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.

10 lessons we nonprofits can learn from The Walking Dead

Lesson 1: Make difficult decisions in a timely manner. In Season 1, Rick encounters Morgan and his son Duane. morganTheir mother has been bitten and turned into a walker (although, it may be hard to tell, since most parents tend to resemble the undead). Morgan cannot bear himself to put her down. Of course, in Season 3, we learn that the zombie mom (“mombie”) has killed Duane. That’s right, because Morgan couldn’t do something, it led to something worse happening. The lesson for us is to make the hard decisions, and to do it soon. Have that difficult conversation with that board member, let go of that staff who is just not a good fit, or whatever. Do it now!

Lesson 2: Always double check. Countless times in the show, people are just complete idiots who seem to have forgotten that they are in a zombie apocalypse. They do dumb-ass stuff like not locking the doors behind them, such as Jim in Season 2 when he got eaten by the zombies in that trailer because he forgot to lock up after getting in it, and at the prison when people got the flu and died and became walkers and went around other prison cells killing people because nobody locked their damn cells! Sheesh! Double check crap like grant proposals before submitting. Double check references before bringing on staff and volunteers. And check regularly to make sure your board members have not become zombies.

Lesson 3: Learn a variety of skills. The people who survive in the apocalypse are the ones who know a bunch of useful skills: Hand-to-hand combat, tracking, building shelter, fire-starting, scrimshaw the ancient art of carving on whale bones. OK, maybe not scrimshaw the ancient art of carving on whale bones. Well, same goes for us nonprofit professionals. We need to be constantly developing our skills. So learn crap that you normally don’t think you need for your current position. Take a course on finance even if you’re in programs; learn conflict-resolution skills even if you’re in finance. Everyone should learn at least a little of everything.

michonne darylLesson 4: Simple tools are often the most useful. The seriously bad-ass characters in the show are Daryl and Michonne, and they use a cross-bow and a sword, respectively. Guns make a lot of zombie-attracting noise and they run out of ammo. Michonne’s katana just gets sharper and efficient with use. Don’t get distracted by fancy websites, logos, business cards, glossy paper, etc. Simple and effective will always win out over shiny and complicated.  

Lesson 5: Don’t be complacent. In Season 3, Rick and crew escape and barricade themselves in a prison. Because it’s pretty secure at first glance, they got complacent. The walkers are starting to overwhelm the chain-link fence, but very slowly. Really, you can’t just go out and stab a few dozen each day through the head? What the hell are you doing? Literally growing cucumbers?! We in nonprofit often become complacent, not being pro-active about stuff until problems arise, and then we freak out. It’s far better to check in with our team, keep watch on our cash flow, monitor our grant reports, build relationships with our donors, etc., before bad things happen.

rickLesson 6: Know who to partner with. Sheriff Rick Grimes is supposed to be the main protagonist in this series, but most episodes I just want to punch him in the neck. Sometimes he acts like a leader, but he’s often wishy-washy, pontificating, and dumb. In fact, his whole family is pretty annoying, except for the baby. Sorry, I got on a tangent. But Rick can be ridiculously naïve. E.g., he tries to negotiate with the Governor when that dude is trying to attack the prison. “Yeah, I know you killed all your soldiers and you keep zombie heads in fish tanks for fun, but join us, we can live together in harmony.” No. Sometimes a partnership does not work. Recognize that and move on. Don’t try to force a collaboration. Or one of your teams will get eaten by zombies.

Lesson 7: Be wary of things that seem too good to be true. After the prison attack, the group finds various signs pointing toward Terminus, which promises “sanctuary for all. Community for all. Those who arrive, survive.” After being nearly devoured by zombies dozens of times and surviving on dog food and whatnot, Terminus sounds ridiculously awesome. Of course, it would turn out to be a commune of cannibals who herd people there to eat them. Beware of things in our field that just sound too good to be true: “Oooh, let’s have a summit, that will solve all the problems” or “Look at this latest model on social innovation!” These shiny objects are always sexy at first, then they pass, and we move on to the next cure-all. Stick to the non-sexy stuff: Direct service coupled with policy change, capacity building, general operating, and investing in people. (See “The frustration with innovation: Bright Shiny Object Syndrome and its effect on the nonprofit sector“)

Lesson 8: It is never too early to prepare your team, and give them the tools they need. In Season 3, Carol starts carolteaching the kids at the prison the art of zombie slaying. Secretly, because Rick doesn’t think children should be learning silly adult things like how to defend themselves from zombie attacks; and he doesn’t think they should be wielding weapons. Dude, it is a zombie apocalypse! The rules of society have changed! As much as I am against kids having weapons—or hot Cheetos—we’re talking about a world overrun by zombies. The lesson here is to not underestimate newer members of your team. Be transparent with them, give them the information, training, and tools they need, and they can be huge assets in the fight against the zombies of injustice and inequity.

Lesson 9: Manage your stress. Rick, bearing the mantle of leadership, and pretty much sucking at it for most of the first four seasons, starts having a nervous breakdown. He hears random phone calls. He sees ghosts. Because he doesn’t know how to handle his stress, he is now even more useless than normal. It is a difficult profession, nonprofit work. If we don’t know how to handle our stress, everyone around us suffers, including the people we are trying to serve. Those of us in leadership are especially prone to meltdowns, which really affects our teams. Put up some pictures of cute baby animals. Get some acupuncture done. Take a freaking day off! You deserve it. (See “7 self-care tips for nonprofit staff.”)

Lesson 10: Find joy in the little things. The characters on The Walking Dead are in a constant state for survival. Theycarl live their lives not knowing if they would last another day or week. Sounds familiar to nonprofit existence, doesn’t it? On TWD, the simplest candy bar or a can of pudding becomes sublime. These little things give our protagonists reasons to keep going, especially since they have no wi-fi and thus no access to Youtube. We, too, must find joy in our daily work. It’s stressful and we’re fighting for survival each day. But learn to appreciate the little things. Celebrate the small accomplishments. And be grateful for the free hummus you get at each meeting.


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