9 lessons for nonprofits from Super Bowl XLVIII and the Seahawks


seahawks 2Hi everyone. Go Seahawks! That was the best Super Bowl ever! Sure, no one came to my Vegan Super Bowl viewing party, so I had to watch and celebrate alone with my Buffalo tempeh “wings,” (with raw-cashew-nutritional yeast sauce), but whatever, the Hawks won! They didn’t just win, they obliterated. Now everyone is celebrating in Seattle, with a few people climbing on Walk/Don’t-Walk sign posts and setting couches on fire. And why shouldn’t they? It’s not like every day we win a Super Bowl. Plus, couches in Seattle are pretty flammable, since they’re usually made from recycled paper and organic hemp fiber.

I was planning to write on a completely different topic, but I’m too excited to think about anything other than how awesome the Seahawks are. So here are some lessons we in nonprofit could learn from Super Bowl XLVIII and the Seahawks in general. My apologies if you don’t care much about football, or if you’re a Broncos fan. This will probably be the only football-related Nonprofit With Balls post, unless the Seahawks make it to the Super Bowl again (and they will).

Lesson 1: A strong defense will usually beat a strong offense. The Broncos and Seahawks kick ass in offense and defense, respectively. Historically, when that happens, defense always wins. That’s because a strong defense can prevent the other team from scoring, but you can also intercept, take possession and reverse your opponents’ momentum.

How we can apply this to nonprofit work: Have your defensive infrastructure in place, like a strong board, organizational insurance, clear financial management procedures, an emergency succession plan, some aloe plants on the windowsill for minor burns, etc.

Lesson 2: It’s not the size or image, it’s how you play. The Seahawks team was seen as too young and inexperienced, compared to the decorated Broncos, and, at 5’11” and 203 pounds, Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson looks in comparison to other beefier players like some scrawny vegan who should be at home eating organic vegan Buffalo tempeh wings. But he and the Hawks are quick, smart, and focused. Maybe being looked down on meant Seattle had something to prove, and that worked in our favor.

How we can apply this to nonprofit work: Just because an organization is experienced and well-established, doesn’t mean it should rest on its laurels. Small organizations, because we are smaller, can often be more effective due to our agility and scrappiness. Don’t you ever talk about us small organizations!

Lesson 3: Stop talking and do stuff. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was fined $50,000 by the NFL for breaking his contractual agreement to talk to the media. Dude, the guy is a football player. His job is to kick butt on the field. And he is good at that. He is no talk and all action.

How we can apply this to nonprofit work: We do a lot of talking and planning (strategic plans, advisory committees, research papers, summits, etc.) Sometimes we should channel Beast Mode and shut up and do stuff.

Lesson 4: Stop forcing people to do stuff they’re not good at. While we’re on Marshawn, what kind of ridiculous rule is that, to require all players to give daily interviews? The dude is obviously uncomfortable on camera, so leave him alone. He is good at other things. Like breaking people’s ankles.

How we can apply this this to nonprofit work: Find where people’s talents are, and have them focus on that. Sure, we should all step outside our comfort zone from time to time and develop new skills, but find the balance. Specifically: VFA staff, stop forcing me to be in promotional videos. I hate being in videos. On most days I look like I’ve been run over by a taco truck and may actually scare off potential donors. I’d rather tackle people. Literally; there are a few people in the nonprofit field I’d love to tackle down to the ground.

Lesson 5: Miscues and early mistakes are deadly. The Broncos did not start out well at all. Within seconds of starting on offense, Manny Ramirez snapped the ball over Peyton Manning’s head into the end zone, resulting in a safety and points for the Hawks. During postgame interview, Ramirez said he thought he heard Manning’s signal to snap the ball. That mistake that early in the game dealt a crushing psychological blow to the Broncos that they never recovered from.

How we can apply this to nonprofit work: Clear communication–between staff, between board, between staff and board, between bored board, and between boring staff–is critical. A single miscommunication could really affect an organization.

Lesson 6: Don’t let miscues and mistakes be deadly. On the same note though, the Seahawks, playing against the 49ers in the championship game a couple of weeks ago, also lost possession within seconds of the game. It was painful. But they didn’t let that affect their morale. They continued playing and recovered. This didn’t seem to happen with the Broncos. By halftime, they looked defeated, shaking their heads, staring at the ground, likely wishing they had gone into nonprofit work instead of professional sports.

How we can apply this to nonprofit work: We, and our organizations, screw up all the time. Learn from mistakes, move on. Just because our mistakes could result in the loss of funding and thus services for thousands of clients who need them, it doesn’t mean we should let that affect our morale and game play.

Lesson 7: Teamwork is critical. Seattle’s teamwork was awesome. Offense, defense, special teams were all in sync. Like Richard Sherman said in a post-game interview, “I am the best Cornerback in the Universe! Don’t you ever try me, or I will devour you like Marshawn devours Skittles!” All right, he didn’t actually say that. He said, “It was a total team effort: The back end, the linebackers, the d-line, everybody did their parts today.”

How we can apply this to nonprofit work: For nonprofits to be successful, all components of the team need to work well together: Admin, Development, Programming. This is especially important for many of our organizations, where Admin is also Programming, and Development is also Janitorial, and Programming is also Marketing, etc.

Lesson 8: Turnovers are demoralizing. That’s when a team loses possession of the ball when they have it, and the other team has a chance now to score. The Hawks were able to gain four turnovers; the Broncos none.

How we can apply this to nonprofit work: We use the term “turnover” to refer to new staff or board members when they leave and new people come in, so it’s different than in football, but the effects are the same: Momentum is lost, people feel like crap. So try to keep your team happy and avoid turnovers.

Finally, Lesson 9: Fake it until you make it, and learn stuff along the way. I actually don’t know much about football, but look, I just talked about it as if I do! Ahaha, and you read this entire post!

How we can apply this to nonprofit work: Sometimes we don’t have the skills or experience in something, like public speaking or writing a press release or grant or talk to an intimidating program officer of a huge foundation. Don’t sit on the sideline. Go learn crap and try things out. I had to google all sorts of stuff. I’ve learned more about football these past few weeks than I had ever cared to, and you know what, it’s kind of fun.

All right, there are bunch of other lessons for us to learn (for example, puppies and horses can be friends, thus teaching us all that organizations of different sizes and missions can be effective partners; etc.), but I’m exhausted, and it’s 2:00am. I need to go to bed. The staff will be so happy tomorrow. The Seahawks are awesome. I hope they all get raises. I’m going to take my team out for lunch to celebrate. We’ve budgeted $2.50 per person.

  • Liz Murtaugh Gillespie

    I love all your posts, Vu. But man, you really made my Monday with this one. The advice I’ll be taking today: “Sometimes we should channel Beast Mode and shut up and do stuff.”

    • Thanks, Liz! I haven’t been a huge follower of football, but I’ve been inspired by Beast Mode and the rest of the team. Go Hawks!

      • Liz Murtaugh Gillespie

        I’m with you, Vu. I can’t watch more than 5 minutes of football without asking WTF is that penalty all about? 3rd and how many? This team, though … they’ve got something captivating going on. What an amazing moment for this city of ours.

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  • Leah Lee

    Exactly! Leave The Beast alone and let him do what he does best. Beast Mode!

    • I think we should all be more Beast Mode-y in nonprofit, and in life in general.

  • Dana Arviso


  • Lorraine Thomas

    Vu, you are the gift that keeps on giving. Forwarding this to my board now. (Who are all giddy as hell because we had a bet with our counterparts at the Denver Fisher House and now they have to provide a buffalo steak dinner for our guests and we don’t have to do anything!) Oh, what a lovely, lovely day.

    • Thanks, Lorraine, and you are the commenter who keeps on making my day brighter. Enjoy your buffalo steak. I’ll eat some tempeh wings with you in spirit.

  • LongmontKathy

    I hate this piece because I am a Bronco fan. However, I would like your vegan wings recipe.

    • Sorry, Kathy. Everyone in Seattle is ecstatic, but I can imagine how tough it would be for a Broncos fan. We were so depressed after our loss to the Steelers. http://cleangreensimple.com/2012/03/vegan-buffalo-wings/

      • LongmontKathy

        I can imagine! Since I’m being so grown up about, do I get to have your recipe? 😉

  • Liahann Bannerman

    Vu. This is absolutely brilliant. Especially #3. Now if only the average nonprofit had a budget equal to an NFL players annual salary…

    • Thanks, Liahann! “Shut up and do stuff” has been my mantra this week. And I agree with you on the salary thing. It’s amazing that fans raised the $50,000 to pay for Marshawn’s fine for refusing to talk. Now, if we can channel that generosity into nonprofit work…

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