Transitions: An Inspiring Story Of Meaningful Work

Today’s post is from Bill Holston, Executive Director at Human Rights Initiative of Northern Texas. Bill is a regular comm-enter in our LGL community. As I’ve gotten to know Bill, I’ve been inspired by his amazing career transition. The work his team is doing changes and saves lives. I invited him to share his story. He offers insights about moving toward your calling, transitioning to an executive role, and leading in a mostly volunteer environment.

The Transition from Attorney to NGO Leader

For more than 30 years I practiced business law. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. But over time, I realized my passions lay elsewhere, inspired by the volunteer work I had done over the years.

The journey began 25 years ago when I said yes to a pro bono political asylum case representing Martha, a young mother. Her husband was a truckers’ union leader in Guatemala, killed by a death squad. When Marta received death threats, she fled her country. I helped her win asylum and was totally hooked. Since that first case, I’ve represented people from twenty different countries. I took the cases as a volunteer with the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a local non-profit. Two years ago, the position of executive director opened. My wife and I talked it over and I decided to apply. I was 55 and ready for new challenges.

The beauty of the organization I lead is the pro bono model. We recruit and train volunteers to do the work. This permitted us last year to do almost four million dollars of free legal work, with a staff of only ten. The cases are extremely time-consuming. Many of our volunteers are from big law firms, and all have very busy practices. We clearly communicate the level of commitment. They do the work, because it is extremely rewarding. They get to do for once, what they imagined doing as a lawyer, changing, even saving lives. Another key to our success is recruiting a talented staff, who make sure that we are accepting cases worthy of our volunteers time and providing first class training and supervision of the casework. We do not hand over a file and wish them good luck.

The transition from lawyer to executive has been difficult. Of course I had passion for the mission, but there are many tasks I had to learn. As a small shop, I pay the bills, do the HR, and do development work. My primary role, however is to provide leadership to our team. It’s my responsibility to guide our extremely dedicated staff to do emotionally difficult work, with limited resources, with a commitment to excellence.

The most difficult part of the transition has been learning how to set priorities. It’s challenging to determine exactly what the best use of my time is. Thankfully, I’ve found the thing I enjoy the most is the best use, that is relationship building with our staff, volunteers, Board, and media.

Considering a Transition?

Maybe some of you are considering a transition. First, let’s talk money. I was able to pursue this passion at this stage of life primarily because of my lifestyle choices. My wife and I have avoided debt and live in the same modest house we purchased in 1986. Because our values coincide, we can afford to live on a non-profit paycheck. Next, you should be working as a volunteer in order to know first of all what mission interests you and second learning the work from the ground up. Pay attention to building good relationships in your community. These will prove invaluable.

Meaningful Work

So, what has our team accomplished? Among many others, we helped a young aid worker from Zimbabwe, tortured for whom he chose to deliver food to. We helped a young woman avoid the brutal practice of female genital mutilation.

We assisted a young man from El Salvador, who refused to join a violent street gang. They took him, slit his throat and left him for dead. These are sobering stories, but because of our volunteers, all these people are obtaining legal status and live free and safe lives in America. I’ve never looked back.

Hear Bill share his story in his Ignite speech.

How To Recruit Leaders In Your Volunteer Organization

Shortly after joining a new church, the council president enthusiastically revealed that I was part of their “volunteer leadership succession plan.” I politely declined and spent the next month working to act less “leader-like” at church. Plus, I figured if I skipped coffee hour, I could dodge the recruiters.

Busy people freak out when asked to lead too much too soon.

Some of your volunteer organization’s best qualified leaders are convinced they’re too busy to lead. And so the same dedicated generals continue to carry the load.

They’re busy too, but feel stuck… they’ve invested too much to see it all fall apart. It’s not as fun as at used to be, but they’ve got the template. That’s risky too.

How to Recruit Volunteer Leaders

When people lead, they connect more deeply to your mission and to one another. Connection feels good. They stay. Make volunteer leadership easier and more accessible.

  1. Create Bite Size Roles – This will annoy the guy who did the whole job for the last 20 years… you’ll need to politely tell him to chill. He needs relief, and it’s a new day. Consider breaking the bigger jobs down into something a strong leader with an already booked life could imagine herself doing.
  2. Inventory Talents & Skills – You need to know what people are eager to give. Some will be too humble to tell you. I was directing a children’s musical at our church, and was thinking I’d have to bother the usual suspects to paint the set. One of the newer members came to me with his portfolio of AMAZING art, as if he were applying for a job. I had to resist the urge to kiss this man I didn’t know. He spent countless hours creating an amazing scene. Bottom line, we didn’t know, and would have never have asked.
  3. Limit Terms – It’s easy to rely on the same people to do the same thing year after year. The shoes become too big to fill, and the unintended side effect is intimidation…not to mention stagnation. Plus, knowing there’s an exit strategy is attractive. Everyone saw how the last guy got stuck.
  4. Include Young People & Give Them Power – Kid’s have enormous leadership potential. Scaffold gently, and take some risks. My teenage son gets so annoyed when adults try to micro-manage his leadership efforts. He’s got it… Give kids room and watch the magic.
  5. Empower Possibility – Volunteer organizations have a habit of asking someone to “lead” and then tell them exactly how it should be done. That will turn off your most creative volunteer leaders. Be willing to accept radically new approaches and new ideas.
  6. Communicate Opportunities – “Who should we ask to lead this?” is asked by committees all over the world. That question depends on established connections and may overlook the most qualified. Communicate opportunities and cast a broader net.
  7. Allow Failure – Criticism and gossip will turn away your best leaders FOREVER. They’ve got enough of that crap in their day job. Encourage, develop, and make it okay to experiment and fail forward.

Alex's Lemonade Stand: Leadership And Kids

Kids can, and do, make a leadership difference in their community every day.

My nephew, Jared Herr and his friend Caton Raffesperger, have raised over $28,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand through their independence day lemonade stand in Gettysburg, PA.

They share Alex’s story and their own journey in this short video.

As Gettysburg celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, they’re hoping to set a weekend record. To make a donation visit their site  or text an anonymous $10, by texting Lemonade 112680 to 85944.

Happy 4th of July.

You may also enjoy:

The Top Three Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Gettysbug
Democracy- 5 Ways You Can Make It More Meaningful
Why Volunteering Makes You a Better Leader
Leadership and Kids: The Best Way to Teach Your Kids About Leadership

*Photo Lemon Aid by Larry Kohlenstein

Alex’s Lemonade Stand: Leadership And Kids

Kids can, and do, make a leadership difference in their community every day.

My nephew, Jared Herr and his friend Caton Raffesperger, have raised over $28,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand through their independence day lemonade stand in Gettysburg, PA.

They share Alex’s story and their own journey in this short video.

As Gettysburg celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, they’re hoping to set a weekend record. To make a donation visit their site  or text an anonymous $10, by texting Lemonade 112680 to 85944.

Happy 4th of July.

You may also enjoy:

The Top Three Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Gettysbug
Democracy- 5 Ways You Can Make It More Meaningful
Why Volunteering Makes You a Better Leader
Leadership and Kids: The Best Way to Teach Your Kids About Leadership

*Photo Lemon Aid by Larry Kohlenstein

Why Aren't You Leading?

My friend ran up to me while we were waiting to pick up our kids. “I’ve got this great idea and I know a lot of people are interested.” I listened. It was brilliant. I was ready to sign up to help. But next she shared, “Nobody’s asked me to start leading it, so why should I volunteer?” And then, “I keep hoping somebody else will step up and take the lead.” I couldn’t help but think that “somebody” was me.

Let me get this right. It’s a great idea. And you COULD do it. You WANT to do it. But you WON’T because no one has THOUGHT of asking you?

“Yeah, I’m just waiting. It would be a lot of work.”
“If you lead it, I will help you,” I offered.
She quickly changed the subject.

She was perfect for the leadership role. Her feelings were hurt, she wanted someone to invite her to lead. Not just someone. The right someone. She is still waiting. No one is leading. The effort is effortless.

“No One Asked Me”

Perhaps this is happening to you. You care deeply. Change must happen. They need you. You are qualified. You have big ideas.

  • “I’m not sure I’m ready.”
  • “I might fail”
  • “I’m scared”
  • “It’s too much work”
  • “I’m too busy”
  • “No one asked me.”

No one is going to ask you to lead.

  • It’s unlikely that the guys in the department down the hall are sitting around thinking of you for that special assignment
  • The folks at church see how much you already have on your plate and think you’re too busy
  • The PTA has no idea you have talent
  • You can see the obvious next step, what makes you sure it’s clear to others?

Leading or Losing

If you wait to be asked, it’s less likely you will have to do anything. If you don’t do it, you cannot fail. Try:

  • Starting small: offer to do the pilot, or one session
  • Co-leading: 2 heads are a great way to start
  • Submitting a proposal
  • Volunteering for a similar effort and take notes
  • ?
  • Or follow this twitter LEADER.

@LetsGrowLeaders I always was a follower but I feel with God’s help I can be a leader. Amen.

Why Aren’t You Leading?

My friend ran up to me while we were waiting to pick up our kids. “I’ve got this great idea and I know a lot of people are interested.” I listened. It was brilliant. I was ready to sign up to help. But next she shared, “Nobody’s asked me to start leading it, so why should I volunteer?” And then, “I keep hoping somebody else will step up and take the lead.” I couldn’t help but think that “somebody” was me.

Let me get this right. It’s a great idea. And you COULD do it. You WANT to do it. But you WON’T because no one has THOUGHT of asking you?

“Yeah, I’m just waiting. It would be a lot of work.”
“If you lead it, I will help you,” I offered.
She quickly changed the subject.

She was perfect for the leadership role. Her feelings were hurt, she wanted someone to invite her to lead. Not just someone. The right someone. She is still waiting. No one is leading. The effort is effortless.

“No One Asked Me”

Perhaps this is happening to you. You care deeply. Change must happen. They need you. You are qualified. You have big ideas.

  • “I’m not sure I’m ready.”
  • “I might fail”
  • “I’m scared”
  • “It’s too much work”
  • “I’m too busy”
  • “No one asked me.”

No one is going to ask you to lead.

  • It’s unlikely that the guys in the department down the hall are sitting around thinking of you for that special assignment
  • The folks at church see how much you already have on your plate and think you’re too busy
  • The PTA has no idea you have talent
  • You can see the obvious next step, what makes you sure it’s clear to others?

Leading or Losing

If you wait to be asked, it’s less likely you will have to do anything. If you don’t do it, you cannot fail. Try:

  • Starting small: offer to do the pilot, or one session
  • Co-leading: 2 heads are a great way to start
  • Submitting a proposal
  • Volunteering for a similar effort and take notes
  • ?
  • Or follow this twitter LEADER.

@LetsGrowLeaders I always was a follower but I feel with God’s help I can be a leader. Amen.

Volunteer and Grow? Side Effects of Volunteering

Has volunteering made you a better leader?

As I was getting established in my career, going to grad school at night, and becoming a mom, I kept thinking (and saying), “I just don’t have time to volunteer.”

Sure, I would bake the cupcakes or volunteer at church, but certainly nothing that required sustained energy and effort. I thought, “people with more time would surely be better at that than me.”

Looking back now, that sure sounds like an excuse and a mistake.

I regret what I missed in the giving and in the growing that comes from volunteering during that phase of my life. The growing is more fun these days.

I am delighted to have a guest post this week on SmartBlog: Smartbrief on Leadership entitled How Volunteering Makes You a Better Leader.

I hope you will take the time to check it out and leave a comment.