How to Get Your Great Work Project Off the Ground

This is a guest post by Michael Bungay Stanier. He is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps people and organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. He’s written several books and especially proud of his own Great Work Project, End Malaria, which has raised more than $300,000 for Malaria No More. You can learn more about Michael here and follow him on Twitter.

As a keen reader of Michael’s blog, you’ll likely remember this interview he did with marketing blogger and provocateur Seth Godin about a year ago. About 3:40 in Seth hints at a project connected with his Domino Project publishing company, and then says he can’t say any more because “… he’ll get in trouble.”

But I can tell you about it. And as tomorrow is World Malaria Day, a time to remember and refocus on the battle against malaria, it’s the perfect time. Let me explain why.

I’m the creator of that idea, a charitable project disguised as a book. End Malaria isn’t directly about malaria at all but a collection of more than 60 thought-leaders sharing their best insights, strategies, and tips on a life of purpose and Great Work.

In September it hit #2 on Amazon.com. But the real magic is that it generates $20 per copy sold and has already raised more than $300,000 for Malaria No More.

Five ways to find, start and sustain your own Great Work Project

But where do big dreams come from? How do you find your Great Work? And how do you start it? Here’s how it worked for me.

  1. Declare a project. You might have heard of Google, a fairly successful tech company. One of the secrets of their success it that they’re a project-led company. Job titles and organization charts play a secondary role to the projects people are working on. Once the project is done, you roll off and on to what’s next.

    Deciding to do a Great Work Project sets a start date, an end date, and a target for success. You know when you’re doing it, you know when you’re not. And you create space to focus on the project rather than letting the everyday work take over.

  2. Check what’s in your kit bag. One immediate impact of saying, “I want to make a difference” is that you quickly feel inadequate. A thousand reasons percolate up that seem perfect arguments about why in fact you can’t really make a difference at all.

    One way to quieten the voices of doubt is to take a good look at the assets you have to make a difference.

    • The experience you have and the scars you bear
    • The courage you’ve displayed and the resilience you’ve shown
    • The person you are and the values you stand for
    • The people you know (and the people they know)

    When I looked at what I had, I knew I had some ability to create a successful book and I knew I had some “weak ties” to influential people through the Great Work Interviews podcast series I’d being doing for years.

  3. Find your horizon. It’s one of the contradictions of creativity that the clearer you are on your boundaries, the easiest it is to focus and have good ideas. So where should you set your limits? A project for your organization? For your tribe? For your neighborhood? Or your city? Your country? Globally?

    Inspired by the work of Mark and Craig Keilberger with Free the Children and their focus on the UN’s Millennium Goals I decided my stretch was to reach globally. Some research determined that the cheapest unit for global change was a $10 mosquito net. That could save lives and help eradicate malaria, a disease killing a child in Africa every minute of every day.

  4. Steal inspiration. At this stage I had some basic assets—book creating skills and some loose connections to influential people—and an idea about raising money in units of $10 to make a difference. But I needed a spark.

    The catalyst was an ebook that Seth Godin had recently published, a collection of smart people writing around that topic of What Matters.

    When you combine assets, limitations and inspiration into a blender, you’ll find ideas taking shape, and I knew there was something magical in the idea of “buy a book, buy a net” with a book co-created by a wide range of smart people.

  5. Don’t give up, file away. Moving from idea to action is never easy. We lurched from hope to despair. Some big names contributors like David Allen and Brene Brown came on board early. But others didn’t. I identified the perfect charitable partner. And they turned me down.

    My publisher offered to underwrite the costs of publishing the books. But I couldn’t figure out how to get the money to the charity fast enough.

    So I gave up. I filed the idea away under It’s Not Working Right Now.

    But then Seth started The Domino Project, a publishing company with a radical new financial model. Suddenly, I could see how the project might work. Nudged on by some of the people I’d already got involved, the project found its new life.

There’s More of Course

Lessons learned about giving up control, inviting others in to play, the art of gentle nagging and the gift of being able to detach yourself from the outcome, knowing that all you can do is focus on the journey to get you there.

But that only happens after you’ve taken the first steps on your own Great Work Project.

What Will Be Your Great Work Project?

Michael’s a great champion for being thoughtful about creating a Good Life. To paraphrase Churchill, we shape our life and afterwards it shapes us. Finding and starting your Great Work Project is a keystone block in building your powerful Life Plan. Now’s a great time to start.

Question: Have you ever considered a Great Work project? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://jonstolpe.com/ Jon Stolpe

    I believe that I have a Great Work project underway as I’m seeking to build one or more homes in Guatemala this summer through my blog.

    Thanks for sharing the concepts here.  This could be a spring board for many Great Work projects in the future.

    • mbungaystanier

      Jon – sounds like a fantastic thing to be doing. Great Work indeed!

      • http://jonstolpe.com/ Jon Stolpe

        Thanks, Michael.  So far, we’ve raised enough money to pay for 63% of a house.  I’m heading down to Guatemala this summer where we hope to build a couple of these homes.  It’s amazing what is possible through the blogging community!

        • http://www.brandongilliland.com/ Brandon

          Awesome! Did you get my comment response about the house that I posted on my blog a about a week ago?

          • http://jonstolpe.com/ Jon Stolpe

            I just saw it.  Thanks for the idea.  I’m using a site called FirstGiving.com to help with my fundraising efforts.  I haven’t seen it take off yet, but there is still time.

          • http://www.brandongilliland.com/ Brandon

            True. I will check that one out!

        • mbungaystanier

          That is awesome, Jon

        • Jim Martin

          What a great idea and project, Jon!  This sounds wonderful.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       Great idea, Jon. “Monetizing” your blog in an entirely new way.

  • http://twitter.com/croyseniles Christine Niles

    My Great Work project is in the conceptual stage…using inspiring stories to get ordinary people engaged in the global orphan crisis.  

    I’m most inspired by #5 – just because something isn’t coming together right now doesn’t mean that it’s not meant to happen.  Thanks for sharing your experience and encouragement.

    • mbungaystanier

      Christine – sometimes it takes time for the pieces to come together. Joah Lehrer’s new book Imagine shares some great insights on how taking time away from a project can often provide the spark of insight you need to solve it

    • su Soutter

      Christine. . can’t wait to check out your blog!  We have 3 biological kiddos and 2 adotped. .  our 5 year old came home from Guatemala at 10 months old. And our 7 year old came home from Ethiopia about 8 months ago.  Glad I read the comments today!!

    • http://www.thegeezergadgetguy.com/ Thad Puckett

      Isn’t that true?  Sometimes the time for the idea is not quite right.  When you have it thought through and ready, amazing things can occur!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Timing is huge. Whether it’s a conversation that needs to be had or a book that needs to be published, what doesn’t work today could be monumental tomorrow.

      • mbungaystanier

        My first book sat for 4 years before it/I was ready to get it out into the world

    • Jim Martin

      What a great project, Christine!  You are so right about #5.  Just because it is not coming together right now does not mean it is not going to happen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnmurphy.focuspoint John Murphy

    The great learning for me is not to listen to that little voice inside that tells you that you cannot do this. The project I am undertaking is to raise support and money to drive forward the research into Alzheimers.
    Thanks for the tips

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

       That voice is such a downer isn’t it John? Great thing is that you can control it. Keep working at it!

    • mbungaystanier

      Ahhh yes – that little voice! A great resource is Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson. I’m not sure the little voice ever goes away, but you can become aware of it and shrink its influence

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      A worthy project, John. Thanks for your efforts and passion.

    • Jim Martin

      John, I suspect many of us have spent far too much time listening to that little voice.  I certainly have.  Glad you pointed this out.

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    Michael, I remember hearing about the book. It sounds like a great idea and I love that the money from the purchase of the book is going towards ending Malaria, a GREAT work. 

    Currently I don’t have a great work that I’m heading towards but this post is a great reminder to start looking for the next one.

    • mbungaystanier

      Thanks, Joe. 

  • http://www.thegeezergadgetguy.com/ Thad Puckett

    I really find your idea of “Find your horizons” to be wonderfully appealing.  Something about defining the boundaries, while leaving much room to adapt gives enough definition to focus, but enough room to innovate.  They are to limit, but to define.

    Best of luck to your Great Work Project…malaria is such a scourge in too many parts of the world.

    • mbungaystanier

      Thad – love how you put that

  • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

    One could make the argument that our lives are a Great Work in and of themselves.  This would be especially true if one is trying to move their life from a place of mediocrity, survival and reactivity, to a place of excellence, “abundance,” and proactivity.  (No particular order from the negatives or the positives.)

    • mbungaystanier

      Dale, I think that’s quite true. The real piece around ‘Great Work’ for me is not necessarily about doing a project that Saves The World, but living a life that’s mindful and has you taking full responsibility for the choices you’re making

      • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

        Part of the key to having that mindful and responsible life is laying a good foundation of good character and habits.  I work in a call center and see many people who are either frustrated in their jobs, or they are just flat out unsuccessful, the reason why is that they don’t have the proper foundation.  Even if they are good people, the foundation may be less than complete because they are still blaming others for this or that or they lack purpose. 

        Of course, I also work there, so what does that say about me? :-D

        • mbungaystanier

          I think it might say that no matter where you work, there’s opportunity to develop yourself and do Great Work…

          • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

            Precisely!

          • Jim Martin

            Michael, I really like the way you express this.

  • http://justiceandlife.org/ Matt Lossau

    I stumbled across this concept without realizing it, when I started a neighborhood group that is partnering with a poor village in Kenya.  Recently, I’ve been wondering “what’s next?”  This post let me in on the secret I had accidentally implemented when I started that group.  It’s so simple, really…stop talking, and create a project to start doing.  Thanks!  And thank you for End Malaria, I really enjoyed it.

    • mbungaystanier

      Matt – love what you’re doing in Kenya – thank you.

  • mbungaystanier

    Even though the Great Work Project I’m talking about here involves solving a big problem, I’d like to suggest that your Great Work doesn’t have to be at that scale. It’s more about finding the thing that uses your strengths and provides a place of focus for you to bring your intent and energy to. It might be raising your family, supporting your church, writing your book, whatever. But making it a project makes it more likely to happen.

  • http://www.danieldecker.net/ Daniel Decker

    I think this single statement is what keeps so many from their Great Work… “Moving from idea to action is never easy.” Doing Great Work isn’t easy but then again, nothing truly worthwhile ever is. 

    • mbungaystanier

      spot on, Daniel. As someone smart once said, “when all is said and done, a lot more is said than done”

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Absolutely. Dreaming up a Great Work is the fun part. But then reality hits and the seeming impossibility of it paralyzes. Taking action on a Great Work is the world changing part.

      • mbungaystanier

        And as Anne Lammott and others have said: you do it step by step, “bird by bird”

  • http://www.kellycombs.com/ Kelly Combs

    Great post, Michael S.  I related greatly to #2, because I have that voice of doubt when I start a new project. I call it the Voice of Lies, and I wrote a blog post about it, 
    Are YOU What is Holding You Back?

    Thanks for the encouragement today. Wishing you continued success on your project. 

    • mbungaystanier

      I know that voice too, Kelly! Thanks for the encouragement.

  • http://scottkantner.com Scott Kantner

    Water.  Finding ways to provide fresh, clean water in places where it’s most needed.

    • mbungaystanier

      Scott. Great goal. Do you know charity:water?

      • http://scottkantner.com Scott Kantner

        Actually, I learned about them just last week.   Previously I had been working through WorldVision to get my “feet wet”, as it were.   I got kind of convicted about this whole thing last summer.  I shared a little of that here -> 
        http://scottkantner.com/the-problem-with-software/

        • mbungaystanier

          Love it – thanks Scott

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    What an inspirational story, Michael. I love your step by step guide through the plan. I’m currently working through a similar style project called Relevant Light. The idea is to create a seminar that focuses on five powerful tenets, Legacy, Impact, Goals, Habits, and Time (LIGHT). Currently I’m blogging about the idea and putting together a workbook for the seminar. The next step is to see if there is enough interest to have a publisher pick up the creation of a full book. 

    I put a post together the other day that lists out two of the charities that  I’ve been associated with over the years. One is an organization that builds small homes for families in Mexico. The other is a group that has started micro enterprises in different countries around the world. When you see the impact that an idea acted upon can have, you realize that nothing is impossible. 

    It just takes a first step… http://goals4u.us/HAjn7r

    • mbungaystanier

      John – love that you start LIGHT with Legacy. Going to the big picture of the “why” can be really useful

      • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

        Exploring the concept of “Legacy” has been eye opening. It has really helped me answer the question, “What do I want in Life?”

        Viewing life backwards shows you that minor changes today can have a major impact down the road.

        • mbungaystanier

          Someone once said: inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense. I love that. I also think that it helps to actively work at making it so

  • http://twitter.com/gnuhaus Mark Newhouse

    Good timing as I actually have one going right now. I’m raising money for an orphanage in Bujumbura, Burundi that my family supports. I turn 45 on Sunday and had a birthday wish to raise $45K in 45 days for the orphans. My platform happens to be Instagram, so I am using that to help raise the money. So far about $2,000 has come in. You can learn more (and donate) at http://45kin45.tumblr.com/ and see some photos I’ve been posting to Instagram at http://gnuhaus.tumblr.com/

    • mbungaystanier

      Mark – sounds important work. Good luck with your fund raising.

  • Kim Hall

    This set me back on my heels this morning. A great works project. Hmmm. Now there is exciting food for thought!

    I am reminded of how helpful certain books could be in this process: Switch, and Made to Stick, by the Heath Brothers, for understanding how to create change and why some ideas survive and others die; and The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, which details how little things can make a big difference.

    I am also reminded of a quote I read recently, but am not able to remember where. To paraphrase:
    Be sure your dream is so big that there is no way to accomplish it without God’s help.

    Thanks for the nudge!

    • mbungaystanier

      All of those a great books, Kim.

      And yes – I always think that if you’re doing Great Work by yourself, you may not be doing Great Work. 

  • http://choosetotrust.com/ theperkster

    A Great Work project necessitates confronting our own pride and fear. Get over the hurdle!

    • mbungaystanier

      spot on. you step up to the edge of yourself and ask… now what?

  • http://www.kimconstable.wordpress.com/ Kim Constable

    I am hesitant to call my new project great work, since it doesn’t help starving children or relieve suffering of the really needy.  However, it does aim to support better some of the most important people in the world: mothers.  I am launching the International Association of Mumpreneurs in September of this year, which aims to support mindful mothers who want to  earn their own incomes, yet want to keep their priorities to their families intact.  Our children are the next generation, and I believe we can build a better world if we support those who are primarily responsible for their education – their parents, specifically in my case, their mothers.  I was inspired when I read Seth Godin’s book Tribes.  I think he does great work and I am working to build my own tribe, firstly through my blog and next through the Association.  Thank you for sharing your insights in the post.  It was inspiring and thought provoking.

    • mbungaystanier

      Thanks, Kim. I’m a very big believer that you don’t have to be Solving The World’s Problems to be doing Great Work. It’s all about what’s the meaningful work you care about that you want to focus upon. IAM sounds like a perfect Great Work project!

      And ‘End Malaria’ was published by Seth Godin, just to make that link too.

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Stanier! Love the idea. For many, the great work project dies at dream level itself. Right now, I am learning to be consitent towards the journey of becoming a writer. I am setting my purpose and passion compatible with each other.

    • mbungaystanier

      Uma – lovely! It all unfolds step by step…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Allen/100000334183342 Mary Allen

    This was an inspiration to me today as I work on sending out a book proposal. I especially liked the idea that you don’t have to do something world saving, you only have to do the work that fulfills your purpose in life. That’s what I’m working on, and it can be daunting at times, especially when I allow thoughts of blame to trip up my forward movement. Thanks for the post.

    • mbungaystanier

      A pleasure, Mary. I’m working on a book proposal myself today, so I’m in good company.

  • http://www.nginaotiende.blogspot.com Ngina Otiende

    I have been mulling over a project for a couple of months…fundraising for a children orphanage in Kenya and a school project in Southern Sudan. 

    I like #5, the idea of filing away, not giving up. I haven’t exactly filed away, just thinking and planning of possible ways to execute things. 

    Very encouraging post Michael. Thank you for sharing.

    • mbungaystanier

      Ngina – sometimes these things need to marinate!

      • http://www.nginaotiende.blogspot.com Ngina Otiende

        I agree!

  • http://twitter.com/jenlouden Jennifer Louden

    Great job friend, and as always, I learn from you!

    • mbungaystanier

      Thanks, Jennifer!

  • Louise

    My project is to create a center for the compassionate care of people diagnosed with dementia. People now caring for their aging family members are seeing the increasing need for care that is better than what is available. I visualize a non-profit organization along the lines of the Mayo Clinic. Anybody interested?

    • mbungaystanier

      Louise – asking for help is one of the great ways to step forward into your own Great Work. Collaboration is a big multiplier of impact

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        I concur! Collaborating with others is what makes the journey toward and the celebration of a Great Work so rich.

  • CoachSherrill

    Love this, Michael, and love everyone’s comments.  The amount of Great Work going on is so inspiring!

    I don’t have a  Great Work project, per se, formally identified, which is probably key to a feeling of stuckness.  I think that’s why I especially liked the first two items in the Check Your Toolkit.  I’ve been focused on the “scar tissue”, instead of looking at the scars as badges of honor and what I learned from them.  Thanks for the catalyst for shift.

    • mbungaystanier

      A pleasure, Sherrill

  • http://www.brandongilliland.com/ Brandon

    Awesome guest post! Thanks for sahring!

    • mbungaystanier

      Thanks, Brandon ~

  • http://www.mentalhealthgracealliance.org/ Joe Padilla

    Michael Stainer – that was a great, great, great blog! I really love the outside the box type of thinking.  I started a mental health org (Great work) and its had great progress … BUT it’s the other projects we’re trying to develop and grow into as well (hands-on simple material and transitional living centers, and more). Plus, navigating through those roadblocks of stigma. At any rate, outside of my ongoing responsibilities I’ve been trying to discover different ways we can grow … I’m trying to color outside the lines … any ideas you or others have, I’m all ears.  

    Thanks again for a great blog! This really stirred the pot! Thanks for paving the creative way! 

    • mbungaystanier

      Joe – thanks for those very kind words, and I’m delighted you found something useful there. (as it happens my newsletter is called ‘outside the lines’…)

      Sounds like you’re doing a lot of things right. One thing that works for me is to recognize I can’t push all the peanuts forward. So really focus on one part and see if that makes a difference.

      • http://www.mentalhealthgracealliance.org/ Joe Padilla

        Micheal – Thanks. Yes, I like the peanut analogy! We have an outlined process for each “peanut” … just trying to get a different overall perspective of the potential that’s in front of me and I’m just not seeing it. That’s why your blog encouraged me and got me thinking out loud … “Hmmmm!?!”

        I signed up for the newsletter and look forward to exploring your site … hungry to grow. Thanks again! 

        • mbungaystanier

          a pleasure Joe ~

  • http://talesofwork.com/ kimanzi constable

    Awesome post and an awesome project, much prayers heading your way from our family!

    • mbungaystanier

      thank you!

  • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

    Michael,
    This was a great post.  I really like how your encouragement was rooted in big vision, but very practical in it’s execution. I think the part that will stick with me the most will be “declare a project.” For a long time I have taken the approach to “under-commit and over deliver”, but the problem with that mentality is sometimes, by under committing, you sell your potential short… Ya know?  Great work!

    • mbungaystanier

      Thanks, Barry. It’s one of those paradoxes. Go big but keep it light. Know it really matters, know it doesn’t matter that much in the long run. Knowing there’s this tension I think helps you be both bold and light.

      • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

        Yes,
        The paradox/tension is something that stretches us. I just have to learn to embrace the tension and not want to “solve” the tension. Which is what Seth was talking about in the clip you referred to! Thanks, again , Michael!

        • mbungaystanier

          I’m far better talking about it than I am actually embracing it… an on-going challenge for us all I think

  • http://twitter.com/MARLdblE Marlee Ward

    Michael!
    I remember hearing about this project when it was launched with the Domino Project. I instantly fell in love with the concept, vision, and the purpose. Kudos to you for staying strong and seeing it through. I really appreciate the steps you set forth here. I think they make the idea of having a big impact small and manageable. And it’s often the thought of the magnitude of a Great Work project that keeps us from attempting it in the first place. 

    • mbungaystanier

      Thanks, Marlee. David Allen – productivity whizz – says you can’t do a project you can only do the next step. Wise words there I think. Appreciate the kind words too

  • info

    you have done a great work ………. its really working and important for us. so please keep sharing ….www.mp09digital.com

    • mbungaystanier

      thank you ~

  • http://maximizemylife.com/ Andrew Wildes

     Inspired by this post to convert a major concern I have into a Great Work project for myself  and as many of my friends as I can inspire.

    The conditions of prisons in Jamaica are appalling – the majority were built in our colonial times, are often significantly overcrowded and incredibly under funded. I hope to use my blog and perhaps my own “weak ties” to raise awareness…for starts.

    • mbungaystanier

      Andrew – bravo!

  • Rmateen027

    I have considered many great work projects. And like yourself, I have influential people, assets, and I believe I can write a book. The problem is I have no support because all I ever hear is “I’m only 19″. So basically everybody believes in me but not my abilities to make things happen. Which makes my great projects stored up in evernotes just waiting to be released

  • Dvtomassoni

    Michael,

    I have a Great Work Project, I meet all your criteria but don’t know how to take that next step to get my message out and to be booked for speaking  engagements. I am involved with my church and have made known my passion.

    I have sent out some query letters, the last was rejected by the agent telling me “personal stories don’t sell, unless of course you are a big celebrity.” I don’t buy that and replied with the message below. My manuscript is almost completed.

    Presently there is a ongoing
    spiritual movement that women and men alike are looking for that
    “something” greater than themselves. Internet search of the
    keyword “God” shows search results -1,850,000,000, and Inspirational –
    139,000,000

    My inspirational book is timely in that the
    challenges I’ve faced are similar to the person next door, or at least
    shared similar feelings. Unable to find work, filed bankruptcy, losing my home, survived a suicide attempt, having to moved back to my home state after a 30 year absence, and I consider myself richer than ever and through God’s word I can weather any challenge. Went to college at age 56 and graduating next month w/ Honors –  AS degree.I’m  not a celebrity or rich, in fact if not for
    family I’d be homeless right now. I could be the neighbor next door,
    I’m just like them, like minded and we all have everyday life
    challenges, not like celebrities who can afford to buy milk, bread, and
    can afford to fill their every need. The person next door wants to know
    there’s someone like them
    on their level who changed their life Because I Believed and
    they’re thinking “if she can do it, so can I.” I know as my passion is
    to help others, I will travel the world to market my book. Any ideas or suggestions?

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