre because they felt they could raise more money and make bigger impact that way. In January of 2010 they officially reorganized as a separate 501 (c) 3, but the staff, Board of Directors and programs didn’t change in any way and they are still headquartered at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre.

It almost seemed smart to market the event to people that weren’t just Kabbalah Centre students. Almost.

I want to say that I have no bias against Kabbalah. I have studied it and as I mentioned, I contributed to SFK in the past. But that’s not true for everyone. There are many orthodox Jews I know who would rather die than support anything related to Kabbalah and more specifically, The Kabbalah Centre. I know a fair amount of people of other faiths who feel the same way (and would about any spiritual practice not their own).

Whether it’s “right” to feel that way is a matter for debate, but what is not up for debate is that religion and our spiritual beliefs are held more sacrosanct than most anything else.

I asked people via twitter how they would feel about buying tickets to an event they weren’t aware was a fundraiser. Not a single person felt positively about this and that was without mention of what kind of charity the fundraiser might be for. What almost everyone said was “what if it was for a cause I didn’t support?”

That is why this situation is not okay. People want to know what their money is supporting and they want to agree to that first.

Did the event organizers lie? No. But their transparency was less than admirable. I found some people who went to the event and asked them if they knew it was a fundraiser when they purchased the tickets, and then asked how transparent it was that a portion of proceeds would benefit SFK once they were at the event. Most people did not know it was a fundraiser. Many people just assumed it benefited The Field Museum if it had any beneficiary at all.

Then I asked people how the event was marketed to them…and that’s how I found out that some of the tickets had been sold outside of the event website through Groupon. The Groupon page for this event is even less than transparent than the All Need Love website! It simply says “portion of proceeds goes to charity”.

This really surprised me. By not posting which charity it benefits Groupon is aiding the event organizers in keeping this information as quiet as possible. That Groupon doesn’t seem to have a policy in place when it comes to charitable events is problematic, and considering the amount of negative press they’ve gotten lately it’s also not prudent.

Again, no one involved with this event  is lying but they’re not telling the whole truth either. Do they have a legal obligation to? No. But that doesn’t make it ethical. Because the charity the event supported is so closely tied to a spiritual belief system I find it especially unethical.

I don’t think it’s ever okay to gain support for a cause through deception cloaked in omission. What about you? Would you ever do this at your organization?