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…

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…

The Downward-Facing Budget and other nonprofit yoga poses

We in nonprofit work a lot and oftentimes neglect important things. Like flossing. And exercise. There are many benefits of yoga, which are the ancient practices of training your mind, body, and spirit. Now, you may be thinking, “I don’t have time for yoga; I have an important grant to write.” Well, even a few minutes a day can be extremely helpful to get you more relaxed and productive. Here are a few yoga positions inspired by nonprofit work that you can do today. Do not exert yourself if you are a yoga beginner. Try one or two poses each week, and increase the variety as you advance. Also, if your office can’t afford air conditioning this summer, all the better, because hot yoga is even more beneficial. Continue Reading…

Some reflections on my old job before I start my new job

mariachiHi everyone, I realized that last Friday was my last day as Executive Director of my organization. Today’s post may be rambly and a little sentimental, reflecting on nine years at an organization that I love. Please indulge me this week, and next week we will be back to nonprofit hilariousness (such as “Lessons we nonprofits can learn from ‘Naked and Afraid’,” a totally awesome show with much to teach us, such as if your staff or board is naked in the wilderness—maybe as a very creative retreat—the first thing you should do is make some basic undergarments for your team out of grass or leaves, since there may be leeches.) Continue Reading…

If You Give a Board Treasurer a Cookie, and other classic children’s books about nonprofit work

Guess-How-Much-I-Love-You-The-Adventures-Of-Little-Nutbrown-HareLast week I survived giving a keynote speech at the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) conference in Yakima. The speech, delivered to over 600 smart and good-looking people, was called “Unicorns, Equity, and General Operating Funds: Quest of the Nonprofit Warrior.” It was 30 minutes long and filled with unicorn jokes, and so I’ll spare you and break it into smaller chunks on this blog over time.

Today, I want to talk about children’s books. I am so sick of these children’s books that my one-year-old makes me read each day. You try to see how charming “Guess How Much I Love You” is after the 80th time! All right, nutbrown hares, we get it, you love each other, great! And yes, brown bear, brown bear, you see a red bird, awesome, and red bird, red bird, you see a blue horse, wonderful. Continue Reading…

10 reasons nonprofit work is totally awesome

hummus2Hi everyone, I got feedback from my ED friend, Director Lee, that I spend too much time pointing out the challenges of the field and not enough time on the good stuff that happens. “Vu,” she wrote, “I am enjoying your posts. But you gotta talk about the good stuff too. We aren’t all scraping by and exhausted all the time. Sometimes it’s fun too!” All right all right, I’ll try to be more positive, starting with today’s post. Here are the top 10 reasons why our work is so totally awesome, like the best work ever on earth. They are in no particular order. Add your reasons for why you love nonprofit work in the comment section. Continue Reading…

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. Continue Reading…

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.

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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.”

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Why did the founding board member cross the road?

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

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…