A brush with history — Nate "Bobo" Smalls — and a non-profit epiphany

bobo1Every once in a while this job allows me to do something fun and amazing. Last week was one of those times. During an organizational assessment project, I had a brush with history when one of my interviewees turned out to be Nate “Bobo” Smalls. Who is this guy? Quite simply, Bobo is one of the last remaining baseball stars from the Negro Baseball League, which is a piece of history that the world tries very hard not to remember or honor. I walked away from my interview with Bobo with goosebumps on my arm.
Of course, I am obligated by a confidentiality agreement with my client. So, I cannot share with the DonorDreams blog audience things like who my client is and what Bobo said in that interview about their organization. However, there are a few things in the public domain about Bobo that are fair game.
I have whittled those few things down into bite size nuggets of wisdom in the next few sections.
Do you know what is wrong with our communities today?
Throughout my time with Bobo, he kept coming back to a central theme and his explanation of what is wrong with the world today.
Apparently, back in the day, our communities were blessed with what Bobo described as mentors. These were older men and women who were wise, and they took it upon themselves to share their wisdom with the world regardless of whether or not they knew you.
bobo2Bobo recalled every neighborhood having at least one mentor.
They would sit on their porch, and they were accessible to anyone who sought their counsel. When they circulated throughout the community, they would stop young people who they thought were creating mischief or on the wrong path in life and talk with them about the error of their ways.
Our world is a different place today. It operates at a different speed. We build fences around our houses, and many of us mind our own business. We work hard at keeping our nose out of other people’s business.
When I allow my mind to wander beyond Bobo neighborhood construct, I am hard pressed to identify many business professionals who I see mentoring young up-and-comers.
Bobo is right . . . there aren’t many true mentors left.
Talking the talk. Walking the walk.
It would be easy for Bobo to retire to a rocking chair and tell stories. He is one of the last Negro League barnstorming players. He earned his golden years.
Instead of fading away into the pages of history and lamenting the loss of mentors in our society, Bobo goes to work every day in his neighborhood park. With the support of his local municipality and his neighbors, he does outreach work with kids who hang out on the streets. Many of these kids are the same ones joining gangs. He organizes basketball leagues and sports tournaments, and he does a lot of talking and mentoring.
If my grandmother was right and “idle hands are the workshop of the devil,” then Bobo is an angel who is one of those rare people who does more than just complain about what is wrong with the world. He does something about it.
bobo3The epiphany
When you look at Bobo Smalls’ career and listen to him wax poetic about his neighborhood and community, it is hard not to walk away without having learned a few lessons. The following are just a few non-profit epiphanies I took away from my time with Bobo:

  • Your non-profit organization most likely functions in the capacity of those individuals that Bobo described as mentors. Do you take that responsibility seriously? If so, how? By going back in time and talking to a treasure like Bobo, what epiphanies might you experience that could influence your agency’s programming?
  • You have the personal capacity to mentor a young professional in your place of work. If youth is more your passion, then you also have the ability to get involved in a mentoring-focused non-profit organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. What is stopping you? Once you identify those barriers, what will you do about it?
  • Many non-profit organizations are really good at assessment (e.g. talking the talk), but fewer are good at implementing change (e.g. walking the walk). For example, I hear agencies complain a lot about the state of government funding today, but they aren’t aggressively changing their fundraising plan. What is your agency doing to drive change? What approaches, tactics and tools do you use? How do you keep yourself from turning into one of those people who complains about everything but does nothing about it?
  • Collaboration is key to success, and Bobo is a living testament to this. It is true that Bobo took to the streets on his own accord and started the hard work of outreach and programming. However, he quickly engaged others like the city government in a conversation focused on how they could help and sustain his efforts. Who is your agency collaborating with to implement your mission and vision? Is it a real collaboration or is it just a partnership in name only to impress funders?
  • Persistence is also the key to success. Bobo played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1965 to 1986. There is a great story about how he invited himself to the Kansas City Royals spring training camp as a “walk-on” player even though the team had a policy of not accepting walk-ons. Does your agency practice tenacity? If so, how?

I ask lots of questions in the aforementioned bullet points. Please use the comment box below to weigh-in with your thoughts and experiences.
The man. The legend.
There isn’t much information out there about guys like Bobo Smalls. Click here to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum website if you want to learn about others like Bobo.
If you want to view a YouTube clip of Bobo talking about his days as a Negro League player, I’ve included this link for your enjoyment:
Every community possesses people like Bobo. They are a treasure. Can your organization benefit from engaging those people? I suspect you can. When you figure it out, please circle back to this post and let us know what happened.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC