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Singular Focus, or Lack Thereof: An Important Reminder

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The more we grow up, the more we realize we can’t do it all, don’t we?

I’ve always known that tailoring every element of my life to taper down into the fundamental goal of The Great Exchange would be my biggest challenge. That’s not wisdom; it’s obvious. It’s life we’re talking about, here, with its natural bumps and curves and variables, and the degree of control we have over any of it is debatable. This is perhaps the paramount thing I admire about successful entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs; they seem to have this effortless ability to examine that line between “life” and “work” and then to erase it as if it were a mandala sand painting, beautiful but transient.

I believe I am closer to starting and founding a successful nonprofit than most because as I grew up, I didn’t have to work hard to erase that line. It just so happened that the work I loved to do–being a voice–coalesced perfectly with the injustices I had watched my sister and her peers encounter. However, there are external elements that exist today that continue to give that line a sense of indelibility, and I’m making a conscious decision not to erase it yet.

There’s a sense of acumen in acknowledging your willingness to be unready. I’ve brushed up against these signs of age (or lack thereof) in the past, and it always feels awkward and paradoxical to admit the wisdom of not moving forward. I’ve been on the “right” track educationally, but I was 21. I’ve been in the “right” relationship, but I was 22. And now, at the age of 26, I’m on the “right” path to start a nonprofit–but I feel undone.

I want a job. A real job–not independent contracting, not sporadic film work, not Americorps, not scraping by while I hold an organization together by its bootstraps. Those are all wonderful, life-shaping endeavors, but I’ve never experienced a professional life outside of them. I want a job like the one I started two days ago, one that leaves me exhausted by the days’ end but also intellectually satisfied, surrounded by companions, and secure. It is inspiring to walk into a beautiful office every day and watch my talented coworkers do what they do. It is inspiring to feel instantaneously rewarded for the goals I complete. It is inspiring to watch the founder and CEO of my company work his ass off around the clock in a way I have never seen anyone work before. And I need that, for now.

This blog will continue, as will the Great Exchange. But for now, the blog will serve as a composite of the lessons I learn from my day-to-day experiences that I will someday apply to the best and most heartfelt nonprofit the world has ever seen. I will continue to build on the weekends, and I even plan on launching our first major event soon; but I will also rest. And when The Great Exchange launches full-throttle, it will come complete with the knowledge that I’ve tested every experience I’ve wanted to test; that I’ve created an exhaustive list of what I want out of an organizational leader; and that I’m ready to commit fully without having to wonder about the other paths I could have taken.

And should you ever arrive at a similar conclusion, in any element of your life, please don’t see it as a sign of weakness. I can say wholeheartedly that the acknowledgment of unreadiness is one of the hardest things I have ever done. To stare your dream in the face–or a person, or a place, or an idea–and to say, “I need a couple more tests,” is bravery. It is human, and it will help you interact with a greater sense of humanity toward every person you meet. And I can promise you that in ten years I’ll be telling you, as the founder of the Great Exchange, that working for another company for a few years was vital. I mean that from the bottom of my heart, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

I hope the nonprofit professionals who follow this blog will continue to do so, as I will continue to use it as a venue for applying the lessons I learn from a successful for-profit web development firm. And I hope the lovely members or family members of the disabled community who follow this blog will continue to do so, because every single lesson is still an arrow that points directly to the fundamental human right of providing our disabled community members with the respect they deserve. But my hope, most of all, is for the aspiring nonprofit professionals who have contacted me: if, at any point, another path seems enticing, please take it without regret. I can say without hesitation that you’ll fall back into your heart’s work when you’re ready to, armed with the knowledge that there isn’t anything else you’d rather be doing. And that, friends, is the heart of a successful nonprofit.

News From the Home Front

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I can’t decide if I’ve been in Portland for just over a week, or just over two weeks. It feels like it has been months. This is a blog about nonprofits, so I’m going to do my best to tie that in somewhere, but it does feel good to take a moment, breathe, and write. First and foremost, Mom is doing great. Her physical and mental status reflects the best possible outcome of a terrible situation. Every time I think about strokes I recall details from one of my favorite books, so I know that now that we’re out of the danger zone, we have an exciting opportunity to rebuild positive neural connections.

I have a general tendency to put a positive spin on most things, but honestly, this hasn’t been easy, and not just for the reasons you’d think. Tough family moments have a way of stripping people down to their most honest and vulnerable selves, and while I’ve always been that way around my dearest friends, I’ve never quite shared that side of myself with my family. Until this week, I would have said with confidence that my best friends have seen my cry more than my family has. Reversing the trend has felt more than a little uncomfortable.

So there’s this profound sense of concurrent strength and weakness, now, because I can’t quite hold it together enough to pretend that I don’t worry, that brain issues haven’t kept me up at night (my grandma’s aneurysm, Martha’s epilepsy, my central apnea, and now this), and that my reaction to this latest medical problem doesn’t mirror what I went through growing up with Martha. I’ve done my utmost to be as supportive and helpful as possible, but on a selfish level, I would give anything to just see a friend or my boyfriend or even set foot outside the house. Writing this blog and knowing someone may read it is the first cathartic experience I’ve had. I can’t believe how much being back home in the midst of another medical problem is causing me to re-live my childhood.

And now to relate this to the Great Exchange. The Great Exchange exists because Martha has had a profound impact on my ability to empathize and feel joy and compassion for all types of people, and I want other people to experience that too. It’s also an oversimplification. For the purposes of the organization’s story, that oversimplification will stand. But on a personal level it feels a bit flat, like a painting that contains no shadow, like a romantic comedy, like a book without subtext.

From a purely developmental perspective, thinking about who I was as a child, for every positive experience there was a negative. For every insight gained, there was a tough lesson. For every award-winning piece of poetry I ever wrote, there was a child who sat in her room and wrote poetry, trying to be quiet and good. Behind my decision to attend Smith was a desire to go to the same school as my favorite children’s author, whose books I would read as a kid until the pages literally fell out because reading is all I ever did, and I was convinced those books were “rescuing” me. For every disabled child who has grown up happy and loved, there is a sibling who has quietly set their own needs aside.

The reason people grow up and move on and smile and laugh and build relationships and start nonprofits and become healthy is because it’s nobody’s fault. I’d venture to guess the majority of people who found nonprofits do so for personal reasons, and those reasons are probably laced with a hint of pain. That’s okay. But coming home and dealing with my own pain means I’d really like the Great Exchange to embark on an initiative that helps siblings, that puts them in the spotlight, that makes them feel special and loved even as their family is forced to prioritize the special needs child.

It’s going to be important to focus on the main goal of the Great Exchange before expanding, but as I recruit our Core Members I’m no doubt going to encounter the siblings who get lost in the trenches, and it would be great to funnel them somewhere. I’m going to do some research on my own, but if anyone knows of any sibling support networks in the Austin area, I’d love to build a partnership. Just email me; I’m always open to brainstorming.

Entrepreneur Anxiety

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Why does nobody talk about this? And no, I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill, “man, I hope this works!” anxiety. I’m talking about waking up in the morning and feeling incapable of categorizing all of my looming expectations. I’m talking about trying to weave something huge into an already vibrant and dynamic life that includes full-time work, friendships, a relationship, and, well, a pretty major and completely inexplicable sleep disorder.

at the sleep clinic

You must admit, I'm the cutest little sleep clinic patient you've ever seen.

Do I expect my life to become less full now, or ever? No. Do I expect it to stop me? No. But I do need to learn to manage expectations. For example, my full-time job will continue to be my full-time job, and that’s just the way it is. And I frankly enjoy the work I do a lot; marketing is a great way to leverage both sides of my brain.

So that means The Great Exchange is relegated to the early morning, evenings, and weekends, and to those magical times when it actually overlaps with the research I do for work. I think a lot can be accomplished within those windows, a lot can grow and coalesce, a lot of weekend team outings can begin happening. I have so many plans that would turn The Great Exchange into a full-time job–including an earned-income model inspired by my favorite store in Portland, SCRAP–but I wrote those plans down, they’re not going away, and that’s the best I can do.

There is no timeline for The Great Exchange and I need to continue to let it grow organically, without fear or obligation or pressure. And for the love of all that is holy, I need to be good to myself in the meantime, because my life does become just a little harder when I miss an entire stage of sleep every night. It’s manageable, but that’s because I have great friends and a boyfriend who does the brunt of the cooking and grocery shopping. Anyway, it’s time to start taking extreme measures. Yes, you know what that means.  Shambhala meditation! If anyone who reads this blog happens to live in the Austin area, let me know if you’d like to go with me sometime.

Measuring Impact, Part 1

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How Do You Measure Impact?

"Nonprofit number three, will you accept this rooooose?"

Impact measurement is a big deal to me. It’s the root of the essential trust between a nonprofit and its constituents. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re looking for a nonprofit to support and it isn’t immediately clear how that nonprofit is evaluating or sharing its impact, run away from it. I’m serious. Why? Because impact is, quite literally, every nonprofit’s primary concern. If they weren’t trying to achieve a certain type of impact, why would they exist?

Unfortunately, measuring impact is also one of the most difficult things nonprofits have to do. Think about a for-profit and how it measures its success: dollars, right? Sure, they may consider other factors, but the fundamental concern is revenue, and differentiating between a successful for-profit and an unsuccessful for-profit is relatively straightforward

The success of a nonprofit, by contrast, is measured in degree of impact. The problem is, while dollar amounts are logical and immutable, impact is amorphous, slippery, convoluted, and transient. Say your nonprofit’s goal is to increase literacy by giving books to low-income children in a particular neighborhood. You dutifully measure, and in five years’ time, the children who were given books are higher achievers than the children of five years ago! Awesome! Except…now you have the fun task of figuring out what else might have happened in the neighborhood, besides your book program, that could have increased literacy.

So you do some research and discover that some new educational initiatives were pushed, the local Boys & Girls Club started a popular reading program, and the neighborhood library received an attractive new overhaul. Your books-to-kids program probably did still influence the overall bump in literacy; it’s just that it’s nearly impossible to tell exactly how much. In a case like this, your impact is a guy who’s dating ten people and he refuses to reveal which one is the most important to him (sorry…as you’ll recall, sometimes I watch bad television).

The point is, measuring impact–especially as nonprofits grow city-wide or systemic–is an art form. A maddening, elusive, existential art form with no right answers and a lot of good guesses.

In other words, I love it.

Tomorrow I’m going to show you the first survey I designed to begin the process of measuring The Great Exchange’s impact! Don’t miss it–it’s going to be hot. It’s going shocking. It’s going to be the most controversial season of The Bachel–um, I mean of my blog–yet!

This Blog, and its Relationship to The Great Exchange

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Faceless Nonprofit Director

Another faceless philanthropy fan, or...

Nonprofit Director Meg Nanson

...a spunky, well-informed young woman with a clear mission and an unwavering reason for starting a nonprofit?

Because one of the core values of The Great Exchange is transparency, I want to get a little bit meta today and let you in on part of the strategy behind this blog. It does exist for a reason that extends beyond my obsessive desire to document anything and everything; my word-driven nature is just a fortuitous accident that makes this whole process a lot more fun. There are several motivations for maintaining Guess & Check that have nothing to do with my insatiable drive to write. They are:

Trust. At some point down the road, people will be trusting me to channel their donations into the appropriate pathways for true, systemic impact. Particularly in the early stages of The Great Exchange, I will be filing my own taxes, designing my own curriculum, throwing my own events, performing my own fundraising, conducting my own evaluations, recruiting and training my own volunteers, updating my own web site, doing my own marketing, and desperately delegating whatever I can to anyone who meets my extremely high expectations.

Why on earth should people trust me with all of this when I still get carded every time I try to enjoy an IPA? Well, because I can do it. I absorb information at a frantic rate, and I am constantly learning–from case studies, from people I admire, from blogs, from my friends, from my own mistakes. I have a pretty effective way of processing and applying all this information, and hopefully this blog will prove that.

Moreover, The Great Exchange is fueled by enormous, pure, mission-solidifying, confidence-inducing, grounding and stable love for my beautiful sister. Any project that is motivated by love is so, so much more likely to succeed.

An Easier Means of Replicating The Great Exchange Later. One of my long-term sustainability plans is to design an extensive manual for the next director of The Great Exchange. While this blog will certainly not transition point-for-point to the ultimate manual, it will still contain a lot of great information about running a start-up nonprofit.

And finally:

Web traffic. Increasing The Great Exchange’s web traffic is such a big part of this blog that to document all of it here would make this post intimidatingly long. A good summary, however, is that because this blog is dynamic, current, and consistently updated, it naturally entices more visits than The Great Exchange’s relatively static web site. However, it does drive visitors to learn more about The Great Exchange by, say, clicking on a well-placed link.

I stay afloat financially by performing marketing, SEO, social media, and light analytics work for a wonderful tech start-up. The SEO field is just as competitive as it is misunderstood, and given how expensive SEO experts are, it’s not surprising that all of my clients are for-profit companies. There’s a gaping hole in web marketing where nonprofits are concerned, and the most successful charities are naturally the ones that understand how many donations take place online.

As this blog eventually moves from “big picture” writing to narrowly focused posts, I will share in detail what I’ve learned about SEO as it concerns nonprofits. In the meantime, I’m going to wrap this post up with a timely piece of advice from my friend (and coworker), Holly Snyder. Holly runs an independent SEO and user experience consulting agency, and in her own blog she recently provided a concise, useful summary of the connection between off-site blogs and on-site traffic. If you’re still curious about all of this, read it!

Choices

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Possible logo for the Great Exchange

Could this be the winner?

I have some incredibly talented graphic designer friends, but when I considered my options for The Great Exchange’s logo, curiosity about 99 Designs overcame me and I crowd-sourced my design brief.

The specifications I gave my designers included three colors (red, yellow, orange–if any nonprofit is allowed to feel sunny, it’s this one) and the feeling I’m trying to achieve. I also said I love bridge imagery, since a lot of our programming will run with a bridge metaphor, and that I had been previously experimenting with a nifty bridge / heart shape combination.

11 designers pulled through with 55 designs (not 99), many of which were quite beautiful. I then narrowed it down to three. Each design would target a different audience and would speak for The Great Exchange in a different way. The one I posted above is my personal favorite, but there are some obvious issues with it–namely, it wouldn’t be a great “instant brand.” The other two images (not posted here) work with or without text, and I think that’s important.

Unable to make a decision, I sent a quick email to my 20 most design-savvy friends and asked them to weigh in. The results? Every single person loved a different design and hated designs that other people had loved. My in-box is now a cacophony of of converging opinions, and the lack of a clear front-runner is really starting to mess with my head. I was expecting my friends’ opinions to create a tonal symphony of clarity, but instead it feels like the dissonance that occurs when you wind up and play 20 music boxes at once.

There’s a large part of me–probably the same part that used to write 25 drafts of a poem before calling it done–that wants to scrap all three designs and start over. There’s another part of me would like to take this moment to remind myself that forward momentum is sometimes better than waiting to make the “perfect” choice. If there’s one thing my short life has taught me, it’s that there’s never a perfect option, and that waiting for the ephemeral usually just causes a build-up of fear and stagnation.

Pick one, work with it, and keep running. That’s my motto for the day.