Laura Talmus of San Rafael’s Beyond Differences wins Nonprofit Leadership Award

Laura Talmus of San Rafael's Beyond Differences has won one of North Bay Business Journal's Nonprofit Leadership Awards.

Describe your organization

Beyond Differences is a student-led social justice movement and the only organization dedicated to ending social isolation by inspiring students to become activists and change the culture of middle school. We truly are, at core, working to create a world where every child is accepted, valued and included by their peers no matter what their difference.

While many organizations focus on strategies for reacting to bullying after it happens, Beyond Differences works to prevent bullying before it starts by teaching students that they can change the culture of their school. There are three ways in which we work: we provide teachers and their schools our original curriculum written by and former classroom teachers free of charge.

Each curriculum contains four to eight individual lesson plans on topics that are fun and engaging for students. The curriculum wraps around the school year and each unit culminates in our second strategy: our national awareness days! Three special events - or national awareness days - are run by the students themselves. They include Know Your Classmates Day, No One Eats Alone Day, and Call It Out Day.

Last but not least, Beyond Differences trains middle school students to become leaders by providing them skills in public speaking, by teaching them how to run our lesson plans, by instilling new and personal self-awareness about social isolation and self-confidence.

What is your role in the organization?

Executive director and, along with my husband, Ace Smith, co-founder.

What achievement are you most proud of?

That Beyond Differences has far surpassed the reach we could have ever imagined. Today, we are touching millions of lives through the more than 4,000 schools that have used our curriculum. What started as a small, Marin-based nonprofit organization with eight high school leaders, has grown to include teen boards in three cities and middle school leaders in over 20 middle schools. That's over 200 students directly in our programs.

I am most proud that these children are in our programs for their own personal reasons and not because they were classmates of Lili, my daughter.

What is your biggest challenge today?

Resources. Many small nonprofits struggle to raise enough money to meet the demands of their growth. Today, more schools want our materials as well as professional-development and student-leadership programs that we can meet. But we are hopeful that funders, especially foundations who may have their minds made up about what they will and won't give to, will become more open to fresh ideas and new strategies.

Small nonprofits deserve the chance to prove they are great investments for funders. I know Beyond Differences is one of the most efficient and cost-effective investments for philanthropists because you can actually see and receive what we offer for free and what an immediate difference it is making on the ground!

What is the next major project either underway or on the horizon?

Ace and I are planning to write a book about Beyond Differences and the growth of our movement to end social isolation among youth. We're excited! Beyond Differences is also planning to offer more and more professional development for teachers, resource counselors, social workers and others who want to work with our materials.

So far, we've done trainings in Marin, Oakland and San Mateo and will be expanding to other cities across the United States.

What product or service is helping you do your job more effectively?

Two trainings I took recently: the five-day training for Emerging Leaders offered by the Center for Volunteer Non-Profit Leadership and the five-day fellowship program at University of California, Berkeley, hosted by the Greater Good Science Center. Both were incredibly helpful for me personally and professionally!

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?

The demands on executive directors are growing in size and intensity. We are asked to be effective at so many things at once: to be able to envision and manage the future of our organization including its evolving aspirations, new ventures for growth, new strategies in communications; to be an effective spokesperson and enthusiastic, knowledgeable champion; to manage the staff/consultants and hopefully create a wonderful and desirable place to work; to fundraise; and, to work closely with the board of directors as the key volunteers and stewards of the organization. It is a complex job but invigorating! I hope there will be more partnerships between corporations, foundations and non-profit organizations to further the work we are all hoping to achieve.

Most admired businessperson outside your organization: Michael Neidorf, founder and CEO of Centene Corporation, for his generosity to Beyond Differences. And Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, for the courage it takes to run for office and manage the complex challenges of a major U.S. city.

Current reading: “The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” by Robert Caro

Most want to meet: I am a huge fan of Dolores Huerta whom I've had the honor of meeting. But the people whom I'd love to meet and thank for their sheer impact on society would be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou.

Stress-relievers: Soul Cycle, going to hear live music and spending time with my family and dog, Moby.

Social media you most use: I don't use a lot of social media. I'm afraid. I'm a pretty private person and somehow cannot get used to the fact that folks share so much of themselves and their inner thoughts on line.

Favorite hobbies: Exercise, music, theater, hiking, visiting with friends and eating sushi.

Buzzwords from your industry you hate the most: Hearing “no” from a funder! “Tolerance,” “kindness,” “engagement” and “empowering.”

Typical day at the office: Staff meetings or donor meetings before work, checking the constant flow of emails, making fundraising calls, organizing or implementing next steps on current projects, prepping for upcoming meetings, reviewing and editing work brought to me by my staff...the usual!

Best place to work outside of the office: My home office or any Peet's Coffee & Tea store.

Words that best describe you: Driven, gregarious, relentless, passionate and energetic.

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