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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

What Nonprofits Can Learn from New Orleans

Last month I found myself in New Orleans. For about 20 hours.

It was just enough time to roam the infamous French Quarter, kick around Bourbon Street, take a historical walking tour and head out to the next city.

I’d never experienced New Orleans, Louisiana (or NOLA as the locals call it), but I thought I knew it well. After all, every February I got to hear all about Mardi Gras.

I got the full, media-saturated story on Katrina as the events themselves unfolded. I’d even watched Emeril cooking with his special spices plenty of times.

I thought I knew what to expect…
…people who had been down on their luck, who held on tight to everything, were slow to trust.

Turns out, I was wrong. About all of it. In less than one day, I realized that NOLA was filled with not just a unique group of people, but a treasure trove of lessons. I present three of them to you now.

Lesson #1: NOLA does not whine

The people of New Orleans have had some tough times. They’ve seen poverty and tragedy in their city, experienced natural disasters and man-made neglect. I expected it to have taken its toll. I expected people to talk about how they were wronged, how horrible their situations have been. I admit it—I even provoked a bit. I asked my tour guide, a NOLA native, about Katrina. He shrugged, and without any tone in his voice or any tension in his fists he said, "yeah, it was tough…really tough. But we made it through. And now things are better."

It was surprising enough the first time. But even more surprising was that very same answer came from everyone I asked, the taxi driver, the folks who sat next to us at dinner, the hotel manager. Same response. What struck me was not just the lack of any smidgen of self-pity, but how this willingness to refrain from blame, to move past the bad stuff, created a universal sense of contentment. Which made for a happier life.

The nonprofit lesson:
Organizations deal with tough challenges every day. The toughest. It can be tempting to feel like you're the only one, like you're the victim. It can also be tempting to say it to others. Instead, come up with clear strategies to address the issues and tell everyone you can about your plan to emerge stronger than before. Not only will it get you better energy and better results, but you'll stand out from everyone else in the room.

Lesson #2: NOLA makes no apologies

Walk through NOLA (especially at night) and prepare for some overstimulation...a barrage of color and music, sights and sounds. People laugh loudly, sing with abandon, dance in the streets. NOLA loves to laugh. NOLA loves to celebrate life. And through it all, not one funny look passes between people. Not one show of disdain. Not one "keep it down!" Instead, people do as they please. And nobody seems to care. NOLA doesn’t get embarrassed. NOLA is secure in itself.

It is not arrogance. Instead, the people of NOLA know they are their families and friends, to their loved ones. They don’t have to put others down to hold themselves up.They care about celebrating life, not doing it perfectly. And they help others do the same. It makes them shine from the inside out. It makes them likeable. It makes the rest of us want to be around them—to be like them. Because they live a happier life.

The nonprofit lesson:
We need to take our work seriously, but we don't always need to take ourselves so seriously. The best way to engage with every single stakeholder...from donors to board members to community to find the right combination of professionalism and authenticity. Be relatable. Be sincere and meaningful. Be likeable. Don't be afraid to laugh sometimes. It will make every relationship stronger. Which will make your organization stronger, too.

Lesson #3: NOLA gives everyone a shot

NOLA is a cultural stew. Everyone, from the Creoles and Cajuns, to the Californians and Canadians, come together to dine together, laugh together, sing together. Fortune tellers read palms just outside the main cathedral. The buildings are a rich mix of design and architecture—Spanish and French, bungalows and grand mansions. Everything is a blend of people, flavors, sights and sounds; all are welcome. Differences are not feared, not judged, but embraced. NOLA roots for its people, for their success, for their happiness…which creates community and closeness. Which makes for a better life.

The nonprofit lesson:
Whether we're talking demographic diversity or the various roles of staff/board in your organization, everyone has a perspective to share. Don't just accept that other will have an opinion, but seek it out. It'll give you a richer set of information to make your decision. And, if done well, it'll make people feel a lot more invested in what you do.

Wrapping it up, I could have New Orleans all wrong. After all, I was there for less than a day. You might have been there and experienced something quite different. But that’s not the point.The point is that these lessons—right or wrong—still represent something we can learn from. They are still goals we can aim to achieve in our own lives. And we should. Because, in the end, we get the biggest gift of all in life. A better one.

Thanks, NOLA.

Now, go do good…and do it well.

Deirdre proudly runs Momentum, LLC, which helps nonprofit organizations meet their missions through better business. She gained much of her experience while serving as the executive director of a multi-million dollar nonprofit in Denver. Her book "The Mission Myth" was released in November 2011. Follow her on Twitter @Deirdre_Maloney.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog