Icebreakers, do’s and don’ts, and some that don’t suck

boring-meetings-made-betterWhen I say “icebreaker,” what images or feelings come to mind? For some people, they think “Yay, a fun game to get to know people!” For others, it is a swirling vortex of darkness and hatred.

A while ago I wrote a post describing what bad-ass mythical creatures you are. Each creature has different qualities and preferences. Whether you like icebreakers may depend on what creature you are. Unicorns, for example, love harmony and crap like that, so they tend to like them. Phoenixes are always distracted and have unlimited energy, so they like them too. Lion-Turtles love processes and don’t want to share much about themselves, so they’re leery of icebreakers. And dragons, who are action-oriented, would rather eat one of their arms than share their feelings in a wishy-washy icebreaker.

Whether we like them or not, icebreaking activities can play important roles, such as lightening the mood, building energy, improving team dynamics, and distracting people from the fact that the snacks are skimpy and probably left over from another meeting (why is the hummus so crusty?). Yet so many suck, or are deployed wrong and end up wasting people’s time or embarrassing them. Find-Someone-Who, for example. Participants are given a sheet of paper and are asked to go around the room finding people who speak four languages, has a pet chihuahua, is gluten-free, makes soap from bacon grease, or whatever. Problem is, by the end of the activity, no one remembers a single fact about anyone, and obsessive people feel resentful that they didn’t get enough time to complete their checklist. Meanwhile, “Two Truths and a Lie” should be renamed “Two Hours and a Half” because that’s how long it usually takes to get through everyone’s truths and lies. Continue Reading…

The Frustration with Innovation: Bright Shiny Object Syndrome and its effect on the nonprofit sector

Chicago_Bean_2_by_lightzoneOne of the great things about our sector is how innovative it is. There are smart, talented, socially-conscious people—nonprofit staff, funders, researchers, boards, donors, volunteers. We come up with amazing ideas all the time. In the past few years we’ve had 40 Developmental Assets, and 21st Century Skills. We’ve had evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence. We have strategic planning, then strategic thinking. We have Collective Impact and Youth Program Quality Initiative. We have STEM. We have online learning. Some trends, like the importance of parental engagement in students’ academic performance, die and then resurface. I call them “Zombie Trends.” Now the latest trend is “We need to send more nonprofit staff to Hawaii so they can relax and recharge!”

All right, fine, that last one may not be an actual trend, though maybe it should be.

Lately, however, I’ve been encountering among my peers more and more frustration with funders’ seeming obsession with innovation. An ED friend called it the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome (BSOS), this apparent inclination to drop everything and zoom in on the newest, sexiest concept to support, with sometimes negative consequences. The focus on early learning, for example, while important, has affected funding for youth programs, and the shift to collective impact has not always been positive (see “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile“). Continue Reading…

We should build a nonprofit-themed theme park!

theme parkHi everyone, I am still in Hawaii on vacation. However, that does not mean I can slack off on writing a blog post on Monday. Consistency is very important. As I often tell my son, “Son,” I would say, “whatever you decide to do, always be consist–aaarrrgh, why did you bite Daddy’s toes?! Do you think that was funny? That was not funny!”

Hawaii has been great, something I have sorely been needing for a while. The people here are so friendly and sweet, and the shaved ice tastes like happiness and childhood and unrestricted funds. I have been spending a lot of time with my wife and baby son and taken lots and lots of naps and drank a bunch of drinks that have little paper umbrellas on them. And I only checked my work emails about 20 times total.

There has been a couple of highlights on this trip. First, I met with the ED Ryan and Development Director Cheri of Hands In Helping Out (HIHO), a wonderful organization that recruits, trains, and matches volunteers with opportunities, all the while making the experience of volunteering fun for everyone involved. We went to a raw vegan restaurant, and while chewing on some “escargots” made from mushrooms and cashews, we grumbled about restricted funding and the lack of support of critical things like volunteer management. Even in paradise, nonprofit directors are frustrated with certain things, like all of us in the mainland are. “Funders only want to support NEW programs, forget tried and true ones,” we grumbled, using flaxseed crackers to scoop up some raw olive tapenade.

On one of the days, we went to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC), a nonprofit theme park that teaches visitors about the different Polynesian cultures. In different “villages,” you learn about Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, Hawaiian, Aotearoan, Marquesan, and Tahitian cultures. Visitors get a chance to throw spears, make coconut bread, start fires with sticks, make hats out of palm fronds, learn different dances, and gain basic understanding of cultural norms, such as which door one must use when entering a Fijian temple.

It was pricey to spend the day there, but well worth it. And it made me think, “Dude, we should totally have a nonprofit-themed theme park!” Continue Reading…

The “Cultural Competency” and other nonprofit cocktail recipes

coconut cocktails

Hi everyone, I’m going on vacation for eight days starting today*, and I am going to try not to do any work. That’s right, no work. Well, maybe one grant. I am going to relax on the beach, introduce my son to the ocean for the first time, and drink cocktails from hollowed-out tropical fruit. It will be so awesome.

If you haven’t taken any vacation time, I hope you will do so soon. Our field relies on effective people, and people can’t be as effective if they are burnt out. Take some time off and stop feeling guilty about it. Many of us are reluctant to take long vacations because of something I call “Avalanche Anxiety,” the fear that work will build up while were gone, and bury us when we get back. Take a few days off anyway. If you really insist on working the rest of the summer, then at least try to cut your hours down so you can sit in your garden or porch with a nice cold drink.

Here, I have several more cocktail recipes inspired by the nonprofit sector. There are a couple of recipes by NWB’s Facebook friends too. 

cultural competency coctail

 

The Cultural Competency. 1 shot vodka, 1 shot Kalua, 1 shot tequila, 1 shot sake, 1 shot whiskey. Mix everything together in a shaker with ice and strain into glass. Garnish with whatever exotic tropical fruit you can find. Drink slowly. Congratulations, you’re culturally competent! Continue Reading…

The courage for mediocrity: We nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break

stressAfter being in this sector for over a decade, I can say that nonprofit professionals are some of the most awesome people on earth. We are so smart, talented, dedicated, passionate, caring, humble, witty, cool, and hilarious. Also, we are really good-looking and are great dressers. Let’s see someone from the corporate sector rock that $6.99 button-down shirt from Ross, Dress for Less (originally $13.99).

But we are burning out, you guys. Our natural good looks are obscured by stress-induced wrinkles, grey hair, and maybe one eye that twitches uncontrollably during staff meetings. The work never stops, our organizations are understaffed, and people’s lives depend on our actions and decisions. We work in the evenings and on the weekends, skip vacations, and when we’re on vacation we check our emails because we know if we ignore them, they will start multiplying like hipsters. It is a brutal cycle that leads to many of us leaving the sector to make jewelry that are then sold at farmer’s markets. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy, despite the fact that the world could use more necklaces made out of beach glass and soda can tabs. Continue Reading…

Nonprofit and Afraid: A new show on the Discovery Channel

clint-laura-300x300Hi everyone. I just came back from giving a keynote speech at the AFP Arizona’s state conference, where I had a great time and made many cool friends. It was, seriously, a really amazing and unforgettable experience, complete with dancing “The Wobble,” handstands, trying out the nonprofit yoga positions I wrote about, eating rancid hummus (it spoils easily in 100+ degrees weather), and talking about riding the giant koi fish in the resort we were all staying in. Yeah, we were kind of tipsy, but only after hours. I was writing about this awesome experience I had in Tucson when Naked and Afraid came on.

Naked and Afraid is a riveting show about two random strangers who have to survive in the wilderness for three weeks while naked (and afraid). They meet for the first time in their birthday suits, they are given usually a knife and a fire starter, and the two must find water and food, build shelter out of bamboo and leaves or whatever, and put up with insects, freezing cold nights, blisteringly hot days, thorns, poisonous snakes, and worst of all, lack of wifi. They are followed around by a film crew who intervenes in severe emergencies, but who otherwise are not allowed to talk to the naked couple.

They also get waterproof camcorders to record their personal thoughts, which often sound like this: “Day 9: We are so cold right now, and we haven’t eaten anything since that bat we shared six days ago. Kyle was delirious with a fever and started gnawing at his own arm, but luckily a poisonous spider bit him in the eye and he came to his senses…”

Damn you, Discovery Channel, for putting on new episodes at 10pm on Sunday nights. 10am to 2pm on Sunday is usually when I do my writing. This show is to blame for any decrease in quality of these blog posts.

But this gives me a brilliant idea for a show that I want to pitch to the Discovery Channel: “Nonprofit and Afraid.” Hear me out for a second. Picture this: We take an average person who is not from the nonprofit sector, and we place them to work at a nonprofit for six weeks, filming their experience every step of the way! Here’s what the pilot episode might look like: Continue Reading…

Nonprofit with Balls’s 100th post! Let’s celebrate by going home early.

unicorn sunsetHi everyone. This is Nonprofit With Ball’s historic 100th post. It is a momentous occasion. When I was a little boy growing up in a small village up in the mountains of Vietnam, my father said to me, “Son, we may be poor, but that does not mean we can’t accomplish great things. You are the smartest, most-talented, and, in certain very dim lighting, best-looking kid in our family. Bring honor to our name.” Well, look dad, I wrote 100 blog posts about nonprofits, many mentioning unicorns! I think our ancestors would be proud. They’re probably tweeting about it right now.

For this 100th post, I’m going to provide excerpts of some of my favorite early posts, the ones that you probably haven’t read because they’re so old. If this sounds very lazy, like those TV shows that do montages as a special episode (“Instead of writing a real episode, let’s spend 10 minutes looking at all the times that Joey said ‘How you doin’?’ and all the times that Ross acts like a completely unlikeable character”) you are right. But hey, this only happens every 100th blog posts; we’ll be back next week with new content. Here, read these posts below if you haven’t. And I think it’s only appropriate that we all go home early today in celebration. Continue Reading…

Really-high ropes courses and other uses of legal marijuana in the nonprofit sector

Cookies shaped like marijuana leafs are pictured at the Cannabis Carnivalus 4/20 event in SeattleHi everyone. Before we launch into today’s topic, I want to invite you to Rainier Valley Corps’s open house this Wednesday evening, July 9th from 6pm to 8pm. If you’re in Seattle, come on by and learn about the project. And I’d love to meet you. Details at rainiervalleycorps.org

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Every week, when I publish a new post, inevitably two to five readers will unsubscribe their email from this blog, probably in protest against something I said (“How DARE you disparage hipsters blah blah you’re just jealous because your fat vegan legs don’t look good in skinny jeans blah blah scientific studies show that wearing skinny jeans for just two hours a day can vastly improve fertility rates blah blah you and your blog suck, etc.”) It’s OK, because new readers subscribe, so there is usually a net gain.

As a warning, this week’s topic may be sensitive to some readers, because, dude, recreational marijuana will be available for sale in Washington State this Tuesday! For some, it is the end of the world. But for others, it’ll be like Black Friday, where you wake up extra early, grab an empty Snapple bottle, wait in line for hours, and then shove aside the weak and elderly to get your hands on that sweet, sweet 32GB flash drive for $5.99. Except replace “32GB flash drive” with “legal weed” and “$5.99” with “about $400 per ounce.”

Now, whether you support or oppose legalizing pot, the fact is that the tides are turning, and pot use will grow and affect the way we do our work in the nonprofit sector. Continue Reading…

7 annoying things nonprofits do and say that get on funders’ nerves

irritatedHappy Monday, everyone. Last week, I wrote about annoying things that funders say to us nonprofits. Now, I want to stress again that funders and fundees are in symbiotic relationship. Like those ants that live on that one tree. Or those billions of probiotic bacteria that thrive in a healthy stomach. Nonprofits cannot do our work without funding, and funders can’t do their work without nonprofits. And no one can do their work without a healthy stomach, which is why all of us—funders and NPOs—should eat more yogurt and kimchi.

Anyway, after last week’s post, I got emails from a few funders who wanted to point out that nonprofits say and do annoying things also. At this point, you may have spewed coffee at your computer screen in shock and indignation. We nonprofits are unicorns! We never do anything annoying! Well, here are some things I was asked to mention. Let’s hear our funding friends out. And let’s keep in mind that I am only the messenger here. Like Shakira in those Activia probiotic yogurt commercials, but maybe slightly less attractive. Continue Reading…

7 Annoying things funders say, and what we wish they (you) would say instead

Kaziranga National Park reopens for visitorsHappy summer, everyone. A colleague wrote me recently, saying “I just received an email from a well-known foundation (that supports us) mentioning that they ‘are all out of town all of this week for a conference in Hawaii.’ I just spent 2 months working my a** off on our annual event raising just $35,000…” She asked me to write about things that funders should never mention to folks working in the nonprofit world

Now, funders are awesome and play a very important and symbiotic role in the nonprofit ecosystem. It would be hard for us nonprofit egrets to do our work if the…uh…rain doesn’t fall and the…um….savannah grass is not green enough to feed the rhinoceroses who…uh…do whatever it is that rhinoceroses do in this metaphor, which made a lot more sense yesterday after I had several beers. But once in a while, likely inadvertently, funders say things that get on our nerves. I asked Nonprofit With Balls readers as well as all my ED friends to tell me what they wished funders would stop saying. Here are the top ones: Continue Reading…