Rebecca Nielsen | Writing Our Way to a Right-Sized Dream

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In her earlier guest post, Rebecca Nielsen, the mother of twin daughters, and a graduate of Harvard's MBA program, wrote “After each class I kept a journal of how my education in brand management, strategy, controls or finance would serve me in the non-for-profit arena – and I kept the dream tangible: someday I would run the American Red Cross.”

I was impressed by Rebecca's discipline, and intrigued.

By keeping a journal, or ‘telling her story' in real-time, could she also write her way to a right-sized dream?

My initial query was, “How can your mothering experience help you to continue to prepare to run the Red Cross?” She reframed with , i.e. “how is what I am doing now preparing me to make a significant contribution in the realm of humanitarian relief?”


Here's what she's written:

For the last month and a half I've kept a journal (about 2-3 times a week) focused on my thoughts about humanitarian relief as prompted or spurred by my daily activities as a mother.

Some entries related to interactions with my children, but for the most part I wrote about the current handling of specific disasters (e.g. the neglect of the junta following the cyclone in Myanmar, the efficient response to the earthquake in China, etc.).

My experiences as a mother are likely schooling me in qualities of character important to non-profit leadership; however, what this experiment confirmed is that my current lifestyle also grants me the mental space to digest much of what is happening in the global humanitarian aid arena.

The journal entries became a set of “lessons learned” as I observed actions of leaders and aid organizations through a variety of sources from The Economist and The New York Times to video conferencing with my parents who are among those on-the-ground in assessing the needs of flood victims in Romania.

I also found this type of exercise a satisfying complement to the physically and spiritually demanding role of caring for young children — it enabled me to establish a balance in my thinking between the world and the home-sphere.


Both are real and relevant.

There are mothers who are struggling to feed their infants because of disaster and the rise in commodity prices. It made me grateful and humble and sometimes ashamed — and drove some vibrant dinner-table dialogue about action we can take as a family.

Some observations:

July 3 — Numerous victims of the cyclone in Myanmar fared fairly well in the absence of aid because they had developed certain life skills that enabled them to live off the land (they knew how to fish, etc.). To some extent ultimate aid is enabling individuals to hone skills and prepare stores to deal with a disaster themselves (although this isn't always sufficient). In the western world, fishing skills may be of limited use, but having 3-day-kits, food and water storage, financial reserves, and emergency education can be potent tools.

July 8 — The response of the junta is particularly tragic because they refused support and denied access during the relatively brief window of time after a disaster when the world is willing to give its attention in the form of media coverage. Alas, the regime was focused on other priorities rather than maximizing the impact of the relief efforts!

July 12 — There is a need for transparency to “investors” (i.e. donors) in the non-profit world as there is in the capital markets. Imagine a research house that analyzed various non-profits and provided return-on-investment proxies for various donations. Imagine investing in a mutual fund of non-profit organizations (“hunger fund,” “malaria fund,” “U.S. hurricane fund,”) and then getting performance updates.


July 29 — Gates and Bloomberg are combining efforts to combat smoking — they have earmarked $500M for the purpose. It is exciting that the Gates Foundation will likely prove a rigorous vehicle for dispensing aid resources and creating new thinking around measuring performance.

September — Although Hurricane Gustav only hit New Orleans as a Category 2 storm, local and national officials had anticipated a storm of the magnitude of Katrina or worse. As a result, the mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation, and 2 million people left the state. Should we fault officials for being over-prepared? No. We should chalk it up as a victory: taking thoughtful action on the best information available merits applause, regardless of the outcome.

Are any of the rest of you trying to figure out how to right-size your dream? Have you thought about writing your way there? Or to your dream — period? Should you want to share, you have a forum here.

Related Posts:
It Takes Courage to Tell Our Stories
Tell Your Story
Psyche's 1st Task: Sort the seeds
A Philanthropic Hero's Journey: Luanne Zurlo
Rick Riordan's Golden Fleece

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