The magic that makes Charities@Work the best CSR employee engagement conference every year

If you’re employed in CSR, D&I, or employee engagement, commit now to attending next year’s Charities@Work conference.

The 2019 conference hit the Times Square Westin a couple weeks ago, and it was my first time attending without also being on the corporate advisory council. I have been a regular at many of the CSR industry’s conferences, and this is the best for employee engagement practitioners, hands down.

Why? Two words: BECAUSE REASONS. Okay?

Advisory Council chair Michael Carren

If you want to know what was on the agenda or how the panels went or who the speakers were, there are other pages for that. I’m going to share my personal observations and try to explain the magic that I feel makes this conference special.

No corporate chest-thumping

The worst thing is to pay for a conference and spend two days listening to the big sponsors drone on about how awesome (yet irrelevant to the audience) their company’s CSR programs are. The Charities@Work sponsors pay in not because they’ll get a bunch of self-indulgent stage time, but because they know the talent and creativity in the room will be inspiring, challenging, and innovative. The sponsors are paying to keep this incredible forum from turning into just another mostly-pointless business trip, and to ensure that someone is helping push the profession and the field forward.

Real, unvarnished discussion

The pre-conference workshops are unique in my experience. A lot of conferences offer workshops, but I’ve found most to feel contrived—more dedicated to the methodology of the workshop, or the production of a preconceived outcome, than to the creative, inclusive, and challenging dialog that Charities@Work creates space for.

“Shark Tank” judges being judgy

These workshops are designed with a bit of intentional chaos built in because the organizers know that even the newcomers to CSR bring fresh ideas, new perspectives, and pointed questions.

Old friends and new friends

Although I think the 2019 conference could have had more space in the agenda for networking breaks, the after-hours networking events more than made up for it. More important, however, is that the conference comprises a mix of old pros who have known each other a long time, and new pros who might be networking at a CSR conference for the first time.

Networking at Starbucks Reserve Roastery.

We’ve all been to conferences where everyone huddles up in their own little established cliques. This is great for catching up with old friends, but it’s awful if you come alone or hope to broaden your network.

Charities@Work feels different to me. Every year I’ve met several new people that I’ve kept in touch with. There isn’t anything structurally different about this conference that fosters this networking; it’s the underlying culture of the event and the attitude of the staff and advisory council that run it.

Everyone’s voice matters, and everyone has things to say

Jillian, Jerome, and Erin. Best panel ever.

I had the honor of moderating the last panel of the day, and even with three stellar panelists in Jillian Mershon, Jerome Tennille, and Erin Gollhofer, I was worried that we’d face an audience overwhelmed and exhausted by the day’s packed agenda. So, intentionally, I warned the room up front that I didn’t want a Q&A session so much as I wanted people to take the mic and share their own thoughts. What happened was, for me, kind of magical: while a few people looked ready for a nap, dozens of people wanted to share their insights. The energy and inspiration had been building up all day, and people were eager to speak, to share, to interact.

At other conferences, I’m always eager for the last panel to end. It didn’t feel that way at Charities@Work 2019.

And those are my reasons. Not because I learned actionable tips to run CSR programs (I did). Not because I learned new things from well-known professionals (I did). Not because I got to lead THE BEST PANEL EVER (I did). But because of the underlying culture and inclusiveness and electricity and creative space and welcoming attitude that makes this conference special.

So commit yourself to attending next year. Set aside some budget to sponsor. And if you have questions or things to add to my thoughts, comment here.

Unlimited Capacity – flash fiction

“Your heart,” she told me, when we walked the pier and watched the lobstermen pulling up their pots at the far end of the dark bay, after that clouded talk in the coffee shop, when we both kept sipping at long-empty cups and looking at everything but each other…

“Your heart,” she told me, “has unlimited capacity.”

“You’ve told me this before,” I replied, remembering a drive in the Florida sun in a rented convertible, when I backtracked ten miles to retrieve the hat that had blown off her head on the interstate.

She was young, then, and I was… idealistic. Impressionable. Eager to be anything that she told me to be.

Her answer came like the sharp mist off the whitecaps, chilling under my upturned collar.

“I was wrong, then.”


“Then, I thought you had a heart with enough room for everyone. A big heart. A heart like a balloon that could never pop, no matter how many people blew into it.”

I found her analogy lacking, but it had potential. I kept silent and waited, like the gathering clouds drifting along with us, far overhead.

“But my analogy doesn’t really hold water,” she mused, and I saw in her tight cheeks and quivering nose the telltale signs of a joke she knew no one else would understand.

“Your heart,” she told me, pausing to lean on a thick pole as a boat chugged past, wheezing white smoke behind…

“Your heart is more like a bucket with a hole in it. People pour their love in, and maybe it gathers for a bit, but it runs out just as quickly.”

Seagulls bobbed in the wake of the little lobster boat, facing various directions, as the twilight crept in around us and the chill of dusk oozed under my collar and raindrops began to patter on the mottled wood of the decking, drumming dully on the plastic lid of my long-empty coffee cup.

Winter Begins – #poetry but not #poetrymonth poetry

winter begins

Tissue paper crinkles under the bed
waiting for Valentine’s Day
or an anniversary
wrinkled and flattened
over and over again
stuffed into gift bags
to decorate a mid-range Pinot
or add substance to the emptiness
left unfilled by a gift card.

I used to wrap gifts
with the Sunday comics
or sliced-up grocery bags
when presents held the magic
signaled by another candle on the cake
or cookie crumbs left by a fireplace
on a twinkling December night.

Now in a dusky twilight
the restless cats rustle under the bed
in the forgotten tissue paper
with fraying edges and fading colors
wrinkled and flattened
over and over again
waiting to be dragged out
for one more anniversary
or one more Valentine’s Day.

Coming Clean – #poetry but not #poetrymonth poetry

Coming Clean

Through the wash
Soaked and spun
Squeezed, wrung, and hung
Dripping out clear water
Like blood cheated of its color
To seep into the ground
And disappear
Into a muddy past

How many more washes
Until the tired cloth
Disintegrates on a pale wind

Better, perhaps, to let
The grime of years accumulate
And maintain the illusion
Of substance


Denial #poetry but not #poetrymonth poetry


We turn back our clocks
an hour of summer
in a futile attempt
to legislate autumn
into the future.
One more hour of summer,
as if daylight could be saved
like dollars
until the hours accumulate
into days, and the days
into months, until
we have cheated winter
of its cold-hearted

But leaves turn brown
and our pace slows
and fog infiltrates,
dimming our bright thoughts
and chilling our fingertips.

insists itself
on our futures,
on our present,
and the irresistible rise
from summer
to autumn
to winter
will, inevitably, be met
by the folly
of our belief
that we can stop it.




It was never about the coffee,
not for me.
A chill afternoon breeze
ghosted off the river
and up my sleeves,
numbing my fingers
wrapped tight
around an insufficient half-decaf.
You strolled perilously close to me,
our syncopated strides
reflecting the fractured rhythm
of a conversation
that bobbed and drifted
in the shallower, safer waters
of work and children.

My chilling arm shivered
with the memory of
a San Francisco night,
when a drugged-up homeless guy
frightened you so much
that you clenched my arm
tight against your side
all the way up Market Street.
I slowed my stride
so we strolled together
at an almost–
scandalous pace.

We parted at the elevator,
and all the train ride home
I wondered if I would have
accepted the invitation
we both knew you couldn’t make.

Now in the bar next to gate B-7,
I gaze into the glare
of an emptied whisky glass,
its curved bottom refracting
my thoughts in the sharp
afternoon sunlight,
like the wineglass
on that San Francisco night,
when we talked over dinner
about office politics
and your autistic son
and my depressed daughter
and everything acceptable.

It was never about the wine, not for me.
And it wasn’t about the coffee this afternoon.

It never was.

Thaw – #poetry but not #poetrymonth poetry

Ducks, I suspect,
rarely meditate
or spend much time
contemplating their failures.

A few years back, two ducks
flap-flopped from the sky
to splash into the swimming pool,
returning each spring until
we filled the pool with dirt,
and with crushed granite,
because the ducks had become
the only ones swimming in it.

Decades ago, when I was young,
ducks waddled across Tryon Street,
marching from Roaring Brook
through the muddy flood pastures
down to the river,
ignoring the Killiam’s dairy cows
in a celebration of
mutual disinterest.

The cows and the ducks and the brook
comprised a constancy of motion and stillness,
much like the river,
which would announce the end of winter
with the booming thunder of cracking ice,
a magical sound I could hear
as I lay in my top bunk
on the hill across Tryon Street.

I loved the river all iced-over,
but I loved the great heaves
of the drifting floes more.

I wonder if the ducks, or the cows, even noticed.

I suspect they knew
what has taken me
a lifetime to learn.
That the river freezes over,
and the ice thaws,
but the water keeps flowing
just underneath.

And this is why I know that,
my phone will ring,
and it will sound
like river ice breaking,
and when I hear your voice
we will be friends
once more.

These Acid Years – #poetry but not #PoetryMonth poetry

The actual photo is unrelated to the poem.

These Acid Years
Wrinkled scratches of light stretch
Across her dress, like marshmallow
Polka dots melted and re-melted
Through a thousand summer days.
The dress might have been red
When the shutter snapped,
Back when she sometimes smiled
Even without
A photographer’s command.

That moment, emulsified in negative
And burned onto paper,
Has faded from my disloyal memory
Like names of second grade teachers
And second cousins.
Entombed in dusty fake leather
Under a shiny plastic shroud,
This photograph has persevered
Through these acid years
To dimly insist that once,
A thousand summer days ago,
We sometimes smiled

Today’s poem prompt was provided by a lost friendship

Garden Cycles – #PoetryMonth 2018 – April 30

Garden Cycles
first harvest salad
lettuce, radishes all gone
cucumbers blossom

Poetry Month 2018
I set out to write 30 poems in the 30 days of April. I managed 28 out of 30, including this last-ditch “oh shit I didn’t write anything today” haiku. I also managed to provide an original photo with each poem I did write. I will call 28 out of 30 success, even though it’s not a true “win” of one poem a day in April.
PS: Today’s poem prompt was provided by deadline desperation, and the fact that tonight we ate a salad made from the lettuce and radishes that Sam grew in his garden, plus some purchased carrots and celery. Sam’s carrots and cucumbers are not ready to harvest; in fact, the first cucumber blossom showed up this weekend. We anticipate another harvest in a few weeks.
Previous Post

Fingerprints – #PoetryMonth 2018 – April 27

When you retrieved my eyeglasses,
stretching your arm across the chasm
between sagging mattress and wobbly nightstand,
you handed them to me with a gentle nonchalance,
never appearing to lose your place
in the novel with the cracked spine pressed open
against the faded blue blanket
covering your raised knees.
You didn’t notice how you jostled the digital clock,
which carried on, unperturbed, as it silently
announced the passage of each minute.
You never saw, as you raised and then set down
your cooling cup of tea,
how your fingerprints on the mug
recorded the oils of the day, in a swirling statement
of your smudgy uniqueness.
Familiar patterns I’d seen ten thousand times
right before my eyes,
endearing smudges that brought comfort
to my bedtime crossword puzzle,
a sureness that in the morning,
when the alarm buzzes up the sun,
even though the lines in the mirror
will have deepened and cracked by one more day,
the lines that define us will remain unchanged.

Poetry Month 2018
I’ve resolved a few times to write a poem a day during the month of April, and I actually succeeded once. I’m again trying it out. No idea what each day will bring. Some light verse, some politics, some “oh shit I didn’t write anything today” haikus. If you read one and feel moved to comment, please do. If you want to share your poetry, please share!
PS: Today’s poem prompt was provided by the song “Slow Pony Home” by The Weepies
Previous Post