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Communications as a Career and a Lifestyle: An Interview with Holly Minch

In February 2013, New Dream spoke with Holly Minch, the newest member of our Board of Directors, about her work as a strategist and communicator, and how she adjusted her career and lifestyle to achieve greater balance.

You’ve dedicated your life to helping groups effectively strategize and communicate about environmental and other progressive issues. Can you briefly describe what you do?

I’m a professional do-gooder, and I’ve spent my whole career helping do-gooders do better. I believe that smart communications can be a powerful tool for change, so I help causes connect with people and vice versa. I see myself as an issue agnostic, but a skillset evangelist. It’s my job to help important causes figure out how to change people’s hearts and minds, to shift the culture. Imagine if Mad Men were good guys… we try to use the same principles for the forces of good!  

How did you first get involved in these issues, and this line of work?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher, but I learned that I hated professional teaching. At age 21, I was hired by the Sierra Club to be press secretary to [former] president Adam Werbach, mostly helping him do media interviews. I also trained Sierra Club chapters and groups across the country to do communications work. They put me on the road training others to do what I was learning how to do. I loved that part of the job, so I guess I eventually ended up being a kind of teacher after all.

You’ve spent a lot of time traveling to share your skills….

Eventually, training people became my whole job. I spent about 10 years traveling to train local community-based leaders to use communications as a tool to advance their cause. In the U.S., that meant everything from hanging out in church basements to working with the largest philanthropies in the nation. I’ve also had the opportunity to share my skills around the globe, training local leaders in India, Pakistan, Australia, and more.

After many years on the road, you decided to try something different and to start your own consulting group, LightBox Collaborative. Why?

I wanted more balance in my life. I was living in San Francisco but spending half my time on the East Coast, away from home and away from my husband. I loved my job, but I found myself wondering what life would be like if it were all a just little smaller. I thought about ways that I could get the benefits of working for myself but not the disadvantages of working by myself. So in 2008, I started LightBox Collaborative. Now I have a great team—and I get to walk my dog every day!

LightBox Collaborative is set up differently from a typical company. What’s so special about that?

To me, there are a couple things that make LightBox a very different (dare I say awesome?!?) place to work.

First of all, no one is an employee. We are all consultants, and we come together on a project basis, so people have the option of saying no to work they don’t want. For a given project, we choose the team based on the skillsets needed, the nature of the project, as well as peoples’ interest and availability. We have a portfolio of about 20 projects at a time, and each collaborator has three or four projects going.

Secondly, there’s no HQ. Everybody has a home office. The 13 of us are spread between the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Portland, D.C., Atlanta, and Ashland, North Carolina. We do a lot of work together online, with weekly check-in calls. We maintain face time by traveling as needed for clients, and also by getting together for quarterly team hootenannies—part meeting, part celebration—so we still get to enjoy the benefit of working with great people on great projects.

How has the change in your working arrangement affected your day-to-day life?

I have much more control over my time, and a lot more control over the kind of lifestyle I choose to create. For one thing, I get to enjoy cooking because I’m not eating out all the time any more. I can take my dog to the beach in the middle of the workday and still provide excellent service for clients—perhaps even better because I have the time and space to percolate on the challenges they’ve hired me to solve. I depend on my calendar to provide structure, but I can tweak it how I want. And now, after working at home for several years, I find that I begrudge going into an office: I do some of my best thinking and writing during the time most people are trudging to work in traffic. 

Do you find that you enjoy traveling again, or are you still burned out after all those years on the road?

Actually, one of the advantages of the way I work is that I’ve been able to reclaim travel. Presently, I am on a mission to visit all 50 states before my 40th birthday. I’ve only got six states left: South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Kentucky. I’m hoping to hit a couple of states by going to the World’s Longest Yard Sale, which stretches from Addison, Michigan, to Gadsden, Alabama, along the Hwy 127 corridor. I love the idea of people dragging all their unwanted stuff into their front yard, spending the weekend hanging out with their neighbors, and welcoming people like me who believe that one families’ junk is another’s treasure!

From your experience in helping people communicate more effectively, do you have any tips on what works and what doesn’t?

It sounds so simple, but I’ve found that the best communications tool is listening. Find out what people are passionate about, and try to tap into it—ask, “why does it matter to you?” It creates the opportunity for more meaningful conversation, allowing people to live out their values, to put them in practice. That’s why I really appreciate the work New Dream does.

How did you connect with New Dream, and what inspired you to join the Board?

I love the idea of pursuing more of what matters in our lives. That really resonates with choices I’ve tried to make. And I believe that as a nation, we have the opportunity to reset our collective compass, and focus on a new vision of what’s possible. American industry has changed, the global economy has evolved, and we are called to be different—as individuals and as a nation—in this new landscape. I believe that together, we can forge a new dream for the future of our country and our world.

Holly Minch has spent her entire career helping do-gooders do better. Her consulting group, LightBox Collaborative, jumpstarts creative thinking, builds strategic clarity, and sparks action to advance causes that matter. Holly has served as long-time communications counselor to the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, and enjoys working with the Ms. Foundation for Women as well as a range of community foundations across California. Her work has been honored by the Council on Foundations for Excellence in Public Policy Communications, and she was named by PR News as a creative practitioner in the industry. In addition, Holly co-created and serves as advisory board chair of The SPIN Academy, a communications training and talent-development effort that grew out of the SPIN Project, of which Holly was director. Her experience also includes her work at Spitfire Strategies, where she created communications programs for grantees of the nation’s largest foundations. Holly holds a B.A. in English literature and language from the University of Southern California. She lives in San Francisco with her good-humored husband, their snoring dog, and a few harmless dust bunnies.

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