Nonprofit with Balls’s 100th post! Let’s celebrate by going home early.

unicorn sunsetHi everyone. This is Nonprofit With Ball’s historic 100th post. It is a momentous occasion. When I was a little boy growing up in a small village up in the mountains of Vietnam, my father said to me, “Son, we may be poor, but that does not mean we can’t accomplish great things. You are the smartest, most-talented, and, in certain very dim lighting, best-looking kid in our family. Bring honor to our name.” Well, look dad, I wrote 100 blog posts about nonprofits, many mentioning unicorns! I think our ancestors would be proud. They’re probably tweeting about it right now.

For this 100th post, I’m going to provide excerpts of some of my favorite early posts, the ones that you probably haven’t read because they’re so old. If this sounds very lazy, like those TV shows that do montages as a special episode (“Instead of writing a real episode, let’s spend 10 minutes looking at all the times that Joey said ‘How you doin’?’ and all the times that Ross acts like a completely unlikeable character”) you are right. But hey, this only happens every 100th blog posts; we’ll be back next week with new content. Here, read these posts below if you haven’t. And I think it’s only appropriate that we all go home early today in celebration. Continue reading “Nonprofit with Balls’s 100th post! Let’s celebrate by going home early.”

If You Give a Board Treasurer a Cookie, and other classic children’s books about nonprofit work

Today, I want to talk about children’s books. I am so sick of these children’s books that my one-year-old makes me read each day. You try to see how charming “Guess How Much I Love You” is after the 80th time! All right, nutbrown hares, we get it, you love each other, great! And yes, brown bear, brown bear, you see a red bird, awesome, and red bird, red bird, you see a blue horse, wonderful.

But then I got this great idea! I should write children’s books! They are short as hell! And if one becomes a best-seller, I’ll be rich, rich! The conventional wisdom is to write about stuff that you know. And what do I know? Nonprofit work, of course. I can write children’s books about nonprofit work! Here are some that I’ve started working on. There is so much that children can learn from our field. Just imagine parents reading these books to their kids each night. Maybe these books might even inspire some kids to grow up wanting to be nonprofit warriors. Read these texts below, and let me know what you think, and other children’s book ideas you have.

The Runaway ED

runaway 2Once upon a time there was an Executive Director, and she wanted to run away. So she said to her board chair, “I am going to run away.”

Her board chair said, “If you run away, I will come and find you and bring you back, for you are my Executive Director.”

“If you come and find me,” said the ED, “then I will become a strategic plan and hide on the shelf.”

“If you become a strategic plan and hide on the shelf,” said her board chair, “then I will become an intern who accidentally stumbles on you.”

“If you become an intern who accidentally stumbles on me, then I will become a raw piece of cauliflower on a snack platter at a community gathering, which no one will eat.”

“If you become a raw piece of cauliflower on a snack platter at a community gathering, which no one will eat, I will become a desperate hungry vegan and find you.”

“If you become a desperate hungry vegan who will find me,” said the ED, “then I will become an invitation-only foundation that is like Fort Knox to get through.”

“If you become an invitation-only Foundation that is like Fort Knox to get through, I will become the best friend of one of the trustees’ daughters and I will get through to you.”

“Aw, shucks,” said the ED, “well, in that case, I might as well stay here and be your ED.”

And she did.

“Can I have a raise?” she asked.

“No.”

If You Give a Board Treasurer a Cookie

If you give a board treasurer a cookie, he may ask who’s paying for the cookie.

When you answer that you’re using funds he approved on the budget, he’s probably going to ask to see a copy of the budget.

When you give him the budget, he’s going to ask for the latest balance sheet.

When you show him the balance sheet, it may remind him of a training he attended about the importance of opening a line of credit.

He’ll ask you to open a line of credit. He might get carried away and say he’ll go to the bank himself.

When he goes to the bank, he might notice that your signatories are not up to date.

He’ll send out an email to the finance committee asking to discuss this at the next meeting.

You’ll have to coordinate the meeting and remind everyone. And of course, you have to get snacks.

And chances are…cookies will be on sale.

 

The Very Tired Development Director

In the light of a fluorescent lamp, a Development Director sat hunched over an organization’s fundraising plan.

On Monday, he organized one luncheon, but the organization still needed money.

On Tuesday, he applied to two employee giving campaigns, but the organization still needed money.

On Wednesday, he launched three crowd-funding initiatives, but the organization still needed money.

On Thursday, he wrote four grants, but the organization still needed money.

On Friday, he called five major donors, but the organization still needed money.

On Saturday, he wrote 10 thank-you emails, sent out 18 handwritten notecards, went to coffee with 5 potential donors, checked the grant calendar, looked at the annual event program brochures of 9 similar organizations to scan their sponsors, called 4 board members to remind them of their tasks, emailed 3 local businesses, and led a program tour. He was exhausted.

The next day was Sunday again. The Development Director stayed at home and spent time with his family, and he felt much better.

He was due for a much-needed vacation, so he left for Hawaii. A week later he came back and…

He was still an awesome Development Director who continued to keep the organization and its important work going.

 

The Giving Nonprofit

Once there was nonprofit organization, and it loved the community and the funders supporting its work. Every year, the organization would continue to serve the people in its community. And each year, funders would provide funding so it could continue its programs. And the organization loved its funders and its community very much. And the community was happy.

But time went by, and the nonprofit and its programs grew older. The funders didn’t come as frequently, and the nonprofit was often left alone.

Then one day, a funder passed by, and the nonprofit said, “Come, funder, come to my programs and meet the kids we serve and let’s make the community better.”

“My foundation has shifted its priorities,” said the funder, “we only fund new and innovative programs. Do you do anything new and innovative?”

“I’m sorry,” said the nonprofit, “we have been building this program for several years. It is not new. But it is good, and it serves many wonderful people.”

And the funder left, and the nonprofit was sad again.

Then one day, another funder passed by, and the nonprofit said, “Come, let’s have lunch and talk about our community. Support our work and help kids achieve a brighter future.”

“We no longer fund direct service work,” said the funder, “that’s a Band-Aid solution. Do you do Collective Impact?”

“I’m sorry,” said the nonprofit, “we have been involved, but not significantly, since our community still needs direct service.”

And so the funder left and went far, far away. The nonprofit was now very tired and sad.

And after a long time, another funder came by.

“I’m sorry,” said the nonprofit, “I don’t have anything innovative, just good programs that serve people. My programs only target specific neighborhoods, not whole states, in case you want something farther reaching. The programs serve unique populations, so they might not be scalable, in case that’s what you seek. I am not sure I have anything that you might like to fund.”

“It’s OK,” said the funder, “we provide general operating grants focused on outcomes, and I heard you do some great stuff, so here is a grant so you can continue to serve the community.”

And the nonprofit was happy.

And its staff went to happy hour.

***

For more nonprofit kids’ books, read “Where the Sustainable Things Are” and other nonprofit children’s books.

And also part 3, “Green Eggs and Strategic Plans” and other nonprofit children’s books.

***

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General operating funds, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies

sophia 2This week I was on an NDOA panel to discuss the importance of unrestricted funds. I was there with another nonprofit leader as well as two funders, and all of us, everyone in the room, agreed that general operating funds are awesome. General operating funds are like Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones, or Darryl Dixon of The Walking Dead, or, you know, Sophia from The Golden Girls: It is flexible, it is adaptable, and that’s why it gets stuff done.

For years I have been railing against restricted funding to anyone who would listen. I wrote a piece imagining what it would be like if a bakery ran with the same funding restrictions as a nonprofit: “I need a cake for some gluten-free veterans. I can pay you only 20% of the cost of the cake, and you can only spend my money on eggs, but not butter, and certainly not for the electricity; you have to find someone else to pay for the oven’s electricity. Also, you need to get an accounting firm to figure out where you’re spending my money, but you can’t use my money to pay for that service.” (Read the full post: “Nonprofit funding: Ordering a cake and restricting it too“). Continue reading “General operating funds, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies”

9 lessons from House of Cards we can apply to nonprofit work

cards-627167_960_720Hi everyone, if you have not been watching House of Cards on Netflix, you should ask a coworker who has been watching it to slap you in the face right now. First off, it’s a really well-made show, with great actors, interesting plot-lines, and good pacing.

Second of all, it actually has a character who directs a nonprofit that is not illegally selling human organs in the basement. Every time we see a nonprofit depicted on TV on shows like Law and Order SVU, it is doing something like illegally selling human organs, which really screws up the general public’s perception of us. I am tired of people coming up to me and saying, “Pst, hey, I heard you direct a nonprofit? Got any kidneys in stock?”

All right, fine, no one says that.

Point is, House of Cards is great, and even though it is about politics and features some of the most ruthless, calculating, and evil-yet-well-dressed people on earth, we nonprofits can learn a lot from it. There are a lot of good lessons about leadership, loyalty, strategy, and how to push someone in front of a moving train. I’ll discuss a few that stuck with me, using quotes from the show. If you haven’t seen HOC, skip this spoiler-filled post and read something else, like these nonprofit jokes I wrote.

1. “That’s how you devour a whale, Doug: One bite at a time.” Frank Underwood didn’t get nominated as Secretary of State, and he is as pissed as a porcupine in a bucket. He wants to destroy everyone who has wronged him. A huge undertaking, says his Chief-of-Staff, Doug, prompting Frank to respond with the above quote.

Lesson for nonprofits: Even difficult tasks, like creating a strategic plan, or planning an event, or moving an entrenched board, or cleaning out the office fridge, can be done if you are methodical and break the goal into smaller chunks.

2. “Friends make the worst enemies.” Frank butts head with Marty Spinella from the teachers’ union. He and Frank worked well together in the past, and now Marty feels betrayed. Marty is as pissed as three badgers in a potato sack.

Lesson for nonprofits: Do not antagonize your donors and supporters! Maintain those relationships. Sure, a stranger who knows nothing about your organization saying stuff about you is one thing, but it is much worse coming from someone who used to be a fan, since they have more credibility.

3. “What you have to understand about my people is that they are a noble people. Humility is their form of pride. It is their strength; it is their weakness. And if you can humble yourself before them they will do anything you ask.” Frank goes to his hometown to appease the parents of a girl who died in a car accident because she was texting about a peach-shaped water tower, which Frank helped to build. He tells the parents that if they want him to resign, he will.

Lesson for nonprofits: This quote can easily be applied to us who choose to devote our lives to helping people. Humility is our strength, but it can also lead to our being pushed around, settling for insufficient resources and flawed systems and really bad office chairs from Craigslist, which does not help us achieve our mission. Figure out when to be humble, and when to be assertive.

4. “Never slap a man while he’s chewing tobaccah.” Frank is plotting against Remy, his former staffer who now becomes a powerful lobbyist and serious pain in his side. But, he must wait for the right time.

Lesson for nonprofits: Timing is critical, especially when interacting with influential people. They might spit tobacco in your face, and who wants that? Tobacco stains are very hard to remove. This is why I always wait until our board chair is in a good mood and has minty fresh breath before giving her bad news.

5. Doesn’t matter what side you’re on, everybody’s got to eat. Marty leads a teachers’ strike, which takes place in front of a fundraising dinner that Claire is organizing. Frank and Claire bring out ribs and offer them to the protesters, who take the food, dealing a critical blow to the strike.

Lesson for nonprofits: Two lessons: First, no matter what our nonprofits do, we all need resources to keep going. Second, figure out weaknesses and exploit them. For the sake of making the world better, of course. (By the way, that fundraising dinner raises half a million. I had to take a break during this episode to weep softly into a throw pillow).

6. “Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power – in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” Frank here is talking about Remy, a smart former staff of his who chose to work as a lobbyist for a powerful company.

Lesson for nonprofits: Uh…just replace “power” with “social justice” and we’re good. Of course, we all chose social justice, which is far better than a stupid mansion anyway. A mansion with, like, a nice yard. A really big mansion. With a view. And a pool. And great shrubbery. God, I would push someone in front of a train for some decent shrubbery…

7. “Shake with your right hand, but hold a rock with your left.” This basically explains anytime Frank is nice to someone.

Lesson for nonprofits: The lesson I would take from this is not necessarily to be two-faced, but to always have a backup plan. Diplomacy is always a good first step when it comes to working with challenging people, but have a plan to put into action right away if that fails. And please do not let that plan involve illegally trading organs.

8. “There is no solace above or below. Only us – small, solitary, striving.” Frank at a church talking to himself after doing something terrible. So terrible that I can’t even describe it here. Let’s just say it involves at least one of these deadly things: ricin, carbon monoxide, kombucha tea, or a copy of Superman IV.

Lesson for nonprofits: We are nonprofits, and even if we’re huge, we’re still just one part of society. Every day we make choices. Some of them good. Some of them bad. We must live with our choices. Our world needs us. We must continue striving. That does sound kind of depressing, doesn’t it? Just don’t try to poison anyone with carbon monoxide and/or kombucha, all right?

9. “The foundation of this White House is not brick and mortar. It’s us.” The First Lady, trying to explain to her husband why it’s important that they work on their marriage by getting some counseling.

Lesson for nonprofits: The foundation of our work is not the office, or the computers, or the capital projects or the funds or whatever. It is the people who choose to be here doing this stuff. We must take care of each other, because good staff and board and donors and volunteers, they are what makes everything possible. Be nice to people.

But hold a rock…

Kidding.

The show is actually rife with quotes and lessons, so I’ll write more about it later. I’ve mainly been talking about Frank, but his wife Claire is equally fascinating. A post analyzing her ability to run a nonprofit will be coming, and I’m also working on lessons from Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and the Golden Girls.

(Related post: 9 lessons from Breaking Bad we can apply to nonprofit work)

10 psychological principles I learned from getting conned out of money

shell gameHappy new year, everyone. I just came back from visiting in-laws in Louisiana, in a little town called Greensburg, which is so small that the local newspaper’s front page headline read “Man arrested after bar fight.” I probably could have made the headline too, something like “Seattle man tries to recycle, gets laughed at by locals, faints from lack of vegan nourishment.”

There was not much to do in Greensburg, so we took a day trip to New Orleans, which was two hours away. We were walking down Bourbon Street, which is a magical lane filled with food and drinks and strip clubs, when a lady from a balcony called to us. I looked up. She was holding some beads. “You gotta do something to get these,” she said, winking. So I did what anyone who wanted cheap plastic beads would do. I lifted up my shirt and flashed her.

All right, I didn’t do that, since no one wants to see eight vegan ribs, except a 60 or 70 people on Craigslist. We blew her some kisses, and she tossed down the beads, which I wore proudly while I drank my 20-ounce Hurricane adult beverage, sauntering down the sidewalk.

On the way back, we stopped for gas. It was New Year Day, and there were barely any people around. I saw one of those carnival game stations with giant stuffed toys hanging all around. It was the only one there. It looked empty, sad, the stuffed bears and alligators staring into the cold air with vacant, empty expressions, the kind that we see on EDs when they get grant rejection notices. It was here, at this game station, that I got conned out of money. It still haunts me till now. At night and on long drives I think back at what happened, wondering what I could have done differently.

Upon reflecting back, I realized that this gas station game booth was a very sophisticated machine, designed to swindle people out of their hard-earned cash. They deployed psychological principles proven to work on people, even smart, sexy people who direct nonprofits. Since there is no way I’m getting my money back, I might as well use this opportunity to learn something, so I am going to dissect the psychological tricks they used and how they could be applied to our nonprofit work. I know, I know, we’re not con artists and it’s crass to compare our work to this little con game, but I lost money and I must make some sense of it.

Principle 1: Hook them in with something free. “Here, honey, maybe you can win a toy for the baby,” said a lady who hovered around the parking lot. She handed me a card that said “1 free play, no obligation.” Free, I thought, I love free! That was how it started. Application to nonprofit work: Figure out something free that could pull in potential board members or donors or volunteers. Tickets to events, for example. I am tempted to go around with cards saying, “Help 1 low-income kid for free, no obligation.”

Principle 2: Humanize yourself. I walked to the station, where a twenty-something blond kid popped up from napping. “Hey, I’m Bobby,” he said, setting up the game, “what’s your name?…Vu? That’s a cool name. What do you do, Vu?…Work for a nonprofit? That’s noble, man, helping people.” Application to nonprofit work: In our rush to get people to donate money and stuff, we sometimes pass over getting to know them. Especially during the beginning of relationship building, slow down, ask about their kids, tell them how and why you got into the field, tell them about that rash that’s been bothering you, etc. People are much more likely to invest in your organization if they see you as a human being. A human being with a weird rash.

Principle 3: Make sure the objective is obvious and attainable. “The game is simple,” said Bobby, presenting a small board with a hundred holes in it, each hole marked with a number from 1 to 5, “you scatter these 10 balls, see which holes they land in, then add up the numbers.” The sums correspond with squares on a chart, most squares having numbers, some positive, some negative. “The goal is to reach 100 points, and you can win one of these prizes, or $100, up to you.” I rolled, he added up the numbers, and I got 15 points. Application to nonprofit work: Make sure stakeholders know clearly from the beginning what your organization’s mission and goals are, and make sure the goals are measurable and sane.

Principle 4: Start with low stakes, then ramp up. “That was free,” he said, “the next roll will cost you a dollar.” I paid a dollar and rolled again. I got 50 points for a total of 65 points!! Application to nonprofit work: Hook in potential volunteers, donors, and board members with something simple and low-stake, such as helping out with a small one-time project or buying a “Men of [your organization] Calendar” or something. (What, you don’t do an annual calendar? You should. It works for firefighters).

Principle 5: Provide frequent rewards, small and large. “Let’s see,” said Bobby, counting up the balls I just rolled, “that’s 25, and that corresponds to 15 points as well as a 2-for-1 on the point chart.” I looked puzzled. “That means you have a total of 80 points, AND I give you back double what you bet,” he said, “so here’s 2 dollars!” 2 dollars, I thought, I’m rich, rich! Application to nonprofit work: Provide stakeholders with rewards for their efforts, such as newsletters or mailings detailing successes your organization has achieved thanks to their help.

Principle 6: Provide a sense of safety. Since I had made a net profit of 1 dollar, I wanted to continue playing. I rolled, and the numbers added up to 28. “You got 28!” said Bobby, “That is the insurance number! That means from now on, your points can’t be taken away if you ever land on a negative square on the point chart.” Application to nonprofit work: Make sure you have director and officer insurance to cover your board members, and an umbrella insurance policy to cover volunteers and everyone else.

Principle 7: Get them close to the goal. I had gotten up to 80 points. So close! Soooo close! Only 20 points away! It would have been foolish to quit! “OK,” said Bobby, “but the following rolls are now 5 dollars each.” (See Principle 4 about ramping up the stakes). Only $5 more for a chance to win $100! I didn’t realize it, but I was addicted. Application to nonprofit work: We use this principle all the time, such as during annual dinners where we say “We are only $5,000 from meeting our goal of raising $100,000.” People like to achieve goals, so make sure you keep everyone updated of your organizations’ measurable goals, especially at the end, when things are down to the wire, e.g., “We have 93 bone marrow donors registered out of our goal of 100! We just need 7 more!”

Principle 8: Play nonchalant. With the last roll, I got 5 point, for a total of 85. So close. I knew I was in dangerous territory. Stop right now, my brain was telling me, this is obviously a con…but wait, what if it isn’t? What if I am just lucky? I could earn a hundred bucks today! That’s a lot of vegan dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa mass…“I think I’m done,” I said, reason winning out. Bobby wasn’t fazed. “Suit yourself,” he said, “but I don’t know why you would quit with a score like that, plus insurance.” I sighed, then handed him another $5. Application to nonprofit work: Sometimes we get way too eager and thus overwhelm people. For instance, one time we were doing a Saturday morning program tour with 4 potential donors, and we had 3 board members there along with 4 staff. I think being outnumbered like that freaked out the potential donors. It’s a great program, we should have just let it speak for itself.

Principle 9: Distract and confuse. On that cold January day, holding my little 9-month old baby at the empty gas station, I reached into my pocket for another $5…I had gotten a negative 15 points, but thanks to the insurance card, I didn’t lose any. I was so close. Only 15 more points. Only 15 more points. I played until the horror set in, and I finally looked Bobby in the eye and said, “I’m done for sure this time.” But by then, it was too late.

Now, days later, thinking back on it, I realized that I never added up the balls’ values myself. I scattered them, but it was always Bobby who added them up. I never double checked his math. He counted fast, and I was too trusting. I am sure he manipulated me using the numbers, making me think I was lucky. Application to nonprofit work: There is none. We must never distract and confuse people. We must always be transparent with our supporters and community.

It was a bitter, painful lesson, this experience. It feels awful to think that you are a sucker. It haunts me till now. And now I realize there is a terrible Principle 10: Exploit people’s compassion. I only came to the booth because it was New Year’s Day, and I felt bad for that family, probably not making much money at all. We shouldn’t apply this principle to nonprofit work either.

So I got conned. It feels awful, but I have learned some great lessons, and life goes on. You might be wondering how much money I lost in total. It was $10. Yeah, 10 dollars, which may not seem like a lot of money, but remember, I work for a nonprofit.