Support a great nonprofit while naming a baby

On April 20th VFA will have our annual dinner. The dinner is in celebration of 35 years of service to the community. It also almost coincides with the birth of my son, who is due to arrive tomorrow. After much discussion, my wife and I are going to auction off the naming rights to the baby at the dinner, with all proceeds going to VFA. You can name this baby if you are the highest bidder, and it will be his formal first name for 18 years (He can change it once he is of age if he doesn’t like the name). This is a wonderful way to support VFA’s many programs that help immigrant and refugee children and family. You can name the baby after yourself, or perhaps in honor of someone else.

Of course, there are certain restrictions:

  1. It can’t be a profanity in any language
  2. It should not be unreasonably long
  3. It must have at least one vowel
  4. It should be somewhat gender-appropriate
  5. It should not offend anyone from any culture
  6. There is no expectation that you have visitation or other rights to the baby once you name him (though, of course, we’d love for him to meet his namer from time to time)

As this is a serious and potentially life-affecting decision, there is a minimum starting bid of $5,000, which will provide a six-weeks summer learning and enrichment program for 10 students. If we do not raise at least that amount from auctioning off the baby’s name rights, we will not move forward. Please spread this message to your friends who may be interested in supporting a great organization while having their or a loved one’s name immortalized in our son. It’ll be a great story for us to tell him when he’s old enough to ask how he got his name. He’ll feel proud that he helped to advance VFA’s mission of strengthening the community.

I hope to see you at the dinner. If you cannot make it, please email me (at vu.le at vfaseattle.org) if you are still interested in bidding. We can take bids even if you cannot make it to the dinner.

Having a baby vs. planning an annual event, which is scarier?

(This is not my baby. This is a cute Google Image baby.)
(This is not my baby. This is a cute Google Image baby.)

In less than three weeks, my son will be born, and I’ll be a father for the first time. I am very nervous about being a father. Terrified, really. But not nearly as terrified as I am of our annual dinner, which is coming up shortly after the baby is born.

Annual events are some of the most terrifying things we nonprofit people deal with. According to statistics I’ve Googled and/or made up, they are responsible for 77% of nervous breakdowns experienced by nonprofit staff and board members (Endless useless meetings and co-workers who leave their dishes in the sink for days make up the other 5% and 18%, respectively).

I started talking to other ED’s, and while all of them agree that special events are scary—with a couple of ED’s hyperventilating at the words “special events” and had to breathe into a paper bag while the rest of us chant “general operating, general operating” over and over to calm them down—some say that having a baby is scarier.

So, let us examine this as objectively as we can in order to determine which is scarier, having a baby, or planning an annual fundraising event. We will base our analysis on several dimensions: Fragility, Dependency, Time, Ickiness, Effort, Community Perception, and Cuteness.

Fragility: Babies are fragile, being all tiny and stuff. They are helpless, especially in the beginning, during their larval conical-head stage. Annual events are also fragile, held in check usually by one event planner with an increasingly twitchy eye who at any moment might strangle the rest of the planning committee, causing the whole thing to implode. Still, no one says, “It’s as easy as taking candy from a hyper-caffeinated special event planner.” In terms of scariness, the edge goes to babies on this dimension.

Dependency: Babies depend on us for everything. Meanwhile, we depend on the annual dinner for unrestricted funds, usually to plug up major gaps in the budget. Still, if for some reason my wife and I are not here, we have a good network of relatives to ensure our baby is well taken care of. If the annual dinner does not go well, though, we may have to lay off staff, cut down on health insurance, and use one-ply toilet paper. Annual event clearly wins this one.

Time: Annual events take six months to a year to plan, with an additional six months to acknowledge all the donors and do the accounting and recover from the fist-fights and nervous breakdowns. Babies take 18 years to raise to adulthood, and then an additional 7 to 10 years for them to “find themselves” and become independent. Babies win this one.

Ickiness: Babies tend to throw up and do worse things to you. You have to change their diapers. No one at an annual event throws up on anyone, except that one dinner in 2009, when an Executive Director had way too much pinot noir after not eating much food because there was nothing vegan. Edge: babies.

Effort: Babies take up all of a couple’s energy, with the constant feeding, bathing, entertaining, teaching, guarding from danger. They keep parents up at night. Annual events take up a whole bunch of people’s energy, with courting sponsors, table captains, volunteers, arranging decorations, making a moving video, organizing a program, arranging tables strategically, auctions, silent auctions, raffles, registration, dealing with registration issues, dealing with crappy audio, cleaning up, thanking people, accounting. It keeps a whole bunch of people up at night. Edge: annual event.

Community perception: People are evolutionarily programmed to like babies. People with babies receive residual good will. Annual events can bring good will to an organization, but if a whole bunch of things go wrong, or maybe one  thing, such as the ED’s slurring during his speech and ranting about wombats,  because of a couple glasses of wine, they can screw an organization’s image and destroy relationships and lead to the board’s imposing an unfair two-drink limit on staff. Edge: annual events.

All right, so that’s 3 for babies, 3 for annual events. It’s a tie, and the final dimension is Cuteness.  While there are some donors who are adorable (especially if they raise their paddle at the right level and have that sparkle in their eye), the general consensus is that babies are cuter. If babies are cute, it means they are not scary, so annual events wins this dimension in terms of scariness.

Based on my thorough scientific analysis, it is conclusive: Babies are terrifying, but at least they’re cuddly, which is more than we can say for annual events. However, the combination of having a baby at the same time as an annual event is the most terrifying of all possible realities, so if anyone needs me, I’ll be under my cubicle desk in the fetal position with a case of pinot noir until May or June.

Nonprofit funding: Ordering a cake and restricting it too

cake-486874_960_720For the past few months one of staff has an eye that’s been twitching. “It’s this grant!” she says, “it’s for our after-school program. It pays for instructors’ teaching time, but not their planning time! How can they teach when they can’t plan?! How? How?!”

“Psst,” I whispered, “let’s talk in the conference room. Since they are dedicated they will plan anyway even without getting paid,”—I paused, looking around—“why don’t you just increase their hourly wages?”

“This grant capped the hourly wage, so I can’t pay them more. The other grant might pay for planning time, but they don’t pay for employer taxes! ” She started pulling at her hair, and both of us collapsed on the floor, weeping and beating our chests in anguish and despair.

OK, I might have exaggerated that last part a bit. But unfortunately, this sort of restriction is not an exaggeration. This challenge that we in the nonprofit sector face daily is historic and pervasive. And very, very frustrating and counterproductive.

Imagine if other businesses ran like this. Funders and donors are basically customers who buy products, not for themselves, but to give away to other people who need them (I’ll talk about the weaknesses of that system in a future post). Imagine what a bakery would be like if it had the same funding restrictions that we have on nonprofits:

Baker: Welcome to the Dusty Apron Gluten-Free Bakery. Can I entice you with a cake?
Customer: Yes, a chocolate cake. It’s for some gluten-free veterans.
Baker: Excellent! We specialize in gluten-free cakes. We can make a delicious flourless chocolate lava cake that was once featured in Tasty Pastry magazine. How does that sound?
Customer: Ooh, the gluten-free veterans would love that. They always get fruit for dessert. How much does it cost?
Baker: For a cake serving 20 people, it’ll cost about $100.
Customer: OK, well, I can only give you $20, so you’ll have to find the other $80 elsewhere
Baker: Well, luckily, we have other customers who want to help make a cake for gluten-free veterans. At least three of them said they’ll pitch in, and we’ll ask some others too.
Customer: Excellent, so here’s $20. However, you can’t spend the $20 on sugar. You can only spend it on chocolate and up to one egg. It’s spelled out here in this cake baking plan.
Baker: What about vanilla? It’s hard to make a delicious cake without good vanilla
Customer: You can spend $1 of the $20 on vanilla, but if you decide you need more vanilla, you have to email and talk to me about changing the baking plan.

One week later:

Customer: We ordered a gluten-free chocolate lava cake from you guys, and it was awful. It was too dense and not nearly sweet enough.
Baker: I’m sorry, but other customers also had their own conditions. One customer said he would pay for sugar, but not butter. Another said she would pay for chocolate, but we already had you paying for chocolate, so we asked her if she would pay for butter, and she said no. Our oven’s thermometer also broke down, but none of the customers would allow their cake payments to be used to fix it, saying that fixing it does not directly benefit gluten-free veterans. I emailed you to ask if $5 of your $20 could be used to buy a temporary thermometer, since we didn’t need so much chocolate, but you said it would take three weeks to change the original cake baking plan.
Customer: Well, I’m not buying any more cakes from you guys. You obviously don’t have enough baking capacity. Goodbye.

Meanwhile, another customer heard the exchange:

Customer 2: Sheesh, I’m sorry about that. If it makes you feel better, I and a bunch of other customers got together and ordered a blueberry bundt cake from you last month, and it was delicious.
Baker: I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! I hope we’ll see you around more often?
Customer 2: Absolutely not. We only pitch in to buy a cake from any bakery once. If we keep buying cakes from you, you’ll just become dependent on us, and that’s just madness—madness, I tell you!
Baker: Well, I’m sorry to hear that. How can I help you today?
Customer 2: I just formed a committee to explore why there is such a high rate of nervous breakdowns among bakers, and since you guys were featured in Tasty Pastry, I thought I would ask you to join.

Two weeks ago I was out to lunch with a potential new corporate sponsor, who got very excited about a program we did a while ago, where we provided computer training classes in Vietnamese to parents so that they could learn to check their kids’ grades online through Seattle Public Schools’ Source program.

“That’s excellent!” he said, “that aligns really well with our priorities this year. You should apply for our employee giving grant.”

“Cool,” I said, “I did see that on your website. I’ll review further and follow up with you.”

“One thing you should know though,” he said, “we don’t fund staffing. We hate paying for people’s wages. We can pay for the computers and software for this program, but only for client use.”

I know he’s just a messenger for his company, but at that moment, I wanted to unleash the fury of a thousand ED’s and Development Directors on this poor man. I would stand on the table and my eyes would glow white, and a terrifying cyclone of meeting minutes and financial statements would swirl around me, knocking everything over. People would cower under their tables as hundreds of business cards rained down from the heavens. “Who,” I would say in a low voice that would reverberate through the restaurant, “who would make the program happen then? Elves?! UNICORNS?!!!”

I calmed down, thinking of how awesome that scene would be if we had a show about nonprofit work that combines The Office with X-Men. But yeah, seriously, who would manage this program? God, that would make our work so much easier, if we could just summon some multilingual elves to come out and plan programs and fill out paperwork. That would cut down on costs, and I’m sure the elves would have a better grasp on the advanced algebra and calculus required to figure out which funder is paying for what by when.

The sad reality is that we nonprofits spend way too much time navigating the complex maze of funding restrictions, time that could be better spent delivering and improving on services. We should all focus on the final outcomes and allow nonprofits the flexibility to do their jobs. Though restricting funding in the name of accountability has been a standard practice that stemmed from good intentions, in the end, it is the gluten-free veterans who will be eating fruit again.

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.