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Friday, October 16, 2015

A Salute to a Brave Founder and her Baby

October 15 was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, which was recognized and supported by the JLB Project, an organization in Flagstaff, Arizona that offers support for those who have lost a baby.

I spoke about the JLB Project and its founders, Anna and Mike LaBenz, at the AFP Arizona Statewide Conference in July 2015, hosted by the AFP Northern Arizona Chapter, and shared the following remarks. This seems like a good time to share them again.

Today, I'd like to tell you a story about a courageous and big hearted woman named Anna.

I first met Anna LaBenz nine years ago. She and her husband, Mike, had approached the Flagstaff Medical Center Foundation wanting to make a substantial gift to the hospital. As the former Foundation Director, I was brought in to help advise on the gift.

And I turned the gift down. Sort of. Let me tell you why.

You see, I met Anna at a very difficult time in her life. She and Mike had been expecting their second child and tragically lost their son at full term due to an umbilical cord accident. As you can imagine, they were devastated. But they also felt lonely...almost ostracized...by their loss. What do you say to someone who loses a child this way?

Anna wanted to do something to channel her grief. So we talked about what she and Mike wanted to do with their gift.

“We want to help other parents who are dealing with this. No one should have to go through this alone.”

What Anna and Mike identified, was that there were plenty of grief counseling programs for people who have lost loved ones, or even lost a child. But a program that could talk with parents who lost a child from conception through the first year? Those programs were very rare, and very erratic in their implementation.

I told Anna and Mike, very honestly, that the hospital was not the place for their gift. The hospital was a great place for acute care, but not for dealing with the impact afterward. I ended up connecting them with Northland Hospice, and Anna began the program there. After a short while, it became clear that there was a much greater need for their program than either Anna or Mike anticipated, so Anna bravely launched her own nonprofit, the JLB Project, standing for “Jack's Little Brother.”

The story could have stopped there. Another nonprofit launched, another gift directed to what the donor felt passionately about.

But there's more to the story.

The JLB Project has now been a pretty stable nonprofit for about 8 years. Anna has served as the Board President for the entire time, taking the lead on most things. I helped with board training early on, and I kept in touch with Anna, so I wasn't surprised to hear from her recently. She asked for a short advising session to talk about JLB.

What she said to me in that discussion was shockingly astute. She said, “This organization IS JLB. I've kept him alive through this organization for 8 years. But I think I need to let him grow up. I think I need to let myself let go.”

That...is one of the most brave things I have ever heard come out of a founder's mouth.

Anna could have easily blamed burnout. It's so common in the nonprofit sector—we give and give, for little return, and we just exhaust ourselves.

Anna could have blamed other people involved. We often blame our board, our staff, our donors, our clients, for our challenges, even when it's not necessarily fair to do so.

Anna could have blamed a lack of resources. No nonprofit has enough staff, or enough money to fund the staff, or enough...anything.

But instead, she looked to herself. And realized it was time to let the organization grow.

When she started JLB Project, it was just like JLB would have been. It was an infant, needing constant attention and lots of personal investment.

As the organization became established, it was like a toddler. More people could be involved in the care and feeding of the JLB Project, but Anna, MOM, was still the primary caregiver.

When it became a “preschooler,” the JLB Project went through some growing pains, and a few things got parceled out to other team members, but the main weight of the responsibility still lay on the mom, on Anna.

Now, JLB Project needs a little independence.

It's not ready to fly on its own. I think Anna understands that she still needs to be involved. To be the moral compass. But it's ready to not have “mom” involved all the time.

And it's hard as a parent, some times, to let go.

I infinitely respect Anna for understanding that the future success of the JLB Project requires that she, as the founder, give it a little space. It's so easy for founders of organizations to make it about them, or about their personal needs, thinking no one can do this as well as they can. Instead, Anna is about helping the organization grow.

So now, what Anna is looking for, are people that she can trust to help take care of her maturing “child.” And she has to believe in her heart, that as a parent, she has imbued this child, this organization, with enough of her values that it will continue on the right path.

In July 2015, Anna posted a beautiful photo of JLB on Facebook. Her caption read:

"9 years. 3,585 days. 78,840 hours. 4,730,400 minutes. That is how long it has been since you changed it all. Happy Birthday my sweet boy. In your life and in your death I have received so many gifts. I would give it all back to hold you for one more minute, one more hour, one more day, or one more year. Love you always. Mommy."

JLB will always live for Anna and Mike LaBenz. And thanks to Anna's visionary leadership, I'm confident the JLB Project will live on as a critical community service, and a fitting tribute to JLB, and to his loving parents.

Afterword: Several months after these remarks, I was honored to facilitate the JLB Project's reflective, cathartic, and often emotional strategic planning process. They are now moving forward with a plan to help the organization grow in a way that supports self-care for the participants, and personal and organizational resilience. Several people have stepped up for increased responsibility in "parenting" JLB. I'm extremely proud of their efforts, and encourage people to support them. If you'd like to give or volunteer, visit their website or Facebook page.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Live Your Dream: Two Questions

I had the privilege tonight of speaking to the Soroptimist International Awards Banquet in Flagstaff, a collaborative effort among the three Flagstaff area clubs. This is the second time I've spoken before this group, the last in 2011, and both times I've wondered what I could share that was as inspiring as the honorees themselves.

The women honored during this banquet include recipients of the Live Your Dream scholarships, granted to women who are the primary source of financial support for their families and want to improve their education, skills and employment prospects. The women honored this evening have overcome challenges and obstacles that I cannot even imagine.

Yet there I was, trying to say something inspirational.

I had no idea what I was going to say. I had three options in my purse of things I could say, but nothing really resonated with me. As late as walking in the door, I didn't know what would come out of my mouth when I stepped up to the podium.

Then, I spoke to Helen.

Helen Horstman was, technically, my assistant at my first director level job. She was Executive Assistant to the Director when I became only the second Development Director at Lowell Observatory in its 100+ year history. She was assigned, part-time, to the development program, and continued to be the only other staff member assigned to development in the four years I served in that position.

Since I was a mere 26 years old when I was hired, Helen terrified me for my first month on the job. I don't think Helen did this intentionally. She just wasn't willing to take any nonsense from a young newbie.

Now, 14 years after leaving the Observatory, in my short conversation with Helen at dinner, I was reminded why I was in this business.

It's about philanthropy. And what's philanthropy all about, anyway?

It's about love.

The word philanthropy comes from a Greek root, philos anthropos, "love of mankind." I have taught this numerous times in the CFRE Review Course and mentioned it when describing my personal philanthropic ethos.

But what made philanthropy top of mind tonight was the combination of "love of mankind" with a question: "Does this bring you joy?"

One of the blogs I read is "Hey Eleanor," by Molly Mogren Katt, who writes about doing something that scares her on a regular basis. A recent blog focused on the KonMari method of tidying up, and after reading Molly's blog, I immediately purchased the book and began my discarding journey.

The biggest evaluation question in KonMari? "Does this (fill in the blank item) spark joy?" Over the last week, I've applied this question to a boatload of clothes and books. clearing the way for a lot of newly discovered space in my home.

It's amazing how quickly this question filtered over into other things in my life.

I've been struggling lately with work and volunteer commitments. As many "type A" personalities, I say yes to too much.

So, I present the one-two punch: "does this bring you joy?" and "does this express your love for mankind?"

GoalBusters could be a larger company, We could make more profit. But ultimately, I don't think that expresses my philanthropy, and I don't think it brings me joy.

So I return to the GoalBusters manifesto. Making a lasting impact brings me joy and expresses my love for humankind. As I move forward, I will be taking a very thoughtful look at everything I do through these lenses, because if it doesn't bring me joy and doesn't help me express my philanthropy, why am I doing it?

I thank Helen and the Soroptimists for reminding me of that. You do amazing work in our community, and I thank you for helping not only the recipients of your scholarships, but also, me, who was supposed to be inspiring YOU.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Chinese New Year Traditions for Nonprofits

Chinese New Year Traditions for Nonprofits - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

On February 19, 2015, Chinese communities throughout the world begin two weeks of celebrations to mark the lunar new year, the year of the Sheep (or Ram), the culmination of many preparations and traditions that have been in place for generations.

As we begin this new year, here are some of the traditions that can be productive to apply to your nonprofit life:

Conduct a thorough cleaning. Start with your database and your paper files. Are you collecting useful information? Is it organized the way that is productive? Are your duplicate files running rampant? Consolidate your information and purge what you can. Then, move on to your calendar. What extraneous activities can be purged or delegated to make room for what you really need to do?

Reconcile old debts and grudges. Yes, this may be a time to look at outstanding pledges, but it's not just about money. Are there people to whom you owe follow up, or prospective donors that you should "bless and release?" In some cases, you're better to let a donor go than continue to pursue a gift that doesn't work for them. Reassess donors that are in cultivation and decide what you need to do to move them forward or to move them on.

Give "lucky money." The iconic red envelopes are given to children to insure that they have good luck for the coming year. In the same vein, think about your own philanthropy and consider a gift to a charitable cause that is not the one you work for. Was there an organization you missed in December? Is there a new cause you would like to support? Being a donor makes you a better, more aware fundraiser.

Look forward, not back. This is your second chance at new year's resolutions! Pick one thing that you'd like to accomplish this year and make a plan the steps you need to take.

Wear red. This has no translation to the nonprofit field. It's just good luck.

Celebrate abundance. The New Year's Eve dinner is traditionally a large celebration for the family to celebrate how much wealth they have, regardless of what actual physical wealth they hold, and carry over that optimism to the new year. Too often, development program staff do not have the time to celebrate the generosity of their donors and the successes of their efforts. Take a moment to be thankful for the support you receive. Gather those close to your cause and say, "We have so much!"

Wishing you, and your nonprofit, prosperity in the new year! Gong Xi Fa Cai!

(This was first posted in 2012. The original post is here.)


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