Category Archives: Zombies

Yo mama is a double-dipper: Funders’ micromanaging of nonprofits must stop

yo-mama-so-u1m9g5In the nonprofit sector, there are few things as grave as “double-dipping.” DD is a no-good, very bad thing. In fact, I imagine if we had a nonprofit trash-talking contest, it would go like this:

Nonprofiteer 1: #yononprofitmama so inconsiderate, she attends a meeting and doesn’t sign in.

Audience: Oh! Burn!

Nonprofiteer 2: Oh yeah? Well, #yononprofitmama so inexperienced in finance, she doesn’t know the difference between a fiscal year and a calendar year.

Audience: Oh no! You didn’t just say that about his mother!

Nonprofiteer 1: #yononprofitmama so unethical, she asked a funder or donor to pay for something that is already paid for by another funder or donor, thus, she is therefore double-dipping.

Audience: (Stunned silence) Continue reading

10 lessons nonprofits can learn from The Walking Dead

TWDHi everyone. Happy Monday. The quality of this post may not be the highest today, because I just ate about a pound of chocolate while watching The Walking Dead and I’m kind of hyper. This show is awesome, but this season especially has been like as if someone filled a zombie-shaped piñata with pure awesomeness and whacked it with a titanium bat wrapped in tempeh-bacon. So it’s about time that we do a post about lessons we nonprofits can learn from this show.

The Walking Dead, about a world during the zombie apocalypse, has much to teach us nonprofits. Here are just a few of many lessons I’ve gleaned. But first:

SPOILER ALERT: If you are not up-to-date with TWD, and plan to be, stop reading this right now. Read something else, like 9 lessons from Breaking Bad we can apply to nonprofit work (“Lesson 4: Make sure your organization’s programs and services are as high in quality as Walter’s meth.”) If you’re not current with Breaking Bad either, then read 10 Game of Thrones quotes you can use at work (“You know all that from staring at marks on paper? You’re like a wizard.” Perfect when talking to your Treasurer.) If you haven’t been watching Game of Thrones either, then forget it, you’re hopeless. Go read “The New Yorker” and eat some “organic arugula” and “spend time with your family” or whatever it is that you weirdoes do. Continue reading

Nonprofit with Balls’s 100th post! Let’s celebrate by going home early.

unicorn sunsetHi everyone. This is Nonprofit With Ball’s historic 100th post. It is a momentous occasion. When I was a little boy growing up in a small village up in the mountains of Vietnam, my father said to me, “Son, we may be poor, but that does not mean we can’t accomplish great things. You are the smartest, most-talented, and, in certain very dim lighting, best-looking kid in our family. Bring honor to our name.” Well, look dad, I wrote 100 blog posts about nonprofits, many mentioning unicorns! I think our ancestors would be proud. They’re probably tweeting about it right now.

For this 100th post, I’m going to provide excerpts of some of my favorite early posts, the ones that you probably haven’t read because they’re so old. If this sounds very lazy, like those TV shows that do montages as a special episode (“Instead of writing a real episode, let’s spend 10 minutes looking at all the times that Joey said ‘How you doin’?’ and all the times that Ross acts like a completely unlikeable character”) you are right. But hey, this only happens every 100th blog posts; we’ll be back next week with new content. Here, read these posts below if you haven’t. And I think it’s only appropriate that we all go home early today in celebration. Continue reading

Marshall Fellowship Day 5: Lost in Beer and Chocolate

Disclaimer: Vu is on travels in Europe with the Marshall Memorial Fellowship and writing quality, general coherence, and spelling and grammar, may be affected by Belgian beer.

Mall where I got totally lost

Mall where I got totally lost

Day 5: I just returned to my hotel in Brussels after a fun and intense day that spanned from 8am this morning to 11:30pm. So far, Brussels has been an impressive city with beautiful architecture, friendly people, environmental conscientiousness, and a vibrant energy. Really, the only thing I can complain about is the toilet paper. Due to the city’s green-focus, the toilet paper at this very nice hotel is like no other, combining the softness of sawdust with the smoothness of sandpaper.

I’ll talk more about Brussels in a minute, but first I wanted to recapture the intense last few days. Day 2, DC, had us and the European fellows visit American University for a lecture on American culture from an amazing professor, who basically said that we in the US are rallied around the verb “to do.” We focus on actions. This is why when we first meet someone, we ask them right away what they do. We focus on individual accomplishments and earned status. We hate asking for charity, and that’s why we say things like “Can I borrow a cigarette?” On the opposite end of the spectrum are cultures rallied around the verb “to be,” where relationships, group accomplishments, and ascribed status take precedence over the individuals’ actions and merits. Europe, with its long history of royal families, fall further along on that end.

Continue reading

The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildlings, and White Walkers

wallLast week I wrote about the Sustainability Question and how it is symptomatic of an ineffective funding system where funders and nonprofits are not equal partners but more like frenemies. This apparently resonated with many readers, at least 138, since that’s how many people shared it on Facebook, and only 26 of those were from me mandating staff to do it. “Yeah, Vu, high-five!” said a colleague at a meeting, and we high-fived, which was tricky, since I was holding my 5-month-old baby Viet. We are doing a nanny-share with another Executive Director, but even with the split costs, we could only afford it four days a week, so on Fridays, we two EDs tote our babies around.

The post sparked some great conversations, especially around the challenges of communication between funders and nonprofits. “I call it the Wall of Philanthrophy,” said one of my ED friends. She painted the image of a physical wall between funders and nonprofits. “There is a tiny window in the wall, and every once a while it opens just a little bit, and maybe there is an exchange of ideas, but then it quickly closes, and it’s solid wall again.”

This reminds me of the Wall in the Game of Thrones. It is 700 feet tall, 300-mile-long wall made of solid ice to keep out the Wildlings, people who are regarded as primitive, cruel savages who have poor hygiene. The Wildlings live North of the Wall, a barren, desolate, cutthroat, and eternally wintery landscape that has very few good restaurants. Every once a while they try to cross the Wall and get South into the warm Seven Kingdoms, which are more civilized and you can go to the bathroom for more than two minutes without fear of frostbites and gangrene. While a Wildling or two sneak past the Wall here and there, in a thousand years not a single assault on the guarded Wall has succeeded.

Another unhygienic wildling asking for general operating

Another unhygienic wildling asking for general operating

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like nonprofit organizations and staff are like the Wildlings trying constantly to make it past the Wall. “Sound the alarms! There is a group of Wildlings at the base of the Wall, and they are chanting ‘General Operating Funds! General Operating Funds!’ Quick, prepare the hot oil!”

This Philanthropic Wall manifests itself in many ways:

  • After the site visit, we hardly see funders at programs and special events
  • Nonprofits are rarely invited to conferences and other important gatherings of funders
  • It takes anywhere from a week to nine years to get a hold of some funders, often when we are trying to get support for time-critical projects
  • Funders almost always refuse to join committees for projects initiated by nonprofits
  • Not a single funder accepted my invitation to 80’s-themed trivioke night, a combination of trivia and karaoke.

I don’t think I will be able to scale this wall in my lifetime, which is why I’ve been training my son Viet when I have him on Fridays, hoping that one day he will follow his father’s footsteps into nonprofit and continue the work. Instead of children’s stories, I’ve been reading strategic plans and annual reports to him. “One day, son, all funding will be general operating. I probably won’t be around to see that. Learn and grow strong and help to make that happen.”

Every once a while, though, there is a glimmer of hope. An Executive Director friend of mine said she was invited to a conference of funders to present her organization’s work. “Really?!” I said, nearly choking on a pluot, “you’re attending a conference of funders? No way!”

“Yeah,” she said, “but they made it amply clear that I am not to approach any of them to solicit funds. Actually, it was hinted that I shouldn’t talk much at all. In fact, I have to wear this scarlet N on my nametag to mark me as a Nonprofit.”

We nonprofits can understand why people feel that the distance between funders and nonprofits is necessary. After all, there are so many nonprofits, and funders should be fair and should not be playing favorites. However, the quest for objectivity and impartiality has led to an unhealthy adversarial system that has been harmful to the field. How can conferences to talk about funding structure and collective impact and other important stuff be effective when the people doing the direct service work and thus have first-hand knowledge of client and community needs are only marginally part of the conversation?

Plus, when there are insurmountable barriers to communication with funders, it just means that the nonprofits with the strongest relationships and connections make it through, finding support for their own projects. So many great ideas never get off the ground because many nonprofits leaders do not have the behind-the-scene connections with funders, and on the other hand, so many crappy ideas do get funded because someone knows someone who knows someone.

Funders have more power, and thus must take a larger share of the responsibility for perpetuating an ineffective system where we nonprofits spend much of our time trying to figure out how to survive instead of innovate. We have been at the base of the Wall chanting things like “general operating funds!” and “overhead is necessary” and “standardize your budget forms!” for a long time now, with little result.

But we nonprofits are not off the hook either. Like the Wildling tribes, we are constantly in competition for survival, which tends to happen when resources are scarce. We have to work together and support one another while simultaneously delivering common messages and proposed solutions. We can’t just keep grumbling at the base of the wall. We must unite.

white walkersWe must ALL unite. In the Game of Thrones the Wall wasn’t originally built to keep out Wildlings. They were just unlucky enough to be caught on that side when the Wall was built thousands of years ago to defend against the White Walkers, who are kind of like scary-as-hell evil ice mummies who could turn dead people and animals into evil ice zombies and the army of mummies/zombies went and killed everyone, Wildlings and civilized people alike, until they were driven back to their cold, wintery home and the Wall was built to keep them there. Winter is coming, it lasts whole generations, and the White Walkers are stirring once again.

The point is, there are greater threats out there—poverty, racism, violence, loneliness, war, inequity, oppression, homophobia, injustice, unaffordable childcare, hunger, illness, death, etc., the White Walkers of our nonfictional world—and we should be working together to defeat those things, not focusing so much of our time building and maintaining walls around ourselves and each other. Funders and nonprofits must communicate better and work in partnership more effectively.

How about we start by carpooling to the next trivioke night?

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Related Posts:

Collective Impact: Resistance is Futile

Site Visits: Uncomfortable, Yet Terrifying

The Most Crotch-Kickingly Craptastic Grant Application Notice Ever

Nonprofit Funding: Ordering a Cake and Restricting it Too