Why do we need non-profits?

When I took the job as Executive Director of Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation a year ago, I thought I had a pretty decent layman’s understanding of how and why non-profit organizations work. I had served on non-profit boards, had them as clients, and participated in their events. I had good relationships with several non-profit leaders who had shared their experiences with me as I was considering the job move. Boy was I in for an education.

The last year has been one of the most challenging AND rewarding of my professional life. I work with a great team (above at our annual RiverFest event), for a great organization with a rich history, and we do important work. As is often the case when there is a leadership change in an organization, we had some growing pains and adjustment to cultural shifts and operational changes I wanted to make. We had some crisis (our offices flooded less than 2 months after I started and we had to relocate our entire operation for 12 weeks), and some victories. All in all, it was a fantastic year and I learned a lot.

The two most important things I learned were this:

1) Non-profits are no different than any other business, they just have different revenue and profit models. If you are a small non-profit leader with 5-6 employees, you struggle with many of the same things for profit businesses struggle with – paying your people enough, not working yourself to death, managing your cash flow, and figuring out creative ways to accomplish your goals without money. And you have the same opportunities as small for profits – you are nimble enough to make big changes to your business easily, you can attract great people with a fun and flexible culture, and a little financial boost goes a long, long way.

2) Non-profits truly are essential to our way of life and quality of life in America. I didn’t really understand the WHY behind this. I had seen the impact of the work that non-profits do translated into better trails, a deeper appreciation of nature, a more secure food source, an educational boost to a struggling youngster, a safe environment for a child or mother at risk, resources to help veteran’s adjust to civilian life, job opportunities for the underprivileged, and the way that art translates life and feeling for us all. What I didn’t truly understand was WHY DO WE EVEN NEED NON-PROFITS?

What I learned is that the answer is simple – because not everything people, places, animals, and ecosystems NEED for survival is profitable when created, provided, or protected. In some countries, the government steps in and meets those needs at the expense of the state (and the taxpayer). In the United States we place a high value on both individual liberty and local autonomy so only the broadest civic needs are met by the government and the rest is left up to a legal framework that allows for individuals and organizations to stand up for and provide the rest of those needs.

Let me provide an example from the work we do at Catawba Riverkeeper. Very few people would argue that clean and plentiful water is a RIGHT we expect in this country. Protecting our public waters is NOT profitable. On the contrary, it is VERY expensive. It requires constant monitoring and testing of the water to make sure that no one is dumping anything into it that could be hazardous or that environmental changes aren’t killing plant and animal life. It requires educating and working with hundreds of individual municipalities, private individuals, and businesses to ensure that they are using best practices in their use of the water and of their property adjacent to the water. It requires balancing the needs of utilities who use the water to create electricity with that of private citizens who recreate on, live on, and drink the water. And rivers, lakes, and streams don’t care about city, county, or state lines so it requires working with very diverse communities and viewpoints to accomplish all of this. Seems like a job for a huge organization like a federal or state government, right? Not in America, and that is why OUR NON-PROFIT IS NEEDED.

When it comes to water quality, the broadest civic needs are met – guidelines for what constituents “clean water” are in place and permits are granted for use of the water by both public and private users. The largest permittees (such as municipal water utilities like Charlotte Water) are monitored regularly for adherence to their permits. A legal framework is in place via the Clean Water Act for citizens and organizations to raise concerns about private and public entities that are not adhering to the broad guidelines. But here’s the catch…the EPA has relegated authority for oversight and enforcement of the Clean Water Act to states (because it is a huge, complicated, expensive job). The result is that every state monitors and enforces at a different level based on the value they place (and the funds they allocate) to the protection of the waters of their state. In North Carolina, according to a December 2019 report from the Environmental Integrity Project, that budget has been cut by 34% over the past 10 years resulting in 376 fewer staff positions in the NC Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ). During that same time, North Carolina was the 10th fastest growing state in the country, adding over 1 million residents from 2008-2018. In the Catawba River Basin (the area our organization is responsible for protecting) there are 2 DEQ enforcement staff members for a 5,000 sq. mile area with over 350 permits to use the waters of the river. OUR NON-PROFIT IS NEEDED.

If water quality and environmental protection is your thing, our organization would love your support. Our staff of now 7 is focused on filling that void in protecting YOUR right to clean and plentiful water left by the system. We regularly test the water and quickly report the results to the public through programs like Swim Guide. We hold polluters accountable when they threaten your drinking water. And we advocate on your behalf to protect your rights to clean water.

If environmental protection isn’t your thing, I would still encourage you to donate today to a non-profit doing work that you care about. They are doing that work because it is needed to fill in the gap between a basic human right and the resources to provide it.

Get Even Better

This week I learned a lesson that many of you probably know (I probably did too but didn’t practice). It’s fairly simple – if you are good at something and are willing to put practice into it, get sound coaching/teaching in the skill, and find ways to share your skill then you can get even better.

Easy, right? No – it is simple, but not easy. At least not for me. I am the type of person who likes to try all sorts of new things. I’m generally able to pick up on a new skill or activity pretty quickly and do it well enough to survive and have fun. If you’re wired like me then you might also have rock climbing gear, kayaks, really nice mountain bikes, a banjo, lots of fancy pots and pans, specialty shoes for all sorts of things, a whole lot of high end camping gear, a kitchen full of cast iron pots, cookbooks galore, computer programs for design, high end stationary, dress clothes for every occasion, a wine fridge, niche magazine subscriptions, and reams of photos from all of the cool places you’ve been and explored.

But are you REALLY GOOD at anything or just “well rounded?”

For the past 4 months, I’ve been participating in an event called SEED20, a program put on by Social Venture Partners of Charlotte that culminates in a pitch by 10 non-profits on stage in front of a bunch of venture philanthropists interested in investing in non-profits in Charlotte that are innovative and sustainable. I was honored to be selected to even participate in this and even more honored to be selected as one of the 10 finalists.

Due to the quarantines caused by the Coronavirus, this year’s pitches didn’t get to happen on stage in front of a thousand people. Instead, we had to film them in our own homes (see picture above of my filming session). I was bummed about this; upset actually. But then I started to reflect on the entire process, not just the unfortunate circumstances around the finale. And in that moment of reflection I realized…

The PROCESS of getting better at something I was already good at was really what was important. You see, I’ve always fancied myself a good public speaker. I don’t really get nervous in front of crowds and I have always felt that I could connect with an audience. So when I started this process, I thought I was in a pretty good place and really wondered what I could learn. But the day before the first training session a friend, Wendy Hickey, who had been through the program with her non-profit, ArtPop, gave me a piece of advice – “Be open to the coaching, you’ll be amazed at how much they can help you improve.” I was skeptical, but tried very hard to take her advice.

Going into the second coaching session we had to prepare and deliver our first pitch. I spent time thoughtfully writing it out and practiced hard to make sure I could deliver it without notes. I practiced in front of my staff and my family and they seemed to like it. I felt pretty good going in. And I got ripped apart. It was too long, rambling, no real substance, don’t see the innovation, lots of irrelevant information, not interesting, unimpressive. These were some of the comments I got. Holy smokes!

I decided that night I was going to be not only open to that coaching but was going to use it as a motivator to get better. I decided to take something I knew I was good at and get better. I dedicated several hours each week to writing and re-writing my pitch, each time sending it to my coaches for critique and changes. I asked them to come visit us and spend time with me so that they could help me express what we were really about as an organization clearly. And I put in the practice. I recorded myself and watched it, making changes each time. I practiced in the shower and in the car and in my yard talking to no one.

And I got better. Each coaching session the comments got more positive and my communication and presentation skills improved. I was chosen to be a finalist and my confidence was growing. Tuesday night when the final virtual pitch competition aired, I saw how much I had improved. And it felt good to know that I had worked at something I was already good at and got better. I knew that the final version would connect with people and communicate our message.

So if you’re anything like me, you’re sitting at home a lot doing your part social distancing and thinking about all the new things you want to try with this free time. Go ahead and join that virtual yoga class and see what it’s like. Get those project materials and make that planter box you’ve seen on Pinterest. Or order the supplies and take up hand lettering. Those will all be fun. But take some time too to get really good at something you already do well. Get your 5k time down by a minute. Make that really amazing dish you’ve always dreamed of. Or go from being a guitar player to a potential performer. You will be amazed at how good it feels to practice, take some instruction, and really improve at something you already think you’re good at. You can always improve.

Sometimes a walk is what I need.

Some mornings, after my 30 minute commute into work I feel like I’m ready to hit the ground running. On those days that commute time has helped me organize my thoughts, inspired me with music, or reminded me of a big project or big meeting I have that day. I walk in the office, fire up the computer and get to work.

Some mornings, a walk is what I need.

This morning, I needed a walk. So I set my phone and planner on my desk and set out. The thirty minutes I walked around Uptown Charlotte this morning not only got my blood pumping physically, but it got my emotional blood pumping too.

I saw people of all ages, races, and socio-economic classes starting their day. I feel like I learned a little something from each of them.

The middle aged man in his suit and tie who was already on a call as he hurried to his office reminded me of how fortunate I am to have a job that allows for a less hurried, more thoughtful approach to work (and that I don’t have to wear that suit and tie anymore).

The young woman jogging reminded me that I need to be more consistent and committed to my own exercise regime and that working out isn’t just for the young, it is even more important for us middle aged guys!

The homeless man unwinding from his cardboard sleeping mat in the park reminded me to care for and be kind to those who don’t have their basic needs met. It also was a strong encourager to be thankful that I have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in every night.

The young Asian couple on their way to work reminded me that I live in a diverse metropolitan city and that it is that diversity that makes it great.

The old woman slowly walking her dog through the cemetery reminded me that every day I get to be outside in any way is a gift and that I should relish that gift.

And the tombstones in Settler’s Cemetery reminded me that this life is fleeting and that every day I should tell the people I care about that I love them, tell the people I work with that I appreciate them, treat the people I encounter with respect and patience, and thank the Lord my God for guiding and blessing my life.

It always amazes me what a simple walk can do. Leave your phone at home and go take a walk today.

The Loveliest

This morning, the loveliest sunrise came up on Lake Wylie and I couldn’t help but think it was my Grandma Searby smiling at me over my morning coffee. Granny died yesterday after 93 years of a life well lived and she was one of the loveliest people I’ve ever had in my life. This picture above was from several years ago, but it is that smile that I will hold in my mind’s eye forever.

Emma Searby grew up in the depression and you could tell. I don’t think she ever threw away a piece of tin foil in her life and she could make food stretch like nobody I’ve ever known. She raised 6 kids on a farm, in a flower shop, in the sheriff’s house that had a jail attached to it, and in an apartment over a funeral home. She was a tough and resourceful lady. She was a model of hard work and frugality for me.

My fondest memories of Granny revolve around her cooking in her small kitchen in that funeral home apartment while me and my cousins ran all over the house, yard, and barn she used as a plaster shop. The adults would be playing cards and the house would be chaos, but she never lost that smile. You could tell she loved having a house full of family to cook for at holidays. She was a model of servitude and hospitality for me.

Many long stretches of my summers growing up were spent with Granny and Grandpa Searby. I’d go to the goat farm with Grandpa before dawn to help milk and when we got home there was always a hot breakfast ready (even though she always ate cookies for breakfast). Looking back on it, I bet she had been doing that most of her life – putting food on the table for others and greeting them with a smile and conversation as they ate. She was a model of caring and friendship for me.

My Granny never missed a birthday of mine well into adulthood. She had an uncanny ability to make sure that it arrived ON October 7 regardless of where in the country I was living. And I could always count on a stick of gum and a $5 bill. That must have got expensive with 10 grandkids (or maybe I was her favorite!) It was never just the card. There was always a note reminding me that she was praying for me and reminding me to thank God for all I have. She was a model of Christian faith and generosity for me.

Emma Searby loved her family more than anything I suspect. She never had much in the way of material possessions, but I always sensed that her pride came from the successes of her kids and grandkids. When I was playing basketball in high school and college, they always made it to games. When my cousins were performing in plays and musicals, they always made those trips too. My grandpa was a man of little praise but Granny made up for it by always making us feel like what we were doing was the most important thing in the world. She was a model of encouragement and family loyalty for me.

I have lost two grandparents this year and it has really caused me to reflect on how much my personal values are a reflection of not only my parents, but my grandparents. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with all of my grandparents growing up and their lives extended long enough for me to have adult relationships with them as well. I am so grateful for the times I had with my Granny and while I will mourn her loss, I rejoice that she is back to her energetic self in a better place. Whenever I see the sunrise a lovely color across the lake I’ll know it is the loveliest lady I ever met smiling at me and reminding me to thank God for all I have. I love you Granny and will miss you always.

Your dutiful grandson,

John Mark

Your own little world.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about my worldview and how much it has changed in the past 6 months. Dramatic life changes tend to cause us to recognize our own ignorance and for a time can bring a greater level of self awareness. That has definitely been the case for me during my first 6 months in a new job.

This weekend, it became very apparent to me that we all tend to live in our own little world. This isn’t ALL bad, but as I was looking up at the weathervane above that sits on top of my house it occurred to me that I need to be careful not to be like that duck – moved only by the wind and limited in my perspective to only two directions.

The trap we fall into as modern humans is that we have all of these triggers around us that reinforce that we are the center of the universe and that the things we care about the most are the most important things to everyone. It creates an interesting paradox; we live in the most connected, global society in human history yet our worldviews are limited only to the small little worlds we create for ourselves.

Think for a minute about your weekend…did you spend time with anyone you’d never met before? Did you do anything that didn’t revolve around you and your family having a good time? Did you do anything that made you uncomfortable? Did you read anything or watch anything that made you actually stop and think? Did you make your community (outside your own property) a better place? How much time did you spend on social media “engaging” with the same people you always “engage with?” Were you just like that duck on the weathervane, allowing the wind to blow you where it may? Did you venture at all outside of your own little world?

I guess I started thinking about this on Saturday morning when my son, Jack, and I joined some other area boys and parents to clean up an area of river shoreline near our house that is popular with what are generally lower income fishermen. These aren’t your bass boat “catch and release” tournament fishermen; these are people fishing to eat. As we approached the area and saw mounds of trash (we ended up picking up 1,300 lbs in 2 hours), I was furious. I kept thinking…

“What’s wrong with these people?, Do they not care about the area they fish in? What a bunch of redneck slobs! How can people be so thoughtless!!! Why should we even be picking up after these pigs?”

And then I stopped for a second and looked around at the beauty of the spot. For a moment, I understood the shoreline fisherman who stops here after work for an hour to relax, have a few beers, and catch his dinner. I’ve never stopped to talk to these guys; I see them almost every day. I’ve never taken them trash bags and asked them if they wouldn’t mind pick up after themselves. I’ve never even put myself in their shoes to think about what kind of stress is in someone’s life if all they eat is Ramen noodles if they don’t catch it themselves. Truth is, I live in my own little world most of the time. And I fall in the trap of thinking that if you aren’t in my world, you’re less important.

So as I start this week, I’m going to try to see the world around me for what it is – a big, complicated place with people coming and going at breakneck speed. Many of them are going to be in their own little worlds, but I’m going to try to appreciate that; appreciate that someone I don’t know might have value or that there might be more important things going on than my little set of problems. I’m going to try to remove some of the insulation and realize that in this over connected world, interpersonal interaction is still the best interaction and hopefully I can get out of my own little world for even a moment. I hope you will too.

A Poem on Freedom

A cool breeze just faintly brushes my cheek.
The coffee perks my mind just a bit,
To a greater awareness of what I have,
And why I’m even allowed to have it.

I have freedom because of so many people;
People I didn’t know, but who didn’t care.
They cared only for the right of those after them,
To live in a country where you can enjoy a cool breeze.

You enjoy it because you don’t fear oppression.
You enjoy it because you choose your own path.
You enjoy it because it comes to you on your own land.
You enjoy it because on that breeze is Freedom.

No longer controlled or oppressed by a King,
Our Founding Fathers and Mothers must have smiled.
But inside were they fearful of what was to come?
Fearful of what would befall them?

On July 4, 1776 they could not have known.
We celebrate that day because of a Declaration,
But it took a lot of work, suffering, and bloodshed,
For the reality of Freedom and Independence to come.

So that now, 243 years later I can sit on my porch,
And write about the cool breeze on my face.
I have not suffered, nor have I worked or bled,
For the Freedom and Independence I celebrate today.

This morning I close my eyes and transport myself,
Back to another morning 243 years ago.
When a man sat on this river bank and sipped his coffee,
Willing to fight, and bleed, and die for my right to do the same.

I am grateful for this Freedom.


I’ve become acutely aware of the word “IF.” It is a simple little word, seemingly unimportant, but it gets wielded in powerful and sometimes dangerous ways.

One of the definitions that Merriam-Webster provides for If is this: conjunction; on the condition that. This is the one that scares me and it is the one that I have started hearing like fingernails on a chalkboard…

  • If my boss realized how hard I work, I’d get that promotion.
  • If my spouse would only appreciate me, we’d have a better marriage.
  • If my company really valued me, they’d pay me what I’m worth.
  • If my kids would only practice their sport more, they’d be Division 1 prospects.
  • If I could just lose the weight, I’d feel better.
  • If I had only taken that job a few years back, I’d be happier now.
  • If __(fill in the name here)___ would only call me back, I could make that sale.
  • If we put ___(that important thing now)__ off, we’ll be able to do __(that bigger thing)___ later
  • If I wanted to run a half marathon again, I could.
  • If I were in charge of my happiness, here’s how I’d spend my life…

Those last three are mine, which is why I’ve been thinking about this recently. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used all of those other conditional phrases in this list too, but the last three are my most recent.

It was on the trip pictured at the top that I started thinking about this. It was my daughter’s 10th birthday and she had been promised a trip with dad to anywhere in the continental U.S. for a long weekend (her older brother had opted for Washington D.C. on his). My wife and I had been hoping to take the family to Europe in the next few years, so we debated as to whether or not her dream trip to New York City was a good use of money. We kept using the “if” to place conditions on the opportunity. In the end, we decided the father-daughter trip to NYC was worth it and Europe would have to wait. Man, am I glad we did.

On that trip, one morning I woke up early and wrote a journal entry I titled “Living my best Life.” It was all about the things I would do IF someone would pay me what I want to make to do what I want to do. After I wrote it, I reread it thinking, “wow, that would be awesome!” And then I sat back and asked myself – “What are you waiting for? Why is there an IF in this list? Why can’t you just do these things?” I didn’t realize it so much at the time, but that set in motion a series of changes in my life that have caused me to believe that the word IF has no place in my vernacular.

And then yesterday, on a morning run, I found it creeping in again. As I was doubting how my body was feeling I kept saying to myself, “you’ve run a marathon and several half marathons, IF you wanted to run another half you could.” There is was again, putting a condition on something instead of just doing it. That’s how those “IFs” become dangerous – they give us an excuse (the condition we place on the thing), that allows us to blame why we’re not doing something on that condition. I could blame the Europe trip for not taking my daughter to NYC or I can blame my current job situation on not living my best life, or I can blame not wanting to for why I don’t train harder to run another half marathon. That little word wields a lot of power in these scenarios.

So I’m eliminating the word “IF” from my vocabulary. I’m looking back at that journal post regularly and doing the things on my list as much as humanly possible; that actually was a major factor in a recent job change. I’m dragging my butt out of bed more and running a little farther every time because I AM going to run another half marathon. And I’m not allowing myself the excuse of “IF” for simple day to day things. Either do it or don’t do it; no conditions.

What IFs in your life are holding you back?