Your crappy chair is not a badge of honor


[Image description: A rolling black, high-backed office chair. Its seat is ripped in three places, with a large tear about eight inches long on one side. This was a chair in Vu’s office. Image taken by Vu. Because he was procrastinating from writing a grant proposal.]

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This week, I went to Fort McMurray, Canada, to speak at events put on by FuseSocial and Capacity Canada. Fort McMurray is rebuilding after a devastating wildfire swept through and forced the town to evacuate. It was inspiring to feel the palpable sense of community and resilience from the warm-hearted people there, some of whom made a special whiskey from a bunch of barley that got smoked during the fire. As the old Canadian proverb goes, “When Life smokes your barley, you make whiskey, eh?”

During my keynote, which focused on the future of the sector and which heavily referenced Star Trek and included the trademark pictures of baby animals, I mentioned how we all need to get over the Scarcity and Martyrdom complex. “Half of you are sitting on crappy chairs that you got from a bank that moved or something,” I said, and people laughed and nodded.

The crappy chair is a hilarious trope in our sector. Everyone seems to have some sort of crappy chair story. There’s my ED friend whose chair was so bad her board had to force her to buy a new chair. At my own organization there was a chair with multiple holes in it; I took this picture of it and posted it on NAF’s Facebook page, which got sympathetic comments like, “My chair was missing a wheel for a full year. I just told people trying to balance was strengthening my core.” Someone wrote, “I am Spartacus!”

But one person wrote “Obviously you work for cheapskates. Everybody deserves to be at least comfortable in their workplace. This is degrading.” To which l replied, “Well, considering that I am the boss, you may just be right [crying face].”

The ancient, rickety chair held together with duct tape is not just a funny experience to bond over, it’s a point of pride for many of us. As Bonnah, Chief Social Entrepreneur of FuseSocial, said, “It seems to be a badge of honor for some people.”

And this is a problem, y’all. Many of us in this sector take pride in our ability to accomplish amazing things for our community while having some of fewest and lowest-quality resources. We also take pride in not “wasting” funding, keeping our “overhead” low, and showing donors and funders that we are “responsible” stewards of the work. That’s why we steal so many pens during conferences, and why we say things like, “We are 100% volunteer-run” and “95 cents of every dollar goes to directly to our clients!” and “Look at this shirt I got for $7.99 on clearance! It used to be $29.99, but one sleeve is a foot longer than the other!”

It often goes further than that. Yesterday, I learned of a community leader who founded an organization, used it to help the community over the span of 25 years, never took a salary, and now nearing the end of his life has nothing saved in retirement funds.

Stop it! Stop it, all right?! We need to get out of this Pride-In-Scarcity-and-Sacrifice—aka, PISS—mentality! It is no-good, very bad. Here are several reasons why:

It creates a chain reaction of crappiness. The crappy chair and the mindset that comes with it is more insidious than we think, because it never stops at the chair. It encompasses crappy printers. And crappy marketing materials. And crappy professional development. And crappy pay for staff. And crappy staffing plans. And crappy snacks. Chia-flax crackers from Food Outlet?!

It prevents us from doing our work. Not having the right softwares, equipment, training, and staffing in place means we may not be doing our work to the best of our potentials. Winter is coming, and I know some of y’all will be scrambling for heat! And that shirt you got on clearance will only keep one arm warm! The people we serve are most affected when we aren’t at our best.

It perpetuates uninformed expectations from society. If you are happy sitting on a crappy chair, society is happy to let you do it. And it’ll expect everyone else in the sector to do the same, to do critical work with inadequate resources. The holidays are coming up, and once again we’ll be dealing with ignorant people gearing up to lob memes at “wasteful” spending. Don’t help them do it.

It causes unfair comparisons among nonprofits. If you have a crappy chair, then donors might look at me funny if my chair is nice in comparison. People don’t compare the stuff we have to what exists in for-profits; they only compare us to one another. Otherwise, they’d see the vast disparity in chair quality and other resources, such as our “standing” desk, which is really just a cardboard box, maybe a milk crate, on which we put our monitors.

It lowers people’s respect for our orgs and our profession. It might be a point of pride for some off us to sit on a ten-year-old chair that is held together with duct tape, but imagine a funder or donor or client walking in and seeing that. Does that really send a message of “This org obviously is very responsible and resourceful”? Probably to some people, sure. To the rest, though, the message might likely be, “Sheesh, this org is sad and hanging on by a shoestring. If it can’t get its act together, why should or anyone invest in its work?”

It aggravates health problems. There are tons of health problems associated with poor office environments. Bad chairs will lead to back problems. Poor office lighting will lead to eye strain. An ancient computer that freezes at random intervals will cause blood pressure spikes and maybe dental problems due to the grinding of teeth, not to mention tension and fist-fights among co-workers that often end with someone getting stabbed with a swag pen.

It wastes a lot of time. Not having the right equipment, supplies, training, staffing, etc., may save us funding in the short-run, but in the long-run, we end up wasting a lot of time, time that could be better spent on helping people. Think of all the hours we lose praying over and bargaining with the crappy and volatile printer. And taking care of the office mice problem.

For all these and other reasons, your crappy chair is not a badge of honor. It is symptomatic of a pervasive scarcity mindset that extends deep and wide in our sector and prevent all of us from effectively doing our work. Although it makes for great comedy—check out this hysterical Onion article called “Nonprofit Fights Poverty With Poverty”—it is not something to be proud of. This mindset allows bad things to proliferate, things like underpaying staff, lack of professional development, terrible CRMs and other systems, burn-out, the Overhead Myth, and superglue-related injuries that send dozens of people to the hospitals annually.

So let’s knock it off with this PISS mentality! And let’s start with our chairs. This is not to say that we should be extravagant. None of us need a $5,000 Herman Miller chair. (Seriously, a $5,000 chair? This thing better have in-laid shavings of unicorn horns). And I know, many nonprofits are struggling and don’t have the luxury to be as gung-ho as I may be suggesting. But a decent, functional, professional-looking chair is not unreasonable. I’m especially talking to you, supervisors. Your butt deserves a nice chair to sit on while you work to change the world! And so do your team members’ butts. As my new friends in Canada might say, “That’s a nice bunnyhug and toque, eh? Sorry, can you get me a double-double at Timmy’s while I’m in the washroom?”

I have no idea what that means.

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24 thoughts on “Your crappy chair is not a badge of honor

  1. cathytuttle

    Your analogy of chair as symbol of non-profit suffering sits well with me and you aren’t off your rocker Vu!

    I’m using my comment to tell Gordon I’m sorry he hurt his knee when he broke his office chair and to go buy better chairs for the office.

  2. James Schuyler

    Bunnyhug=sweatshirt in Saskatchewan
    Toque–knit hat in most of Canada
    double-double–coffee with two sugars and two creams, generally used at Tim Horton’s
    Thanks for sharing these important words and phrases that represent The True North strong and free.

  3. Lisa Barton

    My chair at one of my past employers was an upside-down 5 gallon plastic bucket! The prior DD was partial to discomfort. Part of the org was a reuse store so the irony was we were literally sitting on top of a store full of office chairs for sale. I tried the bucket for a day and then went down and got a crappy chair, which was an improvement.

  4. Aimee Conrad-Hill

    This post is so incredibly true. My friend and I were just chatting about our first jobs after college. I had a chair with the arms covered in duct tape that I soon realized would actually cut you when the tape wore down. I used that chair for 2.5 years. Then someone who magically had a chair that probably wasn’t older than my parents quit and I immediately traded out. When I gave notice 1.5 years later, several people came to wish me well and stick post-its under my chair to claim it. My friend was saying her first “desk” was actually an old door slung over two filing cabinets (that weren’t the same height) and she had to share it with another new person for 8 months. These sorts of things have got to stop before we all have back humps and burnout.

  5. Paulette Lynch

    I have to say it is amazing how much happiness, better health and greater productivity a really great chair can bring!!! THANK YOU!!!!!!!!

  6. Barbara Morrow

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is an important essay, and I am sharing it big time. NPO employees are not aliens from another planet in disguise who have no need of salaries, good working conditions…food, clothing…money for retirement. We need to work hard to squash that myth and show ourselves and the field respect for who we are and what we are doing. Anything less inhibits our work, our field, and our families. I’m not saying I need a $MM salary. But, yeah, the chair metaphor? Apt as F.

  7. Lindy Brett

    I think this is a good point, or a series of good points. But chairs as concept set me off in a different direction. Office chairs are all megaplastic/synthetic – they are damaging to the environment. If the USA is anything like the UK, thats all you can get, but PLEASE LETS STOP CREATING BAD STUFF. So could you very nicely go and get lovely wooden second hand chairs? Because the future is also worth fighting for?

    1. David Dyer

      True story: in 1986 I left the museum where I had been working for several years, to attend graduate school and to work at a couple other museums. Then in 2013 when a position opened up at this museum where I had originally worked, I moved across the country to return to work there again. On my first day back my new supervisor showed me to my desk and pulled out a chair for me to use. It was the very same chair that I used in the early-mid 1980’s! (I have the photos to prove it too!). It’s wooden, with a heavy fabric and leather seat, swivels, and has wheels. So Lindy’s right, we need to quit making and using crappy “disposable” chairs, which are wasting valuable resources and are filling up landfills. Vu mentions a “ten-year old chair” which is considered old while my chair, which is at least 30-years old, is still going strong!

  8. Peter Beyer

    I have to laugh because this was, literally, a line from an email I sent last week…

    “Also, any chair that has duct tape keeping it together
    should be replaced…”

  9. Rhiannon Orizaga

    Well said. Thanks for reminding us not to brag about poverty (and for sharing that brilliant Onion article). I always cringe when people brag about “relying on volunteers” or having “very low overhead.” Either our work matters or it doesn’t, right? If it doesn’t matter enough to cover the costs of doing business, we shouldn’t be doing it at all.

  10. Jayne Williams

    Frighteningly true — and also tied to the martyrdom issue of bragging about how many hours we worked this week, and/or how little sleep we got last night. Everyone deserves to work a non-exhausting amount, sleep a restorative amount, and even make a living wage, even in the nonprofit sector. Dump the duct-tape chairs!

  11. hohmgirl

    My boss is a Catholic nun. So this times twenty thousand.

    If we expect our work to make an impact, then we at least deserve not to be in pain while doing it!

    Thanks for this. Going to figure out how to pass on to said Catholic nun without her knowing it was me.

  12. Dotti Thompson

    Great blog, Vu, but at first I thought you were referring to the crappy chair of a Board of Directors not being a badge of honor…..which is also true. Perhaps a future blog??

  13. Pat Ryan

    Great article and I don’t think I’ll ever forget “when life smokes your barley, you make whiskey, eh?” I’m not sure how I’m going to slip this into casual conversations, but it’s too good not to try!

  14. A R

    I just joined this organization a month ago and I feel like I’ve missed my chance to mention that even in its lowest setting, I’m so short that my feet don’t touch the ground. I rest them on the wheels to support my back. #shortpplproblems #crappychairs

    1. Diane Tye Zapata

      Our problem is the opposite. I’m 5’0 and all the chairs are so low, it makes me look like I can’t sit at the “big girl” table.

  15. Sarah Shields

    I’m cheering over here! Couldn’t agree more. I worked in a crappy chair at a non profit a number of years ago and developed a repetitive strain issue in both wrists that I still have problems with now, in my not crappy chair. And you’re right, that mentality creeps into everything in the organization. Treat yourself and your employees right (including, among other things, decent time off, or not making them work overtime for no compensation – not necessarily monetary), and you will have a much happier and healthier workplace. It doesn’t have to cost a lot to show you care for the people who work for you AND the people you are serving.

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