By David DeWeaver
In the summer of 1990, before “self-care” became a catchphrase, 22-year-old Alex Counts saw first-hand what burnout looked like.
He was in Washington, D.C. working as the legislative director for an anti-hunger advocacy nonprofit called RESULTS. It was, in his words, “a preposterously senior role” for someone who’d just graduated from college the year prior.
So it made sense that on a Friday that July, he received a call from anti-homelessness advocate Mitch Snyder. Snyder was a local legend, famous for going on hunger strikes on behalf of D.C.’s homeless. So when Snyder asked for RESULTS’ endorsement of a new advocacy letter he’d prepared, Counts quickly agreed.
That weekend, Snyder hung himself in the D.C. homeless shelter he helped create.
Counts was shocked. How could Snyder, who had been hard at work just days earlier, have fallen so low?
Today Counts, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s public policy school and founder of the world-renowned Grameen Foundation, knows how exhausting it can be to dedicate your life to a cause. He now understands that nonprofit leaders must be as generous to themselves as they are to others.
This is only one of the many lessons laid out in Counts’ latest book, “Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship.” In just over 300 pages, he teaches would-be changemakers how to work effectively, covering subjects including public speaking, management and even work-life balance.
“Ultimately, this book and the larger project it is part of is about leadership,” Counts said in a recent blog post. “Developing oneself into someone who can lead an organization effectively requires many things.”
“I think it’s a combination of drive to make a difference, introspection and continually learning from your mistakes to improve your work that account for his success and for why his book is so important and so helpful,” said Sam Daley-Harris, the founder of RESULTS and Counts’ longtime mentor.
Harris, along with Counts’ colleagues from his 18 years leading the Grameen Foundation, described Counts as highly motivated, but also open, compassionate and able to articulate his vision to others.
Counts founded the Grameen Foundation, a nonprofit which connects poor communities around the world to microcredit options, in 1997. During his tenure, the organization grew from about 10 employees to over 100, and from being relatively unknown to a philanthropic powerhouse raising millions of dollars per month.
“I think between his optimism, delivery on the big ideas that inspired people and openness to telling people how they could be part of those big ideas, he was able to grow Grameen Foundation into a world-class organization in a short time,” said Elizebeth Tucker, the foundation’s head fundraiser.
She also described Counts as an understanding boss.
“The first time I traveled with Alex for meetings I was very, very late in meeting with him at Newark airport…I walked up to him apologizing profusely,” she said. “He joked, ‘What? Travel complications made you late? That’s never happened before!’ That little moment of levity was such a relief.”
Robert Eichfeld, the Grameen Foundation’s former board chair, saw Counts’ interest in writing and teaching as a natural evolution. He believed that after years in nonprofit management, Counts was eager to both take a break and pass on what he’d learned to younger generations.
“What he’s going to do next I’m not sure, but I think he enjoys teaching as a way to express his wisdom, as well as writing. My guess is he’s going to continue to do that for a while,” Eichfeld said.