Leadership Lessons from a Nonprofit Guru

Leadership Lessons from a Nonprofit Guru

May 3, 2019 | Author: Alex Counts, Senior Philanthropy Adviser, Indiaspora

During the early months of 2016, I decamped to Key West, Florida to take a break from running mission-driven organizations.  I decompressed from 18 years leading Grameen Foundation and geared up to take the helm at the American India Foundation.  As I prepared for a new phase of my life, I learned what I could about the Indian-American diaspora.  It was at this point that I first heard of Indiaspora.  I also came across a new term: affinity diaspora.  Both discoveries would end up having major influences on my life.

Dating back to my time as a Fulbright Scholar at Grameen Bank in the late 1980s, South Asia – and, in particular, Bangladesh and India – has played an outsized role in my life.  Immersion in Bengali language and culture was a critical part of my early years as a professional and continues to influence me to this day.

The term affinity diaspora, for those who are unfamiliar with it as I was for so long, denotes people who have strong personal and/or professional ties to a country that they are neither from nor that they live in currently.  I have always admired how Indiaspora welcomes members of India’s growing affinity diaspora, such as myself, into its influential network of leaders in business, politics, and philanthropy.  Inclusiveness is a word that many people throw around, but as an organization, Indiaspora powerfully embodies it.

The other thing I did in Key West in 2016 was work on a book.  I ultimately cranked out 800 pages, still not sure whether it was a mid-life memoir, a how-to guide about running nonprofit organizations, or something else.  All that writing culminated in Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship (Rivertowns Books) being published last month – which I am happy to say was reduced to 280 pages by a terrific editor.

With support from Indiaspora, which I have served as a senior philanthropy adviser since early 2018, the book debuted as a #1 new release on Amazon.com in the philanthropy/charity genre.  I am now embarking on a book tour for the rest of the year.

The book ended up being a series of stories detailing the most important lessons I learned about leading mission-driven organizations – how I learned them (often by failing miserably and then having a profound insight) and then how I applied them.  My South Asia pedigree certainly shaped many dimensions of these learnings.

A second major theme of the Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind is how to have an impact without burning yourself out.  I open the book with a story about how a famous activist on homeless issues called me to support his latest campaign on a Friday afternoon in the early 1990s, only to commit suicide the following day.  While this shocked me at the time, it was just a decade later that I found myself running a nonprofit start-up at a great and growing cost to my personal well-being.  The remainder of the book explores how I turned things around – how I had an impact while remaining healthy and reasonably contented.

One of the many themes of the book is how I learned about the power of collective impact in nonprofit work.  I came to believe that organizations can sometimes do more good by collaborating with groups they might otherwise view as competitors than by acting independently.  I applied that insight in the microfinance movement and, with Indiaspora’s support, I have initiated some exciting discussions with India-focused philanthropies that are starting to bear fruit.

My book is not only meant for people working in leadership positions in nonprofits or aspiring to do so.  I hope it proves valuable to many others in the philanthropy ecosystem: board members, donors, consultants, and volunteers, to name a few.  I look forward to hearing how Indiaspora members and friends derive value from it and add their own insights through my blog or by attending one of my book parties.

For information about Alex’s book, his tour, and his blog, visit his website, www.alexcounts.com.  For those who prefer to support local, independent booksellers, click here.


Alex Counts is Indiaspora’s Senior Philanthropy Adviser. He previously served as President and CEO of American India Foundation, and prior to that, worked with Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus in several capacities, including founding and running Grameen Foundation for 18 years. In addition to Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship (Rivertowns Books), he is also the author of Small Loans, Big Dreams, published by John Wiley & Sons.