A Call to Action For the Nonprofit Community

by Joan Garry

Be prepared the next time you're asked, "So... what do you do?" Download the Storytelling Recipe here.

My wife Eileen and I just got back from traveling to Ecuador for a week’s cruise through the Galápagos Islands (I thought the image of the indigenous blue-footed boobies might give it away). And as you can expect when two old broads take an ambitious vacation (I’m still sore), there were lots of lessons and surprises along the way.

I’m going to share four of these lessons with you, but first, a couple surprises.

For one, I was surprised we were the oldest guests on this action-packed cruise (and probably should not have been). It was quite eye-opening.

On our very first day, Eileen fell on our hike and my lungs sent me a strong message that snorkeling may be something I did once upon a time.

But we did it. We hiked, we snorkeled, and yes, we rested more than any of our new friends from around the world. On the flight there I said to Eileen, “I think we selected a ‘stretch’ vacation.” I was not wrong.

Why does this matter? Something about mortality, making every minute count. We landed this morning, and after re-reading this (yes, I write blogs in airport lounges after vacations), I realized I forgot one word: perseverance.

A second surprising thing we discovered on this trip was just how much we had in common with complete strangers! And there was a common thread that kept coming up — over and over — in the discussions we had with just about everyone aboard.

Nope — we didn’t meet a ton of other LGBTQ folks. And as I said, the cruise wasn’t made up of other couples around Eileen’s and my age. And certainly, while we all found it hilarious to get in and out of our wetsuits, that wasn’t it either.

What we had in common was actually a lot more interesting and should be enormously instructive to every single one of us involved in the nonprofit sector.

Want to guess what it was?


1. No jerks aboard.

There were 17 of us aboard. With this low number, the risk was high that there’d be a JOB. You know… a “Jerk on Board.”

But each person was interesting, interested, thoughtful, kind, and adventurous. Oh and funny, too.

2. Naturalist guides care deeply about the Galápagos.

They share their knowledge, their joy, their curiosity, and their wonder with abandon. They welcomed us into their world and it became ours for a week. I cried when we said goodbye.

3. Look beyond the stereotype; it’s worth it.

Two examples:

First, we met the kindest, most caring 66-year-old guy, and I couldn’t decide what I found most interesting about him — that he was a Navy SEAL or that he fosters kittens through Save The Strays. Easy answer: both.

Second, a husband and wife from NASA who trained astronauts and did the mission control thing like you see in the movies. The stereotype? These folks must have ice in their veins. And then you meet Matthew, their 23-year-old son who lives with Prader-Willi syndrome. Mr. Mission Control retired to raise his two boys, and from our limited vantage point, it seems that choice was a gift to every member of his family.

4. Being a part of a very big world does not make you feel small.

Nope. It fuels you; it makes you feel like an important part of something so much bigger than yourself. It reminds you that you matter — that you have a part to play in however you define the ‘plan.’


We got to have conversations with different families about work, schools, kids, travels…

And when I shared my mission-driven line of work, at first I was met with a certain kind of gratitude, which was mighty nice.

And then it started to hit everyone. The key takeaway of the entire trip. The one I want most to share with you today.

Every single person on that boat had a connection to the nonprofit world.

Every single one.

My work, this blog, my podcast, the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, all of it was relevant to everyone aboard in all sorts of ways. One by one, they approached me to talk to me about their own nonprofit work and the countless ways the nonprofit community touches their lives.

There was John from Houston… “Oh!” He points to the logo on his shirt. “Do you know about NOLS, a nonprofit dedicated to building leadership skills in young adults?” Turns out, he has served as a course leader.

Then there was his wife Jean — she was involved with more than one. First, she mentioned the organization that researches a cure for Prader-Willi syndrome and supports and advocates for families — Prader-Willi Syndrome Association. Next, her son Matthew (whom I mentioned earlier and has Prader-Willi) volunteered this past spring in Holland, Michigan at Renew Therapeutic Riding Center and plans to be a regular volunteer each spring.

I also got to chat with Nicole from Madison, WI: “I’m a co-pilot,” she told me. No, not her profession. Nicole is a civil engineer and she reads my blog, so when she said she was a co-pilot, I knew what she meant. She is a board chair leading a search for a new executive director of The Literacy Network of Dane County Wisconsin. She has two big jobs!

Charlie from Florida is intent on being an active participant in his community, so he joined the board of The Center of Anna Maria Island.

Lee Ann from Memphis volunteers at the St Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen in her community.

Remember that Navy SEAL I mentioned? He fosters kittens — except for the ones he jokingly refers to as the ‘foster failures.’ There are six of them. They landed in their forever homes at his home in Pinellas Country thanks to Save our Strays of Pinellas County.

Our fellow traveler from the Grand Cayman Islands also has a deep connection to animal welfare with the Cayman Islands Humane Society through her own rescues, her work in the cat room, and her volunteer efforts to escort pets to forever homes in the U.S.

Oh and then three of our 15 fellow travelers work for nonprofits! 20% of the passengers!

Mike from Memphis made a career switch from the world of finance and is now the Chief Information Officer of the University of Clinical Health in Memphis. His enthusiasm about working for a healthcare organization was palpable. And then there’s Scott, who is a lead talent recruiter for Management Sciences for Health. Finally, Ariane is a senior exec at The Messerli Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland. She spoke so eloquently of the foundation’s work to support those aging out of foster care.

Travelers #16 and #17 (that would be me and Eileen) are enriched by our connections to our synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid, Toni’s Kitchen, numerous LGBTQ organizations, and of course the Nonprofit Leadership Lab.


I offer not one, but two:

  1. It is totally stunning to me how many people are deeply connected to nonprofit organizations and how critical they are to their sense of meaning and purpose in the world. It offers me such a dose of hope.
  2. It is even more stunning to me how infrequently people mention these connections.

Why, oh why when we talk to each other must we talk about our “work?” Must we define ourselves that way? Oh and don’t get me started with “Well I am retired BUT <insert big nonprofit commitment here>…”

No… there’s no BUT involved! Own it!

What if, when meeting a stranger who asks us what we do, we answer by leading with the work that fuels us, that turns towns into communities, and groups of people into neighbors, and that really helps us to get to know one another? Like for real. 

What if each of us inspired each other by sharing stories of meaning and purpose? Nicole is a civil engineer. That’s terrific, and I was impressed. But her determination to find just the right CEO for her organization told me something so important about her, and it inspired me too.


The nonprofit sector should get way more credit for being a bedrock of our society — for being the compass leading us all in the direction of a truly civil society. It deserves that.

And maybe if we were all out there talking about this work, its meaning to us and the world, maybe we’d build a bigger and stronger army of those who really walk the walk.

I loved meeting 15 humans and spending the week with them in a most glorious part of our amazing world. I loved knowing what they ‘did,’ and thanks to our conversations about nonprofits, I also loved learning about who they are.


Do me a favor. Think about what you say when you meet someone for the first time. What is really important for them to know about you? About what is important to you? What do you value most?

It will make for meaningful conversations, it will spread the good word about our sector, and it will definitely take your mind off of what you actually look like in a wetsuit.

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