Imagine a nonprofit-themed haunted house

[Image description: A silhouette of a hand, directly facing the camera. In the background is a blurry figure. It’s like someone is holding up a hand. It is so spooky. Just looking at this picture so I can write the image description is giving me the creeps. Why do I write blogs at 1am? Oh man, I am getting creeped out.

Hi everyone. Quick announcement: This Wednesday, 9/18, from 1pm to 2:30pm EST, the co-authors of Unicorns Unite and I are having a conversation about how all of us can work together more effectively as a sector. Join virtually (or in person in San Francisco). It’s free.

It may seem too early to write a Halloween-inspired post, but Halloween is awesome, so it’s never too early to get into the spirit. Also, next week’s post will likely be extremely serious and possibly get a whole bunch of you mad at me, so might as well butter you up with a lighter piece this week.

A few years ago, my partner took me to a haunted house. It was dark and spooky, with grisly lights and decorations and there was fog everywhere and people dressed up like zombies and serial killers and sometimes they would chase you while holding chainsaws and screaming. So basically very much like our sector!

This gave me an idea. We need a nonprofit-themed haunted house! Here is what one might look like. Thanks to everyone on the NAF Facebook page who contributed ideas; and apologies that not all were incorporated and that individuals couldn’t be credited. Make sure you don’t read this by yourself at night, because it is terrifying. Add your thoughts in the comment section, and on Twitter with #NonprofitHauntedHouse

A Nonprofit-Themed Haunted House

It is a brisk autumn night. The moon paints shadows of trees, barren like bones, on the ground. You park your ancient car in the parking lot. Signs on easel papers lead you to the ticketing counter, where a dead-eyed cashier collects your $25 and puts a sticky dot on the back of your hand. “Enjoy,” she says, “next!”

You walk up to the door. It creaks open. Instantly you are hit with a wave of fog, one that carries the subtle scent of stale hummus and duct tape. You grasp at the wall, and as your eyes adjust, you see that it is lined with SWOT quadrants and logic models. A piano in the distance plays a soft haunting melody. As you walk down the hallway, a bunch of people jump one at a time into your path screaming “I want to volunteer!” before disappearing into the mist, never to be heard from again.

You stumble into a room. Several people are sitting at a conference table. They are in the middle of a heated conversation. “It needs to be ‘provide’!” “No, the mission statement sounds better if we use ‘providing!’” A quiet voice pipes up: “We’ve been trying to decide between providing and provide for three hours. We have more important matters to discuss, like our lack of board diver–” She was cut off by someone screeching, “Why did the staff spend so much money on toilet paper this month?!”  

Shuddering, you turn around to exit, but it’s blocked by a man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. “You know,” he whispers, “you should run more like a business. Have you considered ROI? Do you have a business plan? What’s your bottom line?” He opens his briefcase and pulls out a file. “You should consider rebranding. I can help. It will take two years and cost $80,000, but you can’t make money without spending money!”

Your pulse is racing, you run out of the room and down the dark, smoky hallway. On either sides are people yelling in your face that they want to do various fundraisers for you. “All you have to do” they shout, “is the promotion, staffing, set-up, and clean-up!” You hear footsteps coming from behind you.

You duck into another room. It is freezing. All around are 8-year-old computers and a printer with its paper tray missing. Florescent lights bathe pale individuals wearing Ross Dress for Less clothing, their faces gaunt and eyes sunken under the five to ten assorted hats they were each wearing. In the corner, someone sits on the floor, putting new labels on Manila folders so they can be reused. A man, clearly out of place but somehow seeming to be in charge, clears his throat. “Listen, everyone,” he says, “we need to refine our metrics and think about scaling our programs. I have hired a consultant I worked with during my 28 years as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company to help us do some blue-sky thinking.” A shadowy figure floats into the room. “Before we begin,” she says in raspy whisper, “let’s do an icebreaker. We are going to form a circle. Each of you will say your name, followed by an animal sound and a dance move…

The icebreaker is interrupted as the phone rings. Everyone stops to look at you, waiting for you to answer it. You pick it up. “Thanks for submitting your quarterly report for the $5K grant we gave you,” says the program officer on the line, “I noticed that there was a budget discrepancy of $13.27 in your supplies line item this quarter, would you mind faxing an addendum to explain why? Also, we need to clarify how you will sustain this program when this grant we give you runs out.”

You hang up the phone and bolt out the room. Suddenly staring directly at you is a haunted face, one that seems to have been ravaged by time and stress, pallid with exhaustion. You scream, only to realize it is just your reflection in a wall mirror. You see another door, open it, and run inside, slamming the door shut. It is a small, empty chamber. On the floor are a dozen Beanie Babies and a few Furbys. Creeped out, you leave and notice that you had not seen a sign on the door when you entered because it is covered with dust. You uncover the dust with your hand. The sign says “Retirement Plan.”

As you catch your breath, a young person comes up to you. “Hi,” he says, “I’m your board chair’s nephew? Thanks for letting me do my university project here. Even though I’ve only been here eight minutes, I have lots of great ideas on how your org can improve. I created this 67-slides deck I want to show at the next board meeting. For instance, you should change the logo.”

You walk briskly while his voice echoes down the hallway, “Wait, where are you going? Come back! Can I give you some feedback?!” You open a door that seems familiar. “Provide!” “No! Providing!” “We’re out of hummus!” You slam it shut.

The fog is getting thicker. You can hardly see anything. The footsteps behind you get louder. There is a faint red light blinking in the distance. The blinking red lights turns out to be the exit sign. Under it is a door. To get there, you walk past a dozen tables filled with silent auction items, with none of the bids remotely approaching their stated values. There are several large amateur paintings on canvas, each valued at $10,000, not one with even a single bid for $50. As you read the descriptions, you feel a shiver in your spine. There are no Oxford Commas anywhere! The footsteps behind you get even louder. Someone is running toward you! You try to run but it’s too late. The figure reaches you. They hand you a box and then quickly disappears. You look inside the box. It is filled with expired cans of beets, half-empty bottles of shampoo, and several pairs of raggedy used underwear. You drop the box. The thud it makes reverberates throughout the house.  

You reach for the door, turning the handle. It opens and you quickly move past and slam it shut. You are outside in the back yard, but it is filled with tombstones. You walk past them, stopping once a while to read the inscriptions. Each tombstone has a name of a program and the date it was shut down due to lack of funding. As you amble past a program grave, the ground starts shaking. A woman pops out of the dirt. Then a man. Then more and more people emerge, zombie-like, from the ground. They slowly surround you, each one whispering something different: “We should email Oprah and ask her for a donation…I just left my corporate job and want to do something easier maybe start a nonprofit can I pick your brain…I’ll start a Doodle poll…I think we should make viral videos like the icebucket thing how hard can it be…I don’t know why we keep talking about race, I don’t see color…this grant cannot be used on staff salaries…”

Freaked out, you break free and run toward your car. As you turn the key, you hear an eerie voice coming from outside your car. “Please fill out the online evaluation form.”

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