WHAT THE FUNDRAISING
Episode 2: How Grounding in Our "Why" Propels Us Forward with Donovan Taylor Hall
“In the past year, it’s really been about, ‘what is my why?’. And the more that I focused on my why, and the more that I grounded myself in that work, the easier it got for me to push past those fears and barriers.”
– Donovan Taylor Hall
In this episode of What The Fundraising Podcast….
I talk to the vulnerable and courageous youth advocate Donovan Taylor Hall about why he does his work and how anchoring his why has helped him keep moving forward.
Donovan’s job, just like fundraising, is emotionally draining and requires a lot of resilience. His mission is to help kids build positive relationships with themselves through curriculum and content creation. He believes in the power of positive self-talk, growth mindset, and gratitude.
There is so much that we can mirror from Donovan’s coaching into the nonprofit sector; from his idea of the superpower of commitment to his philosophy of curiosity as a solution for judgment and black and white thinking. I promise… he and I are so aligned!
If you are tired of toxic positivity, tune in! This conversation is the real deal on energy transferring and looking for support to ground you back into your work’s mission.
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I teach nonprofit fundraisers to bring in more gifts from the RIGHT donors… so they can stop hounding people for money. Fundraising doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.
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GiveThx is a research-validated digital program that strengthens student wellbeing & social-emotional skills using gratitude science. GiveThx’s mission is to create school communities where all students feel a strong sense of belonging, and to use technology to break social barriers and build healthier connections.
Get to know Brave Trails!
Brave Trails is a national non-profit organization dedicated to LGBTQ+ youth leadership. We offer accredited summer camps, family camps, mentorship programs, meet-up groups, and year-round leadership programming. All of our programs focus on helping LGBTQ+ youth find what they need most to thrive: their people, their place, and their passion. Nothing makes us more proud than seeing our youth take the skills they gain in our programs and use them to create meaning change in their communities.
[Mallory]: First of all, I’m just so excited to have you here with me today. I obviously have been following your work for a while, but just tell everyone who you are, and what brings you to this moment in time.
[Donovan]: My name is Donovan Taylor Hall, and I am a Youth Advocate. I believe in helping kids build positive relationships with themselves, and I do that through a curriculum and content creation for kids. I believe very deeply in the power of self-talk, growth mindset and gratitude, not just for kids, but for humans in general. I’m here today to ground myself in my why a little bit more and how this moves me through the world.
[Mallory]: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being with us. So tell me a little bit about, what does the power of “Why” mean to you? What does that even mean for you to be anchored in your Why?
[Donovan]: I think that my Why is my commitment. Sometimes when we think about commitments, we live in a society that pushes ourselves to, I think over-commit ourselves a lot and that’s to people, to causes and to things and beliefs. But for me, what I used to think about commitment, I used to think of how over committed I was, I would think about how anxious and stressful and exhausting it was. But I think when I found this work with kids, when I really discovered this work, everything else felt different. The commitment was “I want to help kids”, and it started as this thought: “I want to help kids”.
And then, eight, nine years later it has turned into “This is exactly what it looks like, I’ve created and developed that”. And I think that a lot of times with causes, it does really start with just like a thought, and really traveling forward with it, and listening and being curious and putting yourself in positions to explore that thought and help it expand and grow.
For me, the vision is: commitment is so big now that it lives outside. It’s like a baby, it’s like a toddler. So I’m just chasing behind it, trying to make sure that everyone else is treating it well, but before, it felt like it was living in me. And what I realized by shifting and saying, “Okay, I’m committed to this goal, I’m committed to this thought”; but really shifting from “I’m committed to this, to what is my why?” really gave me what feels like honestly, super powers in a sense, because the more that I grounded myself and reminded myself of what was at stake for the kids, but also for myself, what’s at stake, the more that I was able to get rid off, not to get rud off, but just move past those internal barriers.
So when I say grounded in my why, it means that things will be difficult, it means that I might have to pivot the way I started this work compared to where I am right now. I’ve gone so far, but what stayed the same was my why. And so I think that sometimes we get really rigid and it has to look this way, it has to be this way. And if I can remember my why, and always come back to that and say: “Is the work I’m doing connected to my why? Is what I’m putting out there connected to it?” Then I feel comfortable changing and growing with it.
And I actually went to school for social entrepreneurship, one of my grad schools. And we talked a lot about that, but they were putting on me, “It has to look this way. It has to be this way”. They were saying, “It needs to be a nonprofit or it needs to be an afterschool thing”. And I said, “Well, I have this bigger vision and I want to impact more people, and I want to use my strengths and my skills.”. And they said, “no”. And I said, “Okay, cool. Well, I’m going to keep moving forward. You’re not going to stop me because you’re trying to make my why fit this box, and it doesn’t fit. It’s much bigger than that.”. So I’ve had a lot of experience with having to be vulnerable and put myself out there to really push this clause.
Doing the Today Show and stuff like that, and the NowThis story, people are like, “Well, this is inspiring!”. And I’m like, “This is me crying on national TV, this is me talking about hating myself, this is me talking about mental health and my depression.”. What people are calling inspiring is my personal trauma. And I think that the reason it hasn’t messed me up, or the reason that it hasn’t really bothered me, the fact that I put it out there is because it is very much connected to my why; which is, “I want to help take care of kids. I want to help change the conversation around what’s happening with kids in this country.”. And if that means I gotta be vulnerable, I’ll do it. But if I say I’m just vulnerable and hopefully something good will come out of this, that’s not enough. Just literally I would watch the video and start to feel a little bit like, “Oh my God, people are watching this!”. And then I’m like, “Oh well, but then maybe kids are watching this. Maybe people who work with kids are watching this and feeling inspired.”.
And so as soon as I can come back to that, almost like, it’s my breath. If I can come back to that, what’s my why. Then all of that fear, all of that anxiety, all that negative feedback, it just goes away.
[Mallory]: Okay, so there’s so much I want to talk about, about what you just shared, but first I just want to say, tell us the dream.
[Donovan]: So, it’s so interesting because I’ve had phases of dreams where I think when I was 24, cause I’m 31 right now, when I was 24, I remember thinking like, “I want to run a program for kids, I want to teach this to kids.”. And then I got there, and then suddenly it was like, “I want to make a TV show or I want to be a speaker for kids.”, and now that’s happening. And so, I’m thinking even bigger.
And for me, the dream is that kids know who I am. And it’s not because I want fame or, for no reason; I want them to know who I am, because I remember what it feels like to be a kid, to be afraid to ask for help. To be able to not articulate my feelings, to feel alienated, to feel like people wouldn’t take me seriously, or the role that I was playing as the kid that was always okay didn’t fit how I felt. And I just wish that I could have known. If I can’t go to my family about this, even if they’re loving and kind, if I feel uncomfortable or scared to go to them, who can I go to? And you got all these people in the public who are social media influencers and public figures for all these different things, but there are no kid public figures that I can really think of that way.
And so, we’re asking these people who are social media influencers, a lot of times young people, themselves to be the role models for kids when that’s not really why they got into it. So for me, for a long time, it’s been like, “I want to be someone that kids know, so when they are feeling low, they can come to my work and they can come to my channel and come to my show and learn some stuff and really practice it, and to choose me as a teacher.”. That’s my vision, is that they can choose and say, “I want to learn from this person.”. And I’ve got lots of dreams around that, but I think that that’s the overarching.
So, I want to do a national speaking tour, I want to do, I mean, big stuff! I think, a youth conference where there’s artists and speakers and activists, and they’re literally there to talk to kids about feeling better and learning these skills and stuff like that. But I mean, the overarching dream for me is even bigger than I think myself, it’s really about seeing kids treated better in our country and shifting the focus from just academics to whole development.
[Mallory]: Yeah. If you could wave a magic wand and every kid in this country would have three new super powers, what would they be?
[Donovan]: Oh, wow. That’s such a great question! I would want kids to feel gratitude. Really, I work around three skills for kids, so it’s interesting that you said that cause I’m like, “Well, I know exactly! Right?”. Positive self-talk, how do they talk to themselves? Especially when they’re struggling, especially when they’re growing. Growth mindset. And I know growth mindset is really big in academics, but also growth mindset in just growing as a person. “I’m not where I want to be yet, and that’s okay. I made this mistake in my life and that doesn’t determine who I am as a person. I need to practice. I need to put in effort.”. Things like self-love, things like advocacy, things like putting themselves out there. If you do it one time and it doesn’t feel right, that doesn’t mean you quit.
And so, teaching kids a growth mindset and then gratitude, because gratitude really transforms the way that they see the world. So not just gratitude for other people, but gratitude for their environments, for their education, for the world, for our earth, but more importantly, gratitude for themselves. To ask a kid, “What are you grateful for about yourself?”, to really own, and to be able to look inward and access that inner knowledge and feel good about, “This is who I am, and this is why I’m grateful for that.”
[Mallory]: Wow. I’m getting a little bit emotional because I think maybe if there were three things I would wish for fundraisers, they would be very similar. When I think about things that are hard or overcoming challenges, or what does it take to be resilient? Or how do you keep moving forward when you just feel rejected or depleted or not good enough? It really is these three things. So, it’s really beautiful the way you talk about it.
One of the things you said this word earlier, and for me, it comes up a lot when I think about growth mindset, and I really love that you’re talking about that in the different ways that you are, because I think it’s so true, yes, growth mindset when it comes to academics? Sure. But, I think when I think back to my life, or what brought me to this moment, it really is growth mindset around everything. Like, “Yeah, that sucked, but it does not mean that I can’t do it!”. Right? And I just never took one experience to tell a whole story about myself, and that for me really does come back to those principles.
And I think a skill inside that maybe, that’s been really helpful for me, which it sounds like you also think about is curiosity. Where can you get curious? So tell me, how do you feel like you use curiosity for yourself, with your kids? What role does it play?
[Donovan]: Well, sometimes I think self-growth can be a trap. I think that sometimes the way that our society talks about it, and I have a lot of thoughts around why that is, but sometimes I’m really glad I had this wake up call when I was like 26, because I realized I was teaching growth in a way that almost can be harmful where it’s like, “I’m not good enough, I need to be growing all the time. I need to be growing, I need to fix this thing that’s wrong with me. I need to look like this in order to feel happier, feel successful. I need to be grinding 110% of each single day, or I’m going to miss my opportunity.”. I got really curious around why that was happening for me, because I was putting that pressure on myself and it didn’t feel good. Everything felt like a nightmare. I always had this vision, but it never felt like I was making progress because I always felt like I wasn’t good enough, and I wasn’t hitting the marks I needed to, or hitting my achievements or making my smart falls and stuff like that.
And I started to ask myself, because I used to be really judgmental, and so when I think about curiosity, it’s like, “be curious, not judgemental”, especially around your growth or especially around a process, because it’s really easy to be hard on ourselves. I think that we are taught to be hard on ourselves in a lot of ways, but it’s really an act of radical compassion to be curious about what’s coming up for you.
Being curious allows us to be compassionate with ourselves through things that are difficult. So I don’t ever tell my kids to just be positive and I don’t ever tell my kids to look through rose colored glasses because that’s not the way it works. and also because adversity and struggle really, it helps build us into who we are. And so, one of the things I like about growth mindset is that when things feel hard, or when we hit these walls, instead of blaming ourselves or being judgmental, you can get curious about, what can we change? What can we do differently? What’s working, what’s not working? Why is this working and why is this not working? Even asking simple things, like, I was trying to wake up super early in the morning to get work done and I just couldn’t do it. And I kept waking up and wasting my time, and now it’s just judging myself. And then I got really curious and started wondering about, why? Why is this not working? And it wasn’t working because I was working 15 hour days and then waking up two hours early, instead of sleeping when I needed it. But before it was like, “You are wasting your time and you’re wasting your life and blah, blah, blah.”. And then when I got curious and asked myself and looked at my full day and said, “Why is it that these two hours are not working for me?”. And then I realized that I was going to six or seven o’clock at night, each day, and that wasn’t changing because I was waking up. Suddenly I was not only able to be like, “Okay, I can pivot and change this pattern.”, but also be compassionate with myself and say, “I need those two hours to sleep. This is really important to me.”. And it took all that judgment away, but it just came from this idea of being curious and saying, “why is this not working?”.
And doing it almost like in a scientific way, just looking at the patterns, looking at the data, which I never do, because I’m all about the feelings and stuff. But because sometimes the feelings and stuff can get in the way, especially if we are connected deeply to the work that we’re doing. Especially being a fundraiser, if you’re so connected to this work and you’re putting everything into it and you have someone say, “no”, it can feel like a personal rejection. And then, then you’re questioning, “Is this the right work? Am I the right person to be doing this work? Is this the right way to do this?”. And that can feel like our identity becomes unsafe around this work.
[Mallory]: Totally. And it goes even deeper. I would say that the other self-talk that comes up is, “Did they not like me? Was I not good enough? I said something wrong! That one thing I said that one time. I shouldn’t have put that word in the email!”. And a huge part of my framework, the folks who are listening to this, who work with me are like, “Oh my God, he’s speaking your language!”, because I talk a lot about judgment, curiosity being the solution to judgment and black and white thinking. And when we feel like there are no options available to us, it’s because we’re there, we’re in black and white thinking, we’re in judgment.
I talk a lot about something called catabolic energy, which is kind of depleting, exhausting energy that comes from that piece. Curiosity opens up a prism of opportunities because there could be so many reasons why you didn’t want to get out of bed. And so all of a sudden it’s not bad or good, right? There are all these other things that aren’t so personal, and I just think that is such a critical component of all of this, and so I just love that you are talking about it.
[Donovan]: Well, I mean, it’s interesting because that’s what happens with school and that’s what happens with kids because we don’t give kids a place to have an identity. So their identity lives within their family, and then it lives within their academics. And then we judge kids for caring about their friends more, and we judge kids for caring about social media or about their hobbies and stuff, but that’s really the first place that they get to establish their own identity.
But when you think about academics, a lot of times kids would say to me, this is one of the most common things I hear from kids, is that “That teacher doesn’t like me because my grade is bad.”. So instead of recognizing that they’re struggling in that, or there’s some kind of disconnect between them in that learning, it’s about “That person doesn’t like me. I’m not safe in that class. I’m not safe with math. I’m not safe with male teachers. I’m not safe with blah, blah, blah.”. Because it becomes about, “This feels like a personal thing. It’s not that my math work is bad, it’s that I’m bad.”. And we, as adults can recognize that, and be like, “Well, of course that’s not the case.”, but who is explicitly telling kids that? And who is also explicitly telling people that? That when someone says “no”, especially around things like “I’m asking for resources.”, or even boundary setting, that it’s not a personal rejection every single time. And most of the time, even if it is something personal, it’s still them. That’s still how they’re receiving you versus how you really, really are.
[Mallory]: Yeah, and that that’s okay, you know? I think one of the things I want fundraisers to realize is that not everyone is going to want to give to your organization, for many reasons. I hear all the time about why someone doesn’t like me: I talk too fast, I talk too loud. I, whatever, their opinion of me is. Okay, move on. Even in the steady social entrepreneurship, I think about in the for-profit world, when people think about sales or conversion percentages on sales, they think about it in the positive, right? They’re like, “A 10% conversion rate is really good!”, but in the nonprofit world, because they’re stuck in scarcity mindset, all they’re thinking about is the 90% that didn’t do the thing. And they’re stuck, they’re obsessing about it, not letting go of it, unable to move on. And I think these three principles that you bring up, the self-talk growth mindset, gratitude; that’s how you move forward from paralysis around stuff like that.
[Donovan]: Yeah. How can you be grateful for a negative experience? When it’s like, what did you learn from this? And if you didn’t learn anything, you did it! “I’m grateful for the effort, we tried!” And we move on.
It’s interesting because now that I’ve moved into coaching for kids, one of my biggest principles is that the kid has to sign off. And so if the parents say “we want them to do it, no matter what”, and the kid says, “I don’t want this”, then I don’t do it. And that’s tough, because I can have every reason why this kid needs to do this, but also I just understand that this work is not going to resonate with everyone. Not every teacher, not every parent, not every kid is going to think that this work is important and that doesn’t make it any less important. It doesn’t take away any of my value. And it’s been such a challenging thing to swallow, this kid being like, “No thanks, I don’t want this.”, And me being like, “Okay.”. And me leaving board and being like, “I still feel good about myself. I still feel good about what I’m offering.”, because I do know that for every one person that says “no”, that there’s a plethora of people out there who are going to say “yes”. And so if you say “no”, you’re helping me out, because that means I get to go on to the next one. I’m not going to waste my time trying to force you, just let me know, “Cool I’ll have to pass.”, thanks, so I’ll go on to the next one.
[Mallory]: Yes! And you know that that engagement… I used to coach high school students around testing anxiety a little bit too and I had the same practice. The parents would be “Yes!” and I would be like, “Your kid has to choose this”. They have to, because conscious choice is going to change the entire arrangement, it’s going to change everything. And it’s true. Now I get people hit me up: “I want to get my wife a coaching package” and I’m like “No!”. There’s no gifting coaching without people wanting it, because wanting to be coached is such a key component of effective coaching.
I also say a lot, you have to find the right coach for you. You know, sometimes someone else will say the same thing that I did, but somebody wants to work with them. I don’t know what that is: it’s energy, it’s something that made them feel connected. Go work with them.That’s the best thing you could possibly do is work with the person you feel like in whatever capacity it is that was meant for you because that’s what’s going to inspire you to grow and change. That’s what’s going to help you believe in yourself. And we don’t need to be everything for everyone. What I hope more than anything is that people find the people for them.
[Donovan]: I mean, in the fundraiser, I think that was one of the things that pushed me away from nonprofits so much, was that scarcity mindset. And I worked in a nonprofit that was amazing, but I watched them struggle around this process and it wasn’t like doing the paperwork, but it was asking and handling the rejection or having a donor who was a huge donor for three years, who drops out suddenly and then seeing their whole world collapse around that.
And I’ve worked with some nonprofits that have been very much growth mindset and some profits that are like, “Cool, she said no, I got five other people I’m already asking”. Which has been really inspirational, but I’ve also seen a vision get kind of corrupted because there’s so much anxiety around this process of putting themselves out there and asking them for what they need, because rejection is not something that we’re taught how to deal with in our personal or professional lives. And I think that those three skills can really allow us to see rejection as a no and not a personal attack.
[Mallory]: Totally. Yes! Yes! And I love even the gratitude piece, it’s like, “I’m so grateful that I put myself out there. I’m so grateful that I asked. I’m so grateful that the donor knows themselves and knows what they care about.” You know? “I’m so grateful for that and you know that they’re going to go off and invest in the thing that is really meaningful, is really moving for them.” And I think it all goes back to what you said at the very beginning: It’s around the power of why. When we have that clarity around the purpose of what we’re doing.
So much when you were talking, I was just like, “That is how I feel too!” It’s like, I see this north star, I know it’s possible, I have no idea the twists and turns that it’s going to take to get there. I am sure I’m going to have to pivot a million times over, but I see the star and I know that in every direction, at every turn, it’s one step closer. Even if it teaches me how wrong that step was. It’s like, oh my gosh, so good that my clients come to me all the time. I’m like, “Oh my god, like I got this bad feedback” And I’m like, “Hooray!”
[Donovan]: Mallory, I started asking people in my life recently what my blind spots were. And they were like, “What do you mean?” And I was like, “What is the thing people complain about when I’m not in the room?” And they were like, “Oh, I don’t really know. Nothing, nothing!” And I was like, “No, come on, I know there’s something, right? Is it that I over-commit myself?
Is it that I’m obnoxious? Is it that I get too self-centered sometimes?” And then won’t tell me, because I think even feedback can feel really tough for people. I’ve just have been thinking so much about this idea of “safety within ourselves” and that no matter what no, you get you push forward because all of these things out there, people are seeing my work law right now, but they have also not seen me denied a thousand times from organizations. I’ve tried to partner with some people who have reached out to me at least recently, literally denied me three years ago. I don’t even know if they know I’m the same person.
I’ve been applying for this Ted fellowship for like the past three years and it’s never worked, and then this year they asked me to apply for it and I was like “Oh, okay!” And I didn’t take it and hold it like they missed their opportunity. It was just like, “Okay, the message has gotten stronger, the vision is clearer, my why is stronger,and it’s going to attract more opportunities.”
I think as long as I stay connected to my why I have complete confidence. I mean, I’m leaving the teaching system to pursue a career that doesn’t exist. People will ask me what path I took so they can follow. And I’m like “You can’t! I can’t tell you, don’t do it! I don’t know what to tell you.” I’m so centered in my why, but I’m also really grounded in myself, and a lot of times those things are very much connected to each other. My why really came from my struggle as a person.
A lot of times in nonprofits and fundraisers, people are directly connected to these things in a way that it’s either something that they experienced or people that they love experienced or people in their community, or people that they care about deeply, that they want to do this work for. I think passion work sometimes can really be scary because you’re not just saying, “Oh, let me sell you a car.” You’re like, “Let me ask you for your money to support these people, and if you say no, then I’m letting these people down or this cause down.” And in reality, all of that fretting and all of that struggle, it’s energy that can be put into the next task or energy that we put into the recovery or the process of breaking it down. But we just get so caught up in this “It’s me, It’s me, I’m not good enough. I messed up!” versus “It is what it is, the other stuff is just a story I’m telling you.”
[Mallory]: Exactly. Oh my gosh. I want to go there, but I want to go back to something that you said when you were talking about asking the people in your life to give you hard feedback. As you were saying it, I was imagining doing it too, and, and I’m going to be honest: I feel like I’m someone very grounded in myself. I’m visible, I get all types of feedback all the time. But I do feel like if I had the people I love the most say some really hard things, especially actually, if those were things that I also kind of know to be true, that it would hurt. Now, would it paralyze me? I hope not. I don’t think so.
So tell me, what’s your process when you do maybe have those gut shots in your life and you’re like “Man, that hurts, but I am safe”, you know? Cause when you were saying that, my question for you, which then you used the word “safe”, was going to be: How do you feel so safe to let yourself ask that question?
[Donovan]: I mean, for me, first of all, if I’m asking people that question, there’s a why behind it. Because I have siblings and stuff, you know, we have family drama and everyone has that thing they did. I just want to know, because I can see the impact it’s having on other people, when these things go unchecked and these behaviors go unchecked or, you know, not brought to the surface. I just want to know for deeper relationships, I want to know so I’m not hurting the people in my life. I want to know, so I can grow and be a better person. I’m constantly asking my kids for feedback and they’re tough! I mean feedback from adults, whatever, I’ll take it. But feedback from a kid saying that this is boring or that you’re too fast or this is too much, that’s the stuff that would really mess me up, but really quickly it was like, “I’m asking so I can serve them better”.
And my, why is: I’m asking you for feedback because I want to know how I can support you better. If I’m serving you or if I’m impacting you, I want to know how to do it. I want to know how to do it better. And I think I do have to feel safe inside myself. It’s why I practice self-love. It’s why I’m so big on strength, identification and articulation. It’s why I’m so big on my core values, because at the end of the day, even if a whole group was like, “You messed up and we’re mad at you”, or “We don’t like what you did”. I can still deal with that, but also not have that crushing collapse this inner sanctuary.
I have these little cross sticks that my cousin got me that says, “Bless this mess”, because I was talking about building a home within myself, because for a long time I was always searching for a home outside myself and whether it was a person or a cause, because a lot of times we kind of give our whole selves to a cause, that it wasn’t safe at that cause fell through, if that relationship broke up or if something changed with those things and suddenly that safety would be gone. But when I have that safety within me, when I have that house, that shelter, I can recuperate, I can recover, I can rebuild, but it’s safe to do it. I’m not going to beat myself up for years over it, I’m not going to suddenly shift the way I view myself, because I made a mistake or because people don’t like the work that I did. Putting my work out here, I’m super emotional, and a lot of people have told me not to tell kids I love them and stuff like that and I’ve had to stand by it because it’s who I am as a person, what my values are as a person.
But I’ve also learned how to pay attention to why people are saying that and I learned about keeping kids safe and appropriate child and adult boundaries. So it wasn’t like I was just ignoring them and saying “I love myself, I don’t care”. It was like, “This is important to me, this is why I do it, but also my why says I’m going to serve kids better.” So people are giving me feedback and saying, I’m putting kids in dangerous ways by doing this, I want to listen to it a little bit and just see what I can take from it and what I can leave. I think an inner sanctuary is super important. It’s massive!
[Mallory]: Yeah, I think it’s probably one of the most missing components from nonprofit professional development, maybe all professional development. But thinking about how much, like you’re saying, being cause-oriented requires you to sort of give over the sense of self and then also, or doesn’t require you but sort of the structural system feels like it, and that that’s what’s expected of you and then how deeply you feel. The people who are coming to the nonprofit sector, often being incredibly empathetic and strong helper energy, their sponges! And then within that there is so much of our emotional experience. I’ll just speak for myself, in my first 10, 13 years in this work, so much of my live-daily experience were the waves of what was happening around me. That is a really dangerous place to lead from, and it’s definitely not sustainable.
The way that I came to my work now was a real breaking point. I developed chronic pain and I was just like “What? This cannot be the only way. I just refuse to accept that this is the way this sector is supposed to operate and that we’re going to solve the biggest problems of our time doing this. I don’t believe it.” So I really started to look, I went through executive coach certification, I started to study behavior change and habit building design thinking. I really was like, “I’m leaving you mentally for now, nonprofit sector and I’m seeking answers elsewhere”.
And it was there that I found we’ve actually just put a bunch of limiting beliefs on top of this sector based on the history of its development, and we’re all learning best practices from a totally mediocre structure.
[Donovan]: Are you talking about education right now? I mean, that’s exactly what it is because personally the work I want to do, I even had people say like,”Well, you should get credentialed”. And I said, “I can’t teach the work I wanna get, if I teach credentialed”. And people said, “Well, you could do English or art and just change it.” And I was like, ”No, no, I’m not going to go through three years of school to have this eaten out of me and to learn all these skills that all these other teachers are already teaching. I’m not going to do it.” But also because what you were saying when I first started doing this work with kids, creating safe spaces for them, it was not safe for me. I would create safe spaces for them and kids were coming and they were dumped. They would tell me everything from self harm to self hate, to just having to do with abuse stuff, or I would have to actually report it and it was not sustainable.
I had a group for two years, they were the group I did these three skills with. Once I was done with that, I was like, “I can’t do this because it’s too much. The way I love and care for them is too much”. That’s why I’ve never been on any of these stories being like, you should tell your kids this. I don’t believe that because it’s not sustainable for everyone. So instead of quitting, and just being like, “I can’t do this because it’s too hard”, I’m going to find another way to do it. That’s why I want to do this TV show or this content creation, because it allows me to teach the things I need to teach, but not have to personally invest in every single kid because that’s not sustainable, I can’t do it. Those kids I had for two, I have a tattoo for them, that’s how big that group was to me. And then I was like, “No more. I can’t do that again because it was way not sustainable” but also, it was really about that I lost myself in the work for a bit and you can’t be a shoulder to lean on if you’re not standing up straight.
That’s so much of the nonprofit sector I saw, these people who really have these beautiful values and really want to help and serve people and do servant leadership, but were not being taken care of and not taking care of themselves and being in systems that don’t support them, or are doing the same strategies that lead to burnout or that lead to, unfortunately, martyrism where people are literally sacrificing their lives for this stuff. I’ve had to say to myself a few times recently, “If I wanted to quit, I can quit”. I’m not going to, but I just have to say it out loud sometimes “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to do this. I don’t owe this to anyone.” But then that’s where that why comes back.
[Mallory]: Totally, totally. I had a massive breakdown a few weeks ago. Every single technology system I use to run broke, one after the other. I had like 15 minute breaks between meetings and was trying to fix up. Like a full breakdown! And I called my friend crying at the end of the day and I said, “Just offer me a job.” He works at a huge fortune 500 company and I was like, “I just need you to go through the steps, just offer me a job in your department”. And he did, and I was like, “Great! No, thankyou”. I just needed to be reminded, and he was like, “I’d hire you in a second. Are you serious?” And I was like, ”Let’s just play this out.” Because I just knew that I needed it.
[Donovan]: I had this experience and I just talked to this kid about this the other day, and I think that I didn’t really understand the significance of it until this conversation that we were having because I was sitting through an academic meeting and they got really upset because they just wanted to talk about the data and I get it, right?
But the way that they were talking about the kids was just so dehumanizing. I know that these teachers care, I know that the school cares, but that’s just the system. We got to look at their reading data because we’ve got to support their reading, learning. I get that, but my God, it was so frustrating!
So then I left and I was in the McDonald’s parking lot in my car, and I think I posted an Instagram. I rarely do unhinged emotional video, but I did that day. I’m usually pretty intentional about my emotions, but I was like,”Why am I doing this? Does anyone even want this?” Because this is before any of this stuff blew up, so I was like, “Do kids want this? Am I fighting for something that I just think is right and it wasn’t being received and it wasn’t being taken seriously.” I tried to remember my why and I really couldn’t. And what was really beautiful about that moment was there was this young man, he’s 19 now but I’ve been working with him since he was 11, he saw it and he messaged me and he was like, “I don’t know what to say, except for when I needed you and I needed someone, you were there and it changed my life.” And he was like, “The work that you did change my life. I’m doing what I love now because of you.” That was my why, right?
Sometimes we can internally generate it and sometimes we need testimonials or we need people, or we need, opportunity for someone else to remind us of our why and kids are always the go-to. So at the end of the day, I got two jars full of notes right here behind me and when I’m struggling, I’m afraid, or before I’m about to take on something really big, or I’m about to put something out there and I’m feeling nervous or feeling that fear of rejection, I read it. I read those notes and I’m reminded instantly, it usually takes me one or two notes, and I’m like,”Okay!”
[Mallory]: I’ll give you my cell phone number, you call me anytime! We’re going to go on Lake Merritt walks.
[Donovan]: Are we neighbors
[Mallory]: I’m in Berkeley.
[Donovan]: Oh my God! I had no idea.
[Mallory]: And I lived by Lake Merritt for years. We just moved to Berkeley like a year and a half ago. Yeah, we’re neighbors.
[Donovan]: It’s so interesting. Because this is the first conversation that I’ve had, where even a lot of the skills I’m teaching people are still automatically applying it to academics for kids. But for me, I’ll get these messages from adults who are like, “Well, I need this, I need this for myself.This isn’t just for kids.” And I’m like, “Yeah, because it’s human work.” It’s human work and we are often isolating kids from humanity. The way that we talk about kids as if they were another species on this planet. As if they didn’t have the same experiences and emotions and feelings and fears and internal barriers that we do. In reality, the reason we have them is because it started when we were kids.
[Donovan]: A lot of the people who do service work in general are people who care, and a lot of times those roles started when they were kids and they saw injustice, they knew being the one that was good, took care of their family or they had to take care of their siblings or had some experience in trauma in their life. So now they’re trying to give back and, it’s so important that I think that those people learn how to take care of themselves and how to separate and understand that this passion and this cause is just a part of them. I can take this out, and I can put it right here and I’m still here, it’s still me, I’m still valid, I’m still who I am and I can pick it up and put it back in. But a lot of times it feels really like “This is who I am, and there’s nothing more to me, and if I don’t have this, then I have nothing.” I think that sometimes those micro experiences of asking for something and someone saying “no”, feels like a no to the full thing.
[Mallory]: A hundred percent, 100%. No, 100%. So inside my course, I do something called The Seven Day No Challenge, where I have fundraisers cold call donors and ask them for donations, but their job is to celebrate the no’s and their job is to get to a certain amount of no’s. Because you just gotta build it up, it’s like building a callous because the weight of them feel so big, they feel so personal. I think this inner sanctuary work, something that you were just saying, people ask me a lot, “Who’s inside your programs? Are they new fundraisers? Are they people who have been fundraising for a long time? And I’m like, they’re both! I actually have the most diverse clientele, probably of most nonprofit consultants. And I also love that you aren’t putting yourself in a box, cause I would tell you every single thing that makes me check, like “What are you on?” Like none of these things or four of those things, and I don’t fit into any of your definitions.
But, the thing is if you’re a new fundraiser, you’re going to come into my course, you’re going to start working with me and you’re going to be programmed from the ground up with a different way of thinking about fundraising. But if you’ve been fundraising for 10 years, 25 years, then it’s, you’re being reprogrammed. It’s important for both. And I think what you’re saying, that’s so critical is so much of adulthood and this work that you and I are talking about is un-teaching.
People ask me all the time about all the things that are additive in terms of my work, and I’m like,”Yes I have a framework for this, but actually a lot of what I’m teaching is like how to undo things or how to get things out of your way.”
[Donovan]: It’s just awesome that you said this because it just validates how much I resonate with you is that, a lot of the reasons I teach kids this right now is because so many people, not everyone,and that’s not even a judgemental thing, but the people who choose to do it are the people who are given the opportunities have to spend so much time in their twenties and thirties undoing what was done to them or what they learned in terms of how to show up or survive in the world. It’s why self-help is such a huge industry that grows every single year, it is because people are awake.
The fact that what they’re being taught and what they learned wasn’t necessarily thriving, it was a lot about surviving. And so for me, that’s a lot of energy. That’s a lot of energy. I wouldn’t change my twenties only because I am where I am right now because of it, but at the same time, I think about what I could have done with that energy. If I didn’t have to spend it all on undoing all these things, but instead I had these groundwork, this foundation. That energy is going to go somewhere else, and when you think about what’s going on in the world, in terms of all sorts of issues, we are sending kids into battle unequipped basically. Kids are getting wrecked and young people are getting destroyed and people are taking their lives because they’re so unequipped with dealing with themselves and being with themselves because of all these things they learned when they were kids. So in my head, if we can teach these skills to these kids, they’re going to have a lot more energy to take on the bigger things. They’re going to have a lot more energy to take risks and to be vulnerable and to stand up for what they believe in and to fight for what they believe in.
It’s beautiful to see young people fighting for what they believe in, but it’s not as common as it should be because we’re just trying to survive.There’s very few kids out there thriving, right? Because unless they have a perfect storm of circumstances or teachers or parents who will help teach them these things, it’s that cycle repeated. I worked with college students and I saw how tough they were on themselves, and I saw how down they would get about their grades and how awful they were at self-care. And then they were learning to be nice to themselves and stuff like that. This is like time you could be learning about causes or passions or your skills that you want to develop. I think about how important this stuff is all the time nonstop. It really informs the work I do, because it’s a part of my why.
[Mallory]: Yeah. There’s two things that you said that I just want to make sure everyone hears, because I think it’s so critical that you sort of alluded to. One is that energy transfers no matter what. You decide how it transfers, right? So energy is constantly transferring and I think being aware of that is such a critical piece. I think even in the way we transfer it to each other. There’ve been so many times where I knew exactly who to call when I had that meltdown where like, it wasn’t going to be about him and he was going to be able to just hold space and let me cry and say the right thing and not take it on.
But you know, there aren’t a lot of people that I would call in that state necessarily, because I don’t want to transfer that. I knew he was able to, and he offered of course. But that piece of energy transferring I think is critical. And then this, you said a few minutes ago when you were talking about the jar and reading the notes from the kids. I think that piece there that is so kind of profound to think about is that as safe as you feel inside yourself, as grounded as you feel inside yourself, you still utilize tools and things like that. You’re still looking for support outside of yourself. I think for folks who are listening that feel like they’re light years away from feeling internal safety, to know that there are people and things out there to ground you back in.I just think it’s really beautiful to think it’s always “both, and”.
[Donovan]: I’m glad that you said that too, because that was kind of a learning thing for me right now. It’s practice, these are practices. Those are just two of my practices. It’s just like you clean your house, right? You maintain your house, you build onto your house, it’s the same thing. And I don’t do it just being like, “Okay, I’m better.” I do practices all the time! Even my “I love you” part I still do it. I’ll pull it out just so you can see it. This is from four years ago, three or four years ago, and every time I open my wallet, I stop and I do it because it’s maintaining it. These are practices, looking at the jar is a practice that helps me keep that home safe, keep that inner sanctuary safe.
I think if I just focused on myself, I would also miss out on the beautiful connections and grace that the world has to offer through dealing with people and dealing with support. There’s some stuff I can’t give myself. I can’t give myself the feeling that kids give me. I can’t. I wish I could, but I wouldn’t do anything.
Every time I step into the room with kids, I’m reminded. That’s why I was crying. I’m reminded how deeply important my why is to me. I think that my why lives within me, but it also very much lives outside of me and the why that lives within me I want to protect and keep safe, and nurture and take care of. But the why outside of me is a little bit more volatile and that’s the one where the struggle comes into it, and the rejection comes into it. That’s the outside why, the inner why is something that no one can really touch, that’s my inherent truth that I know more than anything else I know in the world that is right. And I don’t let anyone touch that, which is that we got to treat kids better. And then the outside why is like afterschool programs or curriculum or speaking, or what do I do, or I should try this strategy or try this strategy. So I think that for people who are doing fundraising, being aware of your why, may not feel like enough, bI think that it’s a multifaceted why or it’s a multi-faceted process in terms of asking for that, I guess.
[Mallory]: And practice! I see that all the time. It’s like, you’re building a muscle and you know what? No, maybe you got some huge rejection, that’s like trying to lift a 200 pound weight and then feel positive after. You are right, that’s not going to happen. I made a post recently that was like, “I will never say, be positive”. I hate stuff like that. I hate that stuff! It’s like, oh my God, that’s the worst advice I’ve literally ever heard in my life.
[Donovan]: Well, I mean, we’re always trying to glamorize positivity in a lot of ways, because positivity feels pleasant. I’ve been teaching my kids a lot about emotion because they’ll say good or bad emotions. And I’m like, “It’s a pleasant or unpleasant emotion”. But everything positive and negative serves us in a way if we allow them to. It’s not saying that every bad thing that happens is like a good thing in disguise. That’s not what it is at all. But the fact is we live in a planet and we live in a world where good and bad exist. And within us, good and bad exist. It’s just these negative and positive feelings exist, there’s no morality to them. It’s not the good and bad, but it’s that positive and negative exist, and they also serve their purpose just like failure serves its purpose and rejections serves its purpose, but we don’t want to feel unpleasant.
So I think a lot of times in our society, we always want to push for feeling pleasant. And that’s not the case, that’s not the case all the time. Some of the most pleasant I’ve felt in my life, has come through getting through the unpleasant, right? It’s not because suddenly things are pleasant, it’s because I just went through the toughest time of my life and here’s what I did to get better, here’s how I got to this pleasant. That pleasant becomes so much more better when I realize how connected it is to the unpleasant. Losing my dad as a kid, is why I’m here in a lot of ways, and I’m never going to be like, thank God my dad died. I’m never going to say that, but at the same time, I can’t change that, but it’s helped me so much to reland in a positive space that I don’t even know if I could have accessed, if I hadn’t had such a negative experience.
[Mallory]: Okay. I want to be sensitive to your time, so as a final question I’d love to have you highlight a nonprofit that you love and care about, and folks can go check out and give if they’re able and inspired. So I’ll hand it to you.
[Donovan]: Yeah, so there is an organization called givethxs.org, and what I really love about them is that they have created an academic App that connects gratitude and creates basically like a social media in school network for kids to give gratitude and practice gratitude, but also connects it to social, emotional learning skills that are being developed and pushed throughout our country.
Give Thnx is in a few school districts, but it’s still pretty new. They’re doing, in my opinion, the work, if I was good at doing curriculum in schools, that’s what it would look like. So a lot of times people don’t understand how this work can show up in an academic setting, and I think they’re doing a really beautiful job of doing that.
Another nonprofit that I am super excited about is called Brave Trails and Brave Trails does summer camps and youth programming for LGBTQ kids. They are literally some of the best safe space creators out there, especially for the segment of our population that often feels very unsafe; they have lots of opportunities to support campers and support their programs. Brave Trails is really, really hitting the nail on the head when it comes to creating safety and helping kids create safety within themselves.
[Mallory]: Awesome, I will put links to all of that below, and then also just tell folks, because I’m sure they’re so moved and inspired by this conversation and you, where can they find you.
[Donovan]: I am on social media. My three main ones right now are Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, and they’re all under the handle: Donofriend. I love messaging, even though it takes me a long time, so please feel free to reach out. I think right now, my ask is just if it resonates with you share.
[Mallory]: Awesome, I will make sure all the links and everything are below this episode, so people can find you and follow you. Thank you so much!
[Donovan]: You’re great! You’re wonderful! I appreciate this opportunity so much.