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Everything I Really Needed to Know About Nonprofit Work, I Learned When I Was 21

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Flickr: Michael Bentley
Flickr: Michael Bentley

The mission of Leadership Snohomish County, a nonprofit group located just north of Seattle, Wash., is to educate and mentor local leaders so that our county can cultivate its own generations of problem-solvers and social justice workers. I graduated from the program last year, and I guess I had too much fun during my one minute at the podium, theatrically declaring my gratitude, because the group asked me back as this year's keynote speaker.

The invitation was ostensibly so that I could share some of my observations about leadership as a result of the work I do in Cura village... but as I reflected on what I might have to pass along as accumulated "wisdom" all had its roots in a remarkable safari I took 22 years ago.

Could it be possible that everything I really needed to know about nonprofit work, I learned when I was 21? Astoundingly, I think it might be true.

In 1990, 14 of us -- teenagers from all over the world -- founded, planned, funded and executed a charitable road trip from Nairobi to a refugee camp in southern Malawi. We were following the lead of our charismatic, adventuresome, compassionate friend Dan Eldon, and he deemed us, collectively, "Student Transport Aid."

STA, or sometimes otherwise known as "Team Deziree," after Dan's beloved Land Rover, operated like this: We raised money in our various home locations, converged in East Africa, and crammed ourselves into two vehicles: the aforementioned Deziree, and her sister, Arabella Mentirosa, a Land Cruiser we purchased for the trip. We headed, overland, to see for ourselves the devastating effects of the civil war in Mozambique.

Many mishaps threatened our progress, but not allergies or near-arrests or internal romantic strife could deter us. Almost miraculously, we arrived intact, and we got the distinct pleasure of personally selecting and supervising the direction of the funds we had raised: to build two wells, purchase blankets for a children's hospital, and donate Arabella (and money for maintenance) to Save the Children [Malawi].

Some of the dramas and misadventures of our safari are already well-documented in Jennifer New's two books based on Dan's life: Safari as a Way of Life and The Art of Life.

But what strikes me now -- after many years of far more sedate nonprofit work -- is just how much we got right. Dan got us started, with valuable "guiding principles" such as:

• "Select your team with care. When in doubt, take on some new crew and give them a chance, but avoid at all costs fluctuations of sincerity with your best people."

• "There is little difference between being lost and exploring."

• "Look for solutions, not problems."

And, perhaps most importantly for team morale:

• "It is foolish and hazardous not to dance in Africa."

There is youthful posturing and cheekiness in these mock "codes of conduct," but there's truth, too, and the rules we implemented while out on safari still apply as I and others face the inevitable interpersonal, political, mechanical, and financial challenges that arise in nonprofit work.

Partnering now with members of Dan's family, the work I do with Cura Orphanage -- to care for AIDS-affected children and to assist in meaningful, internally-driven community development -- I notice that Dan's admonitions for good "Safari as a Way of Life" conduct still apply:

We have selected a team whose sincerity is above reproach -- individual volunteers, other nonprofit organizations, and donors, to a person, are genuinely interested in the well-being of each child and the extended community.

We have worked together to find solutions instead of problems, and to approach each challenge with a sense of adventure, remembering that being "lost" for a while often allows us to arrive at our destination having learned more about each other and seeing our journey in a new, creative way.

And, of course, we find it incredibly foolish not to dance once in a while.

We didn't know it then, and probably Dan, at age 19, didn't know either, that sound-bite proclamations about expectations and mission are cornerstones of organizational governance -- the vision and purpose against which all other decisions are measured. The mission/vision sessions I've been involved with since haven't been quite so enervating, but the similarities nevertheless exist.

Dan didn't write any pithy statements about how to raise or manage donor funds, though he was savvy enough to recognize that creating brand recognition (achieved through T-shirts and posters), being fearless about "the ask" (whole weekends of selling bracelets to Rollerblading strangers in Venice Beach, Calif., wasn't nearly as glamorous as it sounds), and using every resource (the tax-exempt status available by becoming an official student club at Pasadena City College, for example) were all essential.

As was keeping a close eye on the donated funds (Eiji was deputized to protect the $15,000 we raised from being frittered away in bribes to border guards or in late-night disco binges along the way), and assessing our successes -- and mistakes (in his raucous, exuberant and often collaborative journals).

Since those long-ago days, I've attended pricey seminars at respected academic institutions and read voraciously about development, governance, nonprofit work, and leadership. This continuing education about the work I'm involved in has been challenging and illuminating, without question, but I can't help but consistently turn back to those other principles, written into my conscience so long ago, along the banks of Lake Malawi.