7 lessons nonprofits can learn from newborn babies


chick-1202577_960_720Hi everyone, my apologies in advance, as today’s post may not be very coherent. On Friday, my son, Kiet Thomas Prinzing Le, was born (you can see a picture on Nonprofit Happy Hour). The little tyke came several days early, surprising all of us. I have not slept since then. It’s been a little rough, I won’t lie. I am barely lucid right now.

I said before that having a baby is like getting a giant multi-year highly-restricted grant. Like, “Congratulations, our foundation has decided to award you a million each year for 18 years. But every two hours, day or night, you have to get up and fill out an online survey while we scream at you in a high pitched voice.”

Except replace “fill out an online survey” with “change diapers.” I had forgotten what’s it’s like to have a newborn. The screaming, the spit ups, the clawing at the face. And that’s just me. Then there’s the meconium. It is a baby’s first poop, and like most strategic plans it is so dense and viscous that not even light can escape, thus giving it the color and consistency of roofing tar. You can only pray that you do not get any of this on your hand or hair, because only a caustic agent like gasoline or kombucha tea can dissolve it.

Anyway, it’s been a fun few days, I’m completely exhausted, and I’m seeing things that aren’t there, but I’ve learned a few lessons from this little guy that I think will benefit all of us in the nonprofit field:

7 lessons nonprofits can learn from newborn babies

Lesson 1: A smile can do amazing things. It’s only been three days, but I swear, the baby has been smiling in his sleep. It makes me forget all these sleepless nights and the half dozen times he’s thrown up on me. Next time you accidentally spit up on a donor or board member, just smile, and they’ll be reminded of how charming you are.

Lesson 2: If at first you don’t get what you want, escalate. If smiling doesn’t work, it helps to use a high-pitched, shrieking voice to demand things. Try that next time you’re requesting a raise, or making the ask at your fundraising gala.

Lesson 3: It’s OK to get upset over small, seemingly stupid things. Crying makes you feel better about crappy stuff, like your swaddle coming undone, or the wet wipes are too cold on your skin, or Daddy shouting at the TV while holding you and watching Season 4 of House of Cards on Netflix and it startles you from your nap. It’ll probably help also with grant rejections, unexpected resignations, and lack of good snacks at meetings.

Lesson 4: You are stronger than you think. Sure, babies may look weak and helpless, but they are surprisingly strong and resilient. Ours is already able to lift his head up and search around for his meal of breastmilk. Never let anyone tell you your org, board, or team is too small to do stuff.

Lesson 5: A giant head will weigh you down. Newborns have these disproportionally big heads, which makes it hard for them to lift up their heads for long periods of time. Adults will use this fact to play a game called “Tummy Time,” where an infant is placed on his stomach and encouraged to lift his head up in order to build neck strength, while the grownups surround him and make bets on how long he can hold up his head (I really need to have a talk with my siblings). Don’t get a big head. It’ll make it hard for you to see things.

Lesson 6: Be curious about everything. Ah, to be newborn again and see the wonder in everything—a blurry face, some blurry shapes, a blurry patch of light. The fact that everything is strange to an infant does not prevent her from being inquisitive. We must take that lesson to heart, especially when so much of our work is blurry.

Lesson 7: Make your mark on the world. In the past three days, our baby has spit up or otherwise stained myriad things in the house. The laundry is running nonstop. In some ways, it seems that babies spit up on things to mark their territories. We nonprofits, as individual organizations, and also as a sector, should focus more attention on making our mark. We’ll be more effective that way.

It’s 3:15am, and it’s probably time to change the fella and likely get spit up on. See you next week.

By the way, last week, I (and ED Emeritus colleague Tara Smith) launched two peer support groups on Facebook. Nonprofit Happy Hour already has over 1,300 members, and the group specifically for EDs/CEOs, ED Happy Hour, has over 200 members. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues. Check them out.

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21 thoughts on “7 lessons nonprofits can learn from newborn babies

  1. Barb Welch

    My boys are in their 30s and I still tell stories about them to illustrate advice about nonprofit management. Nice to see you’re getting your kids used to this from the beginning.

  2. Tova Perlmutter

    Congratulations and mazel tov! There are now hundreds – thousands probably – of people wishing all the best for little Kiet and his clan. How is his older brother doing? Never mind, don’t answer and I am sure I speak for the rest of the NWB fans when I say please take a week off from writing for us if it will enable you to get some sleep!

    Also much respect to your partner who has just completed, for the second time, one of the most grueling athletic achievements humans regularly undertake.

  3. Tim Johnson

    As all new parents really love parenting advice, check out Happiest Baby on the Block (or watch the movie, which might actually be better). Using your analogy, it is a road map to successful grant project completion during the early days of implementation.

  4. MBU'town

    Congratulations! Lesson #3 is my favorite. I once overheard a conversation with a former program director, who was breaking into the non-profit sector say, “I wouldn’t take a grant rejection personally…” I interrupted, shocking I know, and said, “I do! I’ve cried over grant rejections. I take that very personally. If you haven’t poured your heart into your grant proposals, you should rethink grant writing.” Hyperbolic? Maybe, but accurate.

  5. Elda

    Congratulations! I’m actually reading this while nursing my own newborn son so I found this week’s blog extra hilarious. I’d like to add a lesson to the list. A newborn would never say, “Oh you only want watch me do cute baby things/fund a new program? Well okay, even though what I really need right now is my poopy diaper changed/general operating support.” There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I only slept for 1 hour last night so I’m too exhausted to know what it is…

  6. Brooke Smith

    Huge congrats to you and your family! I love this blog (and all the others). I have often wanted to write a piece about how parenting and being an ED have many similarities (from personal sacrifice for something greater than you – e.g. kids or mission, to empowering staff/kids to do great things, to laying in bed worrying about money – e.g.college savings or grant terms/paying people) – but the newborn parallels are so true – at the end of the day “tireless” seems to be theme 🙂 Happy newborning- and congrats again.

  7. Brooke Battle

    Lesson #5!! — great insight for someone sleep deprived! I’ve been there — good luck to you and congrats!

  8. Ron Ein

    Congrats on the addition to the family. I look forward to more lessons learned that apply equally to the rest of life.

  9. Becca

    Congratulations to you and your family, Vu!!! The life of a non-profit unicorn is not easy (and even less so with a newborn!), but it’s wonderful to have something to celebrate.

  10. Patricia Garza

    So happy for you and your family! Thanks for reminding us to look at the world with new eyes!

  11. S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

    Congrats on the new addition.
    This was not incoherent at all. Either you are able to write fantastically on a 1/2 hour of sleep per day or some magical unicorn has taken over your blog 🙂

  12. Alan Schonborn

    Whoop Whoop!!! Congratulations on another crowning achievement Vu!

    Be sure to take full credit for Kiet’s intelligent gaze, astute (if not wry) smile and critical wails of dissatisfaction with your parental responsiveness. Of course, like most funders, he knows all there is to know, but is just choosing to keep it to himself so you and his mother can grow stronger from the experience.

    Just be sure that the model of care you’ve selected is one that can be maintained into his toddler years. No waivering. Got to assure consistent fidelity you know…

  13. Kebo Drew

    So great, CONGRATULATIONS to the currently mini social justice warrior, already educating (YOU) communities and fostering CHANGE (of diapers)!

  14. Mary Cahalane

    Congratulations, Vu! I’m so happy for you. Enjoy him – enjoy them both. Next thing you know it, they’ll be looking at colleges and you’ll be wondering what the heck happened.

  15. Amanda Kepner

    Surprisingly poignant considering you are newborn level sleep deprivation.
    Lesson #5 is my favorite.
    I also have a toddler and a baby: every time you think it is impossible, look at your toddler and remember how recently he was a newborn. For better or worse it’s over in a flash.

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