How to schedule a meeting without being punched in the pancreas

pug-1209129_960_720As a field, we have a lot of meetings. And we totally suck at scheduling them. Each week, I get at least a dozen emails like this: “Dear Vu, my name is John, and I am from Unicycles for Peace, a nonprofit dedicated to replacing violence with the joys of unicycling. I would like to meet with you to see how our organizations could collaborate. Let me know what works best for you.”

Now, this email is very sincere and courteous, but it makes me want to punch the meeting requester in the pancreas. Not at first, of course, but gradually, due to a series of irritating emails. What’s best for me may be 10:30am on 10/20 at my office, so I write back with “How about 10:30am on 10/20 at my office?” Then they would write back with, “Sorry, I have another meeting at that time. How about 5pm on 10/23?” Of course, that doesn’t work for me, so I write back, “Sorry, can’t do that time, how about 6pm?” This could go on for several days or years.

I am proposing a set of rules that we all in the field follow which I hope will make us more efficient and lessen our chances of getting punched in the pancreas.

The Official Rules for Scheduling Nonprofit Meetings

Rule 1, the List of Three: The meeting initiator must propose, in his initiation email, at minimum three dates and times of when he is available, these aforementioned times being preferably spread over several days. We use that line all the time: “Please let me know what works best for you.” That’s euphemism for “I want to sound thoughtful, but really I just don’t feel like looking at my calendar and proposing several dates that I’m free. Why don’t you do it, and I’ll see if it works for me.” Hell no. That’s lazy. You initiated the meeting; you look at your calendar. It takes a long time to look at my insane schedule to see three times that would work for me. Do you think I just sit in my cubicle watching clips of The Daily Show all day long? Of course not. There’s also the Colbert Report.

If none of the three times that the initiator proposed works for the meeting grantor, it is now the responsibility of the meeting grantor to set parameters (e.g, “this month is awful for me”) and propose a separate set of at least three times that work for him. This List of Three shall be perpetuated in turn by both parties until a mutually agreeable time is determined.

Rule 2, the Burden of Travel: The meeting initiator must bear more of the burden of travel when determining the meeting location. It is discourteous for the initiator to ask the grantor to come to his or her office, especially if it’s downtown, where parking fees tend to add up to Mitt Romney’s yearly tax savings. It’s like asking someone out. You make it convenient for them. You go and pick them up. You don’t say, “I’m so happy you agreed to go out with me. Can you pick me up at my place at 8?” What next, you ask them to drop by Tamarind Tree and pick you up some spring rolls on the way too?  Negotiations can be made to find a mutually acceptable venue, but overall, the initiator must bear the majority of the burden of travel.

Rule 3, the Courtesy of Confirmation: Meeting initiators are responsible to confirm the meeting before it happens, and to ensure the exchange of cell phone numbers in the event of lateness or last-minute cancelation. The other party may also confirm, though it’s not required. Whoever confirms, there should be no more than one confirmation per meeting.

Rule 4, the Payment of the Tab: If you initiated and you have an expense account, offer to pay if you’re meeting for coffee or lunch. If you don’t have one, you can still offer to be polite, or go Dutch. Most nonprofit workers don’t have expense accounts. We EDs of small organizations usually spend 50 bucks or more of our personal money each week on coffee meetings, lunches, dinner, etc. It’s OK; we like to think of the children (Specifically: “Those darn children! They never have to pick up a tab! No wonder their phones are nicer than mine.”)

Rule 5, the Price of Postponement: Once the meeting is scheduled, whoever is the latest to request to reschedule the appointment now bears the burden of picking up the tab. That’s right, you move our lunch appointment, you pay for lunch. You move it multiple times, I’m also ordering the most expensive dessert on the menu.

Rule 6, the Burden of Rescheduling: Whoever canceled the meeting for any reason now has the responsibility to reschedule the meeting, following Rule 1. If within a month this does not occur, the other party may follow up with a reminder, but the burdens of the List of Three, of travel, and of picking up the tab, all fall on the party that requested the reschedule. This reminder is the only time where it’s acceptable to send the line “let me know what works best for you” without having to include a List of Three.

Rule 7, the Role of the Assistant:  Assistants are wonderful and magical, like unicorns, and all of us would like to have one. But most of us do not. If you have one, ensure your assistant does not cause aggravation to those with whom they are trying to schedule a meeting. “Dear Vu, Edward would like to meet with you to discuss which baby animals are cuter, bunnies or baby porcupines, since this new study shows that looking at cute animals increases work place productivity. Are you free next Wednesday at 3pm to meet at our office downtown?”

As I mentioned in a previous post, out of collegial camaraderie, executive directors should never use their assistant to schedule a meeting with another executive director, unless the second ED has an assistant too. It’s like “Have your people contact my people,” but you have people, and I don’t have people. Most of us are our own people! And if your people have no scheduling skills, I may respond back with something like “I’m sorry, this year is really awful for me.”

Rule 8, the Price of Failure: Whoever stands up the other party, whether intentional or not, must pay the price for this insult. in addition to buying all stood-up parties lunch, the offender must send an apologetic email with significant groveling and new times, based on Rule 1, the List of Three. If both parties for some reason simultaneously stood one another up, no further action is necessary, for they are both idiots.

These above rules are by no means comprehensive, and there are always exceptions. If you can think of other rules, please put them in the comment section. Overall, if we can agree to abide by a set of rules, it may make our work easier. I promise if you follow the ones above, I will not punch you in any internal organ. Rules for scheduling group meetings and conference call etiquette will follow later, after I catch up on the Daily Show.

@nonprofitwballs

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How Nonprofit With Balls got its name; it’s more complicated than you think

 

balls 2Recently, a new nonprofit came to meet me at the VFA office, which I appreciated, since I’m a very busy person, and meeting at my office allows me to watch a second episode of “The Daily Show” on hulu.com. This particular advocacy organization was trying to advance education in Seattle, and they wanted to see about collaborating with VFA. “Luke” came on time and was very friendly.

“Two separate people mentioned you, Vu, as someone we should talk to,” he said, beaming. He went on to present his concept, which was not altogether a horrible idea for advancing education. But I had this sinking feeling in my stomach. He was going to ask VFA to pull together a focus group.

“We’re trying to really engage communities of color, so we’re hoping you would do a focus group of 15 or 20 people for us to listen to.”

Every week, VFA gets some sort of request to rally our community members: “Vu, the seawall is breaking! Can you recruit several immigrants and refugees to give input?” The following week: “Vu, the combined sewers are overflowing! We want to get the Vietnamese community’s thoughts!” It is rarely anything fun: “Vu, a delegation is going to Hawaii to study the effects of hula and mild inebriation on nonprofit executives’ burnout rates, and we’d like you to come.”

“To be frank,” I said, “we are at capacity. We have only three full-time staff here at VFA running several programs and projects. I’m afraid that unless there are resources provided, I cannot ask my team to tackle any additional responsibilities.”

Luke looked perplexed and started talking about the importance of the effort he is trying to advance. I told him that if he wants effective collaborations, he should go to his funders and advocate for a more equitable financial support of organizations that are out there on the ground doing direct work so that we can have more capacity for advocacy. He became irritated and extremely defensive.

“So basically,” he said, “you want me to go back to my funders and say ‘Vu won’t play ball unless we give him money.’ I can’t do that.”

Luke must be new to Seattle. In a city known for process and indirectness, it was rather refreshing to hear him talk so bluntly. It had a certain symphony, like a wrench thrown into a blender.

“Play ball? Listen, we small ethnic nonprofits are knee-deep in balls! We have balls flying at us from every corner, from the City, from the County, from the School District, from organizations like yours. Usually without any funding to support our operations. We can’t juggle your balls for you!”

Kidding, I would never say that; at least, not while sober. What I said was, “The traditional ways of engaging communities of colors do not work. If you want to rally a few people to ‘listen’ to, then I am sure you can succeed in the short term. If you want long-term impact, I am telling you that you and others will need to shift your traditional way of doing and funding things. You can either hire a multicultural team of outreach staff, or you will need to work with cultural organizations; either way or preferably both, it will take resources because it takes much more effort to reach communities of color.”

He was visibly annoyed. “I am not looking for a handout, Vu,” he said, “you know what, if you just write down how much it’ll cost to pay for a few hours of someone’s time to call up people and how much facilities and food and other expenses will be, we’ll figure out a way to pay for them.”

I told him I didn’t have time to sit down and figure out his budget for him. And that even when there are resources, sometimes we have to turn down great projects because they do not align with our strategic plan.

“That really saddens me,” he responded, “and when this effort is huge and successful, and the Vietnamese community’s voice is missing, we’ll both understand why.”

I smiled. There was no point arguing further with him.

“All right,” he said, “how about this? We get lunch, you and I, and you bring just one Vietnamese client. Just one. You know what they say, the journey of ten thousand steps begins with one step, so can you do that? Just one client.”

“Luke,” I said—

“Just one!”

“Do you know what it takes to coordinate even something as simple as that? First I have to figure out which clients I know, then I have to call up four or five of them to see if any are interested. If one is interested, I have to find a slot that works with your schedule, my schedule, and this other person’s schedule. Also, I’d be more than glad to have lunch with you, but I am 90% certain that a client will not join, because they work during the day.”

Our time was up. I started feeling a pang of guilt. Perhaps I was a little too harsh. “Listen,” I said, “I want to be sure there is no misunderstanding between us—”

“Oh, there’s not,” he said, smirking, “I heard you loud and clear.”

“I don’t BS,” I said, staring him in the eye, “if you want real community engagement, help change the traditional way of doing things.”

I walked him out and sat down at my computer to write my follow-up thank-you email. Was I out of line? Was I taking out some sort of unconscious frustration on Luke? I don’t doubt his or his organization’s intentions. Perhaps he just came at a bad time. Every month, we get a dozen similar requests, usually from well-meaning and well-funded organizations. My staff work ridiculous hours managing programs and several capacity building and other projects. I’ve never worked with a more dedicated team. Is it unreasonable then for me to feel protective and to get annoyed at people like Luke, who seem to think we ethnic nonprofits have unlimited time and that we are selfish when we refuse to “collaborate” and “play ball” with mainstream organizations vastly better funded than we are?

Luke responded back, and we are having lunch in a couple of weeks. I’ll keep you updated. [Read Part 2, my lunch with Luke]

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Collective Impact: resistance is futile

honey-bees-326337_960_720In the past few years, the concept of Collective Impact has covered lots of ground, with great results. Concerted efforts can kick some serious butts. Look what Strive has accomplished. Characteristics of CI are a common agenda, shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities, constant communication, a backbone organization, and monthly happy hours.

However, like taking naps at work, Collective Impact should be done strategically and sometimes not at all. Recently, I’ve started seeing it become more and more like the Borg in Star Trek, a species that assimilates other life forms in a quest for dominance and perfection. Controlled by a hive mind that neutralizes any sort of individualism, and comprising billions of annexed individuals, they are strong and terrifying, like an army of zombie robots, each with one eye that has a laser beam. Resistance is futile, since any entity that tries to put up a fight is either assimilated and loses its identity, or else destroyed.

That, unfortunately, is what it feels like sometimes by those of us on the ground, the nonprofits that work directly with individuals and families. While no one is arguing with the importance and effectiveness of collective impact, it can be a little frustrating. Three or four times this year, we were told by various funders we need to align with The Borg. (There are several great CI efforts all around, so by “The Borg,” I am not referring to any specific one). Program officers, who are the Sherpas on the oftentimes Everestian slopes of foundation applications, have seen this shift in paradigm and have been trying to be helpful. Once a while, I get a call like this:

Program Officer: I’m calling to provide some feedback on your proposal. Are you in a secure location?

Me: Yes. I just walked into the bathroom.

PO: You need to mention a little bit more about your work with the Borg. The review team is looking for projects that really align with the Borg’s strategy.

Me: All right, we can expand that section. Thank you.

PO: I never called you. This conversation never happened.

Sometimes, we actually align with the Borg, in which case I’m happy to expand on how wonderful it is to be assimilated into the Borg hive mind. But occasionally we do not align. Heck, once in a while it makes no sense to be. As powerful as the Borg are in Star Trek, they were never able to assimilate members of Species 8472, which looks kind of like bugs, but that’s neither here nor there. Species 8472 is just so biologically different and incompatible, assimilation would only lead to disaster. A parallel can be made with collective impact efforts that try to involve communities of color, who have unique strengths and needs. Oftentimes, the first instinct is to assimilate everyone under one umbrella, and that could work. However, sometimes it does not work, and it may not necessarily be anyone’s fault. Several umbrellas may be needed.

Another frustration I’ve seen is funders’ shifting the funding priorities from direct service work to collective impact efforts and backbone organizations. Queries about support for direct impact programs often come back with “Sorry, we are now prioritizing funding the Borg’s work. Maybe you should go talk to them.” This is extremely frustrating. While the push is for everyone to align with CI efforts, the funding is not equitable. Direct service organizations, especially the ones that focus on communities of color, can only be involved in these amazing, region-wide efforts if we are strong and stable and have credibility with our clients. VFA has been getting requests to join various CI efforts and we have become more and more involved. If we were to shut down our after-school, leadership, parental engagement, and community-building work, no one would approach us, because we would have no connection or credibility. In order for these major collective impact efforts to succeed, funders must continue funding direct service organizations in parallel.

Much more importantly, however, is that clients may not be able to afford the time that it often takes for Borg-like efforts to achieve perfection. CI usually takes years. A kid who is failing school or an elder who needs food doesn’t have years. I just talked to a principal of a school with 90% low-income kids of color. She would love a common agenda and shared measurements and fully supports the work in this area. But right now her school desperately needs an after-school tutoring program because many students are several grades behind and they go home to empty houses and get no support.

In the Star Trek universe, there are few things more terrifying than a Borg invasion. They sweep through and assimilate or destroy everything. They absorb all resources. Collective impact should not have to be like that. The premise for collective impact is that we can do things much better by working together than by working in isolation. This is a premise that all of us on the ground fully believe in. But funding must be equitable and direct service must be simultaneously supported.

Being a nonprofit with balls, part 2

balls 1Two weeks ago I had lunch with Luke, whom you may recall from “Being a Nonprofit with Balls.” Luke had come to VFA a couple of months ago asking us to rally 15 to 20 community members for a focus group. I had just woken up from my daily ED power nap and was kind of groggy and in no mood to be accommodating, so we got into a fistfight. Of course, this the nonprofit field in Seattle, so by “fistfight” I mean that we threw big concepts, hoping to wound each other with phrases like “authentic engagement” and “equity.” I told him that we small ethnic nonprofits are overwhelmed with similar requests from well-meaning organizations who are trying to be “inclusive” and that we just didn’t have staff capacity to do it and that he should go back to advocate for more equitable funding if he really wanted to authentically engage the communities of color.

We decided to have lunch, and I was looking forward to it. While I thought Luke’s approach was ineffective, I appreciated his refreshing directness. He arrived on time at my favorite restaurant. Since he was technically my elder, I poured him tea.

“So, how did you get to where you are?” I asked. He told me of his journey and of his philosophy on life, which is basically that if you serve others selflessly, the Universe will reward you.

“I moved up here, didn’t have a job. I was at this event, and I met Ted, who is a millionaire. He told me about this thing he’s trying to do to improve education, so I said that sounds great, how can I help? And he gave me a job.”

“That’s great,” I said, wishing that I knew more millionaires so I could be selfless around them.

“Listen,” he said, “that thing with asking you to put together a focus group, that was garbage.”

“It’s OK,” I said, “we get asked all the time. We know people mean well.”

“It’s just, how do we get the communities to the table? We keep inviting them.”

For the past several months, I’ve been on this bent about community engagement and funding equity, especially around education. After talking to Luke, I realize that he’s a nice guy, but his approach is very indicative of the standard approach to community engagement, which has gone nowhere. People wonder, Why are the communities of color refusing to join our table? We’ve invited them countless times. Don’t they want to work with us? We’ve prepared place settings for them and everything!

The reality is that whoever hosts the table has the majority of the power. They can shift people’s seats around, kick them out, refuse to share the recipe for coconut cornbread, or whatever. It is challenging to have authentic engagement when people feel like guests at a table and not a co-host. “Inviting” people to the table is not enough, since this is symptomatic of not engaging people at square one, when the table was being created in the first place.

“Community engagement must begin at square one,” I said. “Too often efforts get to square three or four, usually well-supported by funding at each step of the way, before people stop to realize, ‘Hold on, we’re not doing a good job reaching underrepresented communities.’ They scramble and backtrack, but it may be too late, since funding usually has been allocated without these communities in mind. So then we get asked to participate without being provided resources.”

Another thing,” I said, “the people most impacted need to lead the effort. This is especially true with an issue like education, where the ‘achievement gap’ is basically kids of color. If this is the civil rights issue of our time, then the people most impacted need to be in the front leading. Allies and supporters are critically important. This work cannot be successful without then, especially since they have the relationships with funders. But they must be on the side or behind supporting the people most affected by inequity. Too often we see well-meaning people coming into the neighborhood saying ‘Hey, we know what works best for you. Come join and support our efforts!’”

“Also, people think that presence equals engagement. I’ve been to numerous ‘community input’ events that are fully attended by diverse communities. VFA has rallied our community members to these events. They have interpreters and UN-style headsets, and the room looks beautiful and inspiring, and no doubt pictures of the event will be posted everywhere afterward as proof of how effective the outreach and engagement was. Many of our community members leave going ‘Huh?’ Then they don’t see any results and feel that their time was wasted, and VFA loses credibility with them for inviting them. They may not understand all the concepts presented, but they know enough to feel shafted and tokenized. Presence is only one-half of engagement.”

“Here, try this vegan lemongrass chicken,’” I said, taking a break from my lecture, which I realized had been welling up for the past few years. “Having names on a list does not indicate engagement,” I continued, “VFA and other ethnic nonprofits get asked to join various coalitions and efforts. Because we are so busy doing direct service, we sometimes say ‘Yeah, go ahead, sign us up and use our name. We’ll drop by occasionally.’ This is a horribly destructive practice, as it stymies responsibility on our part to actively lead in the effort, and it reinforces the system of funding inequity and poor engagement. Funders looking at this list of ‘members’ may not be aware of how actively engaged they actually are. Heck, some organizations on the list may no longer even exist.”

Finally,” I said, “direct service organizations have tremendous potential for advocacy. After all, they work directly with families and know their needs and can mobilize them to change policies and practices. But we are not funded to do that stuff.”

This was a lot of information to take in. We paused for a while to eat our food. “So what can I do to help?” he asked. I thought about it for a second. For the past year and a half I’ve been involved with the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which is mobilizing the communities of color and allies to work together to improve education in Southeast Seattle. This is one of the few efforts actually led by the local communities of color to address the achievement gap. We are tired of being “invited” to the table. We must be a table. Trouble is, communities of color are not as connected to funders and decision makers, so we’ve been struggling with funding.

“Introduce me to your millionaire friend Ted,” I said, “I want to talk to him about SESEC.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. We continued our conversation until the bill came. “I’ll pay,” I said, but Luke insisted on getting it. I could have fought for the bill, or at least to pay for my share, but I knew he felt some guilt, and this was his way of appeasing. I let him pay. I guess it’s my way of being selfless.

Last week, Luke emailed me saying he had talked to Ted and that Ted was willing to meet with me. I followed up to schedule a meeting. I am going to meet with a millionaire. Will keep you updated. [Read Part 3]

Reflections for Thanksgiving

thanksgivingLast week I received a severe drubbing from a program officer for unintentionally breaching protocols with her foundation while seeking funding for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which I chair. I’ll explain the whole thing later in my book “Unicorns, Equity, and General Operating Funds: Quest of the Nonprofit Warriors.” (It’s a working title). Suffice to say, I apologized profusely and left the lunch meeting feeling very much like crap.

On the way back to the office, I walked by Panha, an elderly Cambodian woman who sells fish and vegetables on the sidewalk. Seven days a week she is out under a makeshift tarp awning, sitting on a short stool, her eyes framed by crows’ feet and greying hair. “Yellow mushrooms yet?” I asked. She shook her head. “Not yet!” For the past several weeks I have been waiting for the chanterelle mushrooms that Panha’s friend harvests for her to sell. Despite the heavy rain, still no signs of them. “You buy leaf?” she asked. Panha speaks broken English and does not know the vocabulary for many of the vegetables laid out in front of her. All the greens—kale, collards, bok choy—are “leaf” to her. She pointed at some greens that I did not recognize. “What can I do with them?” I asked, knowing what the answer will be, since she does not have vocabulary like sautee, braise, steam, etc.

“Make soup!” she said, and we both cracked up. It has become an inside joke between us.

In my cubicle, I composed a short email reiterating my apologies to the program officer, then started working on some grants that were due, thinking of how nice it would be to have four solid days off for Thanksgiving. I was still feeling pretty crappy.

Then I thought about Panha sitting out there in the rain and cold, like my mother may have once sat long ago, selling her wares at the market, which we transported for miles on her bicycle. It made me realize what an ingrate I was being. I started thinking about the things for which I am thankful. They range from small things (wine, The Walking Dead), to big things, like friends and family and good health and shelter. I am thankful for all these blessings.

But I am also very thankful for my work. In all the daily craziness, I forget sometimes how lucky I am to be able to wake up each day and be engaged in meaningful work. Three decades ago I was a kid growing up in a small mountain village in Vietnam. The War had recently ended and my parents would struggle to feed us. In my fractured memories of that time are images of our wood-burning stove, the dirt floor, the smell of pine and red earth, and the monsoon rain that battered our rusty, leaking tin roof.

It was luck, or Fate, or maybe Karma, that brought us to the US. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if we had not made it here. I was a frail and timid little kid. I did not know anything of the War or what it did to our family. Now I realize that my father’s role as a soldier on the losing side of this War would ensure that none of us kids would be able to make it into college. We would end up repairing bicycles or farming a tiny plot of land or, if we were lucky and clever enough to navigate the network of corrupt officials, maybe opening a small business. All noble occupations, and we might have even been happy.

But I like the work that I am doing now. I don’t think many people in the world get to do what they find fulfilling. This work, strengthening a nonprofit, advancing a community, is challenging and often crazy driving. We face obstacles constantly. There are days when I get bad news from a funder, or an elder lectures me for an hour on what I did wrong, or our cashflow is awful because a reimbursement-based grant payment is delayed and we might not be able to make payroll.

But there are also days like this Saturday, when I dropped by our SES program to find 80 kids experiencing Thanksgiving for the first time in their life. It was also moving to see two VFA board members there, serving these kids their inaugural portion of turkey. Later in the same day, at a different location, our Youth Jobs Initiative program brought in guest speakers with different occupations to inspire a different set of our bright kids who face so many barriers.

The work is constantly challenging, oftentimes aggravating, and infinitely rewarding. I get to meet and collaborate with awesome, dedicated people all the time. I have the best and most amazing team in the world. And my actions, perhaps in just a small way, may be helping to make a difference in the world, to make it better. For the chance to do that, I am very thankful.

I took a break from grantwriting and ran downstairs to get Panha some Vietnamese coffee. She loves Vietnamese coffee, steaming hot, with condensed milk. The rain still fell, and she was huddled under her blue tarp awning when I approached her. “Oh, thank you, honey,” she said, her eyes lighting up when I handed her the coffee. I asked her how business was going. “Not good,” she said, “raining, raining too much. Nobody buy.” The winter would be worse for Panha. But she is always in good spirit. “You buy pumpkin?” she said, gesturing at some green squash. What can I do with it, I asked.

“Make soup!” she said, and we laughed, and I went back to my office.