Here’s a question that most of us don’t take time to ask: Are you living your best life?
On this week’s episode, I talked with David Shurna, one of the Co-Founders of No Barriers, a nonprofit organization that helps people of all types do exactly that — live their best lives.
They have an incredible process that discusses how to have resilience and hope in the face of adversity.
David is a great podcaster in his own right and just recently finished his 100th podcast episode, so it was great to have him on the show and discuss his mission, podcasting, and some of what he has learned over the tenure of his show.
We talked about story-building and how to leverage the materials you create across a variety of channels to expand your reach and diversify income streams. This is an area in which many organizations struggle, so this episode is definitely worth a listen if you are seeking to expand your reach and evolve your approach to life.
David also recently finished up a book, What’s Within You, which I read shortly after our podcast. It’s jam-packed with great insights and information on ways you can reframe the way you approach all aspects of your life. I highly recommend it!
Enjoy the show.
Buy the book “What’s Within You” and follow its practices
Listen to the podcast here:
How To Live Your Best Life With David Shurna From No Barriers
My guest in this episode is David Shurna. He is one of the co-founders and the CEO of No Barriers. It’s this amazing organization that helps people of all types live their best lives. They have this process that’s incredible. He’s written a book about it that I’ve read that was amazing. I recommend that you take a peek at both No Barriers and this episode because there’s a lot of good stuff in here. We talked a ton about story-building, how to leverage your materials in a variety of different ways to get great content that you can distribute across a variety of platforms, as well as diversifying your revenue. This is a good episode for everyone. I encourage you to read this. Here we go.
David, how are you?
I’m doing great. Thanks for having me on the show.
Thank you for joining me. I appreciate it. It’s fun to have a seasoned podcaster on the show. I’m excited to get your insights and everything about what you guys are up to No Barriers.
Me as well. I’m excited for a good conversation.
It’s fun to be on the receiving end of the show scenario every once in a while. I’ve found it’s refreshing to step back into that space on occasion. I hope you hope we have a good conversation.
It is fun. We just did our 100th episode of the No Barriers Podcast. It’s fun to be on the flip side and see what our guests are experiencing by coming on other podcasts.
Do you guys do one a month? You said that you did twelve in 2021. Is that about your cadence?
No. We do them weekly. We’ve moved to a weekly model. It was COVID-inspired. We’ve been doing a couple per month and because of the No Barriers themes around resiliency, hope and optimism in the face of great adversity, the No Barriers Podcast seemed more relevant than ever. We kept going weekly and we’ve been doing that ever since.
You and Erik are the main host of that show, is that correct?
Yes. We have a third host that comes sometimes, Jeff Evans, who is Erik Weihenmayer’s long-time, lifelong climbing partner.
That’s a good group of people that have on the show asking people fun questions, I bet.
It really is. It’s been great. It’s such a good way for us at least to explore even in greater depth what our mission is all about by having regular conversations with extraordinary individuals who are going through a struggle.
I love what you guys are doing over there and I like that you have a podcast that fuels the expansion of that mission or the ability to reach a wider audience.
It’s been a great way to expand our audience to people all over the globe. As you know, podcasts can be picked up pretty much anywhere. It’s been a good strategy for doing that. Also, more for ongoing content snippets that we are releasing to our community. You’ve got the full podcast, but there are creative things you can do with audio to release 60-second segments out to our community and continue to engage folks in that way.
I talk a lot on this show and then with clients, particularly those in the nonprofit space, about content creation. It tends to be a real challenge. People have a hard time wrapping their arms around how content can work in all four phases of the audience engagement life cycle where it can act as an attraction piece and even help connect. People feel like they know you a little bit more through the podcasts, it feels like. It’s a little more tangible as well as bonding and inspiring people to take further action. It’s a great source for content that I think a lot of nonprofits should be looking at.
In terms of the podcasts, it’s not too difficult to execute. There are lots of great products and services out there. It’s pretty affordable too. It’s a great way to generate great content in an affordable manner that helps with all those four phases.
It’s interesting to me how podcasting, whether it’s video content or interview-type of stuff, can then be transitioned into other forms of outreach. If you do a show, you can look back through that show and see what blog posts can come out of it or what little snippets of information can be shared in a variety of different ways.
Content is king nowadays. Having incredible archives of content is really important.
We’re starting these 60 to 90-second No Barriers Reflections that are going to be some of our video content from many years of work and some of it will be our audio content as well. Content is king nowadays. Having such incredible archives of content is important and having different ways to distribute it.
The nice thing about a podcast or at least the way we do it, is we transcribe it all, so you’ve already got a full narrative. We’re already spending time picking out the most compelling short quote from the segment that we play at the beginning of the podcast, so we already have to go through and pick out some compelling clips. Those clips can then be repurposed for distribution across all different channels.
The other thing is particularly in the nonprofit space. Your audiences are diverse in terms of not just one segment of the population that tends to get their content a certain way. Being able to repurpose that, you’ve already put in the effort to create it the first time but being able to take that and then syndicate it in a variety of different channels allows you to reach out to a whole host of different audiences types.
If you have a guest format like we’re doing here, your guests are often going to be the best promoters of each podcast episode. You’re introducing yourself to a new audience simply by bringing on new guests. We’re finding it to be a great tool for growing our No Barriers community around the globe.
Tell me a little bit more about No Barriers, where are you guys are, a little bit of history and what you’re trying to accomplish, hopefully moving toward a post-pandemic world.
No Barriers has been around for many years. I’m one of the founders. It was cofounded by a guy by the name of Erik Weihenmayer, who we mentioned earlier in our conversation. Many people may recognize his name. He’s the first blind man to reach the Seven Summits, the highest peak on every continent. He went on to kayak the full length of the Grand Canyon.
He’s an adventurer who happens to be blind. He’s a public speaker. We started this with a team of folks many years ago. No Barriers is about helping people who have challenges, and that’s all of us, to think of adversity in a new way as the fuel that can propel you forward to be your best self. At No Barriers, what we’re doing is we’re helping people tap into the light inside of us that knows anything’s possible despite what’s in our way.
Our tagline sums it up. We’re teaching people that what’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way. We do it with all different kinds of programs, both in person, virtual, stories, books, movies and all different ways of bringing that message to life. It’s a fascinating way to inspire and move people and it’s not tied to any one specific population. We work with veterans with disabilities, but we work with kids.
We work with teachers and companies. It’s a universal message that all of us, as we go through life, are going to encounter some great adversity. All of us crave purpose and meaning in life. We operate at this interesting intersection between our quest for purpose and meaning in life and the realization that living that life, you often get derailed and things don’t go the way you plan. How do you get through that? That’s No Barriers in a nutshell.
It’s such a great mission. I personally have done a few things that would go into the category of putting intentional hardship or barriers in front of myself. We joke in the skiing world that if you’re not falling down every once in a while, you’re not going hard enough. Certainly, one of the things that I decided on a whim to do back in my late 30s was to try and run the Leadville 100.
In the first year that I tried it, I had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t end up finishing. It haunted me for the next three years and I finally went back and finished it. Taking on that challenge and all of the commitment that was required to get that done and finally succeeding, changed the way that I looked at life in a lot of ways. It’s great to know how you and your crew are helping people with that same mindset or adventure.
That’s a perfect example of that idea of when we push ourselves to stretch beyond our comfort zone and try something new that it’s the most fertile learning space for learning about ourselves and the world around us. One of our No Barriers board members and someone who’s been moved by our work is a woman by the name of Mandy Harvey, who some of your readers may know. She was a finalist on America’s Got Talent. She’s a completely deaf jazz vocalist.
As she was studying music before she was deaf when she was in college, she learned that she had this rare condition that was going to cause her to go deaf. She gave up on music for quite a while and went into a dark and depressing space, but then decided with her father, “Maybe I should try singing a little bit again,” and found that she still had perfect pitch.
I’m telling this story because Mandy is a classic example of someone whose unexpected adversity hit her hard and we then celebrate her story of rising to America’s Got Talent, where her performance was seen by half a billion people on the planet. Mandy’s story is about a series of much smaller steps outside of her comfort zone. The first one was to actually sing it again to her father, the next one being to sing in front of a few people and then in front of a few more people. Also, to write her first song, which No Barriers inspired her to do and to write her own music.
Now she’s a jazz superstar by many accounts with her own career in music. The process of taking small and manageable steps, it’s not always the Leadville 100 or trying to be on America’s Got Talent. It’s like, “What’s something that scares me a little bit that feels like something I want to do, but I’m afraid of?” The minute you step into that space, you end up learning an incredible amount about yourself and you grow tremendously.
That’s a great sentiment for all of us to wrap our arms around and the other piece of it is that most things you don’t have to do all at once. If you can chop it up into little bite-size bits, you tend to make progress toward that bigger goal. It sounds like Mandy took a bunch of little steps to get to big achievements.
One thing we probably all know about ourselves and we certainly see this at No Barriers, is we’re actually bad at setting manageable goals for ourselves. That’s why 90% estimated people who take a new year’s resolution never fulfill it. What we tend to do is we set these crazy things that are going to be very hard to attain and don’t realize that you have to start small.
At No Barriers, we also teach you have to have a broader vision, much bigger than yourself and much longer term, but that each individual step needs to be small and manageable. We feature in our book, What’s Within You, the idea of Taoism, which is, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” You’ve got to have that starting point.
What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.
For someone like Mandy, it was a bunch of trial and error. Some things she failed at, some things she succeeded in, but eventually, over time, it evolved into this epic story. The story of our cofounder, Erik Weihenmayer, is pretty similar. He didn’t start off as this amazing individual who could just go climb Everest despite not being able to see. It started off with much smaller steps. Getting better and better at that process can help us feel more successful and keep our momentum going forward.
It’s a valuable lesson that for those of us who run organizations or are engaged in some big plan, it’s good to keep track of that. On a day-to-day basis, it can feel a little overwhelming at times no matter what journey you’re on but making sure that you have that North Star and that you’re tracking toward it is super valuable.
Where some of the folks that we serve and we work with tens of thousands of people every year and now in COVID times, have millions of people watching videos and stuff that we produce. What we found is that some people get their specific goal confused with their North Star. For someone like Erik, the North Star was not to become the first guy that climbed Everest. For someone like Mandy, it was not to get to America’s Got Talent or for you, it probably isn’t Leadville 100. Individual goals like that, no matter how big and bold, are goals.
First and foremost, we need to tie our goals to something that we have to spend a lot more time on, which is what is our North Star? What is our vision for ourselves, our role in the world, the impact we’re going to have, how do we put that down on paper and how do we start to align every aspect of our life towards that broader vision for who we want to be in this world?
Are those components of the programs that you run at No Barriers? Is a part of it helping people figure that out?
You can’t see me now, but I’m sitting in my office, which I’m thankful to be back at after a long period away due to COVID, but there are seven principles on my wall here in my office that we teach. We’re hovering around two of them, the first one being vision, which is this idea of that North Star and how do you redefine it, especially in the midst of challenge and adversity. How do you rediscover what your vision really is?
The second one we call reach, which is about reaching into the unknown and the darkness outside your comfort zone. Throughout our programs, no matter how you’re engaging with us, whether it’s an online course or reading a book or coming in person, you’re learning these principles that we have studied over the years that great and extraordinary leaders use to get through adversity.
It’s cool that it’s baked into everything you guys do. In terms of your program, are you funded by donations? What’s the mechanism by which you’re able to do all this great work with people?
There’s the pre-COVID story and there’s the post-COVID story. A few years ago, I would have said that we are funded 60% by donations and 40% by fee for service revenue. Of the donations, roughly half of our donations come from corporate partners, either through their foundations or their marketing departments. The other half comes from individual donors.
The 40% that was a fee for service was largely people paying to come in person to some of our programs, primarily our youth programs that used to be in twenty different countries around the world where you would travel to different places. Post-COVID, all that fee for service revenue that used to be tied to coming together in person has, for the most part, dried up. Now, I would say we’re nearly 100% funded by donations and those donations are split between companies, individuals and some foundations’ support.
Have you learned any tricks over the last few months to help fuel the donor engagement? Was it normal from ’19 to ’20? How did it go?
Do you mean since COVID hit?
Since you’ve started relying primarily on donations and foundation support in corporate.
For us, in the foundation and corporate sponsorship world, we’ve always known it’s all about good relationships. You have to deliver on the promise of what you’re negotiating and have a good story to back it up. To us, maintaining those relationships with donors has always been important. When COVID struck and we had to cancel all of our in-person programming for over a year, having that important foundation of the relationships we already had built was one thing.
The second is continuing to tell the story of how you’re impacting lives. If you think about No Barriers for many years, all the people knew about us where it was about our in-person experience. For us, we had to make sure that we showed our donors, primarily through the power of story that despite the fact that they knew us as this in-person experiential program, we were still doing extraordinary things in the virtual world.
What mechanisms do you use to stay in touch? Is it primarily just an email list? Are you hosting virtual events? What’s been working well for you?
It’s a mix. We have our social channels, and for us, those are primarily Facebook and Instagram. That’s where we have our biggest communities. We haven’t ventured out into the world of TikTok yet and other up-and-coming ones. We have our social channels. We’re engaging with folks. We have our email lists and we developed a membership community for our alumni, our donors that they could join and start to participate in what’s started in COVID times as weekly events. We can then move to every other week.
As we had some Zoom fatigue, move to more compelling things to invite people into. For us, there were a lot of ways we were trying to keep folks engaged. I would say, other than the email lists and the social stuff, which we’ve been doing forever, it was exploring this new world of membership base, weekly events and courses you could take together in a community like a book club. Those are some of the newer things we were exploring.
Tell me a little bit about the courses that you put on in this virtual space.
We had a bit of an advantage now with what we’re seeing with Zoom fatigue because we went into it saying, “For years, all we’ve ever done is, for the most part, in-person experiences.” If we’re going to go into this virtual space, how do we take the beauty and magic of those in-person experiences and try to create them into an online course experience?
About a few years ago, we had some companies invest in the development of an online course experience that brought people through our seven life elements at their companies, so we had some experience and how do you teach the principles online. Our first focus was how do you make this be something that’s experiential, interactive with other people and that isn’t just sitting on a computer?
I would say some of the most intereszting things we did is we started with the idea of a physical course kit that when you enroll in our course gets mailed to you. It has unexpected surprises in it. It has release points that are like, “Do not open this until such and such date.” When you open it, you get your assignment or your adventure or, as we call it here at No Barriers, mission.
In the foundation and corporate sponsorship world, we’ve always known it’s all about good relationships.
In our more intense courses as what we did for veterans at home last fall tied to Veterans Day, you would get these missions and you’d be put into what we called rope teams in keeping with a philosophy we teach. You’d have a team of 6 or 7 members of fellow veterans who were doing their mission together. They do it on their own, but then they’d come together once a week and share it and then we had professional facilitators facilitating discussion with those veterans.
We combined like, “Yes, you could come and attend an event and hear Dave and Stu speak about something brilliant and ask them questions,” which is pretty common in the Zoom world with these at-home kits and small breakout groups. What we’re finding is that people still crave the small, honest discussions about tough things, but it’s got to be small. That’s 5 to 8 people in our minds. Although you can deliver short bits of content to a bigger group where we could wax eloquently about the philosophy for five minutes, what people want is to break up and talk to each other in an honest conversation.
That’s what I found in the entrepreneurial space. There are a number of organizations like EO or Vistage or YPO that have that model where there’s a big group, but that group is split into smaller groups. In those smaller groups, you’re able to build a lot of trusts, be able to come in and feel very confident that you can share whatever’s going on, good or bad in your life. You get that support that all of us crave and all of us need. Most of the time, we feel like we’re islands where it’s like, “This is the first time that this has ever happened to anybody. Woe is me.”
If you can have a real trusted, tight-knit group that you can quickly understand that everybody else has gone through a similar challenge or at least something that’s analogous to that. That’s a cool way to do that. Are you doing that through breakout rooms and Zoom or is it more formal as you build those groups to get it together?
When we launch a month-long course, it’s a combination of things. We use a course platform called Thinkific and that is where you can have virtual discussion groups, not live, but more like little group discussions that you can type into. You can consume your static content or a video. You could grab your mission from there if you didn’t receive it in a kit. We combine that with Zoom breakout groups, primarily.
We did a similar thing without Zoom breakout groups. That was for more of our big conference-based experience, which we call our No Barriers Summit, where we still have that same philosophy as to how do you create community engagement. We use a platform called Hopin for that, which we found to be pretty effective.
Those are great shares. I know that there are a lot of people out there struggling with what tools to use, so it’s always good to get other options for people. What was the second one? Is that Hopin?
Yeah. We host an annual conference so that one has 5,000 registrants and 1.3 million views of different aspects of our keynote speakers and such. What we liked about hopping and what we continue to look for is platforms that allow people to both view and consume content but interact with each other. Zoom is great. We find for the smaller group. We’ve done it for up to a couple of hundred where you still break out into groups. When you’re talking to about 5,000 people or 10,000 people or 1 million people live streaming, we have found it to be less effective for that.
In terms of 2021, are things changing for you guys? Are you seeing things up and back up where you can start to hold in-person events again? What does the next few months look like?
We decided to open up in-person programming for our sixteen and overpopulations. Early in January 2021, we were meeting with various organizations like Outward Bound, NOLS or National Outdoor Leadership School and several smaller organizations, talking about what are people planning to do? For us and the things we were considering, we felt we could be pretty confident back in January 2021 that adult programming would be feeling good and safe. We thought vaccines would be widely distributed to the adult population by then. We felt a little bit more gun shy about our student programs.
What we decided to do is starting in July 2021, we’ll be hosting many of our adult programs and not certainly a scale back. We’ll be hosting our veterans’ expeditions and our caregiver retreats. We’re hosting a much smaller in-person version of our conference. It’s an outdoor conference, though. We’re eliminating the indoor parts of it. That’ll probably be 300 or 400 people instead of 5,000.
We did have to make some pivots. Our big annual event that we have been planning to do in San Francisco is going to be in the Giants Stadium and we decided that it probably wasn’t a great idea for a variety of reasons. We moved that to Colorado in A-Basin. It’s an outdoor and smaller community. That’s a little bit of our decision-making process. We hope that all of our youth programs will come back into full force by next year, but we didn’t feel confident in 2021 bringing together in person for kids.
It’s been superfluid. I remembered this time in 2020, people were pretty excited that we’d be able to be back to fairly normal by October 2020. Clearly, that didn’t quite pan out but having some hope and continuing to do some planning around these things is probably the way that most nonprofits should start to handle it. I know I’m on the board of a couple of nonprofits and one is planning a half and half virtual and in-person event in late September of 2021. The idea here is that by then, we have enough vaccination compliance that we can get so we can get people back together again.
That’s the way we went with our big event, which is at the end of August 2021. It would be part in-person, but virtual. One of the benefits to us of what happened is when you strip away all the energy and team members that are dedicated to the in-person, you’re left with, “What’s left,” in front of bears? We thankfully have this whole philosophy. We always said we wanted it to be a global organization and had individual global participants from various things like our podcast or our summit.
When you take away all of that in-person work and you say, “How might we impact people’s lives?” We have had an incredible scale in our impact this 2021. We fast-tracked a book about a philosophy that we didn’t know we were going to release in 2020 but we thought it’d be a great time to do it. We did that and it became a bestseller. We had never done virtual conferences and instead of having a few thousand people come in person to a conference, we had over 1 million people pay attention to it through a live stream.
We had tens of thousands of people engaged in it. What we found is as we move forward into this hybrid approach, how do we still lean into the things that worked for us and help us achieve scale? Another thing we did was we’d always talk about being bilingual. All of our stuff is going to come out in Spanish and in English now.
That was something we could totally control in times of COVID like, “Why not?” We’ve got the energy to put there. Let’s make it bilingual. Now, our curriculum will be bilingual in schools. Our conference is going to be bilingual. There have been some good parts for us to lean into that aspirational goal of reaching exponentially more people, but we’re excited to have those deeply intimate, transformative in-person things come back as well.
Tell me a little bit about the book. I’m excited to see that you put a book out. How’s that working for you? It sounds like it is working really well if it’s a bestseller.
The Board President, Tom Lillig, and I have been talking about this with the board for a while pre-COVID. We decided to go for it. We wrote this book called What’s Within You: Your Roadmap to Living Life With No Barriers. You can grab it on Amazon or any number of places where you buy books. What we decided to do, and thankfully something we’ve been talking about before COVID, was how do we put the principles that we teach in our in-person programs into a book that’s part how-to, part a philosophy and part research base?
It goes through the seven principles that we teach and it starts with powerful stories of how these principles have transformed people’s lives, but then a lot of what we teach at No Barriers about how you overcome adversity goes back to ancient philosophies of how to live life. It teases out the philosophy of the approach. It’s practical too. We envisioned this book being a tattered book that you go back to and you say, “I need that reminder. How might I go about and become alchemists, as we call it?” Someone who’s more optimistic in the face of adversity. What are those principles that No Barriers teach?
It was exciting and fast-paced to put it together. We came out with it in the summer of 2020. As you said, it became an Amazon bestseller and now we’re continuing to use that. Books can be a great way to get you into new partnerships. It’s a great business card and we got some incredible advocates behind the book. That whole process of learning how to launch a book was exciting. Thankfully, we had people from our community like Erik Weihenmayer. He has written many bestselling books. Mandy Harvey had a bestselling book. J.R. Martinez, one of our ambassadors, had a best-selling book. We had a lot of people helping us.
Books can be a great way towards new partnerships. It’s a great business card.
It’s always good to have a team behind you that’s gone down that path before. What were some of the things that were unexpected in terms of once you rolled the book out? Were there any surprises that you were like, “I never anticipated that happening?”
I wanted it to become a bestseller, but it was surprising. I wasn’t like, “This is going to happen.” That was surprising. Another thing that’s been surprising is the stories that you get from people who never have been a part of the programs, as we’ve thought of them in the past. That’s been one of the most powerful things because the minute you put something in a book and it’s a well-written book and well-received, you start to get stories of people who are like, “I read your book and it changed my life.”
The realization that the things that we’ve been teaching that require people to come together were also teachable in other ways and still able to deeply impact people’s lives. That was pretty profound for us. We had a teacher in India read our book. He wrote me this beautiful note about what it had meant to him and requested that he could take the course tied to the book for free because he came from a poor community.
He said, “I want to bring this to all of my students.” He has a school that brings kids from all over India that are in college to study leadership. We did a live presentation to those kids. It was very moving. They’ve read the book and now, they’re going to take our course. These are the kinds of things that, without the book, would never have happened. You start to reach folks that you knew that are out there, but they didn’t have a way to engage with you. It opened new doors in that sense as well.
We all tend to think of the internet or our website or our social media platforms as the way that we’re going to achieve that scale. A lot of times, it’s good old fashion book-writing or creating something that you can share that people can wrap their arms around and dig into. It can be what fuels that growth.
You asked what else was surprising. One of the pieces of advice, as you’re getting your book together, is to get people to pre-read it and give you testimonials. There are a number of quasi-celebrity people who read our book and said good things about it. On the cover of the book is Dr. Jane Goodall and a quote from her about this being an incredibly inspiring book about people that illustrate the indomitable human spirit. You get these quotes from people and you are like, “Dr. Jane Goodall read my book and had something good to say about it.” That opens doors to new communities that you can reach.
The other thing and this is something from a marketing standpoint when we start talking about or recommending that our clients consider writing a book, is it’s a validation tool. Even if people haven’t read it, they see, “This guy wrote a book, so David must know what he’s talking about.”
It’s a great credentializer. It gives you that street credit that makes people feel that you’re legitimate. That’s true. It also opens up and if it has any level of success, we’re able to say ours is an Amazon bestseller. People are then interested in having you come and speak in ways that give you this window of having a platform then to go out and tell more people about your mission. In our book, 100% of proceeds go to nonprofits. It created a smaller but new revenue stream for people hiring us to speak and also a way to reach new people. It’s a reason for them to say, “This is relevant and new. We need this now.”
I’m happy to hear that’s the experience that you guys had. Certainly, people are always looking for good people to bring in to speak to their conferences and things of that nature. I’m sure having a book, particularly a bestseller, under your wing is helpful there. What’s new for you guys or what’s coming up? What are you looking for? I’m assuming you have a big master plan based upon your seven tenet approach. What’s the big picture look like for you here in the next years?
We certainly try to practice what we preach. We have our big, hairy, audacious goal, which we set a few years back that’s supposed to be accomplished sometime in the next years. Without getting into the details of all of it, the basic idea is that we, over the years, want to be known as the most reputable source globally for learning to break through barriers and harness them to achieve your purpose.
That’s the big, bold goal. It’s broken down into achievable chunks just like we teach and it’s broken down into more practical language that would let us know when we’re getting towards that. We’re definitely aspiring to lean into this thing that we created many years ago that was largely based on tens of thousands of people coming together in person to have these experiences and say, “Let’s be that global organization that is widely known as the organization that teaches you best how to break through the challenges you face and be your best self in spite of those challenges.”
What do you think the challenges are to reaching that goal?
There are lots of them. You’ve got competitors. There are lots of competition in the space. You could say we’re in the self-help space. There are a lot of people in that space. That’s certainly one. For us, holding true to the global aspiration, but also the close human thread that ties it all together. For us, if you have the right amount of money, you could probably pay to have as many views as you wanted of whatever it is you want to have viewed, but that doesn’t mean that you’re transforming lives.
One of the things we talk about a lot is this balance or, as we call it, the polarity between scale and depth. For us walking that line of knowing that, “Even when we can say we have that scale, what matters to us is that we have a deep impact on the people who engage with us.” Holding that true and not being too swayed by shouting high in the mountain top the paid numbers of people reached.
Erik, me and our board say, “Even if we reached 7 billion people and we could say that what matters to us is that we can truly still say that we’re changing people’s lives through this work. How do you scale while still having that depth is certainly a challenge? As with any business, money is a challenge. How do you figure out the revenue drivers that will help you scale, grow and have that deep impact?” Those are some of the things that come to mind for those challenges that I see.
It’s interesting to think through all of those hurdles and how to navigate them. Particularly as you’re scaling, with such a hands-on, personalized model, how do you achieve that scale and still give people that rich, fulfilling experience that is going to change your life? I can imagine that you’re working on that as well.
Some of the interesting things that we’re working on now are to acknowledge that part of that global vision is about how do you market yourselves and how do you grow awareness and that top of funnel approach. We’ve got to have the dollars and the vision to do that and to tell that story well. At the same time, as we were talking about with Zoom and best practices of small groups, when you think about how you build community, you don’t build it by the millions. You build it by the handfuls. Some of the interesting work we’re doing right now is how do we build these small communities of individuals even if there are only 5, 10, 50, or 100 people that are the lifeblood of that human thread that ties it all together.
What are those communities doing? How do you keep them engaged in meaningful work? How do you connect them with each other? That’s some of the interesting work we’re doing. We brought on as our new head of marketing someone who had been on our board a guy by the name of Luis Gallardo, who used to be the Global CMO for Deloitte. He had developed a nonprofit called the Happiness Fest.
One of their models was to have these groups. They call them Agoras that are 5 to 10 people in 80 cities. They are the brand advocates and they’re doing a lot of the volunteer work to make your mission grow. Even though that total number of people might only be 1,000, what they do for you is incredible. How do we take our thousands because we got more than 1,000 and activate them to be this force that helps drive the growth and the depth of impact? That’s some of the interesting work we’re exploring right now.
That’s what we call the inspire phase of that life cycle where you have these people and they’ve bought into what you’re doing. They’re excited about what you’re doing and making sure that you don’t lose track of them because they can amplify that message and spread it much farther than even an ad spend can do because it’s an authentic champion for your organization. Keeping those people engaged and leveraging opportunities to help them with that messaging to help them spread that word tends to be that magic potion that you can drizzle over the top of this that makes it go far and wide.
Show your customers what you care about and connect with them. Sometimes, your nonprofit mission can be that avenue.
For many years now, we’ve had our brand ambassadors. For years, for those brand ambassadors, part of their criteria as we looked for them was that they had a large social following and an engaged social following. You think of someone like Erik who can reach 100,000 people with a single post or Whitney Way Thore, who has a program on TLC called My Big Fat Fabulous Life, who can, in theory, reach 1 million people with a single post based on her size of following.
The truth is that those people add a lot of value to our conversation that what we’re expanding to in terms of our brand ambassadors are the people who can engage 100 people as opposed to just the celebrity status because sometimes those very celebrities like Mandy Harvey, Erik, Whitney and J.R. will tell you this. They’re disenchanted with their own audiences’ response rate.
It’s like if you follow a celebrity, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to engage with them. Having a combination of that celebrity brand ambassador, plus those really dedicated brand advocates who’ve had a life-transforming experience. We’re expanding that ambassador program to include more of those folks, too, because they can engage with 100 or 10 people and that matters.
It’s a personal one-on-one relationship-building that’s the key to marketing. We talk a lot about how marketing is just relationship-building. Whether you’re building a very quick relationship by this thing that you need or one that requires a lot more trust and a lot more nurturing to develop, it’s all about making sure you’re telling authentic stories and bringing value to everybody out there as opposed to just shouting a message from the mountain top.
That’s very much our philosophy as well.
It’s cool to hear how you’re engaging influencers on all levels. There are a lot of people who are good at talking to a ton of people at once and then there are some people who are experts at having these very close intimate conversations that are incredibly inspirational. They might not do so well on a big stage and vice versa. I love what you guys are doing. I’m excited to follow your journey and see what’s next as you try and tackle this big, hairy, audacious goal that you have.
I’m excited about it too. Another place as you think about nonprofits that are underutilized or this exploratory phase that we’ve been in for many years now, which is how do you find corporate audiences that resonate with your mission and are willing to tell the stories that you produce to their customers base?
That’s a great opportunity to think that gets overlooked. Certainly, we have a brand and a mission that allows for that, but we’ve seen amazing exposure for the organization through partners like Wells Fargo, CoBank, Allstate or Airbnb. These big partners have a global audience that when they’re telling the story to that audience, you get exposure there as well.
This has been something we’ve been honing and getting better and better at over the past years, but it’s something that everyone should always explore. Those companies are looking for ways to, one, make a difference but also show their customers what they care about and connect with their customers. Sometimes your nonprofit mission can be that avenue.
Corporate social responsibility is a huge thing that’s going on these days and, for the most part, for good. I certainly feel that there’s always the opportunity to use it as a greenwashing if you’re trying to get into the environmental space or some other PR Band-Aid. When corporations come at that idea of engaging with the right nonprofit making sure that there’s mission alignment, you can do some really amazing things, particularly if there’s an audience alignment as well within the corporate audience and the audience that the nonprofits are going after. It can be incredible.
We’ve seen great success across all of our different corporate initiatives and also being flexible enough to adapt to mutual goals. If you’ve got a company, you’ve got to have some flexibility so that you’re able to help them with what they’re trying to accomplish while still staying focused enough that you’re not diverting resources towards something that isn’t mutually aligned.
It’s a challenge. All of us get pretty excited about the opportunity to work with a big corporate sponsor, but as a nonprofit, taking that time to make sure that it’s a good fit and match because there could be a potential wasted opportunity there if you hop on the first person that comes knocking on your door without that shared mission or some something that aligns what you do with what they’re hoping to achieve.
In our work, whether it’s Winnebago, Prudential, Airbnb or Wells Fargo, all these people we work with at the national level, we generally find that, first and foremost, you want to be mission-aligned and that’s part comes pretty quickly. You can tell if you are, but there’s usually some combination of companies that might want employee engagement opportunities.
They may want their employees to volunteer with you. They certainly want to be able to tell good stories to their employees. They want their employees to maybe be gauged at more of a staff level to help craft the marketing message. We have these companies that are focused on employee engagement and then we have companies that also want customer engagement.
Those are the companies that are saying, “We’re going to support this. Now, what’s the story that we can tell?” I always advise other nonprofits to try to get into the marketing budgets of companies because that’s where there are a lot of dollars and exposure for you as an organization. Typically, a company that invests a certain amount in us, if they’re invested in the project, it’s going to put 3 to 10 times as much money into their own marketing budget to leverage whatever they gave to us.
They’re going to give a certain amount to us to sponsor, but then they’re going to spend a lot of their own resources to help tell the story and make it a success. I want to try to find those partners where that’s possible. You’re not going to always start there. Sometimes you’re going to start in their smaller foundation budgets, but you want to evolve into that marketing budget.
That is a great insight. I hadn’t thought about that. If you have somebody who wants to throw whatever the dollar figure is, let’s say it’s $100,000 or whatever at a nonprofit as a partner, but they are willing to back that up with any type of marketing spend, it probably should start to make you wonder exactly how committed they are to the partnership.
It’s an educational part. Some companies are well into this. They’re already doing it on their own and for some other companies, I talked to one who is like, “We’ve never really done that direct connection between our CSR and our marketing department, but this seems like a good opportunity.” It’s something to be exploring as you’re partnering with companies where there are big buckets of dollars and talent to help you.
You start to open those marketing doors and the CSR folks are amazing, too, as are the foundation folks. These are all good people in our experience in these companies but realize there are multiple tracks you could be pursuing as you’re building that corporate relationship. The more you can diversify the different departments you’re working at in a company, the longer life that partnership might have.
It’s a more mature conversation to be having as you’re negotiating with a company to come on as their CSR partner. That’s an amazing insight. I’m happy that you brought that up. I’ve had such a great time chatting with you, David. How can people learn more about No Barriers and maybe take on some opportunities to train with you guys?
They can go to NoBarriersUSA.org and there, you can enroll in our programs. You can make a donation and you can explore more about our philosophy and our mission. You can get access to the book, What’s Within You there or on Amazon.
I love having these conversations and I like talking about things, but I also love when people can actually take some action. Whether that’s going outside for a hike or starting their own nonprofit or whatever that action might be, I always like to end the show with an ask and that is if you could have people reading this to take one action after reading, what would you have them do?
I would love for you to go buy What’s Within You and follow the principles therein to set a big stretch goal for yourself.
I’m going to go get a copy right now and I’m excited to read it. Thanks so much for being on the show. I appreciate you taking the time to chat.
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it as well.
There you have it. It’s another great episode of the show. Thanks for reading. If you would like to learn more about how to apply the Audience Engagement Cycle to expand your organization’s mission, there are two things you can do. You can go to MissionUncomfortableBook.com to download a copy of my book. While you’re there, you can get your purpose-driven marketing score to see where you can unearth some gold for your organization. That’s it for this episode. I’ll be back next time for another great episode.
About David Shurna
After losing his hiking boots to a hungry hyena on the Nyika Plateau of northern Malawi, Dave and his friends spent a few intense months backpacking across Southern Africa while crafting their personal visions for changing the world. Little could he have known that the vision he crafted would guide the next 15+ years of his life. Dave outlined a plan to create a thriving organization built on the belief that transformative experiences, delivered to those poised and ready to receive them, have the power to shift one’s life path forever. Just as important as the experiences provided, would be the community he believed the organization would create.
No Barriers is the result of that vision – an organization reaching hundreds of millions of people per year with millions of participants. Dave is the bestselling author of What’s Within You: Your Roadmap to Living a Life with No Barriers.
Dave has spent more than 20 years building strong nonprofit organizations. An innovative entrepreneur and seasoned educator, he has worked with such diverse organizations as the Catamount Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, Duke University, Island Press, The Nature Conservancy, and the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Dave earned a master’s degree from Duke University in Environmental Policy and Economics and a B.S. in Biology from Xavier University. He also holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke.
Dave lives in Colorado with his wife, Gina, and their two children.