Aligning together: Creating magic in challenging times

A year ago a friend of mine asked me to co-chair a charity event with her. At the time I said yes, I did not know I had been accepted into Georgetown University for my advanced certification program nor had the recession hit in full force. Thus began a year of growth, challenge, and discipline!

I learned so much through these experiences, of which many are applicable to what I do in my professional life. Whether in corporate America, entrepreneurs starting new businesses, school leaders, or nonprofit executives – the lessons are the same.

How do we create magic under challenging circumstances?

1. Create a common vision and ‘manifest a mantra’ to represent this vision.

We were taking on the stewardship of a long-standing event, with a tremendous legacy and tightly held reputation. The event is unlike most charity events, in that there are many moving parts which are very reliant upon the health of the economy. We, as an organization, needed to come together as a collective whole, and partner with our extended underwriters to ultimately raise money for our eight worthy beneficiaries. We have no staff or existing resources to help with the legwork or heavy lifting. 100% of all the work is completed by a team of volunteers, many of whom work full-time, have young children, or were facing their own hardships during this time. We had to pull together to make this happen – there was simply no other way! Our tagline and vision for the event was a ‘Celebration of the South’ (complete with everything southern…sights, sounds and tastes).

Our mantra went something like this:

This is the year of coming together.

We join hands with each other.

We extend hands to the community.

We give hands to our beneficiaries.

We will create fellowship and community around the table

Break bread together,

and Celebrate ‘the beautiful and the good’ of the South!

This became the common thread which tied everything we did tightly together. This message and mantra became contagious and it certainly took on energy of its own which held our group steadfast to this vision.

2. Build, inspire and trust your team.

It goes without saying that nothing is ever done alone. Period. This is exponentially true when speaking in terms of non-profit and volunteer work. It is just as Margaret Mead so famously stated: “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people….” A key secret to us fostering magic was: finding diverse talent with passion toward a common cause and then nurturing this group as a collective whole. We had a dream team on every level: very diverse, creative in spades, fearless of hard work, and committed eagerness to contribute. Many had never done anything like this before; which proved to be another gift – as their virgin viewpoints breathed life into old perspectives and ideas. We blew on these embers and trusted them without reservation. What power!

3. Color outside the lines and have the courage to stand behind these convictions.

As mentioned, this event has a long history; and with this comes all the expectations of ‘how it has always been done.’ However, times are different than they were 15 years ago – and certainly from just last year. We knew we were going to have to ‘shake things up’ to bring additional revenue streams to the overall project. In fact, we introduced five additional ways to make revenue this year – and we also took the project into the 21st century with a website and an ecommerce capability. We cast our net to include new demographic audiences, we changed the venue where it was to be held – in fact we pitched a 5000 square foot tent to house the new approach. It is one thing to have the creative ideas; it is another thing to have the courage to stand behind these convictions. What I can say retrospectively, and confidently, is that these new creative approaches, revenue streams, and the bald courage to ‘color outside the lines’ saved the event this year.

4. Be authentic and maintain the integrity of the project.

The concept of authenticity is not new to my blog readers. I believe in the power of authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability. This became especially true when building a cohesive team and gaining support of our constituents. We spoke candidly about the hardships we were facing, the lack of underwriting renewals, and the reduction of financial support from previous individual donors. This honest openness allowed members within the team and the organization to share our concerns and join hands with us in raising awareness and potential new supporters.

Another aspect of authenticity was in the overall execution of the event. If there ever was a year where ‘cutting corners’ would have been rationalized and understood it was this year. However, we made a conscious decision not to skimp in any area. Our intention was to maintain the integrity of the event; which, as I mentioned, had developed a strong brand and reputation over the past 15 years. It was under our stewardship that we maintained this level of excellence… again, ‘regardless of the consequences.’

Trust me, this takes courage in challenging times. Many wanted us to cut, slice and dice, or downsize. We made a conscious decision not to do so. We kept the authenticity of the south (our theme) throughout the event. This included everything from magnolia and gardenias as our chosen floral staples, to shrimp and grits, fried okra and catfish bites as just a few of our nibbles, to a fabulous Gospel choir serenading our guests, to our fantastic guest speaker – Martha Hall Foose direct from Greenwood, Mississippi and fresh from winning the famed James Beard Award earlier this year.  No corners were cut on any level and it was indeed 100% authentically and fabulously Southern.

Faith and courage helped us maintain integrity against the odds.

5. Details are the differentiators – take it seriously.

More than once I was accused of being anal. Yes, I earned that distinction. Yet, more often than not it pays off to be attentive to detail, especially when times are tough and people need and want to experience value. Details are the differentiators. To try to share with you all the nuances and levels of details would take 2000+ words, at least. Suffice it to say, we kept peeling back every touch, every interaction, and every exposure with our participants; and we covered it with compassion, care, and a healthy dose of southern flair. Form letters are form letters – what differentiates are the hand written notes. Seating charts are seating charts – what differentiates is the personal call the week before the event to make sure all is ok and understood.  The personal touch is not out of style – it matters! People see through boiler plate; they recognize and appreciate the care and attention of the personal touch.

Bar locations, food creativity, drink variety, fun and unexpected music, traffic flow, classy favors for participants, creating ambiance and mystery with candles and lighting….the list is endless. Sure, it is hard – and it takes a ton of time. However, with few exceptions, the feedback we continue to receive is all about the details – this is what they remember. Details ignite the overall experience, build the memorable brand, and create the lasting legacy. This is not only true with a charity event – this applies to product launches, advertising plans, and leadership team values. Details are the differentiators and we must take this seriously.

6. B12 shots are imperative.

Those of you who know me know I am not referring to literal ‘B12’ shots. I am speaking about the votes of confidence, the ‘atta boy!,’ the ‘we can do it,’ the ‘wow – great job!’ We need to give these abundantly. Arguably, it is more difficult to lead teams of volunteers than teams that are being paid to ‘show up and work and have a vested financial interest.’ Our team was indeed incredible; yet, we all were being pulled in a myriad of directions: work, family, school – and then the charity obligations. There were many bleak moments through the course of this past year. Everyone was in need of getting healthy doses of B12 encouragement.  We couldn’t afford to give up or lose the faith. We and our incredible committee were the leaders of this project. We had to boost each other and ourselves; if we had given up, our fate would have been sealed.

7. Recognize the weak links, compensate, and rise above.

When I first wrote this article, I excluded the ‘ugly bits’; primarily because I was trying to focus on the positive aspects not the negative. However, a wise friend encouraged me to show the whole picture – as that is what makes the story credible. Let’s face it, there are always weak links when we are tackling something of this magnitude. There are volunteers that don’t come through, there are individuals that are focused on ‘what is in it for them’ versus the charitable objective, and there are political, unspoken currents that often threaten the spirit of the event and the ultimate outcome. What I observed and realized is that the only way to deal with these challenges is to face them. Ignoring them or hoping they will go away in time is not the answer. We need to recognize these obstacles and hurdles for what they are – and then find a way to navigate around them. We must rise above, lest we succomb to the lowest common denominator. The shining light for me was always keeping an eye on where we had planted the flag – the finish line; coupled with a tremendous support system of  individuals who shared the heavy lifting and compensated for the areas of weakness. Those individiuals are the unsung heroes of this event.

8. It is not about you!

The single greatest wisdom whisper from this project (and basically any other initiative in life) is that it is simply not about you. Viewing any experience, whether it is a charity function, a business deal, or a relationship solely through the lenses that it will benefit you, will ultimately compromise the results. Purity of intention will always be rewarded and will always win.

The metaphor I will offer is this: if I have a pebble and I hold on to this pebble so tightly for fear of sharing credit or losing control or whatever reason I have conjured up in my mind – then my single pebble will be my only reward.  However,  if I choose to involve others, share openly, praise often and publicly, be willing to sacrifice my own personal short term gain for the benefit of long-term gain for the overall team – that pebble is tossed into a fabulous pool of water and the ripple effects continue on and on. This I know to be true.


Many of you who are reading this may have been supporters, contributors, or cheerleaders for this project. All I can say is: collectively and collaboratively – WE DID IT!

The principles of creating magic, whether it is creating a new company, a new product or service, a new book being written, curriculum being created, a school system being reformed, a non-profit capital campaign effort,  re-energizing a nation, or unifying the world – are the same.

There are two final thoughts to consider. Creating this kind of magic will always be a time of coming together (people joining with others to achieve what often seems to be the impossible). And secondly, as with any magician or alchemist, there involves the process of transforming commonality into substances of great value. This unique magical process was present in our efforts this past year. Our team, our supporters and those present were indeed the alchemists.