A Walk on the Wild Side: Nonprofit Lessons from Lou Reed

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photo by Thierry Ehrmann

I never know what to say about celebrities who die. It’s always sad, of course, especially if I admired their work, but what do I have to add the tributes I see all over Facebook, Twitter, and the web?

Lou Reed, who died at 71 on Sunday, and his band Velvet Underground made some of my favorite music, and influenced my tastes as I discovered other music. I admired Reed as an intelligent writer (he was an English major) and as an unabashed observer of American society. As I’ve listened to his music over the past few days, it occurred to me that several of his songs contain lessons and insights for nonprofits. Can you think of others?

“Pale Blue Eyes”
Thought of you as my mountain top,
Thought of you as my peak.
Thought of you as everything,
I’ve had but couldn’t keep.

This is one of Lou’s most melodic and popular songs, but what many people don’t know is that it was inspired by a female muse – who had hazel eyes.

Lesson: Be honest in your communications, but also creative. “Pale Hazel Eyes” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

“Dirty Blvd.”
No one here dreams of being a doctor or lawyer or anything.
They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard.

Reed loved New York City, but he was also realistic about the underbelly of the city, and the gap between the haves and have-nots. In this song, Pedro at first seems doomed to a life of poverty and drugs, but finds a book of magic and dreams of flying away. It’s all relative, but for Reed, that almost qualifies as a happy (or at least hopeful) ending.

Lesson: Share the grim reality of the problems you’re trying to solve, but also give your supporters hope and show them what’s possible.

“Perfect Day”
Oh it’s such a perfect day.
I’m glad I spent it with you.

Whether this song is a simple love story or an ode to heroin addiction, it’s one of Reed’s most upbeat and most covered songs.

Lesson: Celebrate your successes, and thank your donors for making them possible.

“Walk on the Wild Side”
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll – it’s all here, and it’s also one of Reed’s most melodic songs. Quintessential Lou, it’s a simple narrative with interesting and offbeat characters.

Lesson: What stories can you tell that haven’t been told before? Think differently. Surprise your audience. Take a walk on the wild side.

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