10 Game of Thrones quotes you can use at work

Hi everyone, I was going to write “10 Lessons for Nonprofits from Game of Thrones,” but that requires way too much analysis and I just ate an entire bag of bittersweet chocolate chips and can’t concentrate. Here, however, are 10 Game of Thrones quotes that you can use in everyday nonprofit work. Don’t worry if you are not up-to-date with the show. There are no major spoilers here. Also, even if you don’t intend to watch the show ever, you might as well learn some of these lines so you can fit in at the water cooler…if your nonprofit can afford a water cooler, of course. (We just put a bucket on a chair and fill it with Capri Suns). I like to run into a meeting, scream “I will take what is mine with fire and blood!!!” then quickly grab some baby carrots and hummus and run out.


1. “You know all that from staring at marks on paper? You’re like a wizard”—Gilly, encountering written words for the first time.

Perfect for: Board meetings, when the Treasurer presents the financial statements. Or when consultants present their final report and recommendations.

2. “If we die, we die, but first we’ll live.”—Ygritte to Jon Snow.

Perfect for: A pep talk before an annual fundraising event.

3. “Has anyone ever told you you’re as boring as you are ugly?”—Jaime Lannister to Brienne of Tarth.

Perfect for: Staff performance reviews.

4. “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”—Tyrion to Jon Snow.

Perfect for: Coaching and mentoring up-and-coming young professionals.

5. “I will hurt you for this. A day will come when you think you are safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth. And you will know the debt is paid.”—Tyrion to his sister Cersei.

Perfect for: A coworker who ate your food from the office fridge without asking you.

6. “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”—Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish.

Perfect for: Motivating youth in a leadership or employment program

7. “Paint stripes on a toad, he does not become a tiger.”—Sandor Clegane.

Perfect for: Sniping at rival organizations that seem to have an unlimited marketing budget.

8. “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”—Ramsay Snow.

Perfect for: End of the fiscal year, when a new budget is being created. Or when coworkers leave their dirty dishes in the sink for days.

9. “Winter is coming”—the motto of the Stark and Winterfell.

Perfect for: Explaining to staff why their program budgets have been reduced.

10. “I will take what’s mine with fire and blood!”—Daenerys Targaryen

Perfect for: Motivating a team after losing a major grant or contract to another organization. Or when there’s leftover snacks after a meeting.

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Which comes first, the Equity Egg or the Accountability Chicken?

chicken and eggThe last few weeks have been rough. Not only did the baby grow his first tooth and got an ear infection and has been miserable, but also my lucky bamboo, which I got to boost the feng shui in the office, mysteriously turned yellow and died.

None of that, however, compared to getting news that one of the schools we partner with didn’t get the grant that it applied to. I helped them to write this massive, 30-page narrative, sitting at the principal’s desk and typing away as she ran in and out of her office to deal with one situation after another. The grant was painful. It was like taking a pint of kumquats, freezing them overnight, putting them into a gym sock, running the gym sock though some poison oak, and then beating yourself in the face with it while watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace, that’s how painful it was. (I helped another school last year to write the same grant, and wrote about how awful that was).

We wrote this grant for several days. This is a school with 95% kids of color, 85% low-income, and this was their third time writing this grant and failing to get awarded. It was a devastating blow for a really great school. “I’ll buy you a drink,” I told the principal; we both felt like crap.

A few days later, I ran into one of the executive board members, “Frank,” who approved the decisions. I told him the grant award system was messed up and he needed to change it. “Well,” he said, “there are always winners and losers. And we need to focus on schools who have principals who are accountable and taking lead to improve their schools.”

As much as I love the US, we have some major things to improve on. One of those things is this zero-sum game that we play, and it often manifests in the form of “accountability,” a catch-all concept that everyone now uses because it makes them look smart and responsible. Accountability now equates with excellence and quality and bald eagles and apple pie.

Unfortunately, this concept has been thoroughly misused, wielded as a tool to perpetuate many crappy and unjust systems.

At a panel I was on, the topic was parental engagement. “We can talk all we want about all sorts of things,” said one of the other speakers, “but at the end, it comes down to parental accountability. Parents need to be responsible for their kids’ learning! They need to read to their kids and make sure they do their homework!”

Yeah, said the room, clapping, that’s the American Way!

“I agree,” I said, “parents should be involved in their kids’ education.” But, I pointed out, many of them don’t have the language skills, or they are poor and work several jobs. And then because they are poor, they tend to go to struggling schools, and those schools don’t have translation services, or any staff who can spend time with the parents, so even if a parent really wants to be engaged, they come to school and there is no one to help them. So if we want parents to be accountable, provide them the resources they need first.

We have a very punitive sort of mindset, and oftentimes it makes no sense. Let’s punish the schools that don’t do well by taking away or not giving them the resources they need. THAT will incentivize them to get better, those lazy, good-for-nothing schools who have no accountability.

Also, let’s force low-income schools to write painful 30-page grants to compete for these funds that are designed with equity in mind to help struggling schools with high numbers of low-income students. Grants that are so painful it’s like taking a mason jar, filling it with apple cider vinegar, running through a blackberry thicket, then pouring the vinegar all over yourself. The best-written grants should be awarded, because that’s accountability. Let’s ignore the fact that the schools that are most struggling, and thus most in need of these funds, are probably the ones that have the most challenges writing these grants.

People, even well-intentioned people like “Frank”, use “accountability” as a crutch to not have to deal with the much harder task of achieving equity. Why spend five times more effort to define and find the most struggling schools, work with them to develop a strong plan to support their students to achieve, and provide them with funding and guidance to succeed? Why do all that when you can make all the schools write a sadistically burdensome grant, grade them on a 100-point scale, and pick a school that scored 87 points over a school that scored 85 points? Your process is clear and “accountable,” you’re forcing the schools to be “accountable,” and no one can yell at you for being unfair.

People who believe that competition and the focus on accountability will lead to equity are deluding themselves. They believe everything should be like the Olympics, where those who perform the best should get the gold. Most of us, though, enter into the field of nonprofit or philanthropy because we know the games are screwed up, and our job is to do whatever we can to bring balance by making conditions equal. How can you give someone a gold medal for Alpine skiing, for instance, when they have two skis and the other skiers have only one ski, or a broken ski, or there is not enough snow on their track? Let’s focus on making sure everyone competes under the same conditions before we reward the best performers.

Even if conditions are equal, though, sadly the competition will still not be fair. That’s because everything is relationship based. Those who have the best relationships will always get ahead, and poor families, and communities of color, and struggling schools and scrappy nonprofits will seldom have the same level of relationships with influential people.

That’s why our work is important. We above most people understand that equity comes first. Sometimes, though, we also forget, and we also fall into the accountability trap.

If we want equity, we must start with equity. And there are instances where it is working. Finland, for example, has become one of the best school systems in the world, if not the best. They focus on ensuring there is equity first. In fact, they don’t even have a word for “accountability.” There are few standardized tests, for example, and they don’t make their principals spend 80 hours writing a grant to get the resources they need, a grant so awful it’s like taking a handmade quilt, gathering crazy ants onto it, then wrapping the quilt around yourself while listening to Passenger. They focus first on making sure every student has the same opportunity. And yet they are excelling. In comparison, Norway, with a similar homogenous population, has bought into this system of competition, punishment, and accountability, and they are not doing nearly as well. This is only one example, but it is a strong one.

Now that I’ve become a parent, I think a lot about how families are structured and what kind I would like mine to be. Imagine a family that is ultra competitive, where children are in constant competition with one another and rewarded by their parents. “John got 5 A’s this quarter, so we’re going to take him to Disneyland, yay! Have some more food, son, you deserve it. The rest of you, you got B’s, you need to shape up. Jimmy, I don’t care that you got mugged twice last month while walking home. Toughen up and stop whining. Be a man like John here.” (Sadly, I actually know some parents who are like that).

Most of us can see how awful it would be to live in such a family. But this is what our society is increasingly becoming like.

Many of us continue to do this work because we believe there shouldn’t be have to be winners and losers all the time, especially when we are talking about kids. All of them deserve a chance to succeed, and it pisses me off when idiots wield “accountability” as a reason to justify their thoughtless decisions. If we want EVERYONE to succeed, and not just a select few, then we must ensure everyone has the same opportunities. When it comes to accountability and quality and equity, it is not a chicken-and-egg argument. It is equity that will lead to quality and accountability, not the other way around.

Dear business community: Please remember these 10 things about nonprofits

apple-orangeMy friends from the business community:

As an Executive Director of a nonprofit, I want to say that I love you guys. Almost as much as we all love the Seahawks (Go Hawks!). You do so much to sustain our work—volunteering countless hours, donating funds to programs, and telling your friends about us so they can help too. We rely on you. The work is not possible without you. Whenever we get one of you on our board or development committee, it’s like Christmas.

However, there are a few things I’d love to remind you of, stuff like fundamental differences between nonprofits and for-profits and the challenges we face. I know, you probably have heard some of this already. But it’ll be really good for us to go over them again, so we can more effectively work together to make the world better:

  • Nonprofit funding is restricted. That is something we repeat over and over, but I’m not sure you actually understand how restricted it is. Imagine that you have a business selling software for $100 a pop. I buy a copy, and I give you $100, but then I say “You can’t spend any of this money I’m paying you on your salary, or on your rent or heating for your business. It can only be used to for you to buy copy paper and no more than 80 binder clips.” Now have all your customers say stuff like that to you each time they buy your software. That’s how it works in nonprofit, but replace “customers” with “funders.” It is not fun trying to figure out who is paying for what and how to work within this structure, but luckily it only takes up 60% of our time.
  • (Hilarious side story: Speaking of copy paper and binder clips, one of my ED friends sometimes “dumpster dives” for office supplies. On her last dive, she scored a roll of masking tape and an unopened container of poster paint (woohoo!)—and her board still complains that her organization spent over $1200 in supplies in 2013).
  • No one wants to pay for unsexy “admin” things. These are things like HR, marketing, fundraising, the ED or Development Director’s salary, etc. This is why we don’t have an HR department, or an IT person, or a marketing person, why our database (if we have one) may not be as cool as you want and why some of our marketing materials look like they were designed by bonobos. You’re frustrated that our infrastructure sucks sometimes. Well, we are too! Unfortunately, because of our funding restrictions, we can’t do much about it except to beg for free services from you and your friends.
  • (Hilarious side story: One time I was at a conference, and a business was leading a workshop on building a website. “We asked our bosses for $25,000 to develop the website,” said the presenter, “and they said, ‘Hey, we actually have extra funding.’ So they gave us $50,000!” Back then, 50K was half my organization’s operating budget and about four times my Americorps yearly wages, so I left the workshop and cried silently in a bathroom stall).
  • Our funding is unstable, and it’s not our fault. It fluctuates depending on factors such as funder priorities, the situation in Iran, the value of the Yen, and the alignment of celestial bodies. Grants are usually only for one year. So year-over-year budget comparisons are often useless, and predictions on future funding sources are educated guesses at best. Please try not to be upset when you ask us questions like “What are your budget projections for next fiscal year” and we give you seemingly wishy-washy answers like, “Well…will Mercury be in retrograde at the end of this fiscal year…?”
  • The better a job we do, the more costs we incur. That’s right; it’s weird, but it’s true. If our after-school program, for example, is awesome, more kids will attend, which means more costs. But the funding does not also increase automatically, meaning we have to serve more people with fewer resources. So then we have to spend more staff time on fundraising, which, remember, is not sexy, so people hate paying for that. If your product is awesome, your business can become stable and continue as long as demands remain stable. Not so for us nonprofits! This is why we live in a constant state of stress and fear. And why we need you on the development committee!
  • Our community members (the people we serve) are not economic units. As one of my ED friends says, “You can’t run a cost/benefit analysis on the worth of a human life, and every human being is a miracle worthy of respect and kindness and compassion.” That sounds very sappy, but we genuinely believe in crap like that, and it very frustrating when people forget this stuff and reduce human beings to numbers and statistics.
  • Success is difficult to measure. We throw around terms like “outcomes” and “metrics,” but things are so much more complex. When we’re working with people who are homeless, or mentally ill, or kids at-risk for failure, it is challenging to define success and what part we play in it. So it gets very annoying when you come in trying to impose a business framework on our programs, or get upset when we can’t give you clear answers to questions like “What’s the impact of your programs?” We’re trying to figure all this out.
  • Things can’t be “scaled” as easily as you think. Some of you are really impatient about scaling up our work. You see a great program, and you want it to be bigger, to help more people. We do too. But the clients we serve and their challenges are complex, and we work within structures that severely limit what we can do. We are constantly thinking of ways to help more people, while trying to keep our organizations from collapsing, all the while hoarding supplies for a potential zombie apocalypse (That last part–it may just be my organization that does that).
  • If you want to help, roll up your sleeves. We get plenty of advice. If you want to be helpful, roll up your sleeves and actually do something. It’s frustrating when business leaders or consultants come in and provide a report of recommendations of things we should do. These reports are often left on shelves to gather dust, since we often have no time or resources to tackle them. If you want to help, take lead on a few of these things you recommend.
  • We chose to do this work. That’s right, we chose jobs that are unstable, under-appreciated, challenging, low-paying, and high-stress. That does not mean we’re not as smart as people in other sectors. Once a while we meet young professionals in other professions, and their smugness and condescension are palpable, and we want to grab them by the collar and shake them. But we think of our clients and swallow our pride. Our society places much higher value on jobs like doctors, lawyers, movie stars, business owners, etc. However, most of us did not go into the nonprofit field because we failed at other professions. We do this work because we want to kick inequity’s butt, no matter how difficult it is.
  • (Hilarious side story: At my organization, which serves low-income immigrant and refugee youth and families, the clients are often amazed that I do this full time. One woman at an event asked when I will find a real job; her son was studying to be a pharmacist, she said.)
  • Finally, just because you’re really successful in one area, it doesn’t mean you are automatically great in another area. If you’re an amazing heart surgeon, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically a great singer. If you’re an awesome dancer, it doesn’t mean you’re now a really kickass chef. And yet we meet so many of you who are successful in the business sector who now think that you automatically know how to run a nonprofit, or lead an education reform movement, or counsel us nonprofit folks on how to do our work. One of the most irksome things we experience is when business people, after a limited time trying to understand the organization, start giving advice. We’ll try to be thankful, since you’re a potential donor and volunteer, but seriously, the you-guys-should-do-this and you-guys-should-do-that are often irritating and not helpful at all. We don’t go to your business and tell you how to…run…quarterly reports…or, uh…improve assembly line efficiency…

At a meeting a month ago, a bunch of people and I were providing input and advice to Seattle’s new mayor as he starts his administration. A community leader stood up and said, “You have to remember that poor people are not just rich people who don’t have money. And black people are not just really dark white people.” Ahaha, that’s so true, everyone thought. They laughed. (Each of those profound statements deserves to be discussed in its own post later). I want to use the same line of thinking to remind you all that nonprofits are not just chaotic businesses with really nice employees. Until we have the same flexibility and stability of essential resources that successful businesses have, comparing one with the other is like comparing an apple with a porcupine.

Thank you for reading, and for all that you do.

Go Hawks!

***

Related Posts:

Nonprofit’s ultimate outcome: Bringing unicorns back to our world.

The sustainability question: Why it is so annoying.

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Nonprofit Cocktail Recipes

cocktail-1058237_960_720A while ago I wrote about self-care, and how we should all try to find time to do the things that make us happy. For me, one of those things is mixing drinks. It makes me happy to discover or invent new cocktails. Here are several that are inspired by people and concepts in nonprofit work. I also asked friends on NWB’s Facebook page to send in their own recipes, and those are listed at the end. Please submit your own inspired creations in the comment section.

The Executive Director

1 oz vodka

2 oz grapefruit juice

2 oz passionfruit juice

1 more oz vodka

Another oz vodka

Put ice into glass or mug. Pour everything else in and stir. Garnish with more vodka. Drink at either 9am or 9pm at the office. Strong, and slightly bitter.

 

The Retreat

1½ oz coffee liqueur

1½ oz brandy

1 oz nighttime cold and flu medicine

2 Tylenol Extra Strength tablet

Pour coffee liqueur, brandy, and cold and flu medicine into glass without ice. Drop in Tylenol tablets. Drink the cocktail slowly while discreetly checking emails on your smartphone.

The LOI

1/6 oz dry gin

1/6 oz Kirsch

1/6 oz orange Curaçao

1/6 oz dry vermouth

1/6 oz sweet vermouth

Strip of lemon peel.

Mix all ingredients together with ice and strain into a shot glass. Garnish with lemon peel strip. Give it to someone. If they like it, make them another, but instead of using 1/6 oz for each ingredient, use 1 full oz, but change orange Curaçao to blue Curaçao and Kirsch into blackberry brandy.

 

The Strategic Plan

½ oz blue Curaçao

1 tsp raspberry syrup

¼ oz maraschino liqueur

¼ oz yellow Chartreuse

¼ oz Cointreau

Chill everything for several hours, including a shot glass. Slowly and carefully pour the liqueurs in the order listed over the back of a teaspoon into shotglass. Do not stir. When done correctly, you will have a colorful, multi-layered drink that is not only delicious, but beautiful to look at. Do not drink it. Show it to everyone, then put it in the fridge and then throw it out after a year or two. 

The Annual Event

1 piece edible gold leaf

2 oz Cinzano extra dry vermouth

½ oz framboise

½ oz black Sambuca

½ oz pureed sardines

rose petal, lime wedge, lemon peel twist, raspberry, pineapple piece, candied hibiscus, black truffle shaving, cape gooseberry

Put gold leaf into glass. Shake Cinzano, framboise, and Sambuca with ice and pour into glass. Float pureed sardines on top. Garnish with rose petal, lime wedge, lemon peel twist, raspberry, pineapple piece, hibiscus, truffle shaving, and cape gooseberry. Drink up, rest for three months, then start gathering ingredients to make another one.

The Earnest Volunteer
Contributed by Krystyna Williamson

1/2 ounce dark rum
Jamaican ginger ale
1/2 tsp lime juice
mint leaves
1 1/2 ounce simple syrup

Muddle the mint in the syrup, add the rest and stir gently. Comes in on fire, heads off in three directions, and never really gets the job done. 

The Corporate Foundation Administrator:

Contributed by J. Eric Smith

2 parts Jagermeister
1 part Mayonnaise
1 part Worcestershire Sauce
1 part Cottage Cheese

Mix ingredients, shake vigorously, and drink very, very, VERY slowly, smiling all the while. If you gag or frown, you do not get the grant. Ever.

The College Intern

Contributed by Claire Petersky

1 1/2 oz vodka
3/4 oz peach schnapps
1/2 oz creme de cassis
2 oz orange juice
2 oz cranberry juice
1/4 cup white sugar
Orange slice and maraschino cherry for garnish

Very sweet, has some power – but you don’t want more than two of them.

The Development Director: 

Contributed by Sharonne Navas

1 ½ oz Bailey’s Irish Cream
1 ½ oz Butterscotch Schnapps
¾ oz Goldschlager
1 tbsp 151 Rum
1 dash Cinnamon

Mix all ingredients with ice in a shaker and pour into glass. If your Development Director has gotten the organization to fundraising goal by mid-year, you can light this drink on fire. If the Director hasn’t, you can light him/her on fire.* Win-Win!!

The [Certain Grantor]’s Website

Contributed by Claire Petersky

5 cherries

Angostura bitters

Lemonhart 151 rum

3 oz gin

1 bar spoon rosewater

½ oz lime juice

Place cherries in your mixing glass, add sugar. Place equal portions of Angostura bitters and Lemonhart 151 rum into an oil mister/sprayer. Mist the Angostura mixture through a flame. Flame until sugar caramelizes. Fill with ice and add gin, rosewater, and lime juice. Then, because the cocktail has timed out, throw the entire concoction down the disposal. Take a bottle of sriracha and splash a drop in your eye. Beat head against your kitchen countertop. Repeat from the beginning, at least three times.

***

(*Note, Nonprofit with Balls does not condone the setting of anyone on fire, even Development Directors who haven’t met outcomes).

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The Sustainability Question, Why it is So Annoying

sustainabilityThis morning, I woke up early and realized I was face-to-face with my son, Viet, who has been sleeping in the same bed with his mom and me. Looking at our sweet little baby, who was still sleeping peacefully, one tiny hand under his soft and rosy cheek, I was filled with warm fatherly thoughts. Namely: “When is this kid going to get a job and help pay for his keep?” I was tempted to wake him up and say, “You do realize that childcare for you each month is literally more than our mortgage, right? You better enjoy this while you can, little dude, because when you turn 18, you’re on your own.”

And that makes me think about the issue of sustainability of nonprofit programs. In every grant application, there is the “Sustainability Question,” which is basically, “How will you sustain this program or project when funding from the So-and-So Foundation runs out?” This seems absolutely reasonable at first glance, but honestly, it’s one of the most annoying questions we face. Most of us nonprofit professionals absolutely hate this question, and each time we see it, we have to leave our desk, go on a walk, maybe do some yoga or watch “The Daily Show,” then come back to our desk, take a deep breath, and write something  like:

“We will continue to develop our staff and board’s ability to fundraise and diversify our revenues, including building relationship with other funders, as well as cultivating support from corporate sponsors and individual donors. Our special events continue to increase in revenues, and the board is leading the effort to explore earned income through program fees and the door-to-door sales of inspiring macaroni artwork made by the children in our extended-learning program.”

All of that is basically a euphemism for “We will leave you alone and bother other people.”

“Just once,” said my ED friend, Director Maureen, “here’s what I’d like to put in response to that question:”

  • Program staff and the board will triple the amount of time they spend praying for money
  • Program participants will be asked to pray for money to provide for their services as well
  • 10% of general operating funds will be utilized to purchase Power Ball lottery tickets
  • Fund development staff will regularly consult a reputable psychic to help track which direction foundations are trending to support

Why is this question so aggravating? Why does every time I answer it, I feel like crap? I sent out an email to my ED friends in the field, asking for their thoughts, and the responses were passionate and insightful. While the issue is complex and requires a lot more time to explore, I’ll try my best to summarize my colleagues’ thoughts. Overall, the Sustainability Question is annoying and frustrating because:

Sustainability is in large part determined by funders, not nonprofits. As much as we love individual donors, many of us still rely on grants, and grants are usually small and one-year in duration. We get a bunch of one-year grants that are Frankensteined together to support programs, each one with their own set of demands and restrictions, (which I explored here in “Nonprofit Funding: Ordering a Cake and Restricting it Too.”). As one ED puts it, “Why is fidelity to the mission so highly valued and expected of nonprofit leaders and staff but funders expect to ‘sleep around?‘ One year and you’re out. [They] don’t even come back and ask.” This lumbering, unwieldy, tenuous system is the antithesis of sustainability, so to ask how we nonprofits will maintain and grow our programs within it is kind of like setting a fire and asking how we will be putting it out.

Sustainability depends on the whole organization being strong, yet funders do not like providing general operating funds. Really great programs do not magically appear out of thin air. It takes real people, people who need, like, an office to work at and healthcare for their stress and carpal tunnel and stuff. These things are critical, and yet we have to constantly fight for them. “We will cultivate relationships with individual donors and corporate sponsors, etc.” sounds great, but that requires development staff, which is fundraising, and no one likes to fund “fundraising” and “admin” expenses, because those things are so frivolous and useless.

The nonprofit model is unique in that success at carrying out our missions leads to increasing costs, not revenues. The more successful programs are, the more clients they will serve, the more staff and other expenses will increase, without a proportionate increase in support. An example is VFA’s Saturday English School (SES) program, which provides English and Math support to recent-arrival immigrant and refugee students every Saturday for three hours. Five years ago, we had 30 students show up each session. Because of how awesome the program is, we now have over 150 students each session. This is a five-fold increase in number of students served. The expenses tripled, since more students means more snacks, more teaching staff, more curriculum material, etc. But funders are not going to triple the amount they provide; if we’re lucky, they’ll renew at the same level, and we’ll have to go search for other, newer funders to provide support. This is the Program Growth Paradox, where the more a program is successful and expands, the less sustainable it is.

Other reasons cited by my ED colleagues include “we know very, very well that not every program that literally changes people’s lives for the better can become self-sustaining” (but should be funded anyway, see “Nonprofit’s Ultimate Outcome: Bringing Unicorns Back to Our World“), “I have no clue where my future funds will come from so everything I say sounds like BS” and “after five or more friggin pages of explaining just HOW MUCH you need the bucks, you are now invited to totally reverse yourself” and “I will think about this and get back to you after I have several drinks to calm down.”

sustainability
Credit: James Hong, VFA’s Director of Operations

The most serious challenge with the Sustainability Question, however, is that it symptomatic of a divisive and patronizing system that perpetuates the unhealthy dichotomy of nonprofits as supplicants continually begging for spare change, and funders as benefactors. “How will YOU sustain this program? How will YOU sustain it after OUR funding that WE (might) give YOU runs out?” We now feel like the underemployed college-grad living in our parents’ basement, freeloading off of their good will, until they call us in for a serious talk about our future and demand to know what our plans are to find a job and inform us that it’s for our own good that in six months they will kick us out. We feel like Oliver Twist, who has to beg for another bowl of gruel from the…uh…that one guy, who serves…gruel…

OK, I haven’t read Oliver Twist.

The Sustainability Question is aggravating because the responsibility is overtly placed on nonprofits’ shoulders to fix problems in the world that we didn’t cause in the first place. Once the question is asked, “It immediately becomes somebody else’s problem,” writes one of my ED friends.  It feels like funders are at the end of their ropes trying to “help” us nonprofits and if we fail to sustain our work, it is all our fault. This is not working for our field.

Every once in a while I meet a program officer who used to be a nonprofit staff. “Ah,” they sometimes reminisce, “I miss being on that side of the table.” And I would say, “Tell me what it’s like on your side of the table?” And we would talk, and I would learn that being on the other side of the table has its challenges, and that it’s not all completely awesome, with ergonomic chairs and dental AND vision insurance and with each person getting access to the company unicorn to ride to important meetings.

But that makes me think, Why the heck are we on opposite sides of the table in the first place? Aren’t we all trying to solve the same problems? Why is the relationship between funders and nonprofits so adversarial? It is ineffective. We should be on the same team, where the quarterback supports the…uh, linebacker so that he can make a, um, rim shot at the…fourth inning…

All right, I don’t know anything about sports. Point is, nonprofits and funders must be equal partners, with different but symbiotic roles, and sustainability of the work must be shouldered by both parties. We nonprofits think all the time about sustainability, even without being prompted, and we will continue to build strong programs and diversify our funding. Funders, as equal partners, should provide multi-year funds, general operating funds, capacity building assistance, and help connect us to other funders and partners. And come visit the programs once a while! We must work together to figure out how to sustain and advance the work. We have to, because the needs of and challenges facing our communities are only going to increase.

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More on funder-fundee relationships: The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildlings, and White Walkers