8 Rules of Everyday Heroism

Our November book of the month, Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World, One Nonprofit at a Time, tells the inspiring stories of 50 social entrepreneurs who champion a variety of worthy causes. Here, author Katrina Fried writes about what she learned from these hard-working crusaders. —BBL Editor

1. Out with charity, in with partnership.
The most universally defining quality of philanthropy today is unquestionably the shift in the relationship between the giver and the receiver. Gone are the days of the traditional donor-beneficiary relationship. The handout has been replaced by the handshake. Today’s nonprofit reformers are interested in creating meaningful equal partnerships to empower communities and individuals to raise themselves out of poverty. When Robert Egger founded D.C. Central Kitchen, he reinvented the model of feeding the hungry by training the homeless to prepare the food they were feeding to themselves and others like them. “So much of charity is still wrapped up in the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver,” explains Egger. “You can’t measure success by giving everybody free food. If you don’t liberate them, you’re just holding them down.”

2. You’re never too young.
Rebecca Onie was a sophomore at Harvard when she founded Health Leads, which connects low-income patients with the basic resources they need to be healthy. Lindsay Avner launched Bright Pink to educate young women about breast cancer prevention and early detection when she was barely 23. The growing squad of Gen Next social entrepreneurs lays waste to the notion that experience is a prerequisite for leadership. As Onie says, “Being younger or just being newer to the sector often leads you to ask questions that aren’t being asked.”

3. You’re never too old.
Despite this infusion of young blood into the nonprofit sector, there are plenty of late bloomers and lifers doing deeply meaningful work. Mark Goldsmith didn’t found Getting Out and Staying Out—a reentry program for convicts—until he’d retired as a corporate CEO. It took Wynona Ward, founder of Have Justice—Will Travel, almost 50 years to become a lawyer so that she could defend the rights of battered women in rural Vermont. Others, like Roy Prosterman of Landesa, have spent a lifetime fighting for the rights and dignity of the poor, and show no signs of slowing down. At 77, Prosterman remains as energized by his cause today as he was 45 years ago. “I’m not tired at all,” he told me matter-of-factly.

4. Crazy is good.
In fact, if the world doesn’t think your idea is nuts, you might want to rethink it. When Earl Shorris first told people he wanted to teach Plato to the poor, he couldn’t raise a dime in funding. “Impossible,” they said. Seventeen years later, his Clemente Course in the Humanities has had 10,000 graduates and operates sixty sites around the world. Linda Rottenberg was literally nicknamed la chica loca when she decided to start Endeavor, an organization dedicated to providing resources and support to high-impact entrepreneurs in emerging international economies. Today, she’s considered a prescient pioneer. No one understood how Anne Mahlum, a petite blond from the Midwest, was going to rehabilitate the homeless by teaching them how to run, but that’s exactly what she did.

5. Entrepreneurs are born, not made.
I’d wager that every entrepreneur I interviewed would agree this is a truism. Most have walked to the beat of their own drum since they took their first uncertain steps as toddlers and have never been satisfied in a conventional professional setting. All cite the willingness to risk failure as fundamental. The stakes are even higher for entrepreneurs in the nonprofit sector. “If you don’t succeed as a for-profit, someone doesn’t get rich,” says Jill Vialet of Playworks, an organization that provides safe and healthy playtime to low-income students. “If you fail as a nonprofit, someone gets sick; someone starves; some child gets an inferior education.” It takes a healthy dose of confidence, courage, and tenacity to shoulder the fate of others day in and day out.

6. You can’t rely on the kindness of strangers.
With an ever-increasing population of nonprofits, the growing competition for funding has forced today’s social entrepreneurs to realize that the surest way to survival is self-sustainability. Many of these organizations have developed alternate sources of income through social enterprise. Wine to Water, the clean water charity founded by former bartender Doc Hendley, raises funds through selling their own wine label and holding ticketed wine events; Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation started a chain of pharmacies and thrift stores over a decade ago, which almost fully support the organization’s $500-million annual budget.

7. Go big or go home.
Scalability has become an oft-heard catchword among the nonprofit set. Scaling, simply put, is taking a small idea and making it huge. The potential for exponential growth is practically a requisite for the new wave of social entrepreneurs. Maximizing impact often entails reaching beyond the limitations of their own organizations to stimulate others to follow their lead. As Darell Hammond—whose organization KaBOOM! builds playgrounds in low-income communities—explains, “For us, it’s not about scaling up the organization. It’s about scaling up the cause.”

8. True heroes never consider themselves heroes.
If I had a dollar for every time one of these charitable leaders said to me, “You know, the true heroes are the [blank], not me,” I’d be 50 bucks richer. They all possess a sense of humility and authenticity that I’ve come to realize is essential to the realization of their visions. The basic fact remains: None of these nonprofits would have soared without the profound sacrifices of their dedicated founders and CEOs. Geoffrey Canada of the world-famous Harlem Children’s Zone sums it up this way: “Leaders do what needs to be done, whatever it is, and they do it for as long as necessary.”

Photo above: Darell Hammond’s nonprofit KaBOOM! has built hundreds of safe and educational playgrounds in low income communities throughout America. “The playground became a powerful means to accomplish what I thought was my life’s work, which was building communities from the inside, focusing on people’s gifts and strengths, not their weaknesses and deficiencies,” says Hammond.

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Everyday Heroes by Katrina Fried
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