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

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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)

  • Suzanne Hoban

    As always, perfectly framed. And thanks for no spoilers, as I’m only on episode 5 of the new season. Anxiously awaiting analysis of Claire. . .

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      Thanks, Suzanne. Claire is some character. Scary and fascinating all at once.

  • http://mcahalane.com/ Mary Cahalane

    You are the best, Vu. My office mate is always wondering why I’m laughing out loud. She doesn’t hear my sobbing in commiseration though… I’ve learned to do that quietly.

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      Thanks, Mary. Sobbing quietly is a skill we all master. “Sob quietly, and carry a rock,” that’s my motto.

  • Lorraine Thomas

    Shoot. We just started watching “House of Cards” so I can’t read this. But thank you for the spoiler warning.

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      Sorry, Lorraine! Isn’t it a great show? There is so much to learn!

  • Lisa Haderlein

    Almost finished with Breaking Bad (two more episodes – it’s killing me that I have a board meeting tonight and will have to wait until Tuesday to watch the end). Anyway, House of Cards is next on deck. Kombucha Tea! Ha! One of my staff has “cleaned” the kitchen twice trying to make that stuff… (the jug exploded and it went everywhere). I’m hoping he used a Kombucha Bomb!

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      Kombucha Bomb, ahahahaha! That’s great. And it sounds like a great name for a rock band.

  • Nancy

    Kombucha tea is without doubt the deadliest of those options under #8.

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      Right? It’s like drinking a jar of vinegar! And what’s with the “mother” thing. It’s like some alien liquid.

  • RW

    Thank you for helping me get my Tuesday off to a good start! Love these and can’t wait to see what you say about Claire. She’s a piece of work. Of course, I work for a 501(c)(6) so Frank could easily be one of my board members if he weren’t a Congressman… I didn’t just say that out loud did I?

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      501c6?! I’ve never heard of that! I just Wikipediaed it, and apparently, it goes all the way up to 501c29! Crazy.

  • Suzanne Hoban

    The more I’ve thought about this, the more
    I think the characters are a bit mismatched. Francis would make a
    believable non profit director: he eats lunch at holes in the wall,
    frequents sketchy neighborhoods, and has to sometimes deal with donors who
    believe their money conveys on them the right to run the organization.
    Claire, on the other hand, is less believable as a non profit director.
    Really – how could she plunge the toilet in those shoes?

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      Good point, Suzanne. I tried plunging the toilet once while wearing high heels, and I can tell you that it was not efficient at all.