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.

Marketing and branding are not my expertise, and you should take everything I say with that in mind. However, I think our field has become significantly confused and/or distracted by these concepts, especially the younger professionals, who are extremely tech-savvy and image conscious. One of my staff, for example, was complaining about how absolutely awful our last business card design was.

“Vu,” she said, “someone else came to our open house, and they had the exact same design as ours!”

Oh, the horrors! We showed up to a party with the exact same business card template design as someone else! I could die of embarrassment! We will never be able to show our faces at a collective impact meeting again. Our reputation is ruined! No one will ever donate to or collaborate with us now that we have committed such a grave marketing faux pas! 

The old business card design was simple. It was plain and boring. It had all the relevant information in an easy-to-read format in Arial font. It was effective; I could see why another organization would also choose it. 

The staff, all brilliant, and I often differ on this stuff, which I call the branding trap. For instance, I thought our last website was fine. It was plain and boring, but it had all the information anyone needed laid out in a boring but functional way, and it was updated regularly. But they insisted on a makeover, and the new website does look better, with rotating pictures, and drop-down menus. But I’m not convinced that it increased our traffic at all. In fact, I think it may have decreased it, since the bells and whistles lulled us into a sense of security, which meant we were updating less often. A C+ website that is easy to navigate and regularly updated with interesting contents will ALWAYS beat an A+ looking one that is neglected and is too complicated. Think of Craigslist, arguably the ugliest website on the internet, and yet it is also the one of the most popular.

I recently attended a workshop by the hilarious and knowledgeable marketing guru Erica Mills. She showed us the three “Brand Gears,” which are visual (logo, website, brochures, etc.), narrative (mission statement, elevator pitch, etc.), and experiential (how people experience your organization). Erica had some great advice that I’ll be trying, like don’t sound like a robot, don’t talk too much, and stop using “provide” in your mission statement or she will fly to your nonprofit and personally beat you with a thesaurus.  

But we focus way too much on the first two gears. I think this last gear, experiential, is the most important, and sometimes it is neglected because it seems more tangible and productive and cooler to focus on the first two gears. And thus we have some nonprofits that have amazing visuals and messages. Their brochures make you weep with envy. Their websites seem to have been built by elves. Their logos remind you of a long-lost afternoon from your childhood. They would never make such a fatal mistake as carrying the same business card design as another person to a party. But their offices are like fortresses, it’s impossible to meet with anyone, staff speak in soft whispers after looking around to make sure no one is listening, and in the distance, faintly, are the soft murmurs of someone weeping.

When it comes to branding, all of us need to remember that shiny brochures and suavely spoken pitches don’t mean much if people have crappy experiences with our organizations. 

At my nonprofit, VFA, we have a motto: SU/FU. A good brand, personal or organization, must always start with these two things. They stand for “Show Up, Follow Up.”

Show Up:

    • Are you and your staff warm, friendly, approachable, and human?
    • Do you respond to your emails and voicemails and texts?
    • Do you and your team have a good sense of humor?
    • When people drop by, are they greeted and do they feel welcomed?
    • Do you attend other organizations’/team members’ events?
    • Are you seen around the community?
    • When talking to people, are you present, or are you thinking about the last episode of Game of Thrones?
    • Do you remember people’s names and details about their work, family, and interests?
    • Do you go out of your way to support people when they need help?
    • Do you seem excited and passionate about your work?

Follow up:

    • Do you do the stuff you say you will do?

If you have the SU and the FU both down, I could care less what your organization’s logo or business cards or letterhead looks like, or whether you say too many “ums” when you talk about your mission, or whether your website has enough pictures. Those things, when done well, are bonuses. Same thing with the personal brand: Whatever you what your personal brand to be—mine is to be a sexy vegan nonprofit ninja—make sure your SU and FU are strong. If they are not, work on them before you do anything else. In fact, if your FU is not strong, having strong visuals and narratives creates dissonance and draws the ire of others, because few things in life are as irritating as a stylish and sweet-talking but flaky person or organization.

Anyway, going back to the baby. He has always been a musical baby, starting to dance when he was six months old. This is probably because I feed him a steady stream of 90’s Hip-Hop. So it is no wonder that his destiny is to be a musician. However, I think he may have also fallen into the branding trap. The maraca was by far the most colorful item on the tray, and it made a lot of noise. Its branding was good, so to speak.

But people are not babies. We need to give them some credit. They will not always be attracted to the shiniest object. I think most tend to most gravitate toward us simple, down-to-earth individuals and organizations who show up and follow through.

And as my son will find out, being a musician, while rewarding, is also challenging, and you don’t make much money doing it unless you’re really lucky. He should have chosen the plain unicorn card and entered the lucrative field of nonprofit like his father.

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.

***

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.”

***

Why did the founding board member cross the road?

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

***

An ED was walking through the woods when he ran into a unicorn, who said, “I am a magical fundraising unicorn, and now that you have stumbled on me, I will grant you three wishes.” “First,” said the ED, “I want Bill Gates on my board.” “Done,” said the unicorn. “Second,” said the ED, “I want an endowment fund of $10million.” “Also done,” said the unicorn. “Third,” said the ED, “I want all funders to provide general operating support,” and at that moment, he woke up and realized he had fallen asleep while writing a 10-page grant for a restricted $5,000.

***

Staff at a nonprofit came into work to find that their office had been broken into and many things stolen.

“Oh no,” said the ED, “we got a check for a major donation at the event last night, and it was so late I thought we would deposit it today. I hope the thieves didn’t get it.”

“No worries,” said the Finance Director, “I put it some place no one would ever look in a million years.” He came back a moment later with the check.

“Where did you put it?” the ED asked.

“In a copy of our strategic plan.”

***

A nonprofit staff went on a blind date. At the end of the dinner, her date said, “OK, here’s how this works. I need you to pay for this meal. Then I will reimburse you for it. However, I can’t pay for the drinks or appetizers or the sales tax or the tips. And the check will take 4 to 16 months to arrive.”

“All right, fine,” she said, “remind me what do you do again?”

“I work in government. Contracting department.”

***

An ED decided to get an executive coach. “OK,” said the coach during their first session, “this month I want you to try spending more time on the balcony.” The next month the ED came back glowing. “I did what you said. I spent more time thinking about strategies and less time on day-to-day tasks. And everything is so much better.” “Great,” said the coach, “This month I want you to try flipping your iceberg.” The next session, the ED came back glowing. “I did it! I flipped my iceberg and focused on using skills that I was rusty on. And everything is so much better!” “Great,” said the coach, but she was running out of metaphors. She decided to make some up. “This month,” she said, “I want you to, uh, lasso a leprechaun, ride the T-Rex, and tickle the badger.” The next session, the ED came back looking sad. “What’s wrong?” asked the coach. “Well, I did what you suggested. I hired a Development Director, and that was great. We put on an annual event, and that was great. But then I joked with our founding board member about revising our mission statement…”

***

An ED, a Director of Operations, a Development Director, a Communications Director, a Program Director, and a Volunteer Director walk into a bar. Best retreat ever!

***

For more jokes, see “8 classic nonprofit jokes to tell at parties.”

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…

Who moved my unicorn: Adaptive versus Technical challenges in the nonprofit field

vunicorn2Day 3 of the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). Thank you, Medina Foundation, for this scholarship so I can participate in this program. I am learning all sorts of interesting and useful stuff. For example, don’t eat nine pounds of potatoes before a 3-hour discussion on measurements and evaluations. Kidding, kidding!

A very useful concept that we have learned is the concept of Technical challenges versus Adaptive challenges. Good leaders must understand to differentiate one from the other, and oftentimes we totally suck at doing that. Technical problems are simpler and usually have apparent solutions. Adaptive challenges are so much more complicated and involve human beings and their emotions and crap like that.

“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems,” says Ron Heifetz in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, and I am beginning to see that as leaders and as a society we all do this all the time. For example, a while ago, a friend gave me a unicorn poster. I put it up on the wall next to my desk, and the unicorn looked down at me and inspired me to do my work. One day I came to the office, and the unicorn poster was gone! I asked a staff about it, and they said there wasn’t enough Velcro tape for it to stick to the brick wall, and that’s why the unicorn fell and had to be moved to the corner. But this was my unicorn, and I didn’t like it being mishandled and moved around because it was a really cool and rare unicorn poster with significant emotional value and I was used to it being where I left it.

All right, fine, shut up. Here’s a better example. Let’s say you have a program that teaches kids confidence and creativity through cooking. The program, however, is not financially solvent and has been causing the organization to lose money as it operates. The technical solution is to shut down this program. Simple, right? Of course not. “We are leading a blood-and-guts organization with real emotions inside it,” said our instructor, Professor Stephen Page. Staff and volunteers and participants of this program have likely put blood, sweat, and tears into their cooking. Which is probably why their dishes always come out so salty, ahahaha.

All kidding aside, think of the people involved with this program that we are cutting. They are invested in it, this is their baby, and this is a huge change. Change always involves loss, and when there is a loss, there are the stages of grieving, including denial and anger and bargaining and sadness and only at the end is there acceptance. “What is technical to us may be adaptive to someone else,” we learned, and a leader who only sees the technical side of a problem may totally screw up.

Leaders must understand the difference between what is technical and what is adaptive.

We see this misdiagnosis-and-thus-mistreatment (MTM) all over the field though, on larger scales. For example, “Huh, we don’t have enough people of color on our board, and 80% of our clients come from communities of color. Let’s ask a couple of POCs to coffee and talk them to joining our board.” That solves the technical problem and totally misses the point, which is that the organization must adapt and figure out why people of color are not on the board in the first place, what the obstacles are, what the privileges and power dynamics are, etc.

God, this happens all the time, I now realize, and it is annoying at best and absolutely horrendous at worst, perpetuating terrible and crappy systems. A while ago I wrote this post on an awful grant that low-income schools are forced to write. The MTM here is “Oh look, these poor schools need resources. Let’s provide them funding. But wait, with so many schools in need, how should we fairly distribute the money? Let’s make them write 30-page narratives each, and the school with the best written applications should get the funding.” So simple. So technical. And totally screwed up (Schools wih the most needs probably don’t have the resources to write competitive 30-page grants. And forcing struggling schools into a Hunger Games-like battle is fundamentally wrong).

If we truly want to help low-income schools succeed, we must think of it as an adaptive challenge. That means we have to reexamine our beliefs and systems and way of doing things. We cannot reduce blood-and-guts kids and families and communities to technical numbers and rating scales.

Technical fixes are so much quicker and easier to explain and implement, which is why our society loves them so much. But they only work for technical problems. If a plant looks droopy, you water it. If the roof is leaking, you slather some tar on it, stick a shingle on, staple it, and cover with duct tape (Or whatever; I don’t know anything about fixing roofs). We in nonprofits face far more complicated problems, and probably 90% of them are adaptive, not technical. Within our own organizations, we could have change in leadership, or staff turnover, or inactive boards, or a multitude of other challenges, and it is critical for leaders to recognize the adaptive elements and take actions accordingly.

But we must also pay attention to the bigger challenges that we are trying to address as a field. Too often our society treats problems (homelessness, hunger, poverty, low-performing schools, gentrification, racism, etc.) as technical challenges and implements technical solutions when they are far more complicated and requires getting people and systems to change and adapt. Sometimes, facing the complexity of adaptive societal challenges, we turn to technical solutions because they are better than the alternative of doing nothing. Let’s make poor schools write 30-page grants! Let’s get a woman to join our board! Let’s get two organizations led by communities of color to apply to join our coalition! Let’s form a collective impact backbone organization! Let’s put all our funds into collective impact even at the cost of vital direct services!

We need to understand these challenges better, because unlike me and my awesome unicorn poster, our kids and families and communities cannot be helped with some additional Velcro tape, no matter how well-meaning.

Help, I suck at time management!

time-mngmtHi everyone. This is not going to be a high-quality post, because I spent many, many hours this weekend watching House of Cards on Netflix. Darn you, Frank Underwood, you creepy, effective bastard and your ruthlessly efficient wife! Now it is 12:30am and I am only beginning to work on this post, which is really more like a cry for help. I was going to skip writing this week, but I want to set a good example for my son, who is now 10-months-old. “Son,” I told him today while he was snuggled up on my lap, “always be consistent, sometimes even at the cost of quali—what…what is that in your mouth?! Is that a paperclip?! Ack! Where did you get this paperclip?! Spit that out! Spit it out right now! Stop squirming! Open your mouth! No! You can’t eat this paperclip! Stop biting Daddy! OW!”

So let’s talk about time management. We are all incredibly busy people. Helping make the world better takes a lot of time. I am always amazed at the people who can manage their time well. They tend to be morning people, and they wake up at 5am to do some yoga and drink a green smoothie made from wheatgrass and hemp oil or something before heading to the office by 7am and they’re all like “I feel so good because I exercised this morning, and wheatgrass is soooo good for you.” If you are one of these people, I admire and hate you in equal measures.

I am not one of these people. Before the baby came along, I woke up at 9:30am and got to the office at 10am. Then I’d work until whenever, coming home anywhere from 6pm to 10pm. That seems like a solid 8 to 12 hours per day, except those hours are not efficient. Maybe 5 hours was spent doing actual work. The rest would be filled with reading the news, arguing with various people about the Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, and looking at pictures of cute baby animals. Then, at home, feeling awful that I didn’t get much accomplished, I would put in several hours at night—unless TBS has a marathon of The Golden Girls, because, come on, those girls, Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia are hilarious!

Now that the baby is here, time is even scarcer. My emails are going crazy, I have way too many meetings, and I haven’t been sleeping enough. I must get a handle on things. A while ago I wrote about the four different work styles. Some of us are Dragons, some are Unicorns, others are Phoenix, and others are Lion-Turtles. Reading that post again, I realized that they each handle time management differently:

Dragons are probably the best time managers, since they are action-oriented and are hard set on deadlines. They don’t like excuses. If you say you’re going to do something, you better do it, or a Dragon will set your hair on fire. Quality may sometimes be debatable, but stuff will get done.

Phoenixes will commit to just about anything because they get bored easily and need to work on a billion things all at once. But then they get distracted by shiny new projects and drop balls left and right. They are poor time managers but because they’re usually charismatic, the rest of us tend to let it slide.

Lion-Turtles take forever to think about things because they need everything to be absolutely perfect. They are systematic and organized with their time. They, like the Dragons, are deadline-driven and high-quality, but they need plenty of lead time in order to analyze and think about everything.

Unicorns are considerate and want to be helpful, so they’ll often spend time on other people’s projects even at the cost of doing their own work. They put people before time, and they overcommit. So if a coworker is feeling down, they’ll drop their own work to cheer that person up. In other words, they also suck at time management.

Crap, I think I am a Phoenix-Unicorn hybrid, the two worst time-managers among the four styles. Dragons are awesome this area, followed by Lion-Turtles (I think Frank and Claire in House of Cards are these two styles respectively). I had planned to write a post called “10 Time Management Tips for Busy Nonprofit Peeps,” but I don’t think I am qualified to dish advice on something I pretty much suck at.

So, I need your help. What strategies do you use to manage your time? There are tons of time-management tips out there. They all make sense. “Tip 1: Make a To-Do list. Tip 2: Prioritize your list. Tip 3: Do the stuff on your list.” But it’s not that simple! To-do lists work for some people. Plus, we nonprofits are all understaffed, so we default to the Competency Paradox, which states that the more competent you are, the more work you get. Things are getting out of control! It’s 1:45am and the baby wakes up in 5 hours!

Let me know what works for you, and what style you are. You can type it in the comment section. Or if you’re free this week, I’d be glad to get coffee or a drink to talk about it for several hours.

Nonprofit professionals: You are each a unicorn

unicorn2

Hi everyone, happy Valentine’s Day. I know today is a day for romantic couples and Hallmark stockholders, but I want to use this opportunity to say how awesome you are. Yes, you. You are awesome. And I am not sure that you realize it.

The more I work in this field, the more amazed and inspired I am by the people in it. You are some of the smartest people I know. You could choose to pursue work elsewhere for much better pay and prestige. But you are here in this field fighting each day to lift up our families and strengthen our communities. You are awesome because you know that awful things in the world do not stop happening when we don’t think about them. You chose this work and stick around because you believe that if we want to make the world better, we can’t wait around for Fate or other people to take care of things.

The work is never easy, and we put up with a lot of crap, and in the quest to help end homelessness or child abuse or school drop-out, to make elders feel less lonely, to expose kids to art and music, to make the world greener, to change unfair policies, to undo the forces of racism and homophobia and sexism and oppression, and overall to make the world better, we sometimes forget to stop to appreciate ourselves and give ourselves and each other some credit.

So today, Valentine’s Day, I just want to say that you are each a unicorn to me.

To the program staff who are on the front line helping clients, who stay late in the evenings and weekends to tutor a student or serve a hot meal to the hungry or comfort the lonely, you are each a unicorn.

To the development professionals who stuff thousands of letters, make dozens of calls per week, write grants, lead program tours, coordinate special events, and generally keep the organization afloat, you are each a unicorn.

To the admin staff who spend endless energy herding cats and putting out fires, who wake up in cold sweat after having nightmares about the budgets and HR policies and being able to make payroll this month, you are each a unicorn.

To the social justice activists and advocates who stand on the sidewalks in the cold to gather signatures and to push for better laws, who sometimes get arrested for civil disobedience in the name of equity, you are each a unicorn.

To the office management staff who keep the lights on and file paper and manage people’s schedules and check the mail and pay the bills and answer phone calls, you are each a unicorn.

To the volunteer managers who wrangle the best out of people, to get them to pull up blackberry brambles and pick up litter and mentor kids, and make them feel appreciated so they come back and do it again, you are each a unicorn.

To the marketing and communication staff, who are keeping the fires alight so others can see the importance of our work, so the world can see the people whom we see every day, you are each a unicorn.

To the community organizers and community builders who get people to talk to one another, to help them realize their individual and collective power, to get neighbors to be more neighborly, you are each a unicorn.

I know I might have forgotten some people. Thank you for all that you do. Today, take a moment to give yourself some credit. You are a unicorn. A smart and charming and good-looking unicorn who is helping to make the world better. Take a moment to tell your colleagues that they are a unicorn to you.

Then, go home early and try not to work this weekend. Injustice and inequity will still be there to do battle with you after President’s Day. You deserve a break, you awesome unicorn you.

Body language basics for nonprofit professionals

CatapultaIn this field, we deal with people a lot. In fact, over 80% of my work is attending meetings. (Of the remainder, 20% is spent emailing and 10% is spent cowering under my desk, rocking and shaking, staring at our budget, wondering why it wouldn’t balance). Considering that at least half of our communication is nonverbal, it is shocking how little we pay attention to body language. But body language is awesome, and learning even the basics will give you a leg up—ha! Body language joke!—at the next site visit or presentation or board meeting.

So today I am going to delve into some of the signals that I have been studying. It is good for you to learn a few of them so you can better interpret people’s moods and emotions, and also for you to be cognizant of your own body language so you can better communicate.

Continue Reading…

Final observations on Europe before we get back to unicorns and wombats

cuppolaHi everyone, sorry for the lateness of this post. I was traveling back from Berlin. It is good to be back in Seattle, though I am jetlagged and look kind of like someone just punched me in both eyes. Today I realized I have lost 5 pounds, which gives me a great idea: The Vegan Balkans Diet! Basically, just become a vegan, then go to the Balkans.

Since I’m jetlagged and trying not to fall asleep until at least 9pm, I don’t know how coherent this post is going to be. Berlin, Germany was really great, except that people were kind of rude, saying things like “You do not have an account at this bank? Then no, you may not withdrawal money here” and “Stop! You can’t just try to break off a piece of the Berlin Wall at this museum!”

Continue Reading…

An Executive Director’s Self-Evaluation

Hi everyone. For the first time in my eight years with the organization, my board has decided to conduct a performance review. These are two words that send chills up and down every Executive Director’s spine, on par with “budget deficit” and “annual event.” The board had a clandestine meeting three weeks ago to talk about my performance as an ED. Soon they will meet with me to deliver feedback.

I’m nervous. I just know they’re going to say something like, “Vu, you’ve developed a reputation as a drunkard and a loudmouth. That’s affecting VFA’s image. We need you to stop mixing drinks at work. Also, funders are saying you’ve been dressing up as Oliver Twist during site visits and literally begging for money.”

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The Sustainability Question, Why it is So Annoying

sustainabilityThis morning, I woke up early and realized I was face-to-face with my son, Viet, who has been sleeping in the same bed with his mom and me. Looking at our sweet little baby, who was still sleeping peacefully, one tiny hand under his soft and rosy cheek, I was filled with warm fatherly thoughts. Namely: “When is this kid going to get a job and help pay for his keep?” I was tempted to wake him up and say, “You do realize that childcare for you each month is literally more than our mortgage, right? You better enjoy this while you can, little dude, because when you turn 18, you’re on your own.”

And that makes me think about the issue of sustainability of nonprofit programs. In every grant application, there is the “Sustainability Question,” which is basically, “How will you sustain this program or project when funding from the So-and-So Foundation runs out?” This seems absolutely reasonable at first glance, but honestly, it’s one of the most annoying questions we face. Most of us nonprofit professionals absolutely hate this question, and each time we see it, we have to leave our desk, go on a walk, maybe do some yoga or watch “The Daily Show,” then come back to our desk, take a deep breath, and write something  like:

“We will continue to develop our staff and board’s ability to fundraise and diversify our revenues, including building relationship with other funders, as well as cultivating support from corporate sponsors and individual donors. Our special events continue to increase in revenues, and the board is leading the effort to explore earned income through program fees and the door-to-door sales of inspiring macaroni artwork made by the children in our extended-learning program.”

All of that is basically a euphemism for “We will leave you alone and bother other people.”

“Just once,” said my ED friend, Director Maureen, “here’s what I’d like to put in response to that question:”

  • Program staff and the board will triple the amount of time they spend praying for money
  • Program participants will be asked to pray for money to provide for their services as well
  • 10% of general operating funds will be utilized to purchase Power Ball lottery tickets
  • Fund development staff will regularly consult a reputable psychic to help track which direction foundations are trending to support

Why is this question so aggravating? Why does every time I answer it, I feel like crap? I sent out an email to my ED friends in the field, asking for their thoughts, and the responses were passionate and insightful. While the issue is complex and requires a lot more time to explore, I’ll try my best to summarize my colleagues’ thoughts. Overall, the Sustainability Question is annoying and frustrating because:

Sustainability is in large part determined by funders, not nonprofits. As much as we love individual donors, many of us still rely on grants, and grants are usually small and one-year in duration. We get a bunch of one-year grants that are Frankensteined together to support programs, each one with their own set of demands and restrictions, (which I explored here in “Nonprofit Funding: Ordering a Cake and Restricting it Too.”). As one ED puts it, “Why is fidelity to the mission so highly valued and expected of nonprofit leaders and staff but funders expect to ‘sleep around?‘ One year and you’re out. [They] don’t even come back and ask.” This lumbering, unwieldy, tenuous system is the antithesis of sustainability, so to be asked how we will maintain and grow our programs within it is kind of like setting a fire and asking how we will be putting it out.

Sustainability depends on the whole organization being strong, yet funders do not like providing general operating funds. Really great programs do not magically appear out of thin air. It takes real people, people who need, like, an office to work at and healthcare for their stress and carpal tunnel and stuff. These things are critical, and yet we have to constantly fight for them. “We will cultivate relationships with individual donors and corporate sponsors, etc.” sounds great, but that requires development staff, which is fundraising, and no one likes to fund “fundraising” and “admin” expenses, because those things are so frivolous and useless.

The nonprofit model is unique in that success at carrying out our missions leads to increasing costs, not revenues. The more successful programs are, the more clients they will serve, the more staff and other expenses will increase, without a proportionate increase in support. An example is VFA’s Saturday English School (SES) program, which provides English and Math support to recent-arrival immigrant and refugee students every Saturday for three hours. Five years ago, we had 30 students show up each session. Because of how awesome the program is, we now have over 150 students each session. This is a five-fold increase in number of students served. The expenses tripled, since more students means more snacks, more teaching staff, more curriculum material, etc. But funders are not going to triple the amount they provide; if we’re lucky, they’ll renew at the same level, and we’ll have to go search for other, newer funders to provide support. This is the Program Growth Paradox, where the more a program is successful and expands, the less sustainable it is.

Other reasons cited by my ED colleagues include “we know very, very well that not every program that literally changes people’s lives for the better can become self-sustaining” (but should be funded anyway, see “Nonprofit’s Ultimate Outcome: Bringing Unicorns Back to Our World“), “I have no clue where my future funds will come from so everything I say sounds like BS” and “after five or more friggin pages of explaining just HOW MUCH you need the bucks, you are now invited to totally reverse yourself” and “I will think about this and get back to you after I have several drinks to calm down.”

sustainability

Credit: James Hong, VFA’s Director of Operations

The most serious challenge with the Sustainability Question, however, is that it symptomatic of a divisive and patronizing system that perpetuates the unhealthy dichotomy of nonprofits as supplicants continually begging for spare change, and funders as benefactors. “How will YOU sustain this program? How will YOU sustain it after OUR funding that WE (might) give YOU runs out?” We now feel like the underemployed college-grad living in our parents’ basement, freeloading off of their good will, until they call us in for a serious talk about our future and demand to know what our plans are to find a job and inform us that it’s for our own good that in six months they will kick us out. We feel like Oliver Twist, who has to beg for another bowl of gruel from the…uh…that one guy, who serves…gruel…

OK, I haven’t read Oliver Twist.

The Sustainability Question is aggravating because the responsibility is overtly placed on nonprofits’ shoulders to fix problems in the world that we didn’t cause in the first place. Once the question is asked, “It immediately becomes somebody else’s problem,” writes one of my ED friends.  It feels like funders are at the end of their ropes trying to “help” us nonprofits and if we fail to sustain our work, it is all our fault. This is not working for our field.

Every once in a while I meet a program officer who used to be a nonprofit staff. “Ah,” they sometimes reminisce, “I miss being on that side of the table.” And I would say, “Tell me what it’s like on your side of the table?” And we would talk, and I would learn that being on the other side of the table has its challenges, and that it’s not all completely awesome, with ergonomic chairs and dental AND vision insurance and with each person getting access to the company unicorn to ride to important meetings.

But that makes me think, Why the heck are we on opposite sides of the table in the first place? Aren’t we all trying to solve the same problems? Why is the relationship between funders and nonprofits so adversarial? It is ineffective. We should be on the same team, where the quarterback supports the…uh, linebacker so that he can make a, um, rim shot at the…fourth inning…

All right, I don’t know anything about sports. Point is, nonprofits and funders must be equal partners, with different but symbiotic roles, and sustainability of the work must be shouldered by both parties. We nonprofits think all the time about sustainability, even without being prompted, and we will continue to build strong programs and diversify our funding. Funders, as equal partners, should provide multi-year funds, general operating funds, capacity building assistance, and help connect us to other funders and partners. And come visit the programs once a while! We must work together to figure out how to sustain and advance the work. We have to, because the needs of and challenges facing our communities are only going to increase.

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More on funder-fundee relationships: The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildlings, and White Walkers