How the concept of effectiveness has screwed nonprofits and the people we serve

[Description: An adorable little light-brown hamster, with tiny feet, staring directly at the camera. Its little hands are clasped in front of it. This hamster has nothing to do with the content of this post. It’s just a cute hamster, because it’s Monday and you deserve a cute hamster. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Before we delve into today’s very serious topic, a quick announcement. January 12th is International Nonprofit Karaoke Throwdown Day! Here’s a blog post I wrote on why staff and boards of different nonprofits need to hang out more. Find a nonprofit or two in your area and challenge them to a #NonprofitKaraokeThrowdown. Here, I even crafted an invitation email for you:

“Hey [org(s)], Nonprofit AF has declared January 12th to be International Nonprofit Karaoke Throwdown Day, so we at [your org] challenge your staff and board to a singing contest. This is It, we’ll be Right Here Waiting for You, and Chances Are, You’re Going Down. Sorry Not Sorry.”

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about effectiveness. Last week, Kathleen Enright, the CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) wrote this thought-provoking article. Here’s an excerpt:

“[The] work to define effectiveness has typically come from white organizations – prominent consulting firms, think tanks, universities, philanthropy and management support organizations. These institutions – and I count GEO among them – have advanced ideas about effectiveness that have unwittingly perpetuated or even exacerbated inequity in the nonprofit sector.”

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A Call to Inaction: Nonprofits, Give Your Staff a Break

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Hi everyone. Once a while, I do a call to action. For example, if you haven’t written a review of a foundation on Grant Advisor lately, or encourage your grantees to do so, please do it! Grant Advisor is like a Yelp for foundations, and everyone who writes a review gets a basket of gluten-free mini muffins*! (*By gluten-free mini muffins, I mean the joy of advancing our sector by increasing transparency and decreasing power imbalance).

This time, though, I am making a call to inaction. I am giving my team and myself the entire week of Christmas off. If your organization can do it, I strongly recommend you to do that as well (or some alternatives to that, as discussed below). Here are several reasons why: Continue reading

Kids are the future? So are older adults!

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In college—Washington University in St. Louis. Yeah, go Bears!…If that’s still relevant!—I volunteered with the Campus Y and led a program called SAGE (Service Across GEnerations). We students would wake up early on Saturdays, hop on the school shuttle, and visit seniors at a nursing home. We played checkers and cards and talked to the seniors. There was Joyce, who enjoyed drawing penguins and who always called me Lou. And Mrs. Mosbey, a 90-year-old blind woman who listened to the radio and kept up with current affairs, who constantly ribbed me for being vegan. “You need to eat some meat,” she would say, “it’ll put some hair on your chest.”

As delightful as the visits were, it was extremely difficult to get other students to participate. Whereas the program where you read books to small children had over a hundred volunteers each day, SAGE always had just four to six of us. This was not from lack of trying. We had amazing posters! I remember how frustrating and demoralizing it was trying to convince other students to come along, to meet these incredible seniors. A one-hour visit would do so much to brighten their day. It was always a tough sell. No one wanted to spend time with seniors; it was much easier to ignore them and read to children. Continue reading

7 reasons I’m grateful for the nonprofit sector

[Image description: Two puppies—a pug and a golden retriever maybe?—and a kitten, with a Thanksgiving basket filled with pumpkins and pine cones and stuff, in front of a splotchy brown and grey background. I think this is a horribly Photoshopped picture. But oh well—puppies and a kitten! Image obtained from pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. It is Thanksgiving in the US this week, a time for us all to slow down, stuff our faces with food, and try to avoid getting into drunken arguments with our older brother, who is a successful real estate investor who is always like “blah blah I’m so successful, when are you going to find a real job, derp derpity derp you ridiculous hippie with your Tofurky blah blah derp derp get a haircut.”

OK, he doesn’t ever say that, but I know he’s thinking it.

It is also a time for us to reflect on the things for which we are grateful. It has been a rough year in the US and the world, and it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We have our work cut out for us. But I want to just take a moment today to express my gratitude to our sector and everyone in it. Here are some things I am thankful for, in no particular order:

We have kind and brilliant people: Nonprofit work is difficult AF, with the overhead BS and the clueless public looking down on us, among hundreds of challenges. It takes a certain type of badass to do it. That’s you. You’re an amazing unicorn who brings balance to the world. You’re a Jedi unicorn, and I’m so glad you exist. This work, as hard as it is, is also fun. That’s because many of you, in addition to being kind and smart, are also hilarious! I love our sector because we have the best people ever.

We provide jobs and strengthen the economy: We are the third largest sector, we employ ten percent of the workforce, and we contribute 900 billion to the economy every year. (Here’s more data). Millions of jobs are created, and as many families are supported by these jobs, because of our sector. I know we have a lot of things we need to improve on (cough, stop asking for salary history, cough), but I am thankful every day that I get to do this for a living, that I get to do what I love while being able to support my family.

We handle stuff no one wants to do: So much of our work is because our government fails to do its job. Sometimes I daydream about a society where people would look out for one another, maybe paying more taxes so that the entire community would benefit. And then we nonprofits would be put out of business, and some of us would be able to pursue our dreams of opening a vegan food truck or something. Unfortunately, that is not yet the world we live in. So I am grateful for our sector coming in and filling out the gaps in society that leave so many of our neighbors behind.

We restore and build community: My family came over to the US when I was 8. We lost many things. The worst part though—besides getting haircuts from our dad because we were poor—was that our community was gone. I remember how lonely those first few years were. Many nonprofits stepped in to help my family. We got food and warm clothing and cooking utensils. But we also started regaining the feeling of belonging to a community that cared about us. With so many forces out there trying to tear families apart, I am deeply grateful for nonprofits and the work you all do to build and restore community.

We amplify voices that may not always be heard: Being a kid for whom English is a second language, I remember what it was like to not have a voice, to be taunted for being different and made to feel unwanted. You always feel like you live in the shadows, and eventually you might start to believe that you belong there. So many of you work hard to lift up the voices of people who may feel like they don’t matter or that society does not want them. We are not perfect at this, but we try. I am thankful every day for those who try.

We stand defiantly against injustice: This past year I’ve been so inspired by advocacy organizations and activists who stand firm against injustice. While people are getting deported and torches are lit in hateful marches, so many in our sector have been mobilizing to challenge bigotry and hatred in all its forms. You educate, you change laws, you protect people. Sometimes it feels like it is too much, like the tides are too strong. I am thankful for all of you who say “Screw the tides!” and jump in the water.

We bring hope: Since last Thanksgiving, many communities have been short on hope. It’s hard to have hope when you live in fear like so many of our neighbors have to do each day. The generalized anxiety has been pervasive. During these times, what has lifted me and so many others is knowing that good people like you are out there. I know that hope, like community, is not an outcome many of us put on our logic models or theory of change, but this is one of the most important things we do as a sector.

I wrote a while ago that nonprofits are like air, and for-profits are like food. Everyone can see food, take pictures of it, call themselves “foodies.” Even though air is all around us, no one acknowledges it unless for some reason it is not there. No one calls themselves an “airie.” We nonprofits are often not seen or appreciated until our services are needed.

This week, I hope that while you take time to be thankful for all your blessings, you also take a moment to feel appreciated for the work that you do every day, even if your family has no idea what you do or even looks down on your work, even if you rarely hear thank you from the people you serve, even if you will never see the difference you may be making. You strengthen the economy, lift up families, restore hope and community, amplify voices, and make our world better. You’re a badass Jedi unicorn, and I appreciate you. Please try to get some rest this week. 

Now, who wants a serving of Tofurky? Anyone? 

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Star Trek and the Future of the Nonprofit Sector

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Thank you Nonprofit Quarterly for publishing my piece last week on the future of the nonprofit sector. Except for the post on the misuse of the word “literally,” this is probably one of the most important things I’ve written about in the past four years. Due to a few people not having read it, I am reposting the entire piece here. If you haven’t read and thought about it, please take some time to do so. We can, and must, move our sector into the future.

Let’s face it, the last few months have been brutal. Dealing with the constant threats to communities and to democracy itself has been exhausting and heartbreaking, and many of us have been questioning whether we nonprofits are equipped to respond to current and future challenges. During these dark times, there has been at least one bright light: A new Star Trek show!

When hatred and xenophobia are on the rise, it’s nice to see a universe where diversity is a norm. From the two episodes I’ve seen, the new show, Star Trek: Discovery, is awesome. It’s not without flaws, of course, but this show, and Star Trek itself, paints a hopeful picture that we nonprofits should observe closely. And the Starfleet model in particular is something we should study

In Star Trek, there are various starships. Each has a different captain and a different mission. However, they are bound together by Starfleet, an organization that supports and coordinates the work of all the ships. Starfleet is big, with multiple departments. There’s Starfleet Academy, which trains officers; Starfleet Command, which provides governance; Starfleet Shipyard, which builds the ships; Starfleet Judge Advocate General, which serves as the judiciary branch, etc. Continue reading