Tag Archives: board of directors

Star Trek and the Future of the Nonprofit Sector

[Image description: A cartoonish action figure of Spock, from Star Trek, with his hand outstretched in the Vulcan salute. The figure is standing on what looks like a wooden fence post, with a blurred background of plants]

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

25 things awesome board members do

beyond-1157000_960_720Hi everyone. A colleague asked me to write about what board members can do to be helpful to staff. Nonprofit board members are critical to the success of organizations. We rely on y’all for so many important things and are deeply grateful for all the time, skills, connections, and resources you give, especially considering that the majority of board members are volunteers.

However, boards are also the direct cause of 39% of brain aneurysms in the sector, according to statistics that I made up. So I asked the NWB Facebook community to help develop a list of what awesome board members do. This is not a list of board roles and responsibilities, which you can google, or find at BoardSource, but actual, down-to-earth, sometimes seemingly minor stuff. One colleague writes this of one of her board members:

When your fundraiser is on the same night as an ice storm, he personally salts the sidewalks and parking lot. Then when all the salt runs out he goes to the gas station down the road and buys more salt to finish the job. He also demands car keys from me and coworker at the end of the night to defrost and scrape our car windows. And somehow in the midst of all that he also pays several hundreds of dollars on an auction item and poses for tons of pictures with the kids. #oneofthebest Continue reading

Distancing language, what it is, and why you must crush it

Meeting-of-the-BoredLast week was rough, as we received not one, not two, but…ok, two grant rejection notices (so sweet and thoughtful of people to wait until after the holiday break to send rejection letters). Whenever I get stressed, my face breaks out, which causes me stress, thus perpetuating a vicious pattern that I call the Pizza Face Cycle. During these times, to avoid scaring small children or potential donors, I usually hole myself in my cubicle, away from the world, listening to 90’s Hip-Hop, coming out every once a while to feed on ramen while avoiding the gaze of cruel or indifferent passersby.

And that’s what happened last week after getting the grant notices. Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid several meetings and thus had to bring my face, like a minor Jackson Pollock painting, out in public. It was during one of these meetings that I noticed the nuances of the words we use during meetings. Specifically, how people unconsciously use inclusive or distancing language and how it affects the rest of the group.

Simply put, inclusive language indicates that you consider yourself a part of a team (e.g, “We need to revise our mission statement to include unicorns”) while distancing language indicates that you see yourself not a part of the organization or effort (“You need to revise your mission statement to include unicorns.”) This may seem trivial, you guys, but it is not:

  • New board members will use distancing language when they first join the board. As they identify more and more with the organization, they should start using inclusive language pretty much all the time.
  • If you do a good job at your programs, the clients should see it as THEIR programs, and they will use inclusive language when talking about these programs.
  • Consultants for short-term projects will use distancing language. The longer they are with a project, the more likely they will lapse into inclusive language.
  • Donors and volunteers who are especially invested in the organization will sometimes unconsciously lapse into inclusive language. This is a great sign. I was inviting one of our donors to our holiday party. “We should have beer at the party,” she said. “We totally should!” I said.

Distancing language can be a symptom of a greater problem. For instance, if after a year serving on the board, one of your board member says something like, “So when is your annual dinner this year?” something is not right.

It is also extremely contagious, and if left untreated will infect an entire group. I was on a committee made up of people from several organizations. We were brainstorming ideas about outreach. “I have an idea,” said one person, “you should make a list of all the organizations in the area and then call them individually.” “Great idea,” said another person, “you should also visit the community centers.” “Yeah, face-to-face is really critical for relationship building,” another person chimed in, “you’ll get better results that way.” It was a surreal meeting.

And that’s why you should be on the lookout for distancing language, and when appropriate you must crush it like an overcooked lentil! Here are some ways to do that:

  • Counter with inclusive language. If you use “we” often enough, especially after every instance of distancing language, it will likely stick in people’s minds.
  • Counter with your own distancing language. If you are the lead of a committee, people may direct all their ideas and feedback at you, unconsciously implying that you are going to do all the work. Use distancing language back at them might shock them out of it. E.g., “I completely agree. You should visit the community centers!”
  • Gently call it out. Say something like, “Hi everyone, I notice that we’ve been using ‘you’ a lot. This is a collaborative effort, and all of us are on the team, so let’s try to use ‘we’ more often?” It is helpful to pair this speech with inclusive body language, opening your arms wide and sweeping them toward yourself to emphasize “we.”
  • Follow up individually with people whom you notice use distancing language often and ask for their thoughts on the project. Chances are, they are not yet fully committed, and their language reflects that. The more you communicate with them, the more invested they’ll feel.
  • Be more direct. After several gentle reminders, I just correct people on the spot: “You should have a graphic design student work on the logo—” “We, John, WE should have a graphic design student work on the logo. Don’t make me have to remind you again…”

Once you start paying attention to this, it can be very helpful. Just a quick word of caution, though. At one of the meetings this week, the finance committee, we were discussing VFA’s financial management system. “You should revise your charts of accounts,” said one of the members of the committee, “and you should start developing a dashboard of financial health for the organization.” I knew from experience that I had to put a stop to the distancing language before it went too far. “Whoa, whoa, what’s with the distancing language, lady?!” I said, “You’re a part of this organization, aren’t you? What’s with all the ‘you should do this’ and ‘you should do that’ here, huh?!”

Apparently, that is not how you’re supposed to talk to a board member, especially a very dedicated one who had given months of notice in advance that she may be taking hiatus from the board to focus on taking care of other important things, so I would like to apologize.

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.”

Continue reading