78: Becoming a Changemaker: An Actionable, Inclusive Guide to Leading Positive Change at Any Level with Alex Budak

This episode is sponsored by:

watch on youtube


“I think we tend to over-glorify the social entrepreneur. There’s a concept called hero entrepreneurship, where we put the entrepreneur up on a pedestal. But I’ve come to believe that not everyone can or should be social entrepreneurs, but that change takes all of us.”

– Alex Budak
Episode #78


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

Are you a changemaker? The call to action on this episode of What the Fundraising is rooted in the notion that we can all be leaders of the change we seek. Alex Budak, a faculty member at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, believes leadership is ripe for redefinition – and has data to prove it! He walks us through how the human tendency to maintain the status quo impacts social change and why the greatest CEOs tend to balance confidence with a lot of humility. We’re also hearing all about Alex’s new book, “Becoming a Changemaker: An Actionable, Inclusive Guide to Leading Positive Change at Any Level,” as well as the quantitative work behind his “Changemaker Index.” A teacher, speaker, and consultant, Alex’s primary mission is to help empower people from all walks of life to become changemakers – activists leading the charge in whatever their realm. He has given talks on leadership, entrepreneurship, and changemaking worldwide, from Cambodia to Ukraine – and has also advised at the White House and UN agencies. 

You’ll come away from this episode with a new perspective on our culture’s tendency to glorify social entrepreneurs and leaders in general, a clear understanding of Alex’s “Three Pillars of Changemaking” and a fresh resolve to stand tall and lean into fear. We break down what failure really looks like and exercises for getting acclimated – which we all need to do. Why? Because there’s lots of work to be done, whether you’re a fundraiser in the nonprofit sector or a community member who knows things can be better. “There’s so much leadership to go around if we’re willing to seize those leadership moments,” says Alex. “And that’s my call to action: For all of us to see those moments around us and step into them.”


Alex Budak


Brought To
you By:




Many thanks to our sponsor Cosmic,  the social impact creativity agency that delivers compelling stories, builds brand awareness, and inspires action. The team at Cosmic knows how to leverage clarity to catalyze real-world change and help you become the changemaker you were meant to be.

Get to know Alex: 

Alex is a social entrepreneur, faculty member at Berkeley Haas, and the author “Becoming a Changemaker.” At UC Berkeley, Alex created and teaches the transformative course, “Becoming a Changemaker.” He also serves as Executive Director of the Berkeley Haas Global Access Program and as a Lecturer and Faculty Director for Berkeley Executive Education programs. As a social entrepreneur, he co‐founded StartSomeGood.com, ran Sweden’s most prominent social innovation incubator, Reach for Change, and helped Change.org raise $30 million.


Other episodes you would enjoy



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.


episode transcript

Mallory Erickson  02:29

Welcome, everyone, I am so excited to be here today with Alex Budak. Alex, welcome to What The Fundraising.

Alex Budak  02:36

Hey, Mallory, thank you so much for having me.

Mallory Erickson  02:39

I am really excited to talk about your work and your upcoming book. But why don’t you just start with telling everyone a little bit about you and your journey? And what brings you to this conversation today?

Alex Budak  02:51

Oh, thanks. Yeah, as I look back on everything, I guess the red thread that connects it all is helping people from all walks of life become changemakers. That’s really my passion. And that’s what’s connected everything that I’ve done. So I’ve worn a few different hats along the way. I’ve been a social entrepreneur, cofounded social venture called startsomegood.com, which seeks to tear down the barriers that stop people from enacting change in the first place. As it happens, I fell in love with a woman who got a job offer in Scandinavia. And so I moved with her to Stockholm moved in the middle of January, and this California kid has definitely never been colder in his life. But we stayed for three years made a really wonderful home there. And while I was there, I had the great privilege of running an incubator for leading Swedish social entrepreneurs and innovators, got to give talks in Scandinavia about how people can become changemakers in that context, came back to the states and worked for a while at change.org. I’ve studied change at big scale. And then through a lot of wonderful serendipity I found myself a UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. And at Haas I developed and teach this class, which is just a dream come true. It’s called Becoming a Changemaker. It’s a class I wish I could have taken when I was starting my own Changemaker journey. And then now yeah, as you mentioned, I’ve got my first book, which is Becoming A Changemaker. So based off of the same lessons and studies and exercises from the class, but now accessible to all.

Mallory Erickson  04:10

I love all of that. And I’m curious when, as you’ve learned about change making and change makers, what has been the most surprising thing for you?

Alex Budak  04:22

I think it’s how much it resonates with all kinds of different people. Part of why I started gravitating towards change making myself is that I’m a social entrepreneur. I know many of your listeners are, if they’re not they certainly know social entrepreneurs. And that’s one amazing way to create change. I think we tend to over glorify the social entrepreneur. There’s a concept called Hero-prenership, we put the entrepreneur up on a pedestal, but I’ve come to believe that not everyone can or should be social entrepreneurs. That really change takes all of us. And so I’ve made that shift for myself thinking a little less about the social entrepreneur side and more about the Changemaker side. But now as I work with Changemakers of all kinds all around the world, it’s really wonderful to see how this constant it really resonates with people across roles across sectors, across industries across ages, other demographics. I think they were pleasantly surprised by how inclusive of an identity it can be. And that really is important to me. And it’s great to see that that resonates with other folks as well.

Mallory Erickson  05:17

Wow, I love that. And that’s what I was thinking to, as you were explaining that just how the identity of being a change maker can be incorporated into so many other components of your identity or work that you’re doing. And I know you talk a lot about leadership as well. Can you thread that line for me between leadership and change making? What’s the relationship between those things? And how are they intertwined?

Alex Budak  05:46

I think if we were to talk maybe 20, 30 years ago, maybe there’d be a little bit less of a connection. But I think we’re seeing these two worlds come together more and more and more. And right now, if you’re a leader, and you’re not thinking about changemaking, it’s probably time that you should, among many other shocks. I know you’ve seen COVID, a couple of years ago when it first arrived, which changed quite literally everything. And we found that individuals, organizations, companies, cultures, we had to adapt or run the risk that we wouldn’t. Same thing with our leadership, the world is changing faster and faster than ever around us. And so the question is no longer just can we hide from that change? But can we find ways to navigate shape steer and lead that change towards more positive ends? At the same time, there’s also I think, more and more demand for us as leaders to be doing the right thing. Now, I would have loved to think that that’s always been the case. And I think there are tremendous leaders who have always done that. But I think a number of trends from Gen Z and millennials who are looking for more in terms of work and leadership and life, all the way to the long overdue awareness of the challenges that we are facing in our country in our world from systemic racism, which of course is not new. It’s been embedded for a long time. But we’re finally starting to come to grips with it, to the climate catastrophe. These are all areas where we need leaders to step up and lead change. So it’d be nice or be easier, let’s say to pretend that we didn’t have to worry about that as leaders, but certainly we don’t have a choice. So I think it’s a great opportunity for us to opt into that changemaker identity now as leaders and have that become the hallmark of the way we lead change.

Mallory Erickson  07:17

So what are the pillars of an effective changemaker?

Alex Budak  07:22

Break it down into three parts. So we start with a changemaker mindset. That’s a way of seeing the world and your role in it here. I’m inspired by the words of the poet Amanda Gorman, the he’ll be clients that she says, For there’s always light, if we’re brave enough to see it. If we’re brave enough to be it. I think that’s a really nice encapsulation of what it means to have a changemaker mindset, this idea that things can always be better than it is. Now, there’s always another way, there’s always potential, but it’s not enough to just recognize it. It also takes some bravery to identify it, perhaps when others might not to be able and willing to question the status quo, but also to sort of have the courage to step up and say, I’m going to do something about this. And one of the fundamental parts of being changemakers is radical inclusion, that each of us can be a changemaker, it doesn’t require a title, or authority. But it does require that courage to step up no matter where you are in a power hierarchy, or where you are in terms of leading change. So there’s changing your mindset. Then there’s changemaker leadership. So you sort of identify the world, you identify things you might want to change. But then how do you rally others to join with you? I’m a big believer that change making is a team sport. So it’s not just about us as individuals, it’s how do we work together as a team as a collective? 

How do we plug into the amazing work others are already doing and support those efforts? And increasingly, how do we learn how to influence without authority, rather than telling someone what to do based off of status or power? It’s how can you inspire people to want to be part of those changes with you. And then the third part is Changemaker action, because of course, it is change making not change thinking. And so it requires taking those often scary, but absolutely crucial first steps of action, transforming ideas into long lasting and sustainable change. And taking a systems lens to make sure that we’re not just putting a Bandaid on a cut. We’re changing systems that underlie issues we’re working on as well. And so yeah, I’d say it’s mindset, leadership and passion all coming together to help people be changemakers.

Mallory Erickson  09:21

Okay, I’ve so many questions I want to ask you and things I want to double click on that are inside there. And the first thing I want to ask you about is this concept that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, which is probably most fundraisers would say, if there was a money tree that could just fund my organization forever and ever, that would be great and I would take it. And I have the unpopular opinion that I actually would not. And the reason for that is because I really believe that fundraising is a critical part of movement building, that when donors make a decision to give their money it changes a piece of their identity, and they become more engaged in the work and in the organization. And that fundraising isn’t just a means to an end or unnecessary evil, as it’s sometimes called, but it is the work. And so I’m curious what you think about that.

Alex Budak  10:16

I don’t know if you’re going for some tension here, but there’s no tension, because I agree, totally agree with you. From my own experience in cofounding Start Some Good, which was one of the earliest crowdfunding platforms for social impact, we found exactly the same thing. We set out to say, the way we fund social ventures is broken, and let’s make it more community driven. That was really our goal. What we found is that it’s not just about the money, that especially when we’re thinking about new social ventures getting off the ground, that it was also building that community of support, that was absolutely crucial. And so we found that on our site, sometimes people would raise as much as 100,000 US dollars, sometimes they’d raise 300 US dollars. But in all cases, it wasn’t just about the money that they needed to get started, it was getting that early community, the early champions on board and amazing things happen when people felt a sense of it. 

I think that in so many ways, people are so hungry, to feel a sense of belonging, to feel some part of something bigger than themselves. And money is, of course, one way towards that. But I think we just see people in terms of dollar signs, we’re missing so much, when we see them as part of that community that can help shape it, be part of it, be champions, be engaged. One, it makes fundraising a lot less painful. And secondly, it makes it a lot more purposeful.

Mallory Erickson  11:25

Yeah, I don’t know that I expected tension necessarily, but it’s just been something that’s been so consciously on my mind, because I think we often think about the belonging piece, as like, who already belongs to this group, versus who’s on the fringe, but wants to belong to this group. And to me, that’s what fundraising is, it’s the invitation to say, We want you to be a part of this too. And it’s often folks first opportunity to play with that identity for themselves as well to see if this is the group for them and things like that. So I love that. I want to talk about the action piece also, and not to put a negative spin on it immediately. But I want to talk about fear a little bit. Because I’m curious when you think about these three pillars of change making. And as you were talking about the action piece, in particular, I do a lot around habit and behavior design, and frankly, mostly to help fundraisers and nonprofit leaders overcome the fears that come with change. So can we talk about that a little bit? So what comes up first, when I say that to you?

Alex Budak  12:36

That so many changemakers are so scared of feeling fear. That they think that if I’m doing it right, I shouldn’t be scared that I should just be like, Oh, this is easy, you just got to do it. But I think if we change our perspective with fear, it actually can become more of an enabler. Sometimes that feeling of fear that we have is a feeling like this is really meaningful to me, or this is something I really should be doing or activating our energy in a powerful way. So I think I spent a lot of time working with changemakers that are feeling bad about themselves. They’re scared thinking that, of course, when you read the narratives, the popular narratives that oh, this person is just fearless. And they just do everything. I don’t think that’s the actual reality. And so I think we can start to build a different relationship with our fear.

Mallory Erickson  13:17

I love that. And I couldn’t agree more. I say to my clients a lot. You don’t need to be fearless all the time, just for a second, when you click Send on the email, or just for a moment when you do this thing, just right when you get over that action line, how can you have 30 seconds of fearlessness, perhaps. But I think that awareness around the fact that we are likely going to be uncomfortable, and that’s not a sign that we’re doing something wrong, is a really important piece of the conversation. Because what I think you’re saying, see a lot of people and hear as an executive coach, a lot of times leaders will say to me, Well, if I was a good leader, I wouldn’t feel that way. If I was a good leader, I would be able to push back there without feeling so uncomfortable. And there’s this myth that discomfort is a sign of something wrong, but from the science, we know that any change to the status quo should actually naturally lead to discomfort. So if we’re trying to change the status quo, to me it would seem normal, that discomfort would be a part of it. But like our initial mindset around that seems to be the opposite.

Alex Budak  14:25

Completely. Right. And like you said, the social science is there as well. So like Samuelson and Zack Hauser have done work on the status quo bias, which shows that even when the alternative is better, that we tend to prefer what we already have, we tend to overvalue that. And so we as change makers need to overcome some of that initial inertia. 

Mallory Erickson  14:41

What are some of the ways you’ve seen change makers work through that or what are some strategies that you talk about and recommend?

Alex Budak  14:48

My class is very hands on and very experiential. And actually in the book, I give some of the same exercises I give to my UC Berkeley students as well so readers can try them out. But so when it comes to failure, we spent some time in class learning the science behind it, the social science behind it, we do a couple of case studies. But it’s one thing to intellectually know, okay, if I’m going to do anything meaningful, I’m going to fail along the way, I’m going to feel scared. But it’s a much different thing when you’re forced to actually go out and do it. So towards the end of the lecture, I put up a slide which says, two words, go fail. Students look at me nervous, is he for real? Is this really happening? 

And then I go to the next slide, and I’m like, Yep, this is really happening. So here’s the assignment, you have 10 minutes, we have to go leave the classroom, and you have to go ask for something. And you can’t come back until you’ve been rejected. You’ve got to get someone to say no to you. And then at that point, you can come back. And as a professor at the front of the room, I can see students like literally starting to respond somatically, they’re getting nervous. They’re giggling, like, they’re just scared about what’s about to happen. So they shuffle out of the room. And of course, I mentioned that I’m here at the front of the room, I’ll help you, if you need a little coaching or mentoring, I’m going to support you in this or you’re not just totally on your own, then ask you to walk out. And then when they come back, the energy is just off the charts. So much so that I once had a faculty member next door, come over and ask us to keep the noise down because students were just so energized from the feeling of coming back. And students find two things. One, about 1/3 of students who ask for something even ridiculous things, they actually get a Yes. They’re sure they’ll get a No, but they get a yes. So I think of one student who walked out in the rain without an umbrella, found a guy with an umbrella and said, Hey, my class is all the way across campus, would you walk me there, so I don’t get wet. And the guy said, Yeah, total stranger was willing to walk 30 minutes out of his way to just help a random person. Then the second thing they learned is that failure and rejection don’t hurt nearly as much as we make it out in our head, that they’re sure they’re gonna get laughed at, or that it’s going to be just so overwhelmingly painful. And it’s honestly not, it feels really empowering. When you realise, okay, I got rejected, and I’m still here, I’m still doing fine, I’m going to move on forward. And so often this one experience for students, and this one you again, you can recreate in the book is one that changes their perspective on what it means to be scared and what it means to fail. Because once you do it a couple of times, it desensitizes you a little bit and then you can go into with more confidence knowing hey, I can handle this.

Mallory Erickson  17:08

Okay, we are kindred spirits, because inside my course the power partners formula, I have something called the seven day no challenge, where I have fundraisers take a particular type of list from their donor database. And their goal is to get as many no’s as possible in that week period making phone calls to all of those donors, their lapsed donors they haven’t given. And they find similarly that number one, they raised a lot of money doing it because a lot of people say yes, but also they build their resilience around the No, and they realise it’s okay, I’ve survived. And then having tools to deal with, sometimes with fundraising, as I’m sure in your work, too. Sometimes when the ask feels so deeply personal, the no hurts a little bit more, right? Because there are sometimes then is some chatter that comes afterwards about why the person said no, or there’s with fundraising in particular, a lot of the donor doesn’t like me, or what did I do wrong or right, there’s this whole dialogue that we can have internally around it. And another thing I talk about a lot around that which I’m curious, your perspective here is that sometimes we don’t like to do things, not because of the thing that we’re doing, but because of the way we talk to ourselves during the thing. And I find that for myself with certain types of exercise, there’s certain types of exercise where I’m very kind to myself. And there’s other types of exercise where I’m really mean to myself. And it’s no wonder that I don’t want to do those things. And the same thing is true I think, with fundraising, a lot of what people don’t like about fundraising has nothing to do with the activities and everything to do with how they talk to themselves in the face of challenge or failure, or people saying no. I’m curious how that materializes in your work?

Alex Budak  19:01

I was nodding quite a bit which I realize is not great for an audio podcast, it’s something I’ve experienced quite a bit myself, because we tend to tell ourselves, all of these stories and we make it up to be so much more than it actually is. And I’m guilty of that as well. But I think the time that I learned this lesson in the most profound way, was when I was actually applying for my job at UC Berkeley. So I’ve gone through the application rounds, and it’s a long arduous process. And then every sign was it was looking good. But then of course, it’s the awkward position where they’re supposed to follow up with me they didn’t. So then I wait a couple of days and say, Hey, just wanted to circle up and follow up that kind of awkward dance. And then again, I get an email back saying Alex sorry, been holding off on email, just wanna let you know that unfortunately, you finished in second place, we decided to give the job to someone else, but keep in touch. But then two days later, I get an email with a subject line which is just it’s very dramatic. It was just development dot dot dot. And it turned out that the person who they initially offered the job to the first place finisher had declined the job and so the job then became mine and of course I happily accepted and stepped into it. But in that moment, of course, I was feeling gratitude and feeling lucky. But also it reminded me that rejections just aren’t personal. Who knows why they chose that other person over me? What could it have been? And just, who knows, maybe it’s a flip of the coin at the end. Like, Okay, down to these two people, I don’t know which one to choose, let’s choose that other person and tell myself to stop writing those stories because unless you know for sure, and you don’t know for sure, then why make up those stories. And so that has changed my perspective, which of course, has then been helpful as I went through many other life skills that require rejection, such as reading a book, which comes with a lot of rejections as well.

Mallory Erickson  20:36

Yeah, yeah. And I feel like at least for me personally, that the more I take risks, the more comfortable I get with rejection, because I’m taking so many risks. And that some of them are sticking, plenty of them aren’t. But I had a friend recently talking about how to make reels on Instagram. And I was like, here’s the thing, the first one is going to be really scary, because it’s your only video on Instagram. And so the stakes are going to feel really high. But if you just do it every day, for two weeks, you’re gonna have 14 reels and so the stakes for each of them is going to be a lot lower, because you’re gonna have so much content. And that’s how I feel about everything. And it helps me at least with the rejection piece a lot.

Alex Budak  21:21

Yeah, I really appreciate that. And my work grade analogy, do it 14 times, you got 14 pieces of content. And if the first one was terrible, people will never even remember that one.

Mallory Erickson  21:29

It’s buried. I love that. Okay, you have studied so many different changemakers, so many different leaders. When you think about the mindset piece in particular, because we talk about that a lot on this podcast, what are some patterns or qualities that you see in the mindset of really effective changemakers?

Alex Budak  21:48

Yeah, and of course, as we’re talking about changemaking, maybe someone’s listening to this and saying that sounds a little bit fuzzier. How are you measuring this? And so of course, I live in the world of academia, which is very data driven. And so I’m conducting the first ever Longitudinal Study of changemakers, trying to understand how do change makers develop over time, and what kind of patterns can we pull out from that? So it’s a project that they call the Changemaker index. And so as part of that, we’ve been able to crunch the numbers actually trying to figure out like, what are the traits that great changemakers have in common? And what are some of the mindset traits that can lead to a score we call changemaker effectiveness. And so on the mindset piece, the number one highest correlated piece of the greater mindset is this ability and willingness to question the status quo, that when people are able to see a different path forward, to recognize that things could be better than they actually are right now, see patterns that others may not see. That’s the mindset unlock to so many other things by telling the story of Lila Ogryn, who’s someone that probably your listeners have never heard of. But you’ve absolutely used her work since the 1970s. And she’s working for the Swedish telecommunications agency. And they’re trying to figure out the first ever mobile phone. They’re trying to, at this point, do car phones, and they kept running into the same challenge. So what they’re trying to do is recreate the exact same process of what it was like dialing a phone number from a landline, right where you dial all 7, 10 however many numbers, and then it dials. But they’re trying to do this in an automobile, moving automobile. And it just kept dropping because they would lose connection to the towers. And the team just couldn’t figure out a path forward and then kept thinking maybe it’s just not possible to do this. But Lila Ogryn was willing to see things a little bit differently. Her powerful insight, which by the way, was fantastic. She’s the only woman on an all male team, but she came up with this one insight saw things differently. And she said, why are we trying to recreate the exact same experience of being in a house when we’re in a car? Why don’t you think a little bit differently. And at that point, computing power is at the point where you actually store some data, store some numbers. So instead of sending them all off at once, it would store each individually until you’ve got the 7 or 10 numbers, then once you’ve got them all, then boom, it would send it off to the tower. And that is what made our ability to use mobile phones possible. And so we’ve never heard, most people have never heard of Lila Ogryn but looking back 50 years ago, seems deceptively simple, but a really powerful insight, is the ability to question the status quo to see things just a little bit differently than others did. And that’s made all the difference.

Mallory Erickson  24:07

How do people cultivate that in themselves?

Alex Budak  24:10

I’m a big believer in the power of curiosity. So I’ve got a wonderful 20 month old at home. And it’s so fun to sort of see the world through his eyes and just the sheer curiosity that he brings into everything. And being a parent and other parents would probably identify with this but children have a wonderful way of seeing the world and why does it disappear? How does it disappear as we become adults? He’s not old enough to get asked the question why but I’m preparing myself for that apparently around age three or something there will be lots of why’s for me. 

I already know he’s gonna be a kid that’s asking that but I think that curiosity at some point we tend to get like hyper specialized. When you think about the way universities work. It’s like you have to have a major but even though the world isn’t set around like sociology, etc, and I don’t know clean water access. We have to be a sociologist. In jobs you are a I don’t know direct consumer marketer, You have this hyper specialization, which I think doesn’t serve us well. And so I think we do well to tap into our curiosity from the design thinking playbook, channel that inner three year old and ask why and be really curious. I’m also a big fan of the way that the design from IDEO thinks about people it hires, maybe you’ve come across this before, the T shaped lever is where you have this sort of vertical line, which is the deep functional expertise. But then the horizontal line is the broad based curiosity and awareness of a lot of different things. And I think we would do well as individuals to think of ourselves as a bit more T shaped.

Mallory Erickson  25:29

Dennis Boyle, one of the founders of IDEO has been massively influential in my career. So IDEO has a deep place in my heart, and I so agree with everything that you just said. I’m thinking a lot about what everything that you’re talking about here, and how it relates to nonprofit leadership. And the relationship often between the nonprofit executive director or CEO and their board of directors. And a pattern, I feel like I see a lot is a strong change maker in the CEO, or the executive director, with a board of directors that holds a lot more fear around change. And it often hampers the ability of the leader to be effective, then over time can also maybe squash a little of that curiosity or exhaust them a little bit in the ways in which they once felt excited and inspired to challenge the status quo. And I’m curious, do you have any advice for that dynamic, or how in different types of power dynamics like that leaders can find their way? 

Alex Budak  26:39

It’s such a crucial power dynamic to navigate. And I think it’s one that we don’t fully prepare ourselves for, as executive leaders or even as board members, this idea that, I’ve seen this so often that that CO, Ed, they stopped seeing themselves as beholden to the mission. And they start seeing selves beholden to the board and making sure that they hold on to things. So I’d like to address this in two ways, both what the board can do and what the individual can do. But starting with a story. So I had the great pleasure of serving on the board of an nonprofit organization called Creating The Future. And it’s led by a quite a visionary social entrepreneur, Toby Gottlieb. And so we as a board took the decision that we wanted to essentially blow up with the normal board is like, and rethink the board completely. 

And so we went down to what’s the bare basics. So really, the only thing that we had to do as a board is overseeing the financials and a couple of other things. And so we said, okay, as long as we do that, then check done legally, we’re set. Now let’s think about what role we can play to actually be part of that community to actually build things forward. Rather than seeing us as people who just write a cheque, and then occasionally drop in with Have you thought about this idea. Instead, it’s about being part of the community itself, and like that’s attracting the right type of board member. I think from the board member side, they would generally do well to place a bit more trust in the organization, usually the boards, they get to a great place because of the Executive Director, at least that initial vision and to bias themselves towards that trust. And then I think, on the ED side, at least from what I’ve seen, and working with nonprofit leaders is when it becomes a feeling like they’re just trying to perform, performative for the boards, that’s a dangerous setup. And then it leads to the point where you withhold information, or you hold back on bad news. And then as you know you’re preparing, you’re spending all your time preparing the quarterly update, we’re just trying to massage the language perfectly. And so I think instead, find ways to like over communicate with the board, bring them in really quickly. And many board members probably won’t want to be that involved in details anyway. But as long as you’re over communicating it, then you can buy yourself a bit more space, and show yourself as someone who’s trying to be a partner in this rather than someone who’s just trying to please the crowd.

Mallory Erickson  28:35

Yeah, I really agree. And I think the people pleasing element of the board is also so complicated, and really a never ending battle. Because it’s 12, to 3 to 20 people, not everyone is ever going to be happy at the same time or agree on a decision. And so that quest to make everyone happy, and losing sight of the mission, often in the process, I think is a really important point. And yeah, I love that advice that you shared there. I keep thinking as you’re talking about these components about their relationship to confidence. Can you talk to me about the role confidence plays in both how you understand and teach change making and leadership?

Alex Budak  29:16

When we look at change makers, we often tend to see people who at least appear outwardly super confident. And of course, I teach at a business school. And so if you were to drop in, you’d be like, Wow, these people are super confident, like get to know them well enough to know that most people aren’t as confident as they appear on the outside. And so I don’t teach confidence. What I teach is directly connected one of the values of the school, but it’s called confidence without attitude. So in other words, this wonderful polarity of confidence and humility at the same time. So I think if we were architects on either side, then we get into trouble. So the hyper confident leaders and one that never listens, and of course, they give great speeches, that’s not going to lead a team. And then on the humility side, I’m a big believer in the power of humble leaders and the data really show how impressive and how important is to have humility as a leader .Amy Alfred’s did research looking at do humble CEOs matter in the Tech world and they found that level presence of humility among the leader led to better innovation, more diverse management teams and even better bottom lines. So humility really matters. But where I like to play is we often think, okay, I should be a little bit humble, and a little bit confident. And then what happens we sort of meet in the middle where we’re not that humble, and we’re not that confident, think like the humble brag, which everyone hates. So instead, I like to think about confident and humble. And those are the type of leaders that we want to work for. As a change maker, you’ve got to be confident in your ideas to stand up or just even to say, like, Hey, I believe I can make change, like that requires some confidence. But it’s the humility that I think really unbox so much of it to make people want to be part of this with us, to be able to highlight some of our own fail abilities as a leader, practice some of our own vulnerability, to ask questions, instead of just pretend you have to have all of the answers. And so I think as changemakers it’s owning that polarity of being both confident and humble at the same time.

Mallory Erickson  30:59

Wow, I really love that. And I’ve never thought about that in that way before. I often think about the kind of toxic confidence perhaps more as like ego. And when I think about inner confidence, or self-confidence, I think more about how are you able to stay true to yourself, stand in your values, be comfortable with failure, right? Because for me confidence, when I think about a really confident leader, someone who doesn’t listen to their staff doesn’t strike me as someone that confident because frankly, they’re protecting their ego from dissent. And so I think that’s a really, really interesting way to think about it. I’m curious, you mentioned that study around humility. What are some of the ways that you can measure or that they did measure how truly humble a leader is?

Alex Budak  31:50

Yeah, they had an index, I think that they used to measure a series of questions that they asked the CEO to self-report, but they would fill that out. But one of the frameworks that I love thinking about our humility, as a leader comes from the work of Jim Collins, I’m not sure if you’ve come across that before  called level five leadership. So Jim Collins set out to try to understand like, the book is actually called Good to Great. So in other words, what makes companies truly great when others remain good, he did something called matched pair analysis. So basically looking at two companies, otherwise identical think like Wells Fargo, Bank of America. And so he’s this hardcore kind of quantitative guy, strategy guy who thinks everything could just be measured in terms of corporate strategies. But his team came to him and said, we’ve actually found something in the data that is about the role of leadership that leads to companies truly being great. And he was, of course, skeptical at first, but he guess he practiced some humility himself to be open to it. And so what they said is, they found that the truly great companies, all of them had something called they call it level five leadership. So it’s fierce results, hardworking, and maybe called Grit, but then also humility, high levels of humility, which is surprising, especially when you think in a traditional business context that humility matters so much. But the framework he uses to teach humility I really like. So  it’s called the mirror and the window. So when blame comes in, and you’re a leader, do you look in the mirror and take blame? Or do you look out the window and blame your team? Then when it comes to praise. Do you look in the mirror and say, oh, yeah, that praise is for me? Or do you look out the window and give that praise to your team. So of course, the humble leader is more willing to accept blame, and more willing to distribute the praise to others, not perfect. And of course, there’s reasons that it’s an imperfect model, for instance, especially marginalized groups may need to actually stand up and take the credit they deserve if they’re less likely to receive it themselves. But as a general model, I think that works quite well to think about when praise comes in, are you one to share it or to take it for yourself.

Mallory Erickson  33:39

For folks who are listening to this. If they’re going to ask themselves some of those questions. I’d be curious to reflect on what your gut automatic response is, and then how you behave. Because I also think that’s a little bit telling in terms of maybe an area of growth. One of the things that I see with leaders a lot that I’m sure you do, too, you mentioned that like performative nature, sometimes between the CEO and ED, and board of directors. And I see this sometimes around different leadership qualities when leaders are told, great leaders look like blank, blank, blank, blank, but the inner work around that perhaps hasn’t been done. So they perform in a way, perhaps, where they’re praising their team, but it’s a little bit disingenuous, and you can feel it in the room. And it’s been an area of my own leadership that I’ve really tried to pay attention to, what are my gut responses? What’s that auto response for whatever the situation is? And then how do I behave and not that correcting to behave in a way that supportive of your team is a bad thing at all, but I think for folks who want to go to that deeper level around their inner leadership and how they feel in those moments, there’s the second layer of questioning that I feel like gets really juicy there. 

Alex Budak  35:05

Really important. And what a great way to develop some self-awareness. I love the writing of Viktor Frankl and he talks about how between stimulus and response, there’s a space, and that space is our power to choose our response. And so I think what you’re maybe getting at is this idea that we could fake it to be the mirror and window person when we’re not. But at least when there’s like stimulus that comes in to at least get a little more self-awareness to be like, how do I normally respond? And how do I want to respond? If we can slow that down a little bit, I think there’s a lot of magic self-awareness that can happen in that place. It’s not that easy or automatic, it takes work, but starting to develop that awareness can be really powerful.

Mallory Erickson  35:37

Yeah, I love that. And I think the need for a little bit of spaciousness to be able to do that is so important. Because, we talk about this a lot in coaching, it can be called thought one and thought two or first time second harm, which is that idea of what is that space between those two things? And how do we create space to be able to make shifts or self-reflect or get curious around it? So I love that. What related to change making or leadership, have I not asked you about that I should be asking you about?

Alex Budak  36:08

Oh, thanks. Yeah, there’s another concept that I write about in the book, which is some original work that I’m really excited about, which is a concept called Micro Leadership. And so I think this is building off of a lot of trends that we’ve talked about so far in our conversation, but we tend to over glorify the leader and say, look to this person, put them up on a pedestal, the amazing leadership, they did that one row with the leadership act where they summoned all the courage. But I think that does a disservice to what leadership really is. So rather than thinking about leadership as one arc, I like breaking leadership down into its smallest, most meaningful atom, which is a leadership moment. And the question of micro leadership is can you cease those leadership moments that are around you all the time? What does it look like? You know, maybe it’s being willing to say no, when everyone else is saying yes? Or say yes, when everyone else is saying, no. Maybe it’s giving the time to give a thoughtful feedback to someone, maybe it’s volunteering to stay late to help clean up for the one of your colleagues, first times ever watching an event, or there’s all kinds of little moments that happen before us all the time. And sometimes we just let those moments sail by. But the idea of micro leadership is that we seize those moments when we can, that rather than waiting for someone else to give us permission and say, Okay, you are now choose whatever title you want, you are now the leader. Instead, we start seeing ourselves as leaders. And while the title of leader might be scarce, leadership is abundant. And there’s so much leadership to go around, if we’re willing to seize those leadership moments. And I guess that’s my call to action is for all of us to see those moments around us and to step up.

Mallory Erickson  37:31

I love that. How do you think about the concept of thought leadership? And how that fits into this?

Alex Budak  37:39

Can you say what you mean by a thought leader?

Mallory Erickson  37:41

I feel like it’s a term that gets thrown around a lot. I get it thrown at me sometimes. And so it’s kind of this thing, that concept, I guess, I’ve been wondering about in terms of what makes someone a thought leader, can everyone be a thought leader, which I personally think in this day and age, you can and it just involves sharing your thoughts. And if your thinking helps influence and change other people’s thinking, then you are a thought leader. But I’ve just made that up in my own head. So I figured you would have a better answer.

Alex Budak  38:13

Thanks. Yeah, I think I like the more inclusive approach to thought leadership. So I think a bit like some people just want to be CEO for the sake of being CEO. 

I think a lot of people want to call themselves a thought leader just for the sake of being a thought leader. But it’s not the title that makes a difference. It’s really like, what are you actually doing with it that’s empowering. Whether you call yourself a thought leader or not, if you’re sharing ideas, they’re pushing open up from new ideas to people, opening their eyes in new ways. That’s thought leadership to me. And so I think I focus less on the person who puts thought leader as their LinkedIn bio, and more about do they push my thinking in really powerful in meaningful ways.

Mallory Erickson  38:45

I love that. And for it to be an identity that you can adopt or not, but to really wind it back to what’s the purpose of challenging thinking around something in the first place.

Alex Budak  38:57

Is anything going back to the concept of humility. Are you calling yourself a thought leader because you want to be a thought leader because you want that title? Or are you doing it really as an act of service because you think you have something meaningful to share? And if you’re listening to this podcast, I promise you you have something meaningful to share, and are you doing it as a result of that added act of service and that is true thought leadership.

Mallory Erickson  39:13

Yeah, and I like what you said that no one needs to crown anyone as a thought leader because I think sometimes with terminology like that, it then does become just this other way of disenfranchising certain voices and creating new hierarchies and new power dynamics and I do think there’s a really important space in the digital landscape for thought leadership to be much more democratized. Than we’ve seen other forms of leadership or leaders.

Alex Budak  39:45

We need all their voices, we need to all be collectively doing this because there’s often the bad habit which is that someone is quote thought leader on one thing at one time, and we continue looking to them for advice on everything else when maybe they actually don’t know anything about this but because we put them on a pedestal or give them the title, or they’ve stepped into it not having the humility to say, I don’t know that we tend to keep working for them. And so yeah, I’d much rather see all of us be thought leaders together rather than continue to go to the same sources.

Mallory Erickson  40:10

I love that. And that there, it’s not about there’s no market saturation of thought leadership. And just because and I actually think the dissent in thinking is what’s really valuable and important about thought leadership, too. And so I think sometimes folks think, Oh, well, a thought leader said that, but I might believe something different. And I think the exact opposite is true, right, is that the idea is to be grappling with different ideas in community and together and to not shy away from your own thought leadership, no matter who else out there is saying what and what they have in their LinkedIn bio, as you said. Well, this has been such a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Where should folks go to find you and get the book and continue to learn from all of your incredible research and wisdom?

Alex Budak  41:02

Oh, thanks. Yeah, you can go to www.changemakerbook.com to grab the book. You can even take the Changemaker index that I talked about, if you’re curious to see how you do what your changemakers strengths are. And then I love connecting with a community of changemakers. So please connect LinkedIn is the main social network that I use, so find me there also, Instagram @AlexBudak and Tik Tok the same.

Mallory Erickson  41:21

Awesome, thank you so much for this conversation.

Alex Budak  41:25

Thank you, Mallory. I love the conversation. Thanks for having me.

Mallory Erickson  41:33

There is so much inside this episode that I loved and has me thinking about leadership and changemaking in totally different ways. Here are a few of my favorite highlights. Number one, everyone can be a changemaker. This is an inclusive identity that we are all invited into. Number two, there is an untapped hunger out there among people who want to contribute as a way to connect and feel a sense of belonging. 

This goes for your donors too. Number three, leadership qualities that data indicates support great companies are grit and hard work, significant levels of humility, ability to take the blame and have a level of accountability and the ability to graciously accept and distribute praise. I also loved Alex’s three pillars of change making, the change maker mindset, which is how you see the world and your role in it. Change maker leadership, which is it’s a team sport, you must be able to engage and bring people along without relying on muscle and authority. And then the last one Changemaker action, the goal is identified. Now it’s in the doing. And the last thing I’m really taking away is about that piece around falling short. The next time you feel bad about falling short, ask yourself the no or the narrative you’re playing in your head around the No. We tell ourselves so many stories that hold us back. And often it’s those stories that are so much stronger than the actual experience of hearing no. 

Okay, there are so many more takeaways and tips inside this episode. So head on over to www.malloryerickson.com/podcast  to grab the full show notes and resources now. You’ll also find more information there about Alex becoming a change maker and our amazing sponsors Cosmic who can help you build your brand around the change you want to make. Thank you for spending this time with us today. If you enjoyed this episode, we would love it if you would give it a rating and review and share it with a friend. I am so grateful for all of my listeners and the good hard work you’re doing to make our world a better place. And if you miss me between episodes, stop by and say hello on Instagram under @whatthefundraising_ 

Have great day and I’ll see you next week.

Scroll to Top


Just put in your name and email to let the magic begin….

You're one step away from getting my favorite tools!

Just put in your name and email to let the magic begin….