Disclaimer: Vu is traveling through Europe (Brussels, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Berlin, and Belgrade) for the next three weeks with the Marshall Memorial Fellowship and will be using this blog to reflect. Due to the intensity of the program and the amount of wine imbibed, spelling, grammar, and general quality of writing will be shamefully lacking.
Day 1: The program has started off pretty well. I am in DC for the first time and find the city to be pleasant. There are 14 other fellows, and they are an impressive and intimidating bunch who have accomplished a whole bunch of stuff. After our orientation and reception today, for example, this conversation took place, which I am not making up:
Me: So, what do you do?
Fellow 1: I am an elected official, and I also founded an orphanage in Kenya.
Fellow 2: What?! No way! I am an elected official too, and I have founded SEVEN orphanages in Kenya!
They laughed and started talking animatedly, forging an instant bond that only exist among people who have opened orphanages. Then they turned and asked me what I did. “I direct a nonprofit that helps low-income immigrant families,” I said, “and, uh, I have 12 orphanages in Kenya…”
Even more impressive than the American fellows are the European fellows. While we American are touring European cities to learn their policies and culture, they’re doing the same by touring our cities, though I think they’re getting the short end of the stick. I mean, seriously, I get to go to Berlin and Lisbon…and they’re visiting Memphis, Tennessee and Billings, Alabama.
A while ago, I wrote about people’s misuse of the word “literally,” a condition that has reached pandemic level, with even very smart people saying stupid things like, “My board is so great, I’m literally in love with all my board members.” I carry small rocks in my jacket, just so I can throw them at people who use “literally” wrong
Well, after writing that post, dozens of readers wrote to thank me for raising awareness of the issue, and by “dozens,” I mean two people. So I thought we should shed light on other common grammatical mistakes that occur in our field, where 90% of the work is done by talking and writing.
Now, first of all, a disclaimer: I am not a grammarian, and I don’t claim to have perfect grammar or anything. Anyone who scans NWB posts will see countless mistakes.
Second of all, not all grammar needs to be correct all the time. Sometimes for the sake of flow I make grammatical mistakes on purpose, e.g., “Someone did not pay for their ticket to our fundraising dinner, so I am going to hunt them down and put this horse head in their bed.”
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.”
A while ago I wrote about self-care, and how we should all try to find time to do the things that make us happy. For me, one of those things is mixing drinks. It makes me happy to discover or invent new cocktails. Here are several that are inspired by people and concepts in nonprofit work. I also asked friends on NWB’s Facebook page to send in their own recipes, and those are listed at the end. Please submit your own inspired creations in the comment section.
The Executive Director
1 oz vodka
2 oz grapefruit juice
2 oz passionfruit juice
1 more oz vodka
Another oz vodka
Put ice into glass or mug. Pour everything else in and stir. Garnish with more vodka. Drink at either 9am or 9pm at the office. Strong, and slightly bitter.
1½ oz coffee liqueur
1½ oz brandy
1 oz nighttime cold and flu medicine
2 Tylenol Extra Strength tablet
Pour coffee liqueur, brandy, and cold and flu medicine into glass without ice. Drop in Tylenol tablets.Drink the cocktail slowly while discreetly checking emails on your smartphone.
1/6 oz dry gin
1/6 oz Kirsch
1/6 oz orange Curaçao
1/6 oz dry vermouth
1/6 oz sweet vermouth
Strip of lemon peel.
Mix all ingredients together with ice and strain into a shot glass. Garnish with lemon peel strip. Give it to someone. If they like it, make them another, but instead of using 1/6 oz for each ingredient, use 1 full oz, but change orange Curaçao to blue Curaçao and Kirsch into blackberry brandy.
The Strategic Plan
½ oz blue Curaçao
1 tsp raspberry syrup
¼ oz maraschino liqueur
¼ oz yellow Chartreuse
¼ oz Cointreau
Chill everything for several hours, including a shot glass. Slowly and carefully pour the liqueurs in the order listed over the back of a teaspoon into shotglass. Do not stir. When done correctly, you will have a colorful, multi-layered drink that is not only delicious, but beautiful to look at. Do not drink it. Show it to everyone, then put it in the fridge and then throw it out after a year or two.
The Annual Event
1 piece edible gold leaf
2 oz Cinzano extra dry vermouth
½ oz framboise
½ oz black Sambuca
½ oz pureed sardines
rose petal, lime wedge, lemon peel twist, raspberry, pineapple piece, candied hibiscus, black truffle shaving, cape gooseberry
Put gold leaf into glass. Shake Cinzano, framboise, and Sambuca with ice and pour into glass. Float pureed sardines on top. Garnish with rose petal, lime wedge, lemon peel twist, raspberry, pineapple piece, hibiscus, truffle shaving, and cape gooseberry. Drink up, rest for three months, then start gathering ingredients to make another one.
1 ½ oz Bailey’s Irish Cream 1 ½ oz Butterscotch Schnapps ¾ oz Goldschlager 1 tbsp 151 Rum 1 dash Cinnamon
Mix all ingredients with ice in a shaker and pour into glass. If your Development Director has gotten the organization to fundraising goal by mid-year, you can light this drink on fire. If the Director hasn’t, you can light him/her on fire.* Win-Win!!
Place cherries in your mixing glass, add sugar. Place equal portions of Angostura bitters and Lemonhart 151 rum into an oil mister/sprayer. Mist the Angostura mixture through a flame. Flame until sugar caramelizes. Fill with ice and add gin, rosewater, and lime juice. Then, because the cocktail has timed out, throw the entire concoction down the disposal. Take a bottle of sriracha and splash a drop in your eye. Beat head against your kitchen countertop. Repeat from the beginning, at least three times.
(*Note, Nonprofit with Balls does not condone the setting of anyone on fire, even Development Directors who haven’t met outcomes).
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Last week I wrote about the Sustainability Question and how it is symptomatic of an ineffective funding system where funders and nonprofits are not equal partners but more like frenemies. This apparently resonated with many readers, at least 138, since that’s how many people shared it on Facebook, and only 26 of those were from me mandating staff to do it. “Yeah, Vu, high-five!” said a colleague at a meeting, and we high-fived, which was tricky, since I was holding my 5-month-old baby Viet. We are doing a nanny-share with another Executive Director, but even with the split costs, we could only afford it four days a week, so on Fridays, we two EDs tote our babies around.
The post sparked some great conversations, especially around the challenges of communication between funders and nonprofits. “I call it the Wall of Philanthrophy,” said one of my ED friends. She painted the image of a physical wall between funders and nonprofits. “There is a tiny window in the wall, and every once a while it opens just a little bit, and maybe there is an exchange of ideas, but then it quickly closes, and it’s solid wall again.”
This reminds me of the Wall in the Game of Thrones. It is 700 feet tall, 300-mile-long wall made of solid ice to keep out the Wildlings, people who are regarded as primitive, cruel savages who have poor hygiene. The Wildlings live North of the Wall, a barren, desolate, cutthroat, and eternally wintery landscape that has very few good restaurants. Every once a while they try to cross the Wall and get South into the warm Seven Kingdoms, which are more civilized and you can go to the bathroom for more than two minutes without fear of frostbites and gangrene. While a Wildling or two sneak past the Wall here and there, in a thousand years not a single assault on the guarded Wall has succeeded.
I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like nonprofit organizations and staff are like the Wildlings trying constantly to make it past the Wall. “Sound the alarms! There is a group of Wildlings at the base of the Wall, and they are chanting ‘General Operating Funds! General Operating Funds!’ Quick, prepare the hot oil!”
This Philanthropic Wall manifests itself in many ways:
After the site visit, we hardly see funders at programs and special events
Nonprofits are rarely invited to conferences and other important gatherings of funders
It takes anywhere from a week to nine years to get a hold of some funders, often when we are trying to get support for time-critical projects
Funders almost always refuse to join committees for projects initiated by nonprofits
Not a single funder accepted my invitation to 80’s-themed trivioke night, a combination of trivia and karaoke.
I don’t think I will be able to scale this wall in my lifetime, which is why I’ve been training my son Viet when I have him on Fridays, hoping that one day he will follow his father’s footsteps into nonprofit and continue the work. Instead of children’s stories, I’ve been reading strategic plans and annual reports to him. “One day, son, all funding will be general operating. I probably won’t be around to see that. Learn and grow strong and help to make that happen.”
Every once a while, though, there is a glimmer of hope. An Executive Director friend of mine said she was invited to a conference of funders to present her organization’s work. “Really?!” I said, nearly choking on a pluot, “you’re attending a conference of funders? No way!”
“Yeah,” she said, “but they made it amply clear that I am not to approach any of them to solicit funds. Actually, it was hinted that I shouldn’t talk much at all. In fact, I have to wear this scarlet N on my nametag to mark me as a Nonprofit.”
We nonprofits can understand why people feel that the distance between funders and nonprofits is necessary. After all, there are so many nonprofits, and funders should be fair and should not be playing favorites. However, the quest for objectivity and impartiality has led to an unhealthy adversarial system that has been harmful to the field. How can conferences to talk about funding structure and collective impact and other important stuff be effective when the people doing the direct service work and thus have first-hand knowledge of client and community needs are only marginally part of the conversation?
Plus, when there are insurmountable barriers to communication with funders, it just means that the nonprofits with the strongest relationships and connections make it through, finding support for their own projects. So many great ideas never get off the ground because many nonprofits leaders do not have the behind-the-scene connections with funders, and on the other hand, so many crappy ideas do get funded because someone knows someone who knows someone.
Funders have more power, and thus must take a larger share of the responsibility for perpetuating an ineffective system where we nonprofits spend much of our time trying to figure out how to survive instead of innovate. We have been at the base of the Wall chanting things like “general operating funds!” and “overhead is necessary” and “standardize your budget forms!” for a long time now, with little result.
But we nonprofits are not off the hook either. Like the Wildling tribes, we are constantly in competition for survival, which tends to happen when resources are scarce. We have to work together and support one another while simultaneously delivering common messages and proposed solutions. We can’t just keep grumbling at the base of the wall. We must unite.
We must ALL unite. In the Game of Thrones the Wall wasn’t originally built to keep out Wildlings. They were just unlucky enough to be caught on that side when the Wall was built thousands of years ago to defend against the White Walkers, who are kind of like scary-as-hell evil ice mummies who could turn dead people and animals into evil ice zombies and the army of mummies/zombies went and killed everyone, Wildlings and civilized people alike, until they were driven back to their cold, wintery home and the Wall was built to keep them there. Winter is coming, it lasts whole generations, and the White Walkers are stirring once again.
The point is, there are greater threats out there—poverty, racism, violence, loneliness, war, inequity, oppression, homophobia, injustice, unaffordable childcare, hunger, illness, death, etc., the White Walkers of our nonfictional world—and we should be working together to defeat those things, not focusing so much of our time building and maintaining walls around ourselves and each other. Funders and nonprofits must communicate better and work in partnership more effectively.
How about we start by carpooling to the next trivioke night?