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  • Pat Libby

What my dog taught me about being a good nonprofit leader

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

My dog, Frank, left the planet last week. For 16 years he was sweet, loving, funny and puppy-like.

Occasionally he was even obedient.

I loved that little guy more than words can begin can to express.

And if the love of others can be measured in mountains of Facebook comments, piles of condolence cards, and the tears of friends and neighbors who heard about Frank’s ascension to dog heaven, many other people did too.

Losing a beloved creature can’t help but make a person philosophical.

Losing my dog made me think about all of the things he taught me about being a good nonprofit leader.

Frank taught me to:

1. Get exercise every day. Frank loved to walk. In fact, I believe he considered himself to be my personal trainer. He was very upset if we didn’t walk at a pace that made my heart beat quickly for at least 40 minutes every morning (he preferred to go for an hour).

A lot of nonprofit leaders skimp on exercise because they’re too busy doing good things for others.

But taking care of yourself, and in particular, keeping yourself healthy, is a great way to ensure that you have the ability to serve others.

2. Take some time to reflect. Walking with Frank every morning gave me time to think and strategize about my day before I launched into whatever it was that lay before me. Having some tranquil moments prior to the onslaught of non-stop action and decision-making helped me think more clearly about how to approach my work.

It’s easy to get caught in a trap of rushing dawn to dusk from meeting to meeting and decision to decision. Taking some time out of each day to reflect helps ensure that the actions we take are proactive and strategic, rather than reactive.

3. Not be so serious. We nonprofit people constantly push ourselves to do better and more -- often, with less. We know the issues we’re trying to tackle probably won’t get addressed during our lifetimes but we somehow persist against the odds in trying to push the rock up the hill.

It’s good to take a break now and then to bond with our colleagues, to talk about things other than work, and to celebrate the good stuff.

Frank practically demanded tummy rubs and practiced being goofy on a regular basis which benefited us both.

4. Expect the best of others and approach them openly. Frank had high expectations. He presumed that any random person he met on the street would want to pet him and tell him he was a good boy. If someone came to the house, he’d assume they wanted him to sit on their lap.

He often got what he wanted because he was both upbeat and insistent. He approached everyone with a smile and a tail wag (even the vet!). It worked nearly every time

5. Not take things for granted. I fed Frank every day. And every evening at about 4:55, he reminded me that I needed to feed him again. When I did, he gobbled down his food as if he had never seen food before and was very grateful.

The lesson here has to do with how nonprofits should relate to their funders: We should remind them gently about why we’re important, never take them for granted, and show our appreciation when they renew their gifts to our organization.

6. Stand up to bullies. Frank weighed about 18 pounds but that didn’t stop him from barking at any big dog that threatened him. He was never scared.

Right now nonprofits are facing some major public policy and funding challenges that have the potential to have an enormous effect on our organizations and the people we serve. It’s important that we don’t back down from speaking out about these issues

7. Forgive the small stuff. When Frank was a puppy, he chewed a hole through one of my favorite sweaters, ate the fringe off the corner of an expensive oriental rug, destroyed two handbags, and broke a whole bunch of wooden window shutters. Each time he was bad, I scolded him, he apologized, and we moved on.

It’s rare that staff or board members do things that cause irreparable damage. It’s important to keep perspective on the big picture when mistakes happen. Nobody is perfect and most things can be replaced or repaired.

Frank, like most creatures, had his faults. But he was a darn good role model for all of us working in the nonprofit sector.

Pat Libby is a San Diego nonprofit consultant who offers nonprofit consulting and philanthropy consulting services. Frank was Pat & Mike's wonderful doggie!

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