The Beginner’s Mind and Your Nonprofit’s Work

Photo by Todd Quackenbush -

Photo by Todd Quackenbush –

I’m a pretty non-Zen type of guy, but I do love the concept of Shoshin, or the Beginner’s Mind, from Zen Buddhism.

Wikipedia defines it nicely:

Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind“. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

Why bring up the beginner’s mind?

You are an expert in the work that you do. You are an expert in your organization’s processes. You’ve been doing the work for years now.

And that’s your problem.


You’ve been managing and directing your nonprofit for so long now that you don’t know where the real work starts and ends. You’ve built up unending assumptions, preconceptions, and cynicism.

You’ve been knee-deep in Medicaid billing issues, state regulations, and human resources protocols, that you’ve lost sight of why you do the work that you do in the first place.

It’s always good to step back for a few hours or a few days and review your work and your organization with a renewed attitude of ‘openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions.’

As you enter into the holiday and end of year season, you might want to consider doing just that.

How do you look at your work with a beginner’s mind?

As I mentioned above, I’m not a Zen type of guy, but I think the following approach might be helpful.

  1. Start with your mission: Begin with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey said in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Pull out your mission, vision, and core values.
  2. Start over: If you were to start over from scratch, with all the knowledge you now have, how would you construct your organization? What types of employees would you need? What would your structure be? What programs would you create? Try not to consider how you do things now, but how you’d love to do things if you were given a clean slate.
  3. Brainstorm all of your organization’s processes: After you’ve dusted off your nonprofit’s charter documents and allowed yourself to dream a bit, create a list of all of your current processes, chart out your current organizational structure, write out your current programs, and bullet-point your fundraising and development strategies.
  4. Be honest about what you need to stop doing:  Is there anything ineffective that needs to hit the cutting room floor?
  5. Be honest about what you need to start doing: Is there anything you’re not doing that you realize you must do in order to be as effective as you’d like to be?

Rinse and repeat, because you will not catch everything the first time around. It will take a while for you to get away from your preconceptions and ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ thinking.

Share in the comments…

How do you reconnect with the ‘beginner’s mind’?

How do you develop an openness and eagerness in the midst of the day to day work and necessary administrative soul suck?

If you walk through the exercises laid out above, let me know about it.

(Acknowledgment should go to Dan Miller of who has mentioned this concept repeatedly in recent episodes of the 48 Days Online Radio Show).


The Balance Needed to Protect Your Nonprofit’s Vision

Photo Credit: _gee_ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: _gee_ via Compfight cc

Most nonprofits have to balance many, many priorities and obligations, especially if they have Medicaid contracts or contracts with the state’s Department of Family and Children Services or the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Between raising funds and doing the work and protecting the people you serve and protecting the employees and volunteers who help you do the work,  you have a lot to determine.

Nowhere is this need to balance budget and expediency with wisdom than in your nonprofit’s hiring practices.

Who works for you? 

I recently spoke with a nonprofit leader who has to pay a masters degree educated employee much less than he’d like to. Yet the work gets done well. If you knew the reputation of this organization, you’d be amazed at what they are able to accomplish.

Many of us in the for-profit world don’t always understand. Even those of us who provide services for nonprofits. Our services will always cost money… money that the nonprofit would prefer to spend elsewhere.

Often these nonprofits are serving at-risk, vulnerable individuals. And they have to do so with employees who are worth much, much more than they are paid.

Usually, these employees are willing to continue to serve and serve well.  Sometimes, though, the inability to hire the cream of the crop creates risk management issues.

Can a nonprofit afford to be expedient in order to have warm bodies to do the work? 

Is it best practices to serve the most vulnerable with the least qualified?

The key is to find the best hearts with quality experience and education.

Easier said than done.

The worst option, though, is to cut corners. Hiring fast and hiring out of fear or worry or stress is not the answer

Protecting your nonprofit’s vision requires that you hire slow and fire fast. It requires that you create a culture of care by only inviting individuals in who have a heart for the population you serve.

You might not be able to offer the moon, but you can offer purpose.

Go slow. Hire wisely.

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