SU/FU: The secret to branding success

brandingThis weekend we had a party for my son, who turned one. This kid was not going to remember anything, so it was really a party for us. Still, it is customary in Vietnamese culture (and I hear Korean culture) that when a child turns one, an assortment of objects are placed in front of him. Each object represents a profession, and the first thing he picks up is indicative of what he’ll be. Parents usually lay out things like a stethoscope, a gavel, a caliper, a syringe, and some money. The really ambitious parents will lay out a stethogavel. Or a wedding ring glued to a lottery ticket.

On a silver tray we placed all the items and set the baby down on the ground. He looked at the 60 or so people gathered around him, then slowly reached toward his destiny. I was hoping he would choose the unicorn card I placed on the tray, the unicorn of course representing all of us in nonprofit. His hand hovered over the objects, and he picked up the maraca.

And that brings me to today’s topic: Marketing and branding. I’ve been hearing a lot about these concepts lately, since everyone is talking about them. “Develop your personal brand,” I hear, or “improve your elevator pitch” or “engage your donors through social media” or “Vu, could you please wear a shirt with buttons and comb your hair for the site visit?” etc.

Marketing and branding are not my expertise, and you should take everything I say with that in mind. However, I think our field has become significantly confused and/or distracted by these concepts, especially the younger professionals, who are extremely tech-savvy and image conscious. One of my staff, for example, was complaining about how absolutely awful our last business card design was.

“Vu,” she said, “someone else came to our open house, and they had the exact same design as ours!”

Oh, the horrors! We showed up to a party with the exact same business card template design as someone else! I could die of embarrassment! We will never be able to show our faces at a collective impact meeting again. Our reputation is ruined! No one will ever donate to or collaborate with us now that we have committed such a grave marketing faux pas! 

The old business card design was simple. It was plain and boring. It had all the relevant information in an easy-to-read format in Arial font. It was effective; I could see why another organization would also choose it. 

The staff, all brilliant, and I often differ on this stuff, which I call the branding trap. For instance, I thought our last website was fine. It was plain and boring, but it had all the information anyone needed laid out in a boring but functional way, and it was updated regularly. But they insisted on a makeover, and the new website does look better, with rotating pictures, and drop-down menus. But I’m not convinced that it increased our traffic at all. In fact, I think it may have decreased it, since the bells and whistles lulled us into a sense of security, which meant we were updating less often. A C+ website that is easy to navigate and regularly updated with interesting contents will ALWAYS beat an A+ looking one that is neglected and is too complicated. Think of Craigslist, arguably the ugliest website on the internet, and yet it is also the one of the most popular.

I recently attended a workshop by the hilarious and knowledgeable marketing guru Erica Mills. She showed us the three “Brand Gears,” which are visual (logo, website, brochures, etc.), narrative (mission statement, elevator pitch, etc.), and experiential (how people experience your organization). Erica had some great advice that I’ll be trying, like don’t sound like a robot, don’t talk too much, and stop using “provide” in your mission statement or she will fly to your nonprofit and personally beat you with a thesaurus.  

But we focus way too much on the first two gears. I think this last gear, experiential, is the most important, and sometimes it is neglected because it seems more tangible and productive and cooler to focus on the first two gears. And thus we have some nonprofits that have amazing visuals and messages. Their brochures make you weep with envy. Their websites seem to have been built by elves. Their logos remind you of a long-lost afternoon from your childhood. They would never make such a fatal mistake as carrying the same business card design as another person to a party. But their offices are like fortresses, it’s impossible to meet with anyone, staff speak in soft whispers after looking around to make sure no one is listening, and in the distance, faintly, are the soft murmurs of someone weeping.

When it comes to branding, all of us need to remember that shiny brochures and suavely spoken pitches don’t mean much if people have crappy experiences with our organizations. 

At my nonprofit, VFA, we have a motto: SU/FU. A good brand, personal or organization, must always start with these two things. They stand for “Show Up, Follow Up.”

Show Up:

    • Are you and your staff warm, friendly, approachable, and human?
    • Do you respond to your emails and voicemails and texts?
    • Do you and your team have a good sense of humor?
    • When people drop by, are they greeted and do they feel welcomed?
    • Do you attend other organizations’/team members’ events?
    • Are you seen around the community?
    • When talking to people, are you present, or are you thinking about the last episode of Game of Thrones?
    • Do you remember people’s names and details about their work, family, and interests?
    • Do you go out of your way to support people when they need help?
    • Do you seem excited and passionate about your work?

Follow up:

    • Do you do the stuff you say you will do?

If you have the SU and the FU both down, I could care less what your organization’s logo or business cards or letterhead looks like, or whether you say too many “ums” when you talk about your mission, or whether your website has enough pictures. Those things, when done well, are bonuses. Same thing with the personal brand: Whatever you what your personal brand to be—mine is to be a sexy vegan nonprofit ninja—make sure your SU and FU are strong. If they are not, work on them before you do anything else. In fact, if your FU is not strong, having strong visuals and narratives creates dissonance and draws the ire of others, because few things in life are as irritating as a stylish and sweet-talking but flaky person or organization.

Anyway, going back to the baby. He has always been a musical baby, starting to dance when he was six months old. This is probably because I feed him a steady stream of 90’s Hip-Hop. So it is no wonder that his destiny is to be a musician. However, I think he may have also fallen into the branding trap. The maraca was by far the most colorful item on the tray, and it made a lot of noise. Its branding was good, so to speak.

But people are not babies. We need to give them some credit. They will not always be attracted to the shiniest object. I think most tend to most gravitate toward us simple, down-to-earth individuals and organizations who show up and follow through.

And as my son will find out, being a musician, while rewarding, is also challenging, and you don’t make much money doing it unless you’re really lucky. He should have chosen the plain unicorn card and entered the lucrative field of nonprofit like his father.

More classic nonprofit jokes to tell at parties

leprechaunHi everyone. The last three posts have dealt with serious topics, so for a change of pace, here are more classic nonprofit jokes. We nonprofit staff are always asked to come to parties. Well, you can be the life of any party with these jokes. Write yours in the comment section.

***

A Development Director walks into a bar and orders six shooters. “Rough day?” asks the bartender. “Yeah,” the DD responded, “My car got stolen and I walked home to find my house on fire and my dog missing.” “I can see why you ordered six shots,” said the bartended. “Oh, no,” said the Development Director, “those things are easy to deal with. These shots are for an annual event I have next week.”

***

Why did the founding board member cross the road?

Don’t be ridiculous. A founding board member would never cross a road.

***

An ED was walking through the woods when he ran into a unicorn, who said, “I am a magical fundraising unicorn, and now that you have stumbled on me, I will grant you three wishes.” “First,” said the ED, “I want Bill Gates on my board.” “Done,” said the unicorn. “Second,” said the ED, “I want an endowment fund of $10million.” “Also done,” said the unicorn. “Third,” said the ED, “I want all funders to provide general operating support,” and at that moment, he woke up and realized he had fallen asleep while writing a 10-page grant for a restricted $5,000.

***

Staff at a nonprofit came into work to find that their office had been broken into and many things stolen.

“Oh no,” said the ED, “we got a check for a major donation at the event last night, and it was so late I thought we would deposit it today. I hope the thieves didn’t get it.”

“No worries,” said the Finance Director, “I put it some place no one would ever look in a million years.” He came back a moment later with the check.

“Where did you put it?” the ED asked.

“In a copy of our strategic plan.”

***

A nonprofit staff went on a blind date. At the end of the dinner, her date said, “OK, here’s how this works. I need you to pay for this meal. Then I will reimburse you for it. However, I can’t pay for the drinks or appetizers or the sales tax or the tips. And the check will take 4 to 16 months to arrive.”

“All right, fine,” she said, “remind me what do you do again?”

“I work in government. Contracting department.”

***

An ED decided to get an executive coach. “OK,” said the coach during their first session, “this month I want you to try spending more time on the balcony.” The next month the ED came back glowing. “I did what you said. I spent more time thinking about strategies and less time on day-to-day tasks. And everything is so much better.” “Great,” said the coach, “This month I want you to try flipping your iceberg.” The next session, the ED came back glowing. “I did it! I flipped my iceberg and focused on using skills that I was rusty on. And everything is so much better!” “Great,” said the coach, but she was running out of metaphors. She decided to make some up. “This month,” she said, “I want you to, uh, lasso a leprechaun, ride the T-Rex, and tickle the badger.” The next session, the ED came back looking sad. “What’s wrong?” asked the coach. “Well, I did what you suggested. I hired a Development Director, and that was great. We put on an annual event, and that was great. But then I joked with our founding board member about revising our mission statement…”

***

An ED, a Director of Operations, a Development Director, a Communications Director, a Program Director, and a Volunteer Director walk into a bar. Best retreat ever!

***

For more jokes, see “8 classic nonprofit jokes to tell at parties.”

Shadows of the unicorn: How good leaders can negatively affect the world

unicorn shadowHi everyone, I came back recharged after spending a week sequestered at the University of Washington for the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). I learned many things about myself. For example, I tend to cuss way too much when giving toasts (“Hells yeah, this is the best @#$%& leadership program ever; let’s drink to that $#@%, mo-fos!”). This may explain why I don’t get invited to many weddings or kids’ birthday parties.

The five and a half days were intense, 10 to 12 hours each day learning about important concepts like “Are we spending enough time on the balcony, versus the dance floor?” “Are we using both formative as well as summative evaluations?” “Do we have enough jargon in the field, or should we create more?” And “Have we nonprofit leaders let ourselves go in the dress department?” The first three questions depend on your organization, but the answer to the last one is, “No; grey hooded sweaters and jeans are perfectly appropriate attires for nonprofit leaders, provided they have no more than one visible stain each.” I like to think of myself as a less economically comfortable but equally sexy nonprofit version of Mark Zuckerberg.

The week was a wonderful and much-needed time to connect with colleagues, and many of us seriously rethought our basic strategy for solving challenges. My new ED friend, Michelle, for example had the strategy called “Just Punch People in the Throat.”

Before, my default philosophy for handling everything was the “Gotham City Approach,” which was to destroy something so that a better version could form, for example, “What? Our database is down again? We must destroy it so that a new database could rise from the ashes!” or “The marketing committee is not meeting regularly? We must destroy it so that a new marketing team could rise from the ashes!” Or “What, he left his dishes in the sink again?! We must destroy him so that a new staff who could wash the dishes promptly could rise from the ashes!”

Now I’m thinking about Technical versus Adaptive challenges, Moving the Flywheel, the Fox vs. the Hedgehog, the 7-S’s, the 3 C’s, Flipping the Iceberg, Tickling the Badger, and Riding the T-Rex.

OK, I made up the last two.

What I’ve been thinking about most, though, is an essay from Parker Palmer’s book, Let your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. He talks about how most leaders tend to be extroverts, because society thinks those qualities—being able to be sociable, to network, to give speeches—are what make good leaders, and leadership programs orient toward these skills of manipulating the external world. Focusing on shaping the environment around them, leaders rarely spend time looking inward. And why would they? Looking inward is at best not fun, and at worst messy or even painful.

But leaders, by definition, project light and shadows on the world around them, and if they don’t know themselves, they can project way more shadow than they do light. According to Palmer, we tend to project these shadows below. He talks about leaders in the general sense, so I’ll try to relate that to our nonprofit work:

  • Our identity matters more than others’. In our need to be recognized, to be rewarded, to have a sense of self, we often deprive others. Good leaders understand that “Identity doesn’t depend on titles. It doesn’t depend on degrees. It doesn’t depend on functioning.” At annual dinners, for example, “important” people like politicians sit in the front, close to the stage. But why? Maybe we should save those seats for our students, community members, and key volunteers.
  •  The universe is hostile, and everything is a battle. The work is stressful, and we tend to use metaphors like “continue fighting” and “do or die,” “pull out our big guns,” etc. But this sort of attitude of competition and war becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find that I tend to think that way, especially when there is so much crappiness and unfairness everywhere. But maybe no one is really out to get anyone. Our role as nonprofit professionals is not to fight some vast invisible army bent on evil and injustice, but to restore balance where there is imbalance.
  • Functional Atheism. This is Palmer’s term for our unconscious belief that if anything good will happen, we ourselves have to be agent. Basically, things will continue to suck unless I am personally going to do something about it. This may explain why we nonprofit types burn out so quickly. We each genuinely believe that we and we alone can save the world, and Smokey the Bear does not help at all with his message that “Only YOU can prevent forest fire!” You know what, there are many people in the world, and Palmer says “we do not have to carry the whole load, that we can be empowered by sharing the load with others, and that sometimes we are even free to lay our part of the load down.” Dude. That’s such a relief. If we can all believe that, maybe we won’t all burn out as fast.
  • Fear of chaos. Many of us are chaos-tamers. We like this role, bringing order where there is none. We freak out when systems are not in place or they’re not working perfectly. But all sorts of great stuff comes from chaos. It is necessary for creation.  And when leaders fear it and not treat it as something necessary and natural to the existence of order, others fear it too and then everyone freaks out about everything.
  • Denial of death. We think of death as a bad thing, and we try to hold on to life. This may be why we cling on to programs and projects that should have ended or changed a while ago, or why so many of us have issues with founding board members, who refuse to accept that the death of their involvement and influence may be necessary for new life and ideas to form.

All right, that’s a lot to think about. I haven’t thought this much in a long while since the first episode of Sherlock Holmes (the one with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). I needed to write these lessons down for my own inner processes. Palmer’s point that we all, especially those of us called “leaders,” can vastly influence the world around us for good or for not-so-good is an important one to mull over. We must take time to know ourselves. We in nonprofit are all unicorns, as I wrote in this post for Valentine’s Day, “Nonprofit Professionals, You are Each a Unicorn.” But even as unicorns, as we do our work, we should take time to think about whether we are casting more shadow than light on the world and people around us.

And if we are, we should destroy ourselves, so that better unicorns could rise from the ashes…

Who moved my unicorn: Adaptive versus Technical challenges in the nonprofit field

vunicorn2Day 3 of the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). Thank you, Medina Foundation, for this scholarship so I can participate in this program. I am learning all sorts of interesting and useful stuff. For example, don’t eat nine pounds of potatoes before a 3-hour discussion on measurements and evaluations. Kidding, kidding!

A very useful concept that we have learned is the concept of Technical challenges versus Adaptive challenges. Good leaders must understand to differentiate one from the other, and oftentimes we totally suck at doing that. Technical problems are simpler and usually have apparent solutions. Adaptive challenges are so much more complicated and involve human beings and their emotions and crap like that.

“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems,” says Ron Heifetz in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, and I am beginning to see that as leaders and as a society we all do this all the time. For example, a while ago, a friend gave me a unicorn poster. I put it up on the wall next to my desk, and the unicorn looked down at me and inspired me to do my work. One day I came to the office, and the unicorn poster was gone! I asked a staff about it, and they said there wasn’t enough Velcro tape for it to stick to the brick wall, and that’s why the unicorn fell and had to be moved to the corner. But this was my unicorn, and I didn’t like it being mishandled and moved around because it was a really cool and rare unicorn poster with significant emotional value and I was used to it being where I left it.

All right, fine, shut up. Here’s a better example. Let’s say you have a program that teaches kids confidence and creativity through cooking. The program, however, is not financially solvent and has been causing the organization to lose money as it operates. The technical solution is to shut down this program. Simple, right? Of course not. “We are leading a blood-and-guts organization with real emotions inside it,” said our instructor, Professor Stephen Page. Staff and volunteers and participants of this program have likely put blood, sweat, and tears into their cooking. Which is probably why their dishes always come out so salty, ahahaha.

All kidding aside, think of the people involved with this program that we are cutting. They are invested in it, this is their baby, and this is a huge change. Change always involves loss, and when there is a loss, there are the stages of grieving, including denial and anger and bargaining and sadness and only at the end is there acceptance. “What is technical to us may be adaptive to someone else,” we learned, and a leader who only sees the technical side of a problem may totally screw up.

Leaders must understand the difference between what is technical and what is adaptive.

We see this misdiagnosis-and-thus-mistreatment (MTM) all over the field though, on larger scales. For example, “Huh, we don’t have enough people of color on our board, and 80% of our clients come from communities of color. Let’s ask a couple of POCs to coffee and talk them to joining our board.” That solves the technical problem and totally misses the point, which is that the organization must adapt and figure out why people of color are not on the board in the first place, what the obstacles are, what the privileges and power dynamics are, etc.

God, this happens all the time, I now realize, and it is annoying at best and absolutely horrendous at worst, perpetuating terrible and crappy systems. A while ago I wrote this post on an awful grant that low-income schools are forced to write. The MTM here is “Oh look, these poor schools need resources. Let’s provide them funding. But wait, with so many schools in need, how should we fairly distribute the money? Let’s make them write 30-page narratives each, and the school with the best written applications should get the funding.” So simple. So technical. And totally screwed up (Schools wih the most needs probably don’t have the resources to write competitive 30-page grants. And forcing struggling schools into a Hunger Games-like battle is fundamentally wrong).

If we truly want to help low-income schools succeed, we must think of it as an adaptive challenge. That means we have to reexamine our beliefs and systems and way of doing things. We cannot reduce blood-and-guts kids and families and communities to technical numbers and rating scales.

Technical fixes are so much quicker and easier to explain and implement, which is why our society loves them so much. But they only work for technical problems. If a plant looks droopy, you water it. If the roof is leaking, you slather some tar on it, stick a shingle on, staple it, and cover with duct tape (Or whatever; I don’t know anything about fixing roofs). We in nonprofits face far more complicated problems, and probably 90% of them are adaptive, not technical. Within our own organizations, we could have change in leadership, or staff turnover, or inactive boards, or a multitude of other challenges, and it is critical for leaders to recognize the adaptive elements and take actions accordingly.

But we must also pay attention to the bigger challenges that we are trying to address as a field. Too often our society treats problems (homelessness, hunger, poverty, low-performing schools, gentrification, racism, etc.) as technical challenges and implements technical solutions when they are far more complicated and requires getting people and systems to change and adapt. Sometimes, facing the complexity of adaptive societal challenges, we turn to technical solutions because they are better than the alternative of doing nothing. Let’s make poor schools write 30-page grants! Let’s get a woman to join our board! Let’s get two organizations led by communities of color to apply to join our coalition! Let’s form a collective impact backbone organization! Let’s put all our funds into collective impact even at the cost of vital direct services!

We need to understand these challenges better, because unlike me and my awesome unicorn poster, our kids and families and communities cannot be helped with some additional Velcro tape, no matter how well-meaning.

The 7-S’s of effective organizations, plus cherry blossoms and existential crises

cherry blossomsThe dinner went remarkably well, and for the past three days I’ve been feeling a sense of after-event euphoria. That, combined with the contact high from legalized pot in Seattle, has led to one of the best weekends I’ve had in a while. Now I am at a hotel near the University of Washington, sequestered here this entire week for the Nonprofit Executives Leadership Institute (NELI), a time for us nonprofit leaders to take a break from daily work and reflect on things like adaptive leadership, board engagement, strategic thinking, and how ancient and decrepit we are in comparison to the fresh-faced college students here, who are walking around while texting, oblivious to the world around them.

The course is pretty intense, but I might try to use this blog for some reflections on the key concepts that strike me. Apologies in advance if the posts come too often and clog up your inbox.

Today, among several concepts, we learned of the 7-S Model created by McKinsey consultants ad Harvard Business School and Stanford Business school professors. The S’s are:

Strategy (what actions the organization uses to be more awesome than its competitors),

Structure (who reports to whom, how authority is distributed, is it hierarchical, how departments/divisions interact, etc.),

Systems (processes and procedures like a database, budgeting, planning, monitoring, and rules around washing dishes because it’s disgusting when staff leave them in the sink for days!),

Staffing (recruitment, retention, professional development, do we have the right people, and why is Steve still around when doesn’t do any work and never washes his dishes?),

Skills (the organization’s distinct competencies, developed over years, such as “We are the best in the business at teaching youth to make balloon animals”),

Style (the organizational culture, often led by the people at the top. For instance, does the ED have an open-cubicle policy, or does she prefer to close the door in order to weep quietly by herself?).

Shared Values (written and unwritten values to guide the organization, for instance, “focus on quality” or “customer service above all” or “Let’s just try not to screw up.”)

In successful organizations, these 7 S’s are aligned with one another. When there is a disconnect, it could spell trouble for the agency. For instance, if a Shared Value is Innovation, but the organization fails to take risks and never tries anything new, or if the Value is Quality, but the morons who don’t focus on it keep getting promoted, then it may be a serious problem.

It was good fodder for thought. But the thing that really made me think today was something not in class at all. It was the cherry blossoms. UW has a dozen ancient cherry blossom trees in its Quad. Today, the trees are in full bloom, looking breathtakingly magnificent and smelling like Spring, like happiness, like childhood, like general operating funds. Hundreds of people were in the Quad, including a wedding party that used the snowy backdrops for pictures.

Three other EDs and I walked to the Quad and were amazed by the beauty of the cherry blossoms. “The cherry blossoms are a great symbol of nonprofit funding,” I said. Another ED piped in, “Yeah! We wait for them all year. We cultivate them. Then the arrive and they’re gone in days!” Ahahaheheheh, we all laughed. That’s how we EDs laugh. Then we sighed and scoped around for a bar.

The cherry blossoms, of course, are symbolic of both how beautiful life can be and yet how ephemeral it is. I imagine that many of us choose the stressful nonprofit field because unconsciously we know that life is short, and to get a grip on our impending mortality, we strive to do something meaningful with our time. I don’t think this is a bad thing. There are far worse ways to deal with the existential despair we all feel from time to time.

For instance, grabbing some pimply college kid by their hoodie, slapping them around a bit, and screaming, “Stop texting and look at the cherry blossoms! You don’t know how good you have it! Enjoy your youth, you exquisite fool, for soon it will be gone, and you too shall look like I do. Look at me! THIS IS YOUR FUTURE!”

***

Discussion questions:

Which S does your organization excel at, and which ones does it suck at?

How much do existential factors influence your work?

How much trouble will I get into if I slap some random college student who is walking and texting?

“On the Threshold of Awesome”: An ED’s speech to his staff before the annual event

Source: alanarnette.com

My team, this Thursday evening will be our organization’s annual fundraising event. These three words have struck fear into the hearts of even the bravest of us since the beginning of time.

The intensity of the past fortnight must be acknowledged. I see it on your weary faces, gaunt from lack of sleep, haunted by endless tasks, by worst-case scenarios, and by the merciless passage of the hours. I see it on your hands, marked by papercuts from sponsorship packets and development committee meeting agendas. I hear it on your voices, made frail by hours of phone calls to vendors, guests, volunteers, and the Liquor License Board.

No one would think less of you for admitting that you feel some trepidation now, at this moment, three days before the culmination of all our hard work for the past seven months. I, too, am nervous, and during my own slumberless nights, I confess that I sometimes envision running off into the wilderness to live as a hermit, surviving with small woodland creatures I’ve befriended who help me gather berries and mushrooms. I would have a pet chipmunk named Mr. Squeaken, and Mr. Squeaken and I would live a simple existence in the forest, away from speeches and auctions and check-out lines.

It is OK and normal for all of us to feel nervousness and even fear at this time. For the things in life that are most worth doing will usually be the hardest. We as human beings all feel fear at various points in our lives. But did fear stop Sir Edmund Hillary? Did fear stop Lewis and Clark? Did fear stop the Wright Brothers? No! They ALL had to plan at least one annual fundraising event, and they did fine. Yes, Sir Edmund Hillary also had challenges with the registration line. And we all know Lewis and Clark’s “Hot Soup Dash” resulted in minor injuries to many guests, and thus everyone now does “Dessert Dash” instead. Despite these challenges, their events were successful.

I know then, from history, that our event will be OK. In fact, it will be awesome. It will be awesome because the work we do to lift up families and communities is important and this event is toward furthering this goal. It will be awesome because our supporters are some of the most generous and understanding and good-looking people ever and they will forgive minor mistakes. It will be awesome because it has been getting more and more awesome every year since we started doing this.

As importantly, it will be awesome because we are us. Look around you. Are these not some of the most brilliant and talented people you have ever worked with? Is this not the most dedicated Development Director and Development Committee and board members ever? Sure, we are slightly disheveled after moving large pieces of decoration and picking up 40 vases and whatnot, and the bloodshot eyes and carpal tunnel braces don’t help. But we are a team, an amazing team, and if anyone can pull this off, it will be us.

The next three days will be more intense than ever. Last-minute registrations will come in, and we will be spending hours figuring out which table is placed where. Some people will cancel. Some sponsors won’t be able to fill their seats and we will rush to fill them. Critical volunteers may come down with the stomach virus and not be able to help. There will always be a case of stomach virus at this time. Desperate calls will be made. There may be some crying in the fetal position, but I will try to control myself. The office will be packed with crap. Many of us will stay late preparing logistics while listening to 90’s hip-hop. During these next three days, we must be patient with and supportive of one another, even of those coworkers who keep playing Dave Mathews Band’s “Proudest Monkey” over and over again, arguably one of the dumbest songs ever written.

But it will all be worth it. Our students and families and community depend on our programs. We will have an incredible event, an event for the history books, an event that we will tell our grandkids about. Long after we are all gone and time has effaced our footprints and other traces of our lives, people will still be talking about this day. And they will say, “Those folks at that organization, they did good. I’m glad my grandparents raised their paddle.” Then they will hop on their hover board and fly off.

So take heart. We now stand on the threshold of awesome, and this Thursday we will cross it. We will do so because we are us, and we always get stuff done. You may feel stress and trepidation now, but remember the inspiring words of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He said, “The only thing we have to fear…is probably audiovisual glitches. That seriously will mess up your event.”

Nonprofits: We must break out of the Scrappiness Cycle

gift basketNext week my organization is having its annual dinner, which means that right about now everyone is busy and on edge. Occasionally we share our anxiety-induced nightmares with one another as a form of stress relief:

“There I was, sitting at my table next to the Mayor and Benjamin Franklin. Suddenly James [one of our MCs] comes on stage, and he was holding a giant raw fish as a prop for one of his jokes. And I thought ‘No! You can’t handle raw fish on stage, since you’ll be shaking hands with everyone! We’ll get blamed for an outbreak of salmonella!’ I tried screaming, but no sound would come out. We were doomed. Doomed…”

The dinner has been consuming all our waking, and apparently non-waking, thoughts. Last month, a donor sent in a gift basket for the staff for the Lunar New Year. It contained high-quality chocolates and cookies and was wrapped up all nicely. We quickly sent a thank-you note. At the next staff meeting I took out the basket and started to open it. A hush fell on the meeting room.

“What are you doing?” a staff asked, shocked.

“I’m opening it,” I said, “it’s for us.”

“Wait!” said the group, “it’s too nice! We should use it as a raffle item at the dinner!”

These last few months have made me realize that we nonprofits are constantly in the Scrappiness Cycle. We are always scrimping, trying to find the best deals, trying to get stuff discounted or preferably free. We scour Craigslist looking for usable furniture, and we pounce on businesses that are moving or closing, hoping to score a kick-ass filing cabinet (with a lock!). It has become a mindset that is ingrained in all of us. It is our donors’ money! We must save! We must be responsible!

We totally should. But I think we have gone too far. Scrappiness and frugality are great skills that everyone should have. But like sake bombs, they should be taken in moderation. It would be better for our organizations, our clients, and our own sanity to actually be a little LESS scrappy.

First, there is the time and opportunity Cost: In our quest to save a few bucks, we miss out on more productive opportunities. To save about $2,000 to furnish our previous office with 8 work stations from IKEA, for example, a staff and I rented a Uhaul, drove to a business that was moving, and brought home 8 wooden desks or so. For free! They were heavy and the project took us a whole day to move, several days to assemble, and another day to get rid of the desks once we found something better and equally as scrappy.

This time that we spent moving and assembling furniture could have been spent connecting with donors, writing grants, or otherwise doing something that could have brought our organization money. Worse, while assembling a desk, a piece fell and scraped my shin, leaving a painful bruise that lasted literally months. If I weren’t so nice and hadn’t initiated the project, I could have sued the organization.

Second, scrappiness prevents us from thinking beyond the short-term. When we are scrappy, we tend to skimp on necessary resources like the right people and the right tools, which means we can’t be as effective, which means we have to be even scrappier to survive, perpetuating a vicious cycle that keeps us from moving forward and leads to really crappy office chairs from Craigslist. How many boards are so fixated on how much is spent on office supply or other expenses, instead of focusing on the long-term growth and awesomeness of their organization? I was facilitating a retreat a few weeks ago for the board of another nonprofit. This was clearly a dedicated, passionate working group of people. But they were stuck in the present, and with almost no staff, they were reaching burn-out. Running completely on volunteers is very scrappy, but it is difficult to sustain.

Third, and most importantly, we nonprofits really need to get out of this Martyr Mentality. It seems we nonprofit staff take an unspoken vow of poverty when we enter our profession. It has been beaten into us over hundreds of years, and like smoking or checking emails in bed it is a very difficult habit to break. But we have to. This mentality is ineffective; it drives talented people to burning out and to leaving the field, and it negatively shapes the perceptions of people who are not in the field, preventing good ones from even thinking of entering.

We need to believe that we are not bad people for wanting nice things like a decent work space (See “Nonprofit office space: We deserve better!“). I’m not talking extravagant things; this is not a carte blanche to say that we should skip out on due diligence and go crazy buying caviar and use fancy French terms like “carte blanche.” But buy a metal filing cabinet with locks. Take the team out once a while for lunch. Hire the necessarily staff. On occasion this may seem risky, considering how unstable our funds are and how society expects martyrdom. But society cannot expect us nonprofits to continue to hunker down, be scrappy, avoid risks, and hope to thrive. But it will if we ourselves keep believing and perpetuating this cycle.

The Scrappiness Cycle doesn’t work in the long run. And we and our community deserve better.

So. Back to the gift basket. “Our annual dinner is coming up,” I said, “and this basket would make a nice raffle item, ’tis true…

“But no, it’s for us,” I continued, finding momentum in my speech, “We work hard. We deserve something for ourselves once a while. We’ll find other stuff to raffle off. Plus, it’s not nice to the person who gave this to us if we give it away. We’d be disrespecting their wishes. No, it is our DUTY to eat these treats!”

“Eat these treats! EAT THESE TREATS!” the staff chanted in unison.

All right, they didn’t do that. They still looked at me like I was crazy. But they reluctantly accepted, and I tore open the cellophane…

What the…

Dammit! There was nothing vegan for me!

We wasted a nice pre-wrapped basket for NOTHING!

9 lessons from House of Cards we can apply to nonprofit work

house of cardsHi everyone, if you have not been watching House of Cards on Netflix, you should ask a coworker who has been watching it to slap you in the face right now. First off, it’s a really well-made show, with great actors, interesting plot-lines, and good pacing.

Second of all, it actually has a character who directs a nonprofit that is not illegally selling human organs in the basement. Every time we see a nonprofit depicted on TV on shows like Law and Order SVU, it is doing something like illegally selling human organs, which really screws up the general public’s perception of us. I am tired of people coming up to me and saying, “Pst, hey, I heard you direct a nonprofit? Got any kidneys in stock?”

All right, fine, no one says that.

Point is, House of Cards is great, and even though it is about politics and features some of the most ruthless, calculating, and evil-yet-well-dressed people on earth, we nonprofits can learn a lot from it. There are a lot of good lessons about leadership, loyalty, strategy, and how to push someone in front of a moving train. I’ll discuss a few that stuck with me, using quotes from the show. If you haven’t seen HOC, skip this spoiler-filled post and read something else, like these nonprofit jokes I wrote.

1. “That’s how you devour a whale, Doug: One bite at a time.” Frank Underwood didn’t get nominated as Secretary of State, and he is as pissed as a porcupine in a bucket. He wants to destroy everyone who has wronged him. A huge undertaking, says his Chief-of-Staff, Doug, prompting Frank to respond with the above quote.

Lesson for nonprofits: Even difficult tasks, like creating a strategic plan, or planning an event, or moving an entrenched board, or cleaning out the office fridge, can be done if you are methodical and break the goal into smaller chunks.

2. “Friends make the worst enemies.” Frank butts head with Marty Spinella from the teachers’ union. He and Frank worked well together in the past, and now Marty feels betrayed. Marty is as pissed as three badgers in a potato sack.

Lesson for nonprofits: Do not antagonize your donors and supporters! Maintain those relationships. Sure, a stranger who knows nothing about your organization saying stuff about you is one thing, but it is much worse coming from someone who used to be a fan, since they have more credibility.

3. “What you have to understand about my people is that they are a noble people. Humility is their form of pride. It is their strength; it is their weakness. And if you can humble yourself before them they will do anything you ask.” Frank goes to his hometown to appease the parents of a girl who died in a car accident because she was texting about a peach-shaped water tower, which Frank helped to build. He tells the parents that if they want him to resign, he will.

Lesson for nonprofits: This quote can easily be applied to us who choose to devote our lives to helping people. Humility is our strength, but it can also lead to our being pushed around, settling for insufficient resources and flawed systems and really bad office chairs from Craigslist, which does not help us achieve our mission. Figure out when to be humble, and when to be assertive.

4. “Never slap a man while he’s chewing tobaccah.” Frank is plotting against Remy, his former staffer who now becomes a powerful lobbyist and serious pain in his side. But, he must wait for the right time.

Lesson for nonprofits: Timing is critical, especially when interacting with influential people. They might spit tobacco in your face, and who wants that? Tobacco stains are very hard to remove. This is why I always wait until our board chair is in a good mood and has minty fresh breath before giving her bad news.

5. Doesn’t matter what side you’re on, everybody’s got to eat. Marty leads a teachers’ strike, which takes place in front of a fundraising dinner that Claire is organizing. Frank and Claire bring out ribs and offer them to the protesters, who take the food, dealing a critical blow to the strike.

Lesson for nonprofits: Two lessons: First, no matter what our nonprofits do, we all need resources to keep going. Second, figure out weaknesses and exploit them. For the sake of making the world better, of course. (By the way, that fundraising dinner raises half a million. I had to take a break during this episode to weep softly into a throw pillow).

6. “Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power – in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” Frank here is talking about Remy, a smart former staff of his who chose to work as a lobbyist for a powerful company.

Lesson for nonprofits: Uh…just replace “power” with “social justice” and we’re good. Of course, we all chose social justice, which is far better than a stupid mansion anyway. A mansion with, like, a nice yard. A really big mansion. With a view. And a pool. And great shrubbery. God, I would push someone in front of a train for some decent shrubbery…

7. “Shake with your right hand, but hold a rock with your left.” This basically explains anytime Frank is nice to someone.

Lesson for nonprofits: The lesson I would take from this is not necessarily to be two-faced, but to always have a backup plan. Diplomacy is always a good first step when it comes to working with challenging people, but have a plan to put into action right away if that fails. And please do not let that plan involve illegally trading organs.

8. “There is no solace above or below. Only us – small, solitary, striving.” Frank at a church talking to himself after doing something terrible. So terrible that I can’t even describe it here. Let’s just say it involves at least one of these deadly things: ricin, carbon monoxide, kombucha tea, or a copy of Superman IV.

Lesson for nonprofits: We are nonprofits, and even if we’re huge, we’re still just one part of society. Every day we make choices. Some of them good. Some of them bad. We must live with our choices. Our world needs us. We must continue striving. That does sound kind of depressing, doesn’t it? Just don’t try to poison anyone with carbon monoxide and/or kombucha, all right?

9. “The foundation of this White House is not brick and mortar. It’s us.” The First Lady, trying to explain to her husband why it’s important that they work on their marriage by getting some counseling.

Lesson for nonprofits: The foundation of our work is not the office, or the computers, or the capital projects or the funds or whatever. It is the people who choose to be here doing this stuff. We must take care of each other, because good staff and board and donors and volunteers, they are what makes everything possible. Be nice to people.

But hold a rock…

Kidding.

The show is actually rife with quotes and lessons, so I’ll write more about it later. I’ve mainly been talking about Frank, but his wife Claire is equally fascinating. A post analyzing her ability to run a nonprofit will be coming, and I’m also working on lessons from Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and the Golden Girls.

(Related post: 9 lessons from Breaking Bad we can apply to nonprofit work)

Which comes first, the Equity Egg or the Accountability Chicken?

chicken and eggThe last few weeks have been rough. Not only did the baby grow his first tooth and got an ear infection and has been miserable, but also my lucky bamboo, which I got to boost the feng shui in the office, mysteriously turned yellow and died.

None of that, however, compared to getting news that one of the schools we partner with didn’t get the grant that it applied to. I helped them to write this massive, 30-page narrative, sitting at the principal’s desk and typing away as she ran in and out of her office to deal with one situation after another. The grant was painful. It was like taking a pint of kumquats, freezing them overnight, putting them into a gym sock, running the gym sock though some poison oak, and then beating yourself in the face with it while watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace, that’s how painful it was. (I helped another school last year to write the same grant, and wrote about how awful that was).

We wrote this grant for several days. This is a school with 95% kids of color, 85% low-income, and this was their third time writing this grant and failing to get awarded. It was a devastating blow for a really great school. “I’ll buy you a drink,” I told the principal; we both felt like crap.

A few days later, I ran into one of the executive board members, “Frank,” who approved the decisions. I told him the grant award system was messed up and he needed to change it. “Well,” he said, “there are always winners and losers. And we need to focus on schools who have principals who are accountable and taking lead to improve their schools.”

As much as I love the US, we have some major things to improve on. One of those things is this zero-sum game that we play, and it often manifests in the form of “accountability,” a catch-all concept that everyone now uses because it makes them look smart and responsible. Accountability now equates with excellence and quality and bald eagles and apple pie.

Unfortunately, this concept has been thoroughly misused, wielded as a tool to perpetuate many crappy and unjust systems.

At a panel I was on, the topic was parental engagement. “We can talk all we want about all sorts of things,” said one of the other speakers, “but at the end, it comes down to parental accountability. Parents need to be responsible for their kids’ learning! They need to read to their kids and make sure they do their homework!”

Yeah, said the room, clapping, that’s the American Way!

“I agree,” I said, “parents should be involved in their kids’ education.” But, I pointed out, many of them don’t have the language skills, or they are poor and work several jobs. And then because they are poor, they tend to go to struggling schools, and those schools don’t have translation services, or any staff who can spend time with the parents, so even if a parent really wants to be engaged, they come to school and there is no one to help them. So if we want parents to be accountable, provide them the resources they need first.

We have a very punitive sort of mindset, and oftentimes it makes no sense. Let’s punish the schools that don’t do well by taking away or not giving them the resources they need. THAT will incentivize them to get better, those lazy, good-for-nothing schools who have no accountability.

Also, let’s force low-income schools to write painful 30-page grants to compete for these funds that are designed with equity in mind to help struggling schools with high numbers of low-income students. Grants that are so painful it’s like taking a mason jar, filling it with apple cider vinegar, running through a blackberry thicket, then pouring the vinegar all over yourself. The best-written grants should be awarded, because that’s accountability. Let’s ignore the fact that the schools that are most struggling, and thus most in need of these funds, are probably the ones that have the most challenges writing these grants.

People, even well-intentioned people like “Frank”, use “accountability” as a crutch to not have to deal with the much harder task of achieving equity. Why spend five times more effort to define and find the most struggling schools, work with them to develop a strong plan to support their students to achieve, and provide them with funding and guidance to succeed? Why do all that when you can make all the schools write a sadistically burdensome grant, grade them on a 100-point scale, and pick a school that scored 87 points over a school that scored 85 points? Your process is clear and “accountable,” you’re forcing the schools to be “accountable,” and no one can yell at you for being unfair.

People who believe that competition and the focus on accountability will lead to equity are deluding themselves. They believe everything should be like the Olympics, where those who perform the best should get the gold. Most of us, though, enter into the field of nonprofit or philanthropy because we know the games are screwed up, and our job is to do whatever we can to bring balance by making conditions equal. How can you give someone a gold medal for Alpine skiing, for instance, when they have two skis and the other skiers have only one ski, or a broken ski, or there is not enough snow on their track? Let’s focus on making sure everyone competes under the same conditions before we reward the best performers.

Even if conditions are equal, though, sadly the competition will still not be fair. That’s because everything is relationship based. Those who have the best relationships will always get ahead, and poor families, and communities of color, and struggling schools and scrappy nonprofits will seldom have the same level of relationships with influential people.

That’s why our work is important. We above most people understand that equity comes first. Sometimes, though, we also forget, and we also fall into the accountability trap.

If we want equity, we must start with equity. And there are instances where it is working. Finland, for example, has become one of the best school systems in the world, if not the best. They focus on ensuring there is equity first. In fact, they don’t even have a word for “accountability.” There are few standardized tests, for example, and they don’t make their principals spend 80 hours writing a grant to get the resources they need, a grant so awful it’s like taking a handmade quilt, gathering crazy ants onto it, then wrapping the quilt around yourself while listening to Passenger. They focus first on making sure every student has the same opportunity. And yet they are excelling. In comparison, Norway, with a similar homogenous population, has bought into this system of competition, punishment, and accountability, and they are not doing nearly as well. This is only one example, but it is a strong one.

Now that I’ve become a parent, I think a lot about how families are structured and what kind I would like mine to be. Imagine a family that is ultra competitive, where children are in constant competition with one another and rewarded by their parents. “John got 5 A’s this quarter, so we’re going to take him to Disneyland, yay! Have some more food, son, you deserve it. The rest of you, you got B’s, you need to shape up. Jimmy, I don’t care that you got mugged twice last month while walking home. Toughen up and stop whining. Be a man like John here.” (Sadly, I actually know some parents who are like that).

Most of us can see how awful it would be to live in such a family. But this is what our society is increasingly becoming like.

Many of us continue to do this work because we believe there shouldn’t be have to be winners and losers all the time, especially when we are talking about kids. All of them deserve a chance to succeed, and it pisses me off when idiots wield “accountability” as a reason to justify their thoughtless decisions. If we want EVERYONE to succeed, and not just a select few, then we must ensure everyone has the same opportunities. When it comes to accountability and quality and equity, it is not a chicken-and-egg argument. It is equity that will lead to quality and accountability, not the other way around.

Help, I suck at time management!

time-mngmtHi everyone. This is not going to be a high-quality post, because I spent many, many hours this weekend watching House of Cards on Netflix. Darn you, Frank Underwood, you creepy, effective bastard and your ruthlessly efficient wife! Now it is 12:30am and I am only beginning to work on this post, which is really more like a cry for help. I was going to skip writing this week, but I want to set a good example for my son, who is now 10-months-old. “Son,” I told him today while he was snuggled up on my lap, “always be consistent, sometimes even at the cost of quali—what…what is that in your mouth?! Is that a paperclip?! Ack! Where did you get this paperclip?! Spit that out! Spit it out right now! Stop squirming! Open your mouth! No! You can’t eat this paperclip! Stop biting Daddy! OW!”

So let’s talk about time management. We are all incredibly busy people. Helping make the world better takes a lot of time. I am always amazed at the people who can manage their time well. They tend to be morning people, and they wake up at 5am to do some yoga and drink a green smoothie made from wheatgrass and hemp oil or something before heading to the office by 7am and they’re all like “I feel so good because I exercised this morning, and wheatgrass is soooo good for you.” If you are one of these people, I admire and hate you in equal measures.

I am not one of these people. Before the baby came along, I woke up at 9:30am and got to the office at 10am. Then I’d work until whenever, coming home anywhere from 6pm to 10pm. That seems like a solid 8 to 12 hours per day, except those hours are not efficient. Maybe 5 hours was spent doing actual work. The rest would be filled with reading the news, arguing with various people about the Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, and looking at pictures of cute baby animals. Then, at home, feeling awful that I didn’t get much accomplished, I would put in several hours at night—unless TBS has a marathon of The Golden Girls, because, come on, those girls, Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia are hilarious!

Now that the baby is here, time is even scarcer. My emails are going crazy, I have way too many meetings, and I haven’t been sleeping enough. I must get a handle on things. A while ago I wrote about the four different work styles. Some of us are Dragons, some are Unicorns, others are Phoenix, and others are Lion-Turtles. Reading that post again, I realized that they each handle time management differently:

Dragons are probably the best time managers, since they are action-oriented and are hard set on deadlines. They don’t like excuses. If you say you’re going to do something, you better do it, or a Dragon will set your hair on fire. Quality may sometimes be debatable, but stuff will get done.

Phoenixes will commit to just about anything because they get bored easily and need to work on a billion things all at once. But then they get distracted by shiny new projects and drop balls left and right. They are poor time managers but because they’re usually charismatic, the rest of us tend to let it slide.

Lion-Turtles take forever to think about things because they need everything to be absolutely perfect. They are systematic and organized with their time. They, like the Dragons, are deadline-driven and high-quality, but they need plenty of lead time in order to analyze and think about everything.

Unicorns are considerate and want to be helpful, so they’ll often spend time on other people’s projects even at the cost of doing their own work. They put people before time, and they overcommit. So if a coworker is feeling down, they’ll drop their own work to cheer that person up. In other words, they also suck at time management.

Crap, I think I am a Phoenix-Unicorn hybrid, the two worst time-managers among the four styles. Dragons are awesome this area, followed by Lion-Turtles (I think Frank and Claire in House of Cards are these two styles respectively). I had planned to write a post called “10 Time Management Tips for Busy Nonprofit Peeps,” but I don’t think I am qualified to dish advice on something I pretty much suck at.

So, I need your help. What strategies do you use to manage your time? There are tons of time-management tips out there. They all make sense. “Tip 1: Make a To-Do list. Tip 2: Prioritize your list. Tip 3: Do the stuff on your list.” But it’s not that simple! To-do lists work for some people. Plus, we nonprofits are all understaffed, so we default to the Competency Paradox, which states that the more competent you are, the more work you get. Things are getting out of control! It’s 1:45am and the baby wakes up in 5 hours!

Let me know what works for you, and what style you are. You can type it in the comment section. Or if you’re free this week, I’d be glad to get coffee or a drink to talk about it for several hours.