The art of giving bad news

bad news 2In this field, we receive bad news from funders and donors as often as people get eaten by zombies on the Walking Dead, which is pretty often (by the way, if you are running into a trailer to escape a zombie attack, it is a good idea to close the door behind you. Jimmy, you exquisite fool!). VFA has received our fair share of bad news over the years. You would think that repeated exposure would desensitize us, but no, it is still pretty painful each time. When it comes down to it, any sort of bad news from a funder or a donor or The Next Iron Chef first-round auditions is a personal rejection, and it hurts. You intellectualize it—“Well, we got our foot in the door; it’ll increase our chances next year,” but it still stings.

Despite the ubiquity of rejection notices, people are awful at giving bad news. No one wants to do it, especially when it concerns huge grants that could potentially keep an organization floating another year, or fulfilling someone’s dream of being America’s first vegan Iron Chef. I have received a bunch of rejections, and as an Executive Director I’ve given out a bunch too, so I’ve learned a few lessons that I hope will help us all be better bearers of bad news.

First, the timing. Get it over with! There is absolutely nothing worse than waiting. It is terrible to exist in that sort of limbo. You may be dreading giving the news, but it is infinitely worse for the receiver, who has probably been checking their email or mail with a combination of hope and fear. Format is not nearly as important as timing. Once you know someone did not get the job, or the grant, or the consultancy gig, let them know right away and end their torment. Sure, it may be Friday and you want to wait till Monday so you don’t ruin their weekend, but I say it’s still better to get it out of the way, so that they can start going through the stages of grief, which for me are denial, anger, consuming an entire bag of wavy potato chips (with Sriracha), sending out a depressing email to the staff, intellectualizing, more anger, sadness, three or four Long Island Iced Tea, calling up several ED friends to complain, and finally, acceptance. Or maybe more anger. [Author’s note, based on feedback: Don’t give bad news on major holidays or Superbowl Sunday].

Second, the format. In general, I like emails, especially for job rejection notices. I know it is more personal to receive a phone call. You’re hoping the receiver will think, “Aw, how thoughtful, he’s personally calling me; this softens the blow and makes me feel better that I didn’t get this job after going through the application process.” Well, maybe precisely because it is personal that it should be reconsidered. After raising someone’s hopes up, probably the last thing they want to do is talk to the rejecter and hear the pity in your voice. It’s just awkward all around. You may disagree with me on this, which is OK. Overall, I think it’s best to send an email notice and include the option for the rejectee to call you to get feedback. Then, if they do decide to call, at least it’s their choice, and this feeling of control can be helpful and maybe prevent them from having that fifth Long Island.

Third, the sequence. No matter the format, rip the band-aid off immediately. Because bad news is no fun to give, and because most of us try to be thoughtful, we end up with notices like this: “Dear Vu: Thank you for applying to the ABC Foundation. We really appreciate the work that you and VFA do. We received a lot of good applications this year for the Awesome Program Grant. Yours was one of them. But due to the economy and the Euro crisis affecting the strength of the Yen…”

It is agonizing! Start like this: “Dear Vu: Unfortunately you didn’t get the Awesome Program grant. We received a lot of good applications this year, blah blah…” Start your notice with either “Unfortunately” or “Congratulations.” Everything else is filler. I once sat through a horrific minute on the phone after applying for an $80,000 grant: “Hello Vu, thank you for calling me back. How are you doing? Great. Well, I wanted to let you know that 16 organizations applied for this grant. 8 from small organizations like yours, and 8 from big organizations. The review committee selected 10 for a site visit, (remember how much fun that was when the four of us showed up early? Ha ha). After heavy consideration…hold on, are you in a car? Are you driving? You’re not? Your staff is driving? Well, wonderful! Safety is really important you know, so I’m glad you’re not driving. Anyway, after much consideration, VFA is selected as one of the six organizations we’re funding. Congratulations!”

I was clawing at my face, and at one point, my life started flashing before my eyes. Thank God that was good news. If it had been bad, I probably would have jumped into traffic.

Get to the point immediately. In fact, do it in the email subject line. I got an email just two weeks ago with this subject line: “Regrets from XYZ Foundation.” I did not get the $15,000 grant. But I really appreciated their approach. Let’s follow their example. For all notices from now on, let’s agree to standardize the subject line to either “Regrets from” or “Congratulations from.”

I’m getting ready to send out a bunch of “Regrets from VFA” emails today regarding a consultancy gig. It’s not fun to dash someone’s hopes, but you know, the Euro crisis has really been affecting the Yen. After I deliver the bad news, I’ll be in my cubicle, eating a bag of wavy potato chips with Sriracha.

Sigh…XYZ Foundation, why, why don’t you like us, why?!!!

The art of receiving bad news

bad newsMy sister turned 21. It was an emotional day. You get a number of those moments in your life where you realize that time is finite. Getting your first grey hair. Your mother stopping to catch her breath on a walk. Seeing your baby sister, whom you taught to ride a tiny bike, become of drinking age.

But absolutely worst of all is being mistaken for your father at your sister’s 21st birthday dinner at a Mexican restaurant by her friend who is a waitress there. “And is this your father?” she asked. Linda, my sister, cracked up. I would have run into the bathroom crying, but the chips and salsa were addictive and they kept refilling it.

In the last five years, I have aged ten years. The economy has not been kind to us nonprofit directors. In fact, it’s been grabbing us by the neck and giving us noogies and stealing our lunch money. Tuesday, I received news that a school we partner with did not receive a major grant that we were hoping for. We had worked on that proposal with the school for weeks. Receiving the notice was like getting smacked in the face with a frozen cantaloupe.

I was at my desk, trying to compose a bad-news email to the staff. We are a small organization, and every staff feels every victory and defeat. It is easy to write victory announcements: “Yay, we did it! Teamwork! Synergy! Eff one-ply toilet paper, we’re going two-ply! etc.” It is much harder to write a defeat email. I was drafting one when Mr. Nguyen, our Administrative Assistant, came by to talk to me.

Dear everyone, I was typing, we did not get the grant. I know this is disappointing. We gave it a valiant effort…

“Vu?” said Mr. Nguyen in his soft, eloquent voice, “your signature is not good.”

“Huh?” I said. Sure, we knew our chances were slim, but I was still hopeful. In the next several weeks, please do not get sick or injured, as we might have to cut your health insurance…

“Vu,” said Mr. Nguyen, “your signature, it’s disconnected.” I looked at the piece of paper he was holding, a form approving some office supplies. “See, you have two parts to your signature. That’s not good. It means you’re distancing yourself from your family.”

I was getting annoyed, even though he was just trying to help. “Yes, thank you for your advice.”

“You should make your signature one stroke. Underline it for support. The line adds confidence, strength.”

Argh! All Vietnamese signatures are the same: loopy squiggle with an underline. Mr. Nguyen was encouraging me to make my signature like that. I like my loop, squiggle, loop squiggle signature and didn’t need him to tell me that it was bad luck, especially when I had to send out an encouraging email to the troops after devastating news.

If we all work overtime to raise funds, and form a task-force to dumpster dive for snacks for our programs, we may just be able to weather this storm with only one or two layoffs…

But maybe he’s right. After signing so many things each week, I have dreaded signing anything, especially expense authorization, so the signature has gotten sloppy. Maybe something good will happen if I listen to Mr. Nguyen and work on my signature. Stranger things have happened at the office. Two years ago, we had some cash flow issue due to a heavy reimbursement check that had been delayed two months due to government bureaucracy. Frustrated and desperate and at the office till midnight, I looked at our one lone houseplant, a money tree. It had been dying, its leaves brown and sad. Not knowing what else to do about our cash flow, I decided to prune the tree of its dead leaves and branches. A week later, the tree started looking healthy, and I swear the check came in, and our cash flow was normal again!

Now the money tree has died. My signature apparently sucks and Mr. Nguyen thinks that’s a sign of poor character. I couldn’t blame the waitress for thinking I’m thirty years older than I am.

Each month, some of us ED’s go out for happy hour. It’s like a support group. There we console one another and talk of a bright and idyllic future. We sip our well drinks and stare into the distance, imagining a nonprofit world where all funds are multi-year and for general operating, where we ED’s could focus more of our attention on improving our services. A world with retirement funds and dental insurance for all our staff, where funders standardize their budget forms. “Hang in there,” we would say to one another, “one day, the economy will improve, you’ll see. It’ll be a beautiful day.” “Golly, Vu, do you really think so?” “Shucks, I know so.” But we all know it’ll take a while, perhaps years, perhaps never. We all dream.

And we all take advantage of senior discounts.

Fundraising: on not being a wuss

moneyAs the director of a small nonprofit, I live in a constant state of fear, one that is thankfully broken by occasional moments of terror. Recently these moments of terror come in the form of asking people to give money to VFA, since our annual dinner is coming up. Apparently, this is a major job of the ED, and one that I have been shirking on, because it is just so painful to do. There are ED’s who are really good at it, and then there are ED’s like me who would rather juggle open vials of Anthrax than sit down with a potential donor and say “Would you consider a gift of $500?”

Cultivating donors and corporate sponsors is not one of VFA’s strengths. So with SVP funds we hired a consultant, Al, a well-respected former ED who thrives on doing this stuff. He has been coaching the board on everything from how to set up the meeting with major corporations, to what to say during the meeting, to how to follow up. Al has been escorting us, like a mother duck, on various excursions to meet with some big companies. Usually we show up early to strategize:

“All right,” he says, “Vu, you will open with VFA’s history and what your current programs are. Jenny, you talk about why you joined the board. Thao, as board chair, you find a good time to present the handouts and ask for a sponsorship of $1,000. That’s not a lot, but it’s our first year, and they usually need at least six months to decide, so we’re already late. If they decline, move down to a table at the dinner. If that fails, ask for an ad in the program booklet. Here she comes; Vu, move down one seat so you’re sitting next to her.” I move down, hoping the proximity will allow my Axe deodorant to work its charms, like in those commercials where some guy sprays on some Axe deodorant and a bunch of ladies chase after him; maybe it might have the same effects on potential sponsors.

Sometimes first encounters can be really awkward. I can get very nervous and say stupid things. “So,” I said one time, talking to a rep at his office as we waited for another person to arrive, “where do you work?” “Um,” he said, “I work here.”

With Al’s coaching, asking for corporate sponsorships has been easier. It’s actually started becoming sort of fun to meet with people and tell them about the cool stuff we do. Last week I met with a rep of a company that sponsored us in the past. They had contributed $2500 last year, and after I met with them to confirm recommitment two months ago, we were disappointed to find a sponsorship form filled out for $650, or one table. I asked for a second meeting:

“Anna,” I said, “we really appreciate the $650 for a table, but I am here to persuade you to increase the support. Last year you gave $2,500. And it went a long way to serve our immigrant and refugee families.”

“Hm,” she said, “our company has not been doing as well as last year. $1,000. That’s what I can do.”

“$1,500,” I said, “look at these children on the sponsorship package with their big eyes brimming with hope and potential.” (We also serve children with small eyes brimming with cynicism, but we don’t feature them as often in promotional materials).

We stared at each other for a moment.

“$1,500,” she said, “but you have to attend this other dinner that we’re sponsoring.”

“Fine,” I said, “but you have to send in a check, so we don’t lose 3% to the credit card company.”

The most terrifying ask of all, however, is the individual donor. It’s as nerve-wracking as asking someone out. You see them and your heart palpitates. You sweat. You start to daydream. “Vu,” they say, “VFA does such great work. Here’s a check! Also, I have connection to Theo Chocolate. They want to donate 20 pounds of chocolate to you personally. You don’t have to auction it off or anything; you can just eat it while watching the Game of Thrones. You deserve it, you sexy vegan, you.”

Of course, that’s not how it works. I have learned some important lessons, one of which is that if you ask people to give your organization money, you have a much higher chance of them giving your organization money than if you don’t ask them to give your organization money. I have also learned another very important lesson from fellow ED Matt Lacey, which is “Don’t be a wuss.” His point is that I am not asking for money for myself, but rather for continuing important work that I really believe in.

But, just like with asking someone out, you sit across from them and all your lessons and intellectualizing go out the window. The thought of rejection, of ridicule, of ruining a relationship takes over. I guess it is something that can only become easier with experience. So if I ever come to you, my hands shaking, my words jumbled, just remember that at that point I am not so much the leader of a nonprofit, but rather just a boy, a simple boy in front of you, asking you to give the organization that he loves a chance.