Ten resolutions for the nonprofit sector for 2015


australia-699228_640pdEvery New Year, many of us make resolutions to do things to improve ourselves. Of course, many of us skip doing this, because we are perfect. In fact, in some cultures, beer bellies and love handles are considered attractive, so if people have issues with them, then they’re obviously culturally incompetent and should attend a workshop.

As 2015 starts, it is important for us not to just make resolutions for ourselves, but also for our organizations, and for our field. We, as individuals and as a sector, are constantly busy doing stuff that we often don’t take enough time to gaze into the distance and think strategically. As I write this, I recall some profound words from one of my mentors when we were having lunch a while ago: “I always choose the curried chicken.” Wait, no, that’s not it. She said, “Are you spending enough time on the balcony versus the dance floor?” We are always dancing. We nonprofit professionals need to get on the balcony more often.

So let’s start 2015 off right and make it the most awesome year ever! With the help of the NWB Facebook community, I’m recapping a list of resolutions that I am hoping all of us will seriously adopt sector-wide:

10 resolutions for the nonprofit sector for 2015:

We will pay our staff at or above market rate
. The archetype of the underpaid student-loan-laden nonprofiteer martyr driving a crappy car must end. Every organization needs to analyze its wages and compare them to industry average. If any are way below the average, make a plan to raise them. Do not wait on this. The most important element of our work are the hardworking and very attractive people who dedicate their lives to this profession. Our sector needs to acknowledge this and do something about it, because if we don’t, we cannot expect the rest of society to respect our profession, and then how the hell are we going to get an awesome show about our work? (See “All right, you guys, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries.”)

We will not screw ourselves over by reinforcing stupid stuff that we complain about.
Let’s stop saying crap like “100% of your donations go to programming” at annual fundraisers and then fume among each other about restricted funding. I swear, if I am in the audience and you say this, I will jump up to the stage and smack you with my rolled-up paddle. Let’s stop whining about overhead while seeking the approval of charity watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator. We must inform our donors and work with them as partners, not constantly suck up to them. (See “General operating funds, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies.”)

We will be proud of and stand up for our profession
. This nonprofit inferiority complex is not sexy, and it is not useful. Being shy and meek and disparaging our field does not help anyone. No more “begging for funds.” No more “We should be more like for-profits.” No more hiring people from the for-profit world into high-level nonprofit leadership positions and think it is a major coup for our field (“OMG, we were able to snag someone who successfully ran a hedge fund for 27 years to be our next ED!”). No more “I work for a small nonprofit” when people ask what we do; say something like “I work for an organization that makes it possible for thousands of kids to succeed in school and find jobs,” or whatever. We do awesome stuff. Own it. (See “The nonprofit inferiority complex is not sexy.”) 

We will provide feedback to funders, more honestly and more often. Yes, I know, the funding dynamics often makes it terrifying to have an honest conversation with our program officers, aka “The Wielders of Light and Shadow.” Because of that, many of us waffle, or remain silent on challenges we’re going through, or obscure them, or agree with stuff when we really don’t agree. (*Cough* current way Collective Impact is implemented *cough*) But the challenges we deal with are entrenched, and we cannot address them effectively without funders and donors and nonprofits working closely as partners. So, let’s break down this wall. (See: “7 annoying things funders say, and what we wish they would say instead”).

We will temper the philosophy of scarcity
. The funding dynamics, again, have backed us into corners. With funding being a constant struggle, and society having unrealistic expectations, we are fearful to invest in things like competitive staff salaries, admin and fundraising staff, professional development, etc. Many of us sit on crappy chairs to work on slow computers teetering on desks that could collapse at any moment. While this scarcity mindset is great in the short-run, this level of extreme scrappiness can waste a lot of time and set us back in the long-run. Let’s be more reasonable about it. At the very least, make sure everyone on your team has decent health insurance for when the desk and chair do collapse! (See “Nonprofits, we must break out of the scrappiness cycle.”)

We will do stuff to advance equity beyond just holding hands and singing about it
. Equity recently has appeared on everyone’s radar. This is totally awesome. Except oftentimes, it seems to be more like a shiny fad than an actual paradigm shift. Like the Adkins Diet. Or 3D televisions. Or “exercise.” Equity can’t be achieved by doing things basically the same way but mentioning the word “equity” more often. We need to do stuff differently, including taking way more risks and reallocating resources. (See “Is Equity the new coconut water?”)

We will formalize sector-wide times for renewal during the year
. Our work is simultaneously rewarding and exhausting, like watching “Interstellar.” Due to the urgency and constancy of the work, many of us rack up PTO or vacation time that don’t get fully used. We feel guilty when we take time off, and some of us are fearful of the mountain of work we’ll accumulate when we come back. We need to build in time for renewal. For 2015, I’m calling on every organization to close at least one week during the summer, and to close from December 21st to 25th, preferably to January 1st. This is a year of notice, so you have little excuse, boards and EDs. This is in addition to everyone having some personal vacation time. This is a relatively cheap and easy way to significantly increase morale and reduce burnout. There are some orgs and jobs that can’t take these breaks at these times; pick some other periods in the year to close, or give your team additional time off. (See “Unicorns, time for our sector to take a break.”)

We will guard our time more closely. At the next staff meeting, brainstorm a “Not-to-do” list and select to discontinue some stuff you really don’t need to do. Let’s agree to cut down on meetings, maybe have a scheduled day each week where there are no external meetings. And the meetings we do have let’s make them more efficient. Fewer committee reports at board meetings; more discussions on direction and strategy. Our boards must stand on the balcony more often. Let’s also try, when possible, to have fewer meetings in the evenings and on the weekends, so we can spend time with our family and friends. However, we should continue to connect to one another, as building relationships with our colleagues is an effective use of our time. (See “3 reasons we all need to go to more happy hours.”)

We will think of the environment as we do our work.
Let’s cut down on the sheer volume of paper we print out. Ask the board if they are OK going paperless for things like agendas and minutes. Use the backs of papers. And for the love of equity, STOP BUYING BOTTLES OF WATER FOR MEETINGS OR IN GENERAL! Seriously, no one needs their own bottle of water. They are awful for the environment, and they are no better than tap water. Use a pitcher and some reusable tumblers. Think about the sea turtles. (See “Nonprofit peeps, time to go paperless!”)

We will take it easy on ourselves, and celebrate every victory.
This is a field of hardworking people trying every day to lift up families and communities. This is not an easy job. Oftentimes, we are our own worst critics. We need to celebrate every win, big or little. And let’s resolve to cut ourselves some slack. We can’t be perfect at everything. We can’t complete all our work every day, since there is not end to the work. We can only try our best and then say, preferably before 10pm, “You know, good enough is good enough. I’m going to go home, get a cold drink, and continue helping to make the world more awesome tomorrow.” (See “The courage for mediocrity: We nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break.”)

Maybe your organization can’t tackle them all, but try for a few this year. We must all do things differently if we want to advance our sector. We can’t keep choosing the curried chicken!

Happy New Year, everyone. Thank you for all you do.

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33 thoughts on “Ten resolutions for the nonprofit sector for 2015

    1. Vu Le

      Aw, thank you, Susan. That’s so sweet. No one has called me a hero before. It’s usually, “that irreverent blogger” or “that vegan dude who blogs about nonprofit stuff.”

  1. Megan

    My organization was closed from Dec 19 to today. It was AMAZING to not get (many) emails and just spend time with my family with few work-worries. We don’t get many benefits, but this had all my for-profit friends green with jealousy.

    1. Vu Le

      Welcome back, Megan. These breaks are amazing for morale and for reducing burnout! Let make this a sector-wide practice.

  2. Guest

    For providing that honest feedback to funders. By the way this is my next idea for unrelated business income; creating a nonprofit themed Magic the Gathering set to sell to Hasbro. Just don’t ask me about the SWOT assessment.

  3. Chris Kleinjans

    Swear to God, you encapsulated in one post what I just spent 2+ years in Grad school learning, repeatedly. Another reason I’m here every Monday.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Chris! I’m glad to know the stuff I’m rambling about has relevance. Or…that the stuff grad school is teaching is relevant? Thanks for reading.

  4. LongmontKathy

    cap your hours! Do not work more than 50 hours a week! Accuse any NPO workers who do work more than 50/week of stealing jobs from others! Shame!

    1. Vu Le

      Kathy, that’s a very interesting point. I need to think about this some more . We EDs do often work more than 50 hours per week. Hm…

  5. Trisha Matthieu

    You are awesome (and incredibly good looking) Vu! Thank you for for the amazing work you do every day, for putting out this blog every week, and for allowing me to put the phrase “sexy nonprofit unicorn” into my vernacular. Happy 2015!

    1. Vu Le

      Trisha, what a sweet comment. Thank you. Sexy nonprofit unicorns like you motivate me to keep writing instead of watching one more episode of Dr. Who.

  6. calistair

    Vu, my inspirational, wise friend – I have always loved the way you tell it like it is. Not many people have the…cajones to do that. I appreciate hearing the truth once in a while. Oh, and #3, We will be proud of and stand up for our profession? Priceless. As always, thanks for being brave enough to share your wisdom with us. Keep up the good fight!

  7. Tracy

    Just when I promised myself that I would not join any more email clubs…you come along. Curse you and your fabulously ingenious, witty, and wise writing.

  8. Shana McCracken

    This is a great piece! Thanks for writing it. I especially appreciate the call to eliminate bottled water. FYI, everything here applies to the public sector/govt. as well.

  9. Laura Carpenter Myers

    I guffawed at most of these points (salaries??? no one got a raise this year with no explanation as to why.) The only thing that we do a good job with is the bottled water. YAY for baby steps.

  10. lindenchariot

    Happy new year, Vu!

    I would like to propose a 2015 resolution for nonprofit staff and management: stretch outside the straight-jacket roles of staff and management. More specifically:
    Staff: Push yourself to speak up about what your nonprofit could be doing better. Resolve to make constructive criticism rather than keep quiet. Think of how you can make your nonprofit more accountable to the community it serves.
    Management: Resolve to invite and really *listen* to staff feedback, even if it hurts.

    I think the resolution to give more honest feedback to funders is absolutely critical, but we won’t be able to do that until we make a daily practice of being honest with each other.

  11. Guest

    If nonprofit is an industry sector, then it is time to start taxing it. Methinks the cart is before the horse.

    And pay people more to look better? What? You pay what you need to, to attract people with the requisite skills and experience to get the job done. There is no fundamental difference between your responsibility to your patrons, and the fiduciary responsibility of a CEO to shareholders. Value, not warm fuzzies.

    If you own your own company, and you control the finances, go ahead, pay people more just because. On the other hand in the real world, you sound like a fool on this point.

    1. Vu Le

      Hey Guest, sorry, I’m way behind on responding to comments. But I was reviewing this post and wanted to respond to yours. Businesses are taxed on their net profit; if they make no profit, they don’t get taxed. What exactly would we be taxing, since nonprofits don’t make profit? Also, businesses and nonprofits BOTH are paying payroll taxes. That’s right, nonprofits pay payroll taxes for every hour we pay our employees.

      As for paying people more, the average nonprofit salary is far below average business salary, and they are tackling jobs that are equally if not more complex than for-profit jobs. Because of the low salaries, many have to leave the sector even when they don’t want to, which means we are losing talented people that we need to tackle issues like homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, abused kids, mental health challenges, veterans, etc. If our society values kids, elders, veterans, the environment, etc., it needs to pay the people working in professions that are strengthening the community.

  12. Amina Shukri

    Happy 2015 Vu and all Vu non profit family members including myself. Yes I hold hands to stand up for professionalism and will continue going to the gym to build up the muscles that will allow me to standup for my rights and those that are voiceless. Keep the good wk going and the laughter it keeps us on check and remains to hold each other accountable. In addition I will add

    2015 resolution:Nonprofit executives and board members also should be willing to ask uncomfortable questions: Not just “Is it legal?” but also “Is it fair?” “Is it honest?” “Does it advance societal interests or pose unreasonable risks?” and “How would it feel to defend the decision on the evening news?” Not only do leaders need to ask those questions of themselves, they also need to invite unwelcome answers from others. To counter self-serving biases and organizational pressures, people in positions of power should actively solicit diverse perspectives and dissenting views. Every leader’s internal moral compass needs to be checked against external reference points.

  13. thepowell

    “For 2015, I’m calling on every organization to close at least one week during the summer, and to close from December 21st to 25th, preferably to January 1st.”

    Heck yes. Here’s what’s happening, by the way:
    Holiday season is prime individual giving time, so naturally the fundraising department needs to stay open, especially as people get in their last tax return-friendly donations. Out of “fairness”, management insists on keeping everything else “open”, which actually means 3/4 of staff just burn vacation days anyway.

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