Alex Counts embarked on his Fulbright to Bangladesh in 1988 with a plan to change the world, and the experience he gathered enabled him to return home and establish the Grameen Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to enabling the poor and fighting poverty. Brought up in a family of mental health professionals in New York City, Alex had been raised with a strong interest in helping others. The desire to make a difference was cemented during his undergraduate years at Cornell University, where he learned more about humanitarian work and sought to evolve his own methods of activism. After training under Professor Muhammad Yunus, the founder and director of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and the co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, Alex returned to the United States and to spread the “Grameen model” around the globe.
These days, Alex is a 1946 Society member of the Fulbright Association and engaged in other mission-driven nonprofits, a leader in philanthropy, and expert in global community engagement. He is also a professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland College Park, and an independent consultant for nonprofits. His new book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, began as a mid-life memoir, but evolved into a how-to manual for creating and managing successful nonprofits.
Alex sat down with us to tell us more about his work and insights, and how his own journey in social activism brought him to where he is today.
You founded the Grameen Foundation when you were only 29 years old. How did you your Fulbright enable you to do this?
I began thinking about my own activist paradigm in college, which is when I discovered the work of Professor Yunus’s Grameen approach in Bangladesh. I wrote him a letter, and told him I wanted to complete my degree and work with him to spread his model around the world to tackle world poverty. He wrote me a letter back, and said try to learn some Bengali, and come to Bangladesh! I was lucky that Cornell taught Bengali, it was one of only five schools in the United States that did at that time. Questions like “How am I going to get there? How do I get the money to do this?” only came after that. I hadn’t heard of Fulbright then, but one of my professors pointed me toward the program two weeks before the application was due. I applied, and got it!
One year in Bangladesh became six, which I spent learning from Professor Yunus and his colleagues about implementing a self-empowerment plan for women. I thought about the possibility of replicating this plan outside of Bangladesh. Professor Yunus was interested in this, but didn’t quite have a plan yet on how that would work. I wanted to be proactive with it. I remembered this quote from Bill Clinton, who said “All of the great problems facing society have been solved somewhere. But the solutions are scaled to the size of the problem. No one is taking those things to scale!” I wanted to apply the Grameen approach in other contexts, and I was willing to work hard and in a disciplined way. So Professor Yunus agreed and the Grameen Foundation was launched on a wing and a prayer in 1997!
In your experience, what are the biggest factors that determine whether or not a nonprofit is successful?
Nonprofits vary in size, but the core ideas in my book scale pretty well to organizations of all sizes since they relate to core functions such as fundraising, building an effective and functional board, and self-care for employees. At the most basic level, nonprofits must have a unique or at least effective solution to a societal problem. But the bigger factor is whether or not they have an effective fundraising strategy.
When I see organizations struggling, it’s because you have a CEO who sees fundraising as a necessary evil to delegate to someone else. I have come to believe that a nonprofit CEO must be the fundraiser-in-chief; that leadership role can’t be delegated. People come into organizations all the time saying, “I love your mission! I’ll do anything to help you – except fundraising, because I am not good at it and don’t like it.” Why is that? Fundraising is treated by many people as a zero-sum transaction where one party comes away with more and the other with less. That paradigm leads to guilt, shame, and avoidance, and asking for money apologetically. I adopted a different paradigm. The best fundraising model is when you’ve got a donor who may have a financial surplus, but latent visions of a better society that they are struggling to advance on their own. If they can find a partner with the skills to realize that vision, they can use their surplus to help address their deficit, which is a sense of agency in respect to a societal change they want. Their donation also helps them get into contact with like-minded people and join a community, and the nonprofit has more money now to do its work. Instead of avoiding previous donors out of a sense of guilt, why not give them more opportunity to win? That whole thing is fun! If you can turn around the disempowered paradigm around fundraising, and if it’s CEO-led, then you have a real potential for growth that influences the entire organization.
What lessons do you have for people working in make social change?
Communicate your message clearly. Never take for granted the need to continually emphasize the importance of the societal problem you want to address. There’s a world of distractions, so you need to remind people how the problem you seek to address affects the community. For instance, poverty feeds into so many other problems – AIDS, climate change, and so on. You need to convey that the problem you are addressing is neither hopeless nor on a path to being solved on its own in a reasonable timeframe. As an organization, you should have one or more solutions that, if applied on the right scale, can be accelerate solving the problem.
And once you reinforce that the problem is real and solvable but that it won’t solve itself, leave people with a call to action. Don’t just engage pocket books, but also people’s minds and talents. For Grameen, we have a great volunteer program called Bankers Without Borders. We have one of the largest volunteer reserve corps in the world dedicated to fighting poverty. You want to create a platform where people can participate in as many ways as possible, and feel invested not only on the sidelines but on the playing field. People can have a sense of agency about addressing an important and solvable problem. Once they do, magical things can happen.
What kind of advice do you have for young professionals looking to start a career in nonprofit work?
Passion is very important at all stages, so choose an organization you can be passionate about. Starting off, it might not be your first choice – it may be a secondary issue you are interested in to “break in” to the nonprofit field. I wouldn’t overthink which organization you’d start with or what position. We have had people come in as receptionists, and within 5 years we had trained them to do fairly technical work. Some people come in wanting to do just one social issue, or have just one role. Just start somewhere! With the proliferation of nonprofits and the increasing fragmentation of the sector, nonprofits transform all the time, so there will always be opportunities in the future for change.
Many young people want to get into nonprofit work because they are passionate about an issue, but are less familiar with what kinds of skill-sets can land jobs. What skills, experiences, or qualifications do you recommend they look into?
A lot of organizations are willing to take people without experience in fundraising and train them at the company’s own expense. There are 1.5 million nonprofits (and more every day), and they all need fundraisers. Supply and demand are out of whack which makes it relatively easy to get a job. Even if you want to do something else besides fundraising (which you actually may learn to love!), fundraising (and more generally, sales) is extremely important for any profession, even outside the nonprofit area. If you learn how to close transactions that have value for all people involved, you can bring that with you to Wall Street, to real estate, anywhere. If you aspire to run a nonprofit down the road, it’s a skill you’ll have to have! Take finance courses, and see if you can learn about the financial management of nonprofits, which has some important differences from corporate or government accounting. And don’t forget to leverage the status of your Fulbright if you were fortunate enough to have gotten one. Fulbright carries a lot of weight. It shows that people have curiosity around other cultures, that they can work in another cultural environment – not everyone can do that!
Many individuals interested in mission-driven work dream of starting their own non-profit. What advice would you give people looking to identify and solve societal issues, whether on a global or local scale?
Just realize that social change is, for the most part, incremental. While there can be important breakthroughs in any field, you need to play the long game. Learn to cultivate patience and partial solutions. This is the reality of social change. The problems that exist are here because larger institutions, like companies, governments, churches, and so forth, have failed to solve them, and they probably won’t be solved overnight. It’s very easy to become to become judgmental and impatient. Early in my career I tended to be too critical of some of the leaders I observed. I was mostly wrong. As you break in, have some grace for people who have been at it for a while. Don’t be too presumptuous, even if you’re a Fulbrighter! Also, a lot of nonprofit founders, without even realizing it, make the organization more about themselves than the mission. Let the next generation of leaders in your organization play the role spokespeople sometimes – it sends an important message to funders that it’s not a one-man or woman show. Last, if you want to treat this as a marathon, not a sprint, you need to figure out “self-care” – how do you not become so overwhelmed about how to advance your organization that your impact comes at great personal cost.
You write about “caring for yourself” as an important part of nonprofit work. What is your advice for nonprofit leaders who get burned out, but still want to be mission-driven?
Hobbies are important, so make space for them. It’s always important as a leader to do something you’re seriously committed to that you’re a novice at. If you’re a novice, you have a learner’s mind, a curious mind. You’re humble. You make peace with making a fool of yourself, like you do when you are learning a new language. When you do that, it has a tendency to puncture that know-it-all complacency. Curiosity and humility can then pervade other parts of your life.
I also can’t over-emphasize the importance of physical exercise. I bought a high quality stationary bike some years ago, and it’s great for stress relief. For others, it might be something else – something that takes you to a new place (physically or spiritually) in a way that relieves your stress. For me, physical activity is a way to put aside frustrations, failures, or poor performance in a meeting or donor interaction behind you and regroup for the next day. It takes time for something to become habitual but regular exercise is an incredibly easy way to relieve stress and revitalize your energy. But don’t let anyone else define what balance is except for you. Not your boss, your peer group, or even yourself from an earlier era. What made sense for you ten years ago might not make sense for you today.
You are a 1946 Society member. As an expert in nonprofits, what inspires you in terms of philanthropy?
I have multiple motivations for supporting Fulbright and being part of the 1946 Society. It’s interesting to meet people who care about Fulbright as much as I do, so I found that an attractive part of joining this giving society. More importantly, while I know that amount of money is not going to transform the Fulbright Association, it’s a signal to the community that Fulbright was essential to my development and growth. In a sense, the 1946 Society gave me a formal pathway to express my gratitude. Looking back. Senator Fulbright’s ideals were so far-sighted, and instead of just having ideas, he made them happen. I want people to pay attention to that, with whatever means they have. It’s an important signal that I’m glad to be able to make, and I hope it encourages people to think more about the importance of educational and cultural exchange.
What does Fulbright mean to you?
I think that Fulbright is grounded in the idea that in order to make good decisions as a nation, we need citizens who understand and are in touch with reality of other cultures, and of how America is perceived. There’s no substitute for diving into a culture other than your own – it can be a deeply enriching experience, and make you a better decision-maker in cross-cultural contexts for the rest of your life. It sensitizes us as a nation and a people, especially as we remain the world’s largest economy and with the most powerful military. It’s the brilliance of what Senator Fulbright envisioned, and it’s certainly been a great force for good in my life, as I went into Bangladesh. It helped me understand my own culture, and other cultures. The aggregation of all the increased sensitivity of so many Fulbrighters makes us a better and wiser country.
Alex Count’s book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about Alex’s work through his website at https://www.alexcounts.com/.