Success is not defined, nor is the path to get there. Be wild!

A perennial problem that plagues the nonprofit world is stagnation. No matter where you go, even to really agile, awesome organizations...you will encounter at least one or two people (if not an entire organizational culture) very, very set in How We Do Things Around Here.

The Bubble Burster

Bubbles

Bubbles

In my first job after college, I worked at a desk right next to a person I came to refer to (in my mind, anyway) as The Bubble Burster. For all her good qualities (she was extremely organized, good with people, and prepared for every contingency), whenever I suggested even the slightest new and interesting idea, she would immediately tell me why it wouldn't work, a rationale that usually boiled down to That's Not How We Do Things Around Here.

It really grated on me at the time, though later I realized she ended up helping me avoid a lot of dumb mistakes. She had experience, she knew what could go wrong, she was used to thinking several moves ahead (which I struggled with), and she was doing her best to keep me from making the organization - and myself - look bad. Still, I feel like a few good ideas may have gotten lost as a result.

And that's what happens when you're stuck on a particular path, a particular Way of Doing Things. You get stuck. You lose passion. You miss opportunities.

Carving a new path to success

Wool

Wool

But now, I keep seeing people doing amazing things in totally new ways, ways that aren't The Way We Do Things Around Here. For example, I recently read the "Wool" series of novellas by Hugh Howey. These books haven't been published in paperback, hardcover, or by a publishing company (yet). They were completely self-published and, what's more, not marketed. Completely by word of mouth, this little (but awesome) sci-fi series ended up becoming a best seller for the Kindle, and Ridley Scott has just optioned the movie rights.

Sometimes when I'm not reading, I like to listen to Jonathon Coulton. "JoCo" not only put a ton of his original music on the Internet for free (asking for donations from fans and making most of his money through concert appearances), but he's founded JoCo Cruise Crazy, an honest-to-goodness cruise for people who enjoy quirky music. He gets a bunch of comedy musicians together and they perform and mingle with fans on a cruise ship every year. He's not your typical musician. He's not working with studios. He's doing what he loves, giving the fans what they want, and doing it in a whole new way.

Another of my genius-crushes is Hannah Hart of My Drunk Kitchen. To cheer up a long-distance friend one day, Hannah made a funny video of herself attempting to make grilled cheese sandwiches while drunk. The result was hilarious. (Note that this series contains language that may be offensive.) The video became so popular, it's now a series, and she's doing music videos and cultivating a media empire that will likely lead to mainstream media success.

ZeFrank

ZeFrank

And then there's ZeFrank. A few years back, a friend of mine posted one of Ze's videos on his blog, and it cracked me up AND made me think about life in a new way. Ze is a comedian and an inspiration in both how he lives his life and how he sees the world. He did a video blog every weekday for an entire year as an experiment, and it became wildly successful. Recently, he tried a Kickstarter campaign to see if he could start his show again, but make it bigger and better - and he raised approximately a bajilion dollars overnight. So now he's doing his show again, sending his viewers on missions to "chase their happy." (Again, this show may contain some offensive language.)

What is "success" today - for you and for your organization? How do you get there?

The path to "success" used to be pretty well-worn and standardized. You went to college. You got a job. You worked your way up the corporate ladder, getting married and having kids and getting a nice house in the suburbs along the way (speaking of Jonathan Coulton...). And the same goes for nonprofits: You'd get your start, inspire some people, hire a staff, do bigger and better things, get bigger and better donations, and ta-da! You're successful.

But then groups like Charity:Water come along, make a ton of money by using this new technology called Twitter, and Sesame Street starts making viral videos covering pop singles, and suddenly there are new paths to tread. Success is no longer narrowly defined, and neither is the path to get there.

The way you've been doing things may not be the best way. That goes organization-wide and for your own personal work. Take a step back. Brainstorm. Is there a way you could do things better? Differently? Is there an idea worth trying that you've put in a drawer because it's too radical, or the higher-ups would never approve it? Maybe you could take small pieces of that and test them out.

Because, even though we live and die by "best practices" in the nonprofit world, there are paths to success that have yet to be forged. You'll have to go out into the wilderness to find them, and you'll have to be willing to make mistakes along the way. But the potential reward is priceless.

Photo credits:camerakarrie and Scott Beale / Laughing Squid on Flickr