Fortune before the Fortune Cookie

5 12 2009

Financially speaking, 2009 has been a pretty brutal year at our house.

Last year, I cut my business to devote more time to writing.  This year, those clients I kept slashed fees…and, repeatedly, skipped or delayed payments.  For the second year in a row, family “stuff” required multiple trips back to Texas…and multiple withdrawals from checking and savings accounts.

For the most part, we’ve stared down the creeping fear that comes from being on a financial cliff (or is it off?!) by reminding ourselves that dreams don’t become reality without sacrifice. That and acknowledging that you can only have so many $200 dinners before they start to taste like, well, dinner!

But fear did get the best of me the other night.  I had just ordered Chinese food  ($20 is the new $200!) when a family member called.  We hadn’t chatted in awhile and , for some reason, I soon found myself laying out  the harsh realities of our financial situation.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.  “I’m soooooo sorry.” (As if I didn’t get it the first time!)

“It’s fine, really.”  I responded the first time, as I felt the first stirrings of Fear awakening deep in the pit of my stomach.

“I’m so sorry,” she repeated.  Fear, meet Failure.

“Everything will work out fine,” I said.  Fear and Failure were building an army by now.

“Well, I hope so.  It must be so upsetting to see everything you worked for disappear.”

“I’m actually quite calm,” I lied because, by this time, the allied forces were barreling down my soul with one target in mind:  Courage.

I hung up the phone and covered myself in a warm blanket of Doubt while I waited for a very stiff martini to numb what was sure to be a crushing blow.

And then the doorbell rang.

It was the Chinese food, delivered by a central casting delivery man.  Not a college kid trying to earn a few extra bucks, but an adult trying to feed his family.

As I went to pay him, I tried to pay forward some of that Fear I had.  “How are your holidays going?” I asked.  “It’s a tough year.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “But, hey man, at least we’re living!”

It was the first time I received my fortune before I had even eaten my Chinese food!

“F*%k you,” I promptly told Fear and Failure and the army they rode in on.

Maybe our household was failing by the standards  money or labels or status.  Or security.

But, what the hell?

Not to get too “Lifetime moment” here, but you can’t take any of those things with you.

Did my husband and I want to cloak ourselves in those things society tells us equal success…or did we want to venture out, beyond where the safety net reaches, and create our own definition?

To paraphrase a Zen buddhist I love, did we want to pretend that the plane of life was just a bus?  Ignoring its wings and just taxiing from destination to destination?

Hell no.

Baby, this bird’s got wings.  And we’re taking off.

We may or may not make it…but, hey man, at least we’re living!


Completed moments: What America can learn from Osho and Zen

15 05 2009

“When’s the last time you fully completed something?”  This was the main question Osho*, the fabulous rascal of a Zen master, greeted me with this morning.

His premise is that we basically never complete anything and that uncompleted things stay with us…nagging our subconscious…until they’re completed (which, of course, following a lifetime of uncompleted act, they never are).  “That’s why you see old men fidget and talk out loud so much,” Osho reasons.  “Death approaches and their ego-driven minds are rushing to complete a lifetime of incomplete living.”  And, to Osho and Zen masters, incomplete living is false living.  A gift squandered.

What a perfect question for this American moment.  We don’t complete anything in this country of ours where our collective attention span makes a gnat look thoughtful.  We don’t complete the good, we don’t complete the bad.  I’ll never forget watching Obama’s inauguration and marveling at how the commentators spoke right up until the moment when Chief Justice Roberts began the (incorrect) oath and then picked right back up the moment Obama’s final word was spoken.  There was no silence to  let the moment simply drift into our consciousness in its own natural form.  And now, of course, Obama is leading the charge of incompletion by refusing to let folks have complete conversations about everything from waterboarding to the recession to the auto industry to health care to how America fits into a global world.  The spin is that  if something is bad, it’s because of the past eight years.  If it’s good, it’s because of the past 120 days.  And if it’s complicated (gay rights?), well, we’re much too busy to talk about that now.  The problem with allowing only incomplete conversations is that they paralyze.  Sure, you may be running as fast as you can–away from something.  But you’re standing perfectly still or being pulled back.  Because, as Jung and others point out,   you can lock the shadow, the darkness, the pain in the basement of your consciousness.  But, sooner or later, it will get out.  And, when it does, it will stalk you until you face it…and embrace it….and let it complete you.

So, what to do?

What if, each of us, vowed to complete–fully–one thing per day for 40 days.  It doesn’t have to be big (life’s all folly, anyway–so why overexert yourself!!!).  How about drinking your first cup of coffee or tea fully.  Savoring, tasting, smelling, sensing each taste.  Completely.  Not while you check your mail.  Get dressed. Read the paper or absent-heartedly tell your lover or child to have a good day.  What if you just complete-y enjoyed that cup of tea.  No time, you say?  Do you really think you’re that important?  Look around at the trees, the wind, the earth, the people, the world.  Do you think any one, any thing, will miss a beat if you simply do one thing to completion as opposed to 15 things half-assed?

Try it.  And, maybe, as we try completing things individually we can complete them collectively.  We can peel the layers of greed and ego that have come to define America since 1980 and see what really has been going on here.  We can complete the pain, the fear that put us on that path in the first place.  And we can move through it to complete the vision–the purpose, true purpose–of our lives and our country.

Enjoy your coffee…completely.

*  Never heard of Osho?  He’s an irascible SOB of a Zen master introduced to me by an irascible SOB of a friend named Charles.  Check him out at

Non-profits and the recession

13 05 2009

Today’s blog takes a detour from spirit, politics and life to the world of non-profits, specifically: How non-profits can share this American moment of recession. It was spurred by a Q&A for non-profit Board development that I saw in Slate. It’s seasoned by my own work these past 18 years with a variety of wonderful non-profits (see below).

Boards The Slate piece gives a few good pointers on this topic and directs readers to folks who can offer more insight (I particularly like the ideas of individual job descriptions for Board members and the 28-page primer). To this, I’d add one suggestion: Ask each Board member to identify three, specific concrete objectives for their individual service over the next 12 months. The first absolutely, positively must be related to their fiduciary responsibility and should include both what they will give…and what they will get. This is one place where size does not matter–what you want is 100% participation and engagement. In these times, if you sit on a Board and are not willing to contribute–and ask your friends to contribute, you should get off the Board. But, it’s not all about money. Ask each member to also state specific things they can do to advance the organization’s mission. Maybe it’s operational help (e.g. budget, legal, personnel), programmatic (e.g. outreach, benchmarking, design) or external (e.g. events, media, marketing). Whatever it is, ask for specific commitments–not “I’ll sit on on the marketing committee”. The result will give you a more engaged (happy!) Board AND a stronger organization.

In addition, here are three things I’ve seen help non-profits survive the recession (and be poised to thrive once it’s over):
Be bold. The economy may be contracting, but that doesn’t mean your vision should. Most non-profits seem to respond to the recession with fear…a gripping fear that smothers boldness. That’s exactly the wrong response. Lean times mean cutting your fat, not your heart and soul. Show donors and others that you’ve gotten rid of the services that others can do just as well–or, here’s a bold statement, even better than you. And then, go for the gold in making a compelling, ambitious case for what remains. And remember to believe–passionately–in what you’re pitching (people, like dogs, smell fear, trepidation…and spin!!) Bottom line: people are desperate to be inspired (it’s what got Obama elected). So, give them what they want…and your clients deserve.

Be relevant. You don’t want to let recessionary fear define you, but you do want to show-clearly, specifically–how you’re responding to the recession in terms of service delivery. How has the need for your services changed (and, when you’re dealing with the worse recession since the Depression, there’s not a single non-profit that hasn’t been impacted)? What has been your response? What are the long-term implications. Scratch to go below the surface here. Maybe you start with, “Because people are losing their jobs, we’ve seen an X% increase in demand for Y”. But don’t stop there. Get to the root of what’s causing that increase–beyond job loss–and chart a long-term vision that will serve your clients long after the recession recedes. Find 1-2 clients (you don’t need an army) that epitomize the short- and long-term impacts of those stories and pitch them to your local media, elected officials and donors.

Be grateful. Everyone’s panicked about their budgets today (with good reason). But when is the last time you said “thank you” to your donors? Not as a postscript on your umpteenth appeal, but a simple letter or call where the ONLY purpose is to say “thank you”. There’s a line in fund raising that people like to be asked to give. They do. They also like to be thanked. It’s a lost art in America, so stand out in your donors mind by saying “thank you”…and meaning it. And reminding them of the value-add their contribution makes to your organization–historically, but, especially in these tough times. Then…wait a few weeks and ask them for more!!

About me: My marketing communications business has helped dozens of non-profits over the past 18 years–in the worlds of health care, social justice, the arts, research, business…and even religion. We’ve helped clients raise in excess of $25 million, create their brand, expand their positioning and build organizations that can sustain internal and external change. Want to know more? Contact: