Lessons from Ultimate Peace

Feature photo by Ultimate Peace

Ultimate Peace, a non-profit organization that aims to use ultimate to bridge cultural divides in conflict zones, started out with a fuzzy notion five years ago. Conceptually, the model was straightforward: use the sport of ultimate to make peace in the Middle East. Today we have two full-blown non-profit organizations (one in the United States and one in the Middle East) that operate year-round program to serve over 300 youth. We have also created and now run a leadership program for the most engaged teens in our program that serves over 40 youth in 3 cohorts. All of them are preparing to lead/coach youth teams back in their communities or contribute to the organizational development of Ultimate Peace as they get older. Who knew?

As “Volunteer CEO”, I manage my time with some difficulty. As a husband of 18 years and father of two boys (6th and 11th graders), I juggle a full-time consulting practice to non-profit organizations, coach my son’s sports teams, and try to stay fit and healthy so I can keep doing all those things and not splatter. Admittedly, I have been pushed to the edge as this enterprise has evolved and eventually overtaken any spare time I had before. Challenges are constant and the surprises never stop, especially given the context – the Middle East. Nonetheless, the work of the program continues to amaze and inspire all of us who are involved, so we keep at it with vigorous determination. Somehow we find a way to overcome each new twist and turn, and try to stop for long enough to breathe, reflect and learn along the way. My Ultimate Peace partners and I are fully immersed in what we fondly call “The School of Ultimate Peace” in which pulling all nighters, fighting with bullies, failing tests, and having no lunch money are commonplace. It is also true that deep learning, acing critical exams, making lifelong friends, and pulling out big team victories on the field happen just as much.

I offer this short piece as a summary of a few of our key lessons learned. I hope it will be useful to those of you who are thinking about or active in pursuing the “business of ultimate”. Even thought we are a non-profit, I think many of the points below also apply in the for-profit domain.

Lesson #1 – Find great people, then put them to work

From the outset, Ultimate Peace had wonderful people interested in helping. Fortunately, we capitalized on that opportunity, and created ways for them to not only help get things done but basically create the organization, step by step, from nothing. We first asked a mixed team that had formed at Potlatch (Jewbilation) to get involved, and 15 people on the team actually raised enough money in 4 months to travel to the Middle East and pull off a major event. New eager volunteers continued to flock in once they heard about the project. We quickly formed small committees to create fundraising tools and vehicles, coaching manuals, program designs, budgets, you name it. Fortunately, the enormous amount of energy was channeled, otherwise we would have lost an unbelievable asset and resource. In essence, this initial surge of energy created Ultimate Peace. Today, we have to work extra hard to ensure all who want to contribute are busy, including Board, coaches, and numerous volunteers around the world.

People support what they help to create – that is just a fact, so enabling people to invest fully and own the results collectively is one of the main reasons, I believe, we have over a hundred volunteers working for Ultimate Peace every year. We still can’t pay people. In fact, people have to raise money just to pay to come to volunteer at camp. We only have two employees, and they are both in the Middle East – everyone else donates their time. It has become evident that the return people get from being involved is a powerful form of compensation.

One surprising lesson is that multi-generational teams are the ideal, at least for Ultimate Peace. Young people with tons of tools and energy and older folks with loads of wisdom equals one potent collaboration. We pride ourselves in staffing camp in this way to maximize our impact. My whole family is now heavily involved in Ultimate Peace – my wife is Educational Program Director and full time fundraiser, our 16 year old is a Coach-in-Training, and our 11-year old is a camper every summer. It seems to work best when we are all involved.

Related Tip: Find great mentors – As important as putting great people to work is, finding wise experienced people to guide and advise leadership is of equal priority. I have three mentors, and use them often. One is for sharpening my fundraising awareness and skills, one is to help me navigate the unique challenges of the Middle East, and one is for helping me stay grounded and positive when the chips are down. This is what has saved me from peril time and time again, so don’t go it alone.

Lesson 2: Ultimate values front and center 

Ultimate Peace is an ultimate organization. We are not about soccer, or basketball, or any other sport. There are other peace-building organizations that use other sports to try to do what we do. We think we are more successful than most for a number of reasons – one major one is that our sport is different, and we embrace it. We have sportsmanship written into our rules with SOTG, and we don’t use referees. This feature and these values are helping kids from opposite sides of a major regional conflict learn how to resolve differences! This adds huge value that other sports simply lack. We talk about this constantly, educate audiences around the world about why ultimate is the best sport for building these types of bridges, and proudly differentiate ourselves.

I do not understand ultimate organizations, companies, leagues, or start-ups that try to minimize our uniqueness and be like other sports.  I am disappointed that the professional leagues are trying so hard to mimic other sports with their copycat uses of referees and cheerleaders. Why, when we have developed one of the coolest sports cultures and practices in the world? I am also surprised, after all these years, that USAU has not yet codified and marketed Spirit of the Game as a revolutionary development in sports, or promoted observers as one of the most innovative alternatives to the one-dimensional construct of third party referees. These things are incredible. Why are we not shouting about them?

I believe the exciting growth we have witnessed as a sport over the last few years can be attributed to increasing awareness and enjoyment of our many awesome attributes, not because we are becoming like other sports (as some apparently believe). Standing up proudly for who we are and raising awareness of what we are “bringing to the sports table” is a very worthwhile endeavor. In our experience at Ultimate Peace, it is the key to our standing out and rising above the fray.

Related Tip: Name and live your values – Our five organizational values are Mutual Respect, Integrity, Non-Violence, Friendship, and Fun. Every kid and adult in Ultimate Peace knows them well, and can explain how they live and implement them. If you think about them in combination, you can see how they collectively embody the best of SOTG. They are printed on our garments and we refer to them often in staff meetings, at camp, and in public presentations. They guide us and we are accountable to them. Even when we were faking it before we were making it, we clung to our five values like a life preserver. What are/will be yours?

Lesson 3: The hardest times are the most fertile

Pain and growth always come together. The list of failures, let-downs, conflicts, fallings-out, mishaps, and downright catastrophes are endless when you try to do something crazy and bold and awesome like this. And by awesome I mean as the dictionary defines it: Causing feelings of fear and wonder. Interestingly, what almost always seems to follow the hard times are improvement, change, and new opportunity. At first, we tried to muscle through the challenges, ignoring their messages while focusing on plugging the leaks. Then we learned one very important lesson: pay attention when it hurts.

Use the hard times to get strong and prepare for the next risks you will take, and never stop taking them. Feel love and hate, prioritize relationships, not transactions, and never ever give up.

Related Tip: Create a culture of learning – If you want to get better quickly, set up systems and tools to enable ongoing reflection and lesson gleaning. Structure influences behavior, so lay the foundation for continuous improvement and growth and your odds of success will increase. Regular assessment, evaluation, and looking into the mirror is good, if sometimes bitter, medicine.

Issue No. 3 | Business

January 6, 2014