9 lessons from Breaking Bad we can apply to nonprofit work


Breaking-Bad-season-5-1080x1920Hi everyone. Thanks to the long weekend, I was able to completely catch up with Breaking Bad. We were in the midst of Season 3 when the baby was born, so we had to stop, a decision I’ll regret for the rest of my life. But this weekend, while the baby was sleeping, we binge-watched the rest of the episodes, and they were totally awesome. Breaking Bad is about a high-school chemistry teacher named Walter White who is facing cancer. Wanting to leave his family with something after he’s gone, he ends up making meth with one of his former students, Jesse. Walter gradually rises up the ranks to become a total bad-ass in the insanely scary underground world of drug cartels. Not only is this a riveting show, with wonderful acting and complex human emotions, but there are tons of lessons we in the nonprofit field can glean.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the show or are not caught up at all, stop reading this right now and do something else, such as read this NWB post “How to Schedule a Meeting Without Being Punched in the Pancreas.” Or go watch the show. It is that good. I mean, I have an infant, and that hasn’t stopped me from watching this show and others].

Lesson 1: Change can be good. Walter’s cancer triggers his existential/midlife crisis, forcing him to reevaluate his entire life and what he has been doing with it. We in nonprofits tend to like settling into routines. But maybe, once in a while, it’s good to shake things up and make us some meth, yeah! OK, maybe not make meth, exactly, but, you know, do something different, like plan an annual luncheon instead of an annual dinner. Or have happy hour meetings at 10am instead of 5pm.

Lesson 2: Risks pay off. One of the most awesome scenes in the show is when Walter uses his knowledge of chemistry to threaten a drug king pin, Tuco, who had beat up Jesse (using a bag of cash, ironically). Walter carries these explosive crystals right smack into Tuco’s lair, threatening to blow up the entire place, including himself. The risk paid off, as they began a long and rewarding partnership that only ended up with a few people getting killed. We nonprofits need to learn to take more risks. Sure, sometimes, probably most of the time, we’ll probably get beat up by a bag stuffed with cash, but once in a while, it might work. So yeah, open that side business as an earned-income strategy.

Lesson 3: Pick your partners carefully. It turns out Tuco is a complete psychopath with a penchant for beating the crap out of people, including his own goons. Later, Walter and Jesse have to try to kill him. Now, if they had spent some time vetting him first, they might not have collaborated with him in the first place. This is a good lesson for us in nonprofit to learn: Choose partner organizations carefully, or else one party is inevitably going to try to poison the other with ricin.

Lesson 4: Never settle for less than the highest quality. Walter rises up through the ranks because his meth is 99% pure, unlike the rest of the meth out there, which are usually only 60 or 70% pure, mixed with baking soda or sawdust or whatever and might give you, like, terrible hallucinations or syphilis or something. We nonprofit organizations should always strive to ensure that our programs and services are as high quality as Walter’s meth.

Lesson 5: Use the right tools. At one point, Walter and Jesse have to dispose of a body. Jesse is sent to pick up some specific plastic containers so they could dissolve the body with acid. He picks up the wrong kind, and Walter is angry, saying the plastic needs to be a certain type, or else the acid would just eat right through it. Jesse, being an idiot at this point, decides to dissolve the body in his bathtub on the second floor while Walter is away, and the acid just eats right through the tub, making a terrible mess in the hallway. Lesson for us nonprofit folks: Whether it is the right donor database or copy machine or file backup system, use the right tool.

Lesson 6: Keep ego in check. Walter is brilliant in chemistry, but is oftentimes a complete idiot when it comes to real life. As his fake name, “Heisenberg,” gains notoriety, his ego gets bigger and bigger. The Drug Enforcement Agency, where his brother-in-law Hank works, finally discovers the body of someone they think is Heisenberg. This body is actually Walter’s lab assistant, Gale. Hank, over dinner, is saying how Gale is a genius and that he is definitely Heisenberg, case closed. Walter, being a moron, and drunk, blurts out that he thinks Gale is not a genius and that Heisenberg is a genius and he is probably still out there, triggering Hank to search even harder. Lesson for nonprofit folks: No matter how talented or experienced we are at being an ED or Development Director or Operations Manager or Board member or Program Coordinator or whatever, we should keep our egos in check in order to get even better.

Lesson 7: Be indispensable. Several times in the show, Walt is able to save his and Jesse’s life because only the two of them know how to make meth of that high a caliber. At another point, Gus Fring, their very professional and totally evil boss, walks out right into the middle of a sniper attack from a rival cartel, daring the sniper to fire at him. He knew that he is too valuable for their enemies to shoot down. Lesson for us to learn: Our nonprofits and its programs are more sustainable if they are absolutely vital to the community and people understand this. So we should ensure programs are excellent, and our communications to funders and to the rest of the community are constant. (Of course, once someone else understood how to make meth that was 99% pure, Walter and Jesse had to kill him to retain their indispensableness, but that’s a lesson for another day).

Lesson 8: Balance work and family. As Walter gains notoriety, his family suffers. He is never around, or he shows up naked in a convenience store with fake amnesia. He misses the birth of his daughter because he chooses instead to go drop off his meth to a distributor for money. Obviously this is a great lesson for all of us in the field, who tend to work too much and have poor work-life balance. No matter what we do, whether it’s making the world better or making crystal meth to sell to junkies, family is important.

Lesson 9: Understand what your goals and line in the sand are. As Walter White gets deeper and deeper into the business, he loses sight of his original goal, which was to provide for his family. The lines he is willing to cross also change. Now he is fixated on building an empire, even at the expense of his family, and this once-innocent chemistry teacher is willing to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and kill to build that empire. For us nonprofit folks, a regular refresher on the mission and vision of our organization is a good idea, and also what our values are, to ensure that we are actually making the world better, and not just building a nonprofit empire for its own sake.

There are more lessons to learn from this awesome show, but I’m exhausted. Future posts will discuss those lessons, as well as ones learned from The Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

  • Well done. Well done.

    • Vu

      Thanks, Leah. Breaking Bad is so awesome!

  • great article ! Tuco was crazy !

    • Vu

      Thanks for commenting. And for all your great tips on writing music!

  • OK, I am completely open to being beaten with a bag of cash, as long as the nonprofit I run gets to keep the money afterwards. How much worse could that be compared to cold calling auction attendees, asking them to make a major gift, instead?

    • Vu

      You’re right, Claire, I probably wouldn’t mind being hit with a bag of cash!

  • Shefali

    This might be your best post yet. We watched Breaking Bad too when the kid was 14 months. Sadly I did not have the awesome takeaways that you did. Mostly, I wondered why I wasn’t in the meth business.

    • Vu

      You too? I did also! Each time they opened a duffel bag stuffed with cash, I thought “That’s 8 fundraising dinners we wouldn’t have to plan…”

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