DSC03296Why does it take something dramatic, life-changing or frightening to shake our belief system? Some would even argue that the mere state of comfort in one’s own understanding or environmental surroundings is an inhibitor to growth. Simply, we only know what we think we know. Or worse, what we’ve been told.

There have been three times in my life where I have been at the altitude of 35,000 ft. I know this might be very common for people who travel across the globe on a regular basis, however it took two tours in a combat zone to the Middle East and East Asia and then finally again this year to South East Asia for me to understand its significance in my life. In the first two trips, I was a soldier in the US Army. The third time, I was a soldier of God on a missions trip with my church in Thailand. These experiences, two very contrasting perspectives, challenged everything I know.

By now you’re probably asking yourself how this has anything to do with nonprofits. If you consider the term in a different light, the way we invest ourselves with specific expectations, then “nonprofit” could bring about a whole new meaning. For instance, if I invest my time, talents, finances and an emotional sacrifice without an expectation of any return (profit), then the endeavor is more of a “mission” than it is a nonprofit venture. This means that the goal is no longer predetermined, but instead a trust in an outcome that is predestined. The focus now is about the doing vs the results. Try writing a business plan around that!

It was during these three times in my life, 35,000 ft, that my investments started with predetermined outcomes. All three instances resulted instead with something predestined. Meaning, the expected return on my investment didn’t result in the “profit” I had imagined. In this aspect, all cases turned out a “nonprofit”. And just to clarify, I’m not talking about financial gain. I’m talking about a new point of view.


The terms “altruistic”, “philanthropic”, “humanitarian” and “charitable” all come to mind when we talk about nonprofit organizations that are designed to be unselfish and generous to a fault–all in the effort to better our world. But the actual meaning of each of these terms stems from a perspective that there exists something good that should be extolled. And, we are the ones who should initiate, control and protect it! I would like to challenge all of us to view this in a different light. That the “good” in everything was created by God. He alone initiates it, controls it and protects it. We are merely participants in his almighty plan–a predestined outcome. The fact that there exists things in our world that are opposite of good is because some of us choose not to participate in this point of view.

What if the investments we all make to better our world were rooted in a selfless action without any expectations of a profit? What if, in this perspective, we all wore the badge of a nonprofit? It would mean that the outcomes of our investments would result in the beauty of something we can’t even imagine. Something bigger than ourselves, a “good” that can only come from doing hands that expect nothing in return. I wager that the results would lead us to the next thing, then the next and so on. A predestined path to peace with ourselves, with God and with others.

Hello, my name is Bruce. And I’m a nonprofit!

SignupIn a world of “sign-ups”, it’s easy to disregard things we’ve already committed to. We rationalize why we had good intentions, but how life is crazy and things come up that keep us from fulfilling our obligations. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “making the reservation is the easy part. Anyone can make a reservation. Now, keeping the reservation…that’s the important part.” Seriously though, I feel this act of justified thinking is what’s tearing apart the fabric of social altruism.

And then there’s the difference between “showing up” and SHOWING UP. There’s a big disparity between physically present and actually being present. Some of us think we’re pretty good at faking this, but we aren’t really fooling anyone. It’s the polarity of selfish and selfless action that either contributes to the status quo or to change.

Time is precious. And that’s not a cliche’. It’s just the truth. So when it comes to committing to something, I’m hesitant to say yes. I think most of us are like this. We are all so busy doing our daily grind that we just can’t fit anything else in. But what if the talents and skills that we have and do so well could be put to better use? Say, the selfless concern for the well being of others.

The irony here is that getting involved in this way would actually bring purpose to my life. A real reason to why I’ve worked so hard to achieve success. To be able to help someone, something, some anything! Looking back, I think I’ve missed way to many opportunities like this. Life has a way of making us all selfish. There’s just not enough time to help everybody so I help no one…except myself.

Enter Designathon, 2010. A brainchild of Ian Rhet, founder of GeekforGood.net and Jessica Murray, founder of Nashville Social Media Club.

Designathon 2010

Their idea was to bring together creative professionals (geeks) for a common good for the city of Nashville. A way to give back to the city we love by volunteering our talents during a twenty four hour event for one needy non-profit. All they asked – sign up and show up. Physically. Mentally. Heartfully.

They asked me to join them as the Creative Director for the event. It was good timing too. I had just left my last job as the CD of a Nashville ad agency, and I was rethinking my whole career. After fifteen years in advertising I was already burned out and desperately needing creative inspiration. I had no idea what I was walking into. Honestly, I don’t think any of us did.

I’ve been involved in many crowd-sourcing events before. Mostly driven by egos, recognition and an attempt at attracting “real” clients post the event. Being physically, mentally and heartfully present wasn’t a requirement. Just follow the process, get the work done and go home.

Calling all

We recruited over thirty volunteers ranging from copywriters, graphic designers, web developers, marketing strategists, social media geeks and PR folk. The non-profit was a start-up to help stop generational incarceration. No name, no brand, no nothing but the passion of an ex convict who personally saw a need and wanted to desperately do something about it. Twenty four hours later a brand was born – Youth Turns. Complete with an estimated $80k worth of marketing deliverables. They had all they needed to start getting awareness, communicate with others about their mission, recruit volunteers, and get funding. The best part was they now had over thirty brand ambassadors to boot. People who signed up , showed up and by the end of twenty four hours, became a coalition of volunteers who found purpose in their lives. Helping others.

We realized we had created something special so we did it again in 2011 for Safe Haven, a refuge for homeless families in Nashville trying to get off the street and reestablished in society. Again, we achieved the same result. A different group of volunteers but the same result. Happy non-profit, happy volunteer hearts.

So when Ian asked me if I was up for it again in April, 2013, I didn’t hesitate. This time it was for a bigger challenge – helping the Tennessee Literacy Coalition (TLC), a state wide organization located in Nashville, trying to change the course of illiteracy for the entire state. July 13-14 was the date held for the third annual Designathon and again, the same result.

TN working 4

TN working 1TN working 2I’m still amazed at the amount of work that is accomplished in that twenty four hours. For TLC: A much needed updated website including SEO capabilities, the ablitiy to measure analytics, share content and most importantly, how to cultivate volunteers, donors and help learners find providers; PSA’s for tv, radio and outdoor ads; four testimonial videos; a blog site with enough sharable content for a month; marketing strategy; social media campaign, strategy and training; corporate giving collateral; press releases; news coverage; and once more, over thirty new brand ambassadors – geeks for good. Here are just a few examples of the work we did for TLC. To see the entire list, see here.

TN infographicTN Bus bench

I could go on and on about the benefits of this event and how I’ve personally witnessed the result of people selflessly giving up their time and talents to help others. I truly believe that the desire in our hearts to extend a helping hand to those in need was planted by our creator. And It’s my faith and trust in God and his call to us to help those in need that should be the only rationalization I need to sign-up and show-up.

My only wish is that Designathon could somehow be duplicated, multiplied and extended to the rest of the world. I guess that’s the basis of writing this blog. To hopefully inspire others to a new understanding of why we should be present for the things we should prioritize in our lives. Helping others.

Here are just a few of the heroes that were brave enough to take that leap of faith and signed-up to be part of something bigger than themselves. I’m proud to say that I know these folks – all twenty fours hours of them.