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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