What riding elephants teaches about running nonprofits


In my early 20s, I ran a tourism bureau that hosted an old-fashioned traveling circus. As if the promotional posters weren’t hype enough, we promoted “The Greatest Show on Earth” by auctioning off a ride on a baby elephant. A six-year-old girl won the contest. Her mother wisely insisted that she be accompanied by an adult.

That launched my elephant riding career. It also revealed a few unlikely lessons about running nonprofits.

Invest in the right gear. My young charge donned a ballet tutu, pink sneakers and pigtails for her inaugural ride. Being light on circus attire, I converted a flaming red, disco-era prom dress into what I imagined an elephant rider might wear. (This was pre-Google.) A lime-green feather boa, purchased just for the occasion, completed the look.

What we didn’t account for in our clothing selections was the bristle-like hide of the elephant. Stradling her was like riding a hair brush. Instead of dressing for success, we should have been wearing Teflon breeches to protect our tender rears.

Despite advice to the contrary, it sometimes pays to cover your butt.  

Hold on for dear life. The elephant trainer cupped his hands to give us a foothold and unceremoniously tossed us on top of Babe, who stood twice my height and weighted two tons. The little girl nestled between my legs and burrowed her tiny fingers into my thighs. I gripped the steel harness that surrounded us as if our lives depended upon it. They did. When Babe took her first steps, she almost dumped us.

Elephant riding, like running a nonprofit, is no pony ride. Hold on!

Recognize the power of emotion. We joined the circus parade that was weaving its way through downtown. I wondered why Babe wasn’t on a leash, then realized the futility of that plan. Babe would go wherever Babe wanted to go – with minor direction from her trainer and no input from interlopers like us. We wisely resolved to let Babe take the lead. 

Twenty years later, I read Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. In that masterpiece, authors Dan and Chip Heath likened an elephant to emotion and its riders to reason. They observed that in a standoff between the two, emotion always wins.

The only way to move forward is to “direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path,” the brothers advise.  

Be open to opportunity. Gradually, we got comfortable enough to wave, motorcade-style, to the spectators lining the streets. That worked until someone held out a handful of peanuts. Babe made a beeline for the proffered treats, waving her trunk in wild gestures and scattering panicked onlookers perched on the curb. Oblivious to the kerfuffle, she captured the prize then returned to the sanctioned route.        

Sometimes opportunity takes you to a fork in the road. As Yogi Berra famously said, take it.

Practice dilemma flipping. When the crowds started to wane, the trainer drummed up interest by baiting Babe to do tricks. If you’ve ever been on a small boat in a raging torrent, then you know what it’s like to ride a skipping elephant. We were tossed from side to side with astonishing force. When she was prompted to stand on her hind legs, we almost slid off her back. To spare that indignity, we “leaned in,” as Cheryl Sandberg later advised, making the best of an untenable situation.  

When you can’t fix a problem, practice what futurist Bob Johansen calls “dilemma flipping.”   

Always use a net. The parade mercifully ended at the circus tent. There we joined the real performers in circling the ring and taking our bows. My partner and I made a hasty exist to avoid being pressed into service by the Flying Wallendas, a daredevil family acrobatic troupe known for performing without a net. Accidents were infrequent but fatal.

In high-risk endeavors, insist on a back-up plan and a safety net.    

Play to the unexpected. After reuniting my brave little friend with her mother, I returned to the tent to catch the rest of the show. To my great surprise, the ringmaster invited me to ride Babe in the opening ceremonies for the rest of the run. This wasn’t his first rodeo. He knew that a local elephant rider would make the headlines, and that would sell tickets.

In a cluttered media environment, doing the unexpected gets attention.                    

Rewrite the rules to remain relevant. I found myself on a short list of people who delighted in riding elephants – mostly in circuses, parades and festivals. Then the world changed. Animal acts were condemned as cruel and inhumane. Families preferred Sesame Street Live over the Ringling Brothers. And most family-owned circuses, no longer able attract crowds, folded.

In their wake, Cirque du Soleil emerged as the largest theatrical production company in the world. Instead of competing for an ever-shrinking piece of the circus pie, it rewrote the rules of the big top.  

To remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, create a “blue ocean” where there are no competitors. 

While my elephant riding costume hangs in the back of the closet, I’m rewriting my nonprofit narrative to remain relevant in a blue-ocean world.