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Burr Purnell: “Say no when you need to”

…What comes to mind is to encourage people, men really, to be vulnerable. There is great power in being vulnerable and it’s disturbing when young boys/men, feel that being vulnerable is a weakness. Being guarded, closed, and hiding behind a mask, fuels anger and even hatred, igniting a “machismo” in men which distances them from […]

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…What comes to mind is to encourage people, men really, to be vulnerable. There is great power in being vulnerable and it’s disturbing when young boys/men, feel that being vulnerable is a weakness. Being guarded, closed, and hiding behind a mask, fuels anger and even hatred, igniting a “machismo” in men which distances them from who they are at best. Young boys learn these traits from their fathers, uncles, brothers, and friends. Who’s to blame them, they’ve adopted these patterns from a cultural sphere of influence which reveals how the cycle perpetuates itself. Boys the world around are told to “be a man.” Don’t let that girl beat you. Win at all costs. Yes, that means to cheat, to dope or bully a “weaker” person to get the outcome you want. What a shame! And, it needs to stop. Support for the other person or competitor is the answer, not threat and abuse. We have the power to choose how we engage others. Boys and men can make a huge difference in the world first by accepting their vulnerability and second by honoring the strength of others, especially girls and women.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Burr Purnell.

Burr Purnell serves as the Director of Social Good at VidMob Gives, VidMob’s 501(c)3. In this role, he helps supply the tools to make it easy, fast, and affordable for nonprofits to amplify their message to the world through video. VidMob Gives has supported numerous nonprofit organizations including charity: water, JDRF, Mogul, Movember and Equality Now. Prior to joining VidMob, Purnell worked as Executive Creative Director at the performance marketing agency, ROI·DNA in San Francisco, where he led the creative team in shaping brands throughout the full spectrum of media. Before that, he held the position of Vice President & Group Creative Director for MRM Worldgroup overseeing direct marketing and online campaigns for a variety of clients including Microsoft, AMD, MasterCard, and Charles Schwab.

Purnell has always been a creative entrepreneur. In 2007, he co-founded the boutique agency, Manifeste Marketing, to help brands clarify their essence, personality, products, and core values. In 2005, he joined All Good Products as the head of Brand and Marketing, an organic body care company that inspires people to live in balance with nature. And in 2019 he became a non-executive board member for the French-based NGO, Yoga, and Sport for Refugees.

In his spare time, Mr. Purnell is an ultramarathon runner (classified as any running race over 26.2 miles) and can be found toeing start lines from California to New England.

A graduate of Northeastern University, Purnell currently resides in South Dartmouth, MA with his wife and two daughters.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My eldest daughter brought me to this career path. She was the catalyst. It was in the Fall of 2017 and I was standing in the doorway to Ellie’s room when she said, “You know Dad, I’ve only ever lived in this one room.” I froze. And in a thoughtful tone, I replied, “You’re right. Wow. You have only lived in this one room.” Then what I started thinking was, “It’s time for us to explore the world beyond Ellie’s room.” Ellie triggered something inside of me that I’d been suppressing. Her comment gave me the courage to say to my family that we should chart a new course, to explore the world and not be beholden to live’s imaginary shackles.

After this “frozen-moment,” a conversation started with my wife, Jane, about quitting my comfortable executive creative director job in San Francisco, pulling our kids out of school and taking a world adventure. Although I didn’t know where we’d go, I felt an obligation as a father to show Ellie, 14; and Gwen, 11, that there was more to their lives than Whole Foods, fancy soccer clubs, and iPhones. When I broached the idea with Jane, she said yes, but let’s also do some good, some service and work projects in the places we visit. Boom! “Service and work,” the two words that I needed to hear. We could donate our time in communities around the world and we’d all benefit immensely.

Before we embarked on our journey in the summer of 2018, Alex Collmer, Co-Founder and CEO of the creative technology platform VidMob, offered us use of VidMob’s creative team and video platform so that we could make short videos documenting our travels so our family and friends could see the work we were doing. Maybe we’d even inspire others. I was touched by the offer, but in truth, I wanted to put down the phone, close the computer, and see the world through my eyes, not through the lens of a camera. That lasted four weeks and three days. On the first Wednesday of October 2018, my life changed.

Our first service opportunity was with the nonprofit, Yoga and Sport for Refugees (YSFR), on the island of Lesvos, Greece. There, I listened to my heart and stepped off the sidelines to help in the refugee crisis in a meaningful way. I agreed to be YSFR’s running coach for a month. Unbelievably, most refugee athletes arrived at the track in flip-flops and jeans instead of running shoes and shorts. They wanted to participate but were totally unequipped — no shoes, no shorts, nothing. They simply watched from the stands. My heart broke.

That night, I stared at the cold, black Aegean Sea they had risked their lives crossing and realized that my purpose was not just to be the running coach but to help lift money so these young athletes could run on the track and across the hills on the refugee running team.

The next day, I explained to Alex that I needed help in producing a fundraising video for YSFR. He immediately agreed. Our family’s goal was to lift 10K dollars within two weeks. With VidMob’s help, we lift 20K dollars in 13 days and were able to buy running shoes, shorts, and shirts. We also helped YSFR secure an indoor gym and replace the tent roof on the yoga studio. My daughter’s simple statement nearly a year earlier burst open my heart and brought me to where I am today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

What’s most interesting is how people can create things they want if they put their hearts and minds in the right place. When I began, I didn’t expect being Director of Social Good at VidMob would lead me back to Yoga and Sport for Refugees. But, after just three months, I was about to start a call when at the last minute it was suddenly canceled. I was disappointed. Was I being blown-off? I chose to be hopeful. Two weeks later, we connected and within 30-seconds, I learned that the person with whom I was talking to had just returned from volunteering on Lesvos. He has since introduced me to his friends, who are also volunteers on Lesvos, and we’re now collaborating on a coordinated fundraising effort for refugees on Lesvos.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Mistake? Funny? Okay, here goes. To deepen my network in the nonprofit sector, I got the opportunity to attend the One Young World summit in London. Now, when I travel I try to be pretty buttoned up. I like to know exactly where my passport is. I fully zip and lock my suitcase. I get to the airport early. And, I always make sure that I’m sitting in the right seat as I get embarrassed for folks that mindlessly sit in someone else’s seat and are asked by the flight attendant to move. Don’t they know better? Well, for some reason, on this particular overnight haul from JFK to London/Heathrow, I found myself mindlessly wandering to a lovely, wide, comfortable, brown leather seat that was not mine. With my bags stowed, free earplugs inserted, and eye mask adjusted, I tucked myself beneath the plush, embroidered Virgin Atlantic blanket. After a few more micro-movements, I tilted my head, closed my eyes. Moments later I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Was that really my shoulder that just got tapped? Had someone addressed me? I cracked open one eye only to hear a woman softly rephrase her question. “Have we been ticketed in the same seat? Seat 20-D?” Gulp! Oh, no! I blushed, and quickly all the blood drained from my face like a thousand and one images of other people making this same mistake ran through my head. 20D! How did I let this happen? I am booked in 49D. I continue to be reminded not to take myself and life too seriously. Both the lady in 20-D and I arrived at Heathrow at the same time. Had to laugh.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

VidMob’s 501(c)(3) VidMob Gives provides pro bono creative services for nonprofits. We supply the tools to make it easy, fast, and affordable for nonprofits to amplify their message to the world through video. VidMob’s commitment is to donate a percentage of gross earnings through VidMob Gives in support of a meaningful and measurable change in the world. That means that every time a paid client signs up with us, they help fund a video initiative for a nonprofit or NGO somewhere in the world in service to the environment, healthcare, animal rights, arts, culture, humanities, community development, human and civil rights, human service and education.

VidMob is also using the B-Corp assessment guidelines to help measure the impact we’re having on our environment, our employees, our community, and the customers we serve. We aspire to uphold those values and spread them far and wide.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

Scores of people have been affected by the work we’re doing at VidMob Gives. But I’d like to share a personal story. Majid is from Afghanistan. He’s a handsome 19-year-old man with a chiseled jawline and bright smile.

At the age of 12, his parents encouraged him to leave their home and village for a better life. He’s now a refugee living on Lesvos. While waiting for asylum to another European country, Majid volunteers his time at Yoga and Sport for Refugees and coaches Muay Thai and Kickboxing. He’s an active member of the refugee community. As a member of the YSFR running team, he’s training to run the Athens marathon.

Without the fundraising video, VidMob helped create last year, who knows where Majid would be. He certainly would not have had a proper gym in which to train and teach.

Because of VidMob Gives, Majid and hundreds of other refugees work out six days a week. The impact on their mental and physical wellbeing is astounding. Last year, YSFR welcomed nearly 3,000 men and women into the NGO’s programs. They held nearly 4,000 classes and had over 64,400 unique visits by refugees from 16 countries.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The VidMob Gives platform helps amplify the messages of nonprofits and NGOs, organizations that are NOT driven by shareholders or corporations looking for profit. Recipients of our support profit by making the world a better place. The three things that I hope for are:

  1. All too often, “the powers that be” stand in the way of nonprofits and NGO’s. They create bureaucratic hurdles and expensive red tape that hobbles getting good work done. Minimizing these would greatly enhance the success of nonprofits and NGO’s.
  2. Much of the work nonprofits and NGO’s do could and should be addressed by the public sector. The greater concern for and attention to environmental needs, healthcare, education and training, clean water, etc. will have an impact way beyond what volunteer organizations can do.
  3. Nonprofits and NGOs do their good work because of the largess of donors. When politicians and community leaders demonstrate their unfailing support, the giving community responds.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is not about the leader. It’s about engaging people in the organization and its mission and motivating them to perform. Sometimes strong leadership comes from the front; at other times, effective leadership manifests as a quiet, steady effort from behind as Nelson Mandela said. Successful leaders make decisions and take calculated risks. They’re doers who get others to do what’s needed. They also know how to cheerlead and thank.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

In addressing this question, my approach is to think about attitudes rather than skills.

  1. Be a citizen of the world, serving others and allowing people who suffer into your heart. As such, a person lives beyond self by giving for the greater good — money, time, knowledge, experience.
  2. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together.” (African proverb.) Family and community exemplify this proverb. More is accomplished living and working as a team than can ever be done alone.
  3. Live on your edges. I’ve never been more alive than running a 100-mile race or when I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Both took enormous amounts of focus and stamina but the experiences and lessons I learned on the journey have enhanced my life in innumerable ways.
  4. Be curious, optimistic, trusting and ask for help. Curiosity finds doors to open. Optimism sets aside the fear of opening those doors. Trust promises that the door leads somewhere important. Asking for help means you don’t need to go through the door alone.
  5. Say no when you need to. Keep your focus and avoid distractions.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

What comes to mind is to encourage people, men really, to be vulnerable. There is great power in being vulnerable and it’s disturbing when young boys/men, feel that being vulnerable is a weakness. Being guarded, closed, and hiding behind a mask, fuels anger and even hatred, igniting a “machismo” in men which distances them from who they are at best. Young boys learn these traits from their fathers, uncles, brothers, and friends. Who’s to blame them, they’ve adopted these patterns from a cultural sphere of influence which reveals how the cycle perpetuates itself. Boys the world around are told to “be a man.” Don’t let that girl beat you. Win at all costs. Yes, that means to cheat, to dope or bully a “weaker” person to get the outcome you want. What a shame! And, it needs to stop. Support for the other person or competitor is the answer, not threat and abuse. We have the power to choose how we engage others. Boys and men can make a huge difference in the world first by accepting their vulnerability and second by honoring the strength of others, especially girls and women.

I’ll close this thought with this quote from Barack Obama while speaking at Elijah Cummings funeral service just a few days ago. He said, “A strong man includes being kind. There’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There’s nothing weak about looking out for others. There’s nothing week about being honorable. You’re not a sucker to have integrity and treat others with respect.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Before the gates of excellence, the high gods have placed sweat; long is the road thereto and rough and steep at first; but when the heights are reached, then there is ease, though grievously hard in the winning.” (Hesiod, 8th Century BC)

My ninth-grade general studies teacher, William H. Armstrong, author of the novel Sounder, required his students to memorize this quote in the first week at Kent School in Connecticut. It has stuck with me for 30 years and when I’m going through a difficult patch these few words guide me. Work is hard, but it shapes us, it gives us the character we need to carry on.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Last week I might have told you that I’d like to share a meal with Yvon Chouinard or perhaps Jane Goodall. But today, I’m enamored with the Nobel prize winner, Professor Mohamed Yunus. He’s so incredibly selfless. Known as the “Banker to the Poor,” Professor Yunus started the micro-lending movement in the 1970s and has dedicated his life to helping over 7.5 million people who are less fortunate. It would be a privilege to sit with Prof. Yunus for a private breakfast and learn about what guides him and keeps him focused on creating a better world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @burrpurnell

Instagram: burrpurnell

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/burr-purnell-6916512/

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