Meaning, Mentorship, and Moai in Nonprofit Work

Published by on January 5, 2024

From the Author:

Following Part 1 of this series, many nonprofiteers and supporters affirmed the complexity that comes with our unique entanglement. They shared reflections and experiences about the path they navigate in pursuit of a greater good. It was heartening and humbling to not only engage in this dialogue, but to feel the energy and anticipation growing around building our own community of support. I’m excited to share Part 2 in this series, that will hopefully help to channel this energy in a new way, rooted in an ancient tradition.


Have you heard yet about the concept of Ikigai??

In Dan Buettner’s 2023 documentary surmising the keys to longevity, Ikigai – our unique reason for living – is cited as a critical component of longevity. Over the course of two decades, Buettner developed a strong case for the discovery of individual purpose as the answer to the question of why there are more centenarians living in the reported “blue zones” than anywhere else in the world. In Okinawa, Japan, Buettner beautifully captures the essence of Ikigai through the tradition of Moai.

According to Buettner’s BLUE ZONES® organization, Moai is a social support circle that begins in childhood with groups of five youngsters being paired together in a lifelong commitment to each other. Some have lasted for more than 90 years, providing built-in companionship, pooled resources when times get tough, and a stable source of advice.

 Ikigai – our unique reason for living – is cited as a critical component of longevity.

Moai are grounded in a steadfast commitment to mutual respect and unconditional support. Buettner found that today’s Moai provide companionship and joy in the simple things of daily life, as well as a lifetime of giving to and receiving from the others in the circle. Through his work and the research of others, it’s been proven that participants in this ancient tradition experience less stress, are happier, and live longer.

It’s not necessarily the longevity piece that’s most intriguing, however. My goal (or desire) is not to live to 100. This might happen, but it’s not a destination I’m trying to reach. The intrigue of Moai lies in the connection with others. The risk in pursuing a goal with an ultimate endpoint, such as living to 100, is the potential to miss the journey. The tradition of Moai provides a beautiful example of the meaning we find, and the value we receive, from the others with which we share the journey.

Often, we find ourselves standing alone at the tetherball pole (my analogy on nonprofit entanglement from part 1 of this article), watching the ball spin around and around, with nobody on the other side to validate our efforts, engage in the game together, and inspire us to keep going no matter how small the progress may appear.

Moai provides us a lifeline.

Meaning, Mentorship, and Moai

Moai laid the groundwork for modern-day mentoring. It fosters shared values, meaning, and connection. It facilitates knowledge-transfer, tool-building, and scaffolding for those who might otherwise succumb to life’s circumstances. It strengthens the individuals and the collective to persevere. 

It only succeeds together – precisely the prescription those in the nonprofit sector need to flip the script on the isolation, exhaustion, and pressure the entanglement can cause.

Moai laid the groundwork for modern-day mentoring.

Mentorship programs are often implemented in organizations with good intentions.  Sometimes, however, they are driven by the organization’s need to nurture a “built-in” talent pipeline. These programs can turn into an exercise solely focused on helping someone get their next job or paving a promotion path with the organization, rather than intentionally bolstering an individual during a crucial time in their personal or professional life, no matter where their path may lead.

In The Other Side Of The Table, I recently explored the beauty of intentionally placing ourselves in situations for growth, experiencing the perspectives of others along our unique journey. So much meaning comes from true connection with others who are traversing the path. When we are focused on an effort to reach a destination or the next rung on the ladder instead of connection, the lessons can be lost. 

Mentorship is most meaningful when it is built on trust, shared purpose, and support – traits it shares with the Moai tradition. Knowledge-transfer and consistent action is how these traits are lived and exhibited.

There are shining examples out there. The Nonprofit Hive being one, facilitating 30 minutes of weekly Moai with community, connection, and giving

Embedding a Moai-mindset into the fabric of the philanthropic sector doesn’t require a generations-long tradition of youngsters being paired together in a lifelong bond. It doesn’t require us to provide financial support or spend time with one another every single day. 

It does require us, however, to prioritize community. To prioritize connection. To prioritize giving with no expectation of receiving. It requires us to release fear or insecurity of providing constructive feedback, and telling the stories from which others can learn. It requires us to increase our collective tolerance for time spent on transferring knowledge with no expectation of an immediate return on that investment. It requires us to demonstrate our love of humankind.

There are shining examples out there. The Nonprofit Hive being one, facilitating 30 minutes of weekly Moai with community, connection, and giving. Many are seizing this moment of mentorship, as I have, helping others to invest in their best. I invite you to ask someone to stand on the other side of the tetherball. Laugh, cry, reflect, share.

This is our time. This is our Moai.

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Beth Brenner is a Hiver and nonprofiteer with twenty years of experience in fundraising leadership, philanthropic strategy, and operational growth. A higher education leader, Beth’s work has advanced complex programmatic initiatives to achieve aspirational fundraising outcomes. Beth’s commitment to investing in people first led to the founding of her firm, Michael Macrae, serving individuals and organizations as they navigate the intersection of wellbeing and career. As a fractional nonprofit executive, regular writer and featured speaker, Beth provides professional mentorship through her one-of-its-kind Seasonal Career Roadmap, and unique 5-pronged approach to building confident, collaborative, courageous organizations.

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