Getting expectations out into the open

“What are your expectations for me?”

A fellow board member posed this question to me as we sat at the bar inside the new Harris Teeter [note: it’s not critical you know where this conversation occurred but I feel it would be a missed opportunity to not highlight THAT OUR GROCERY STORE HAS A BAR].

I appreciated this fellow leader’s straight-forward approach to a topic that we don’t spend enough time on within the nonprofit sector. In my opinion, we often confuse “expectations” with “deadlines” as if task completion was our key responsibility. Yes, we should get the projects done and programs executed that move our organizations closer to achieving our missions (and ideally best serving our constituents and the greater public good). But, establishing clear expectations between supervisors and employees; between colleagues; and even within ourselves requires honesty, transparency, and prioritization.

I have been accused of having “too high” of expectations for people I’ve worked with over the years (including unrealistic ones for myself). That’s true. My mother shares this similar challenge, and it can lead us both to feel disappointment and hurt. I don’t think the immediate answer is: “well, it’s time to temper those expectations!” A better initial step is to start having conversations with others around these expectations. Perhaps they are unfair or too lofty; but maybe they’re just right and the person on the other side simply needs to hear them.

In general, I have three consistent expectations for people. These expectations aren’t exclusive to those I work or volunteer with; they extend to my friends and family as well. In no particular order:

Be honest. I recognize the time to be sensitive with information, where answers may be dusted in sugar before delivery. But, don’t lie. Ever. It’s pure poison to a relationship and erodes the foundation of trust immediately. We’re imperfect beings, and we need to extend to each other the grace that mistakes happen, things get forgotten, and sometimes you just don’t FEEL like it. Far be it for me to judge what is happening inside your head space and heart. All I’m asking is not to be strung along with responses that “sound good” but are pure fluff.

Comedian Kevin Hart holding microphone with his right hand extended out as it to make a "stop" motion. Text: "Let's Just Be Honest Let's Just be Real."

Ask for help when you need it. Y’all: martyrdom was so 500 years ago. Let’s drop the charade that we can “do it all” and lean on each other when necessary. Full disclosure: I struggle with this expectation. Asking for assistance feels like an imposition, and I certainly don’t want to add more to someone else’s likely overfilling plate. But, here’s the thing: I’m making a whole slew of assumptions. And, I’m likely, as you are too, willing to be the helper when summoned. Break free from those self-imposed handcuffs and adopt a new four-letter word: help. This ties back to being honest: if you can’t do something, for whatever reason, using it as a moment to reach out to a trusted companion allows for something beautiful to happen. Is there something you need help with right now? Call me!**


Do what you said you are going to do. Have you read Don Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements’? If not, I highly recommend picking up a copy at your nearest independent bookstore. One of the cornerstone agreements from Toltec culture is: Be impeccable with your word. What does this mean? Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. While this belief extends far beyond accomplishing specific goals or fulfilling responsibilities, it touches on how important it is for us to come through. Whether it is using our words or actions, people depend on us when we give them reason. If we need to let each other down, refer back to expectations one or two.


In certain spaces, the number and types of expectations may be more specific and may shift to adapt to the situations. But, for me, these three are the glue that binds our ability to connect and remain connected to each other. Be honest; ask for help; fulfill your commitments. Sprinkle it having fun, showing compassion and understanding; and remembering that we’re all in this together. This world is tough; it’s unjust and inequitable. But, it is full of people who want the world to look different: to be equitable and just; to be a place where we aren’t fighting for basic human rights because they’re woven into social and institutional fabrics.


What do you expect from others? From yourself? Do you have expectations or do you let others create the expectations for you?

**unless it’s related to anything electrical or plumbing. You may want to call a professional. It’s not my wheelhouse. But, I’m happy to hang out until an expert arrives!

No more excuses

Whenever I hear the question: “Do you still blog?” I feel my insides cringe in shame. My responses range from a variety of pre-determined excuses, including (but not limited to):

“I generate so much content for my day job that I find it too exhausting to be creative in the evening hours!”

“It’s hard to handle more screen time after a full day of eyes glazing over a LCD display.”

“But look at all of these other things I’m doing over here!”

So much unnecessary justification. In truth, I think about my blog – or moreso writing – often. As averse as I am to invasive technologies, I do wish that I could insert a Matrix-like probe into my brain in order to capture my thoughts and reflections, which could then be stored on an external drive to revisit in the future. I admire people who carry around notebooks or use apps like Evernote to function as a warehouse for their ideas. I could follow suit, but I know myself well enough at 32: I would start the practice with great gusto only to fizzle out to noncompliance in the space of a week – maybe two if I was feeling ambitious.

Why do some behaviors stick so easily while others remain allusive? Is it a matter of will or want? Do I need more external accountability to help at least establish a new norm?

Reading the essays of Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” provides me needed motivation. I love her writing. It’s simple yet complex; raw and approachable. Watching another person externally process complicated emotions or unpack our bizarre social norms while constantly acknowledging their own limitations or hang-ups is so refreshing. The notion of expertise can be laughable, particularly in this time of talking heads vying for our attention on television and retweets on Twitter.

For me, writing is how I try to make sense of me and how I fit into this time and space. The world has felt over-complicated lately. We speak to each other in these floral, jargon-driven sentences that breathe style without substance. We’re dogmatic in our positions despite our claims of open-mindedness. We create our understandings of each other based on key indicators – job titles, voting records, Instagram posts.

Sometimes I feel so naĂŻve. Why do we not naturally operate from a mindset of compassion, abundance, and love? Where does this desire to accumulate come from? How did we construct an oppressive society where few win and many lose? (and why?) And after thousands of years, why do we still operate from this playbook?

Always more questions than answers, right? And the question I most grapple with: what is my role in all of this? How do I become the change I want to see in the world? Right now, I do have a vision of leading a nonprofit organization as an Executive Director. But, white leaders dominate the nonprofit leadership landscape – would my pursuits undermine the work to dismantle inequitable systems within sector? Or is that me passing the position over to someone who isn’t committed to justice or equity?

One day at a time.

“What good have I done today?”

This past week, I had the opportunity to be inspired by a leader who has quite a life journey. Dr. Mamie Parker visited Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment to speak to and activate the next generation of leaders to, in her words, “power up.”

Dr. Mamie Parker Photo:

Dr. Mamie Parker
Photo credit: NPR

Dr. Parker’s life began in Arkansas as the daughter of a sharecropper and the youngest of 11 children. She approached opportunities with an open mind, finding ways to connect her passions (such as fishing) to her career, which led her to becoming the first African American and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Regional Director of the 13 Northeastern states.

She started the lecture by sharing with us a practice that her and her late husband engaged in each night. Before going to bed, they asked each other: “What good have I done today?” This stuck with me. It is important, as she noted, that it isn’t about what good she had personally experienced. The question is to prompt a continual reminder that we are in this world to serve and support others; and each day we have the opportunity to do that.

That requires us to visualize the end, another guiding principle Dr. Parker’s mother instilled in her. Dr. Parker was struggling to catch a fish one day out in the bayou near their home. Her mother told her to see the fish on the end of the reel in her mind. Lo and behold, Dr. Parker caught that fish. But this lesson was more about catching one fish: it’s about ensuring that we have a clear understanding of what we want. Once we have a picture of what we’re trying to achieve, it is much easier to accomplish it. Yes, we have to see it to believe it.

What happens when fear gets in the way? Dr. Parker noted that fear is nothing more than False Evidence Appearing Real. Fear is often borne from our own insecurities and misgivings. Our emotions lead us down dark paths of worry, often conflicting with our true realities. Having that visual of what the end should look like can eradicate that false evidence.

The final takeaway Dr. Parker shared that struck me was avoiding the four cancers of life: criticizing; complaining; negatively competing; and negatively comparing. This isn’t a mandate to remain rosy and positive all of the time. It’s a warning to avoid falling into these pit traps that most often hurt the person bearing them the most.

Personally, I am guilty of negatively comparing me to my peers in both professional and personal settings. I want to be able to lift as much as the person I’m working out next to. I want to be as creative as other communications folks. Each time I negatively compare myself to someone else, what does that do to me inside? It makes me feel weaker and less powerful. How can I be my best person each day with these habits? I can’t. And I won’t be able to answer the question: “what good have I done today?”

How will you do good in the world today? How about tomorrow? Moving beyond F.E.A.R. is a good start. Eliminating those four cancers is another. Practicing radical collaboration and compassionate leadership is the next step. If you have a chance to see Dr. Mamie Parker speak, I highly recommend it. For now, enjoy some of her story for yourself here.



Leveraging your network for that next great opportunity

What a sales pitch for a title!

In all seriousness, building up a network of folks who you respect (and in return, respect you) is not only good for you personally but a must-have for your professional career. At YNPN Triangle NC (and across the broader YNPN movement), providing opportunities to network is a core aspect of our work.

It’s not always what you know – it’s who you know.

The question is: after you’ve met incredible people, collected their businesses cards, and found them on LinkedIn: what’s next? How are you nurturing and maintaining those relationships? And when an opportunity presents itself to active your network, how are you communicating with those folks to provide insight or even to drop a good word in for you?

I’m going to be upfront: right now, in our nonprofit sector, we are not doing as good as a job with our networks as we need to. Far too often, the people in our networks look like us. White folks make up the majority of the nonprofit space. One study estimates that whites make up 80% of board members (90% as board chairs) and 89% of executive leadership. There will be many more focused posts on equity in our sector coming up, but I felt it important to raise this point as we think about our personal and professional connections. Since we recognize that who we know matters, if we don’t open up our networks to leaders who don’t look like us or have shared experiences, then it will be more difficult to transition leaders into nonprofits. [see chart below from Community Wealth Partners].


But, returning to the questions at end for today’s post.

Number one: how are you nurturing your network? It would be a nearly impossible feat to stay on top of all connections, so the first step is to prioritize. I like to think about what skill or knowledge deficits still exist in me. Then, I look to my network to find those individuals who can help fill in those gaps.

For example, my current role requires me to engage in online fundraising, an activity that I had zero experience. So, I hopped on phone calls and had coffee with folks that were doing online fundraising to ask them about their processes, evaluation tools, challenges, and successes. Even after more than two years on the job, I still do this. I know that I can always learn more from my peers or those a few years ahead of me in the professional trajectory. I sign up to receive communications from other nonprofits. If a particular appeal strikes me, I’ll reach out to ask: how did this appeal do in terms of achieving your goal(s)?

14067508_1151662291542857_5219411369995159038_nI am guilty of overlooking the on-going maintenance of my network. Our networks get larger and larger. Our work responsibilities pile on, and it can feel comprising to our to-do lists to make time for a meeting. But, it’s so important. It gives us a dedicated space to interact with another human being (an obvious statement but think about how much your work day is spent not interacting with an actual human being.) It provides us opportunity to learn about ourselves; to learn from someone else; and to also develop a better sense of what’s happening in our sector and/or community. Reconnecting with your network helps to eradicate those silos. Those silos exist between sectors (nonprofit/for-profit/public) and within sectors themselves (organization focus/geographical).

Recently, I had lunch with a colleague who works in providing grants and financing opportunities to help stimulate growth in rural economies, particularly for agriculture. I knew zero about this topic, but after our meal, I can better speak on what the NC Rural Center does if the opportunity arises to share it with others. I can now be a liaison between someone interested in pursuing farming to an actual resource.  Win-win!

13055092_1070433859665701_8618031969423345895_oNurturing your network doesn’t have to be anything formal. I do think it is important to ensure you are meeting face-to-face when possible in order to have a deeper level of engagement. A quick email now and then is fine; but we all know that our conversations will stick with us after those in-person meetings much more so than another item in our Inbox.

Second question: how are you communicating with folks from your network to provide insight or even to drop a good word in for you? Over the last year, I have provided more than a dozen references and/or recommendations for folks from my networks. Some have approached their requests to me in more helpful ways than others. From my experience, here are some suggestions I have for taking this type of initiative:

  • If possible, ask your connections before applying for that position. If you find a job at an organization where you have a connection or know someone who does, reach out as soon as possible to ask your questions. It’s ok if you have already applied to the position. But, doing your homework on the front end may save you time if you learn that you may not be a good for the organization or there’s something concerning about the culture that you don’t want to be a part of.
  • Ask your references if they are comfortable being your reference. It is awkward to receive a phone call from an organization and/or recruiter about a candidate that listed you that you wouldn’t actually recommend. Don’t assume your references want to be your references. It’s important to know if they have any concerns about recommending you. If they do, find out what those concerns are [yes, we are not all perfect. It’s ok.]
  • Provide references with context for specific positions. Once you have shored up your references, give them an overview of the position and its responsibilities. Are there particular experiences or skills you would like them to highlight about you? Were there specific projects you worked on that could be cited as examples? Don’t also assume your references remember every great thing you have done. Spend a few minutes talking through some particulars with them.
  • Even if you are asking someone to put a good word in for you more informally, still follow the steps above. When I send a note on someone’s behalf vouching for their awesomeness, I am putting my reputation on the line. So, I want to make sure that I believe the candidate is a good fit, not only for that organization but for that particular position. It’s also easier when you give me advanced notice. giving advanced notice (i.e. I know that Katie Todd is going to be applying for this position, and here are five reasons why she deserves an interview) versus (I believe Katie Todd applied for those position a week ago and I hope you haven’t already cast her application aside). We want to plant those nuggets into the minds of others.
  • Say thank you. As with anything in life, please take the time to drop a note, make a call, send a text, and share appreciation with the person who provided a reference and/or recommendation for you. Personally, I’m all about the hand-written thank you note. Yes, it’s old school but it’s power cannot – cannot – be underscored. Receiving a handwritten thank you note can be. I’m more likely to want to go for bat for those who did follow-up with me to say thanks than those that didn’t.

In the coming week, I challenge you to schedule at least one in-person meeting with someone from your network that you would like to learn from, whether it’s about a potential career shift or acquiring insight into a skill. My final advice for today is this: remember that when you are networking, approach the opportunity not from the frame of what can they provide me but from the space of what can I bring to them. Listen without worrying about what you are going to say next. The number of doors that will fly open when you approach networking in this manner will astound you.




Why I’m here?

We live in a time where so much is done without true purpose: from “liking” a Facebook post to scrolling mindlessly as endorphins flood our brain (see “captology“), we expend a massive amount of time not doing a whole lot.

I’ve been thinking about this concept in connection to our nonprofit sector. How often do we sit in meetings without a clear understanding of what we hope to accomplish? Why do we allow distractions from our email, social media accounts, or inner voice to derail our best laid plans? And if we don’t take action now, what is going to happen to our ability to accomplish our critical missions?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for most of my life. And, I thought starting a blog would allow me the space to grow my skills, reach new audiences, and fine-tune the voice I wanted to establish. But, since starting this blog two years ago, I have yet to approach it from the other side: what do people want to read about? What is going to help add value to our social discourse?

Certainly, I have enjoyed sharing vegan recipes and travel adventures; various running endeavors and moments of zen. But, I am ready to make a change, as I see an opportunity to contribute to a broader dialogue through this blog. As a young leader, I often seek out the advice of others when it comes to navigating sticky situations or answering questions I may not be able to ask of my peers. I’m looking for resources; for ‘a-ha’ moments; and for solidarity.

Moving forward with this blog, I want to give back for the next generation of leaders, particularly those working for social good. Does that automatically mean the nonprofit space? Absolutely not. If our communities want to thrive, we have to pool all of our talents, brains, and resources together. The nonprofit sector cannot do it alone, nor should it. But, the nonprofit sector does need to do a better job of educating its funders and partners on how they can engage in a more equitable and fair way.

Thanks to the inspiring and incredible Alexa Sykes over at Black Professional Magic, I’ve taken the steps to establish a content calendar moving forward, to keep me accountable and to also ensure I don’t waste your time.

Cause ain’t nobody got time for that.

Defining leadership

Over the last year, I’ve been working on revising my own definition of leadership, particularly for how I want to be perceived (or not) in conjunction with this word.

After reading Paul Schmitz’s Everyone Leads and currently in the midst of Angela Duckworth’s Grit, I firmly believe that leadership is rooted in action, not in a particular position or title. This approach contradicts how we are socially conditioned to view leadership/leaders. Power resides in the individuals at the “top” of various chains; but, each of us carries immense power that can be flexed, given the right conditions.

It’s funny: this week has been an opportunity for me to “flex” a variety of leadership muscles in vastly different surroundings. And, at times, I see my continued struggle in finding balance, especially when it comes to those leadership “positions” as opposed to opportunities to act like a leader.

Our YNPN Triangle NC Board of Directors participated in our first-ever strategic planning session this Saturday, facilitated by two corporate executives over the course of five hours. (What a way to spend a Saturday, right?) I left that afternoon feeling, as Sophie says, the feelings. Exhilaration. Stress. Frustration. Clarity. Exhausted. As a completely volunteer-driven 501(c)(3) organization, it can be easy for me to forget that…oh right, we’re volunteers. The majority of us have full-time responsibilities, whether in employment or academia, not to mention families and other extracurricular activities.

There were several moments during the session I found myself hesitant to speak up, fearing that I would create an unfair power dynamic within the group. I am finishing my second year as Board Chair, with one final year ahead. Even nearly 18 months in, I’m still feeling out the ropes as to when to step up and when to step back, knowing (or, at least sensing) that there is an expectation for me to have the answers to questions from the rest of our team. Most of the time, I’m working to figure out those answers alongside them. I view my role as keeping our ship pointed toward the end goal, making sure my crew has what they need in order to be fulfilled and successful, and actively seeking opportunities to keep us afloat (resources, partnerships, funding).

That’s the ideal, at least. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I came home Saturday, elected to pick a fight with Aaron, and then cry into my pillow for 15 minutes. Is that how leaders act? It seems fairly unlikely. At least, not so people can see. The pressure to keep up that front, to be bold, to be willing to take it on the chin (up to a point), and to invest in others so much that you are left drained and depleted – it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. On the flip side, it’s also a huge honor, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

Oh, double-edged sword. 

Tonight marks the third night in a row of board meetings, and as I noted above, I have navigated the previous two with varying degrees of leadership. On Monday, I engaged at our youth advisory board meeting with conviction, offering a rallying cry around personal responsibility and communications. But, I hold no actual leadership position. That was an intentional decision, as I recognize I am spread far too thin. It would be unfair to me and those around me to pretend like I could fulfill those roles. Last night was our quarterly board meeting for my job. As a staff member, I spend most of the three-hour meeting in silence, sharing when scripted in the agenda. In this space, I wonder if the board members view me as a leader, or since I tend to be more reserved, if they don’t.

Viewing myself as a leader in my work space is more nebulous for me. We operate in such silos that it feels like we’re all individual leaders. But, when it comes to some of the broader, bigger decisions, our voices may not be part of the process. Mini-leaders. Which is fine. That’s why we week out other opportunities to grow those skills and competencies desired to be more equitable, thoughtful leaders, not only in our work spaces but in our communities.

Alright. It’s time for coffee and, well, time to get down to work. I’ll leave you with this: how do you define leadership? And, based on your definition, are you a leader? Why or why not?