Light Bulb with Plant Growing Inside Kevin Hawley

Barefoot Insiders

A Step Back: BHAG

Several decades ago, James Collins and Jerry Porras coined BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goals. The term caught on; especially with visionaries. Perhaps daring to say “big and hairy” in a book written for corporates or matching audacious with young upstarts marked its success, but what if we stop, just for a second and think about it.

I know, it’s a very busy time of the year. One of my clients raises over 80% of their annual income in December alone. So it’s a time to focus on closing deals (I understand, “closing deals” is hardly a philanthropic turn of phrase).

In 6 short weeks you will be analyzing spreadsheets, critiquing the giving season. If the numbers were up—you will celebrate. If the numbers are down, you will dig deep and ask critical questions.

I encourage you to set the numbers aside for a moment and take some time to look at the big picture.

Back to BHAG.

Sometimes, the run of the mill, day-to-day, buries the impact of your work. Think about it:

  • Because of Eric Hellman, a student and volunteer in Kitchener, Ontario, and something called “Garbage Fest ‘77” a blue box sits in my garage (and a green box!)
  • Because Dame Cicely Saunders envisioned a better way for patients to live out their last days, the hospice movement began (In the 1950’s and 60’s in Europe and not until 1974 in the US).
  • Because Malala has experienced injustice, she is at the cusp of a movement that will change the lives of girls in Afghanistan.

Each of these “Because’s”, was the beginning of a movement that changed the way we live—globally.

So what is the big idea behind the daily grind of your work?

Let me share mine.

We have invested hundreds of hours of Barefoot Creative time in working towards digital tools for Non-Profits, tools inspired by our clients, not by us. We are not on the cutting cusp of change by saying that “vibrant digital communities” are our future goal. It’s been said thousands of times over the past two decades. Remember, the internet is almost 30 years old. For some of you, that’s a lifetime.

Our big idea?

That the digital tools you use to build your online community fade into the background while you use your communication and marketing skills to build that vibrant community.

Kind of like paper.

When you pull out a piece of paper to write a note, how often do your think of the complex technology behind that simple white sheet (or pink or tan or blue…)?


We see the same future for digital.

Your tools should be so simple, so easy to use that they fade into the background, becoming your “pen and paper”. The team using the tools should be focused on:

  • Who is your donor (customer)?
  • What are they interested in?
  • What is your core message and how do you present it?
  • What do you need and how can your partners (donors) come alongside?
  • What, after all is said and done, will you have accomplished?

Your donors, especially your invested donors, do not want to put more food into the food bank (although they will continue to do that)—they want to end hunger.

Your donors do not want to invest in another research project, they want to end cancer (or Parkinson’s, ALS, Alzheimers…)

They know it’s not going to happen right away. The UK imagined hospices in the mid-twentieth century—Saskatchewan is only starting to imagine them today, more than 70 years later.

They know that there is going to be investment, redirection and painful lessons learned along the way. But they want to go there with you.

When I look at success, I celebrate, but I also unravel the journey to get there. What do I see?






My dad wanted to be a farmer. He didn’t want to get rich—not really—although he wanted to provide a good life for his family. When he was 33 years old, he sold everything he had and moved to the farm he rented. His wife and 4 children came with him. This was the first step of realizing his vision.

I’m not sure his wife saw the same picture when she moved from a three-bedroom bungalow in the suburbs of the city to a little shack on a plot of land with a rusty pump at the sink, no bathroom in sight (she didn’t consider the little white building about 50 feet from the house an alternative to plumbing), and snow  up to the eaves (oh, wait a minute, I’m pretty certain the house didn’t have eaves).

My dad had no clue. Not really, but he had a vision.

The neighbours sat back to watch a real-life version of Green Acres. I’m pretty sure they started taking bets in the local coffee shop on how long that city guy would last (it would be a few years before they invited him to join them).

He loved the land.

He loved watching the grain grow and the combine chomping through the field and spitting out rich, golden wheat. It was in his blood.

His friends and relatives thought he was crazy.

But he had a vision and he clung onto it—even when 10 minutes of severe hail wiped out an entire crop. He had clarity and by January he was drawing out his field plan on the church bulletins, scribbling fertilizer costs in the margins. He was tenacious; when he failed, he got up again, determined to succeed. He was patient; it didn’t happen overnight. The outhouse became a little white box he literally hinged onto the back door of the house. It was still, by and large an outhouse, but you didn’t have to walk through a snowstorm to get to it. He was collaborative; while he was independent and determined, he knew he couldn’t do it on his own. My mom was his partner; Mr. Schroef (the next-door neighbour) was his mentor.

Philanthropy is not different.

It starts with a vision. I have a client who works with children, women and men affected by leprosy. Yes, I know, leprosy is not one of the big diseases. But every day 600 people are diagnosed with this dreadful disease. And it can be completely cured. He is not satisfied to simply cure another patient. He is focused on using his resources to ending the disease.

Clarity is critical. It’s like starting out on a journey. If you know where you are going, you will get there—even if there are roadblocks.

Tenacity is one of the most critical characteristics of success. I interviewed an entrepreneur in our region. He told me had made millions of dollars—and lost millions of dollars. Every venture took him a little closer to the goal. He simply wouldn’t give up.

Patience seems to contradict tenacity, but I think it’s critical to be patient. One of my colleagues called me eternally sunny and optimistic. I’m no Pollyanna or Nemo, but I see possibilities. Sometimes we have to wait it out (I’m not particularly patient, but I’m working on it).

Team is important. A collaborative environment eliminates obvious mistakes. My business partner Kevin is very different than I am. His thoughtful character is good for me, stopping me from leaping into the abyss. Collaborators—partners—are strength, especially when you are working towards a common goal.

What is your BHAG?

That’s the starting point of your analysis. Once you know where you are going, take out those spreadsheets and see how the journey is going.

And, when I was 14 years old, 5 years after we first moved to the farm, my dad installed indoor plumbing.


Inspired by Audacious Philanthropy , by Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Abe Grindle of Bridgespan challenges non-profits in Harvard Business Review, 2017

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