One of the points Unicorns Unite (the book that I co-authored with Jessamyn Shams-Lau and Jane Leu; you can order it here) is “Don’t be an overheadhole.” An #Overheadhole is a person, nonprofit, or foundation who is obsessed with low overhead. They reinforce the idea that any organization that has “high” overhead is terrible and ineffective, with immoral staff who hoard money for themselves and who have bad personal hygiene and never call their mothers. Oh yeah, overheadholes?! Take a look in the mirror! YOU’RE the ones who never floss! Is that a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth, or just your blatant ignorance?!Continue reading
Second, I’m doing a Facebook Live this Tuesday, November 6th, 12:30 to 1:30pm PST, to update you all on what’s been going on with my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, and to answer any questions you may have. I think people sometimes forget that I am an executive director of a capacity-building-focused social justice organization, so I’m going to try to host these conversations quarterly. They might even inspire me to comb my hair more often.
A few years ago, an ED colleague called me up, upset and frustrated. Her team had started mobilizing against her. What had started as a misalignment in priorities spiraled out of control, and now staff were having clandestine meetings. The once-friendly office was cold, to the point where staff would no longer say hi when she entered. When she tried to ask for feedback, the attempts were rebuffed, leaving her hurt and confused. Morale was at an all-time low, and she thought about quitting daily.
Another leader, in another city, was in a similar situation, but with a particular member of his team. A firing of a problematic staff member who had been close to this team member started a chain of events. Now all his actions and motives were suspect. Even the simplest thing—closing the office door to accept a phone call—was interpreted as a sign of malice. Other staff who had no issues with him were now being pulled into the drama, and a narrative was building that he was prejudiced against certain ethnic groups, which was deeply unsettling to a leader of color at a social justice organization. A faction that agreed with him on the firing formed to support him, and the tension between the two groups threatened the mission.
A few weeks ago, a fellow Executive Director of color and a friend of mine, “Maria,” was nearly in tears after failing for a second time to get a small grant. She doesn’t drink, or else I would have offered access to the personal minibar that I keep in my office. A shot of Wild Turkey and a brisk walk always cheer me up after a grant rejection.
“I’m so tired,” Maria said over the phone, “I can’t continue putting in my own money to keep this afloat. Maybe nonprofit is just not for me. It’s too hard.” She had spent over 40 hours on these two grants, and I had spent over 12 hours facilitating part of a board retreat, helping develop the logic model, revising the budgets, editing the narratives, and providing moral support.
The grant was a one-time award for less than 10K, and she had been told repeatedly, by different people at this foundation, that her work was important and much needed.
The purpose of this story is not to call out a particular foundation, but to highlight the fact that the standard grant application process needs a deep overhaul because it is leaving behind too many communities. Continue reading
Hi everyone, I am heading back to the US this week. It has been a fun vacation, though kind of exhausting with a two-year-old who refuses to eat anything or sleep more than three consecutive hours. This, and being an ED for nearly ten years, has taken a toll on me. I keep getting comments like, “Your son is so cute! Hm…you must have started your family late, huh? How old are you, 44, 45?” After the fifth time, asked by a tofu dessert vendor, I just said, “No, I did not start a family late! I just look way older than I am! Time has not been kind to me! Thanks for reminding me, lady!” Then I softly wept into my bowl of hot silken tofu with ginger caramel sauce, thinking that maybe I should get some cosmetic surgery here, since it’s way cheaper than in the US.
But anyway, today’s topic. In the past few months, I’ve been hearing more and more people suggest that the nonprofit sector should change its name. “Defining ourselves by something we’re not is pretty ridiculous,” said some very smart people during a happy hour. “Yeah!” I agreed, getting up in arms, “that’s like calling a woman a ‘non-man’! Or hummus a ‘non-guacamole’! Ridiculous! Let’s grab our torches and pitchforks!” Continue reading
Hi everyone, I am heading to Vietnam this week for a much-needed vacation. I’ll still be writing each Monday, but can’t guarantee the quality of the blog posts, since I’ll be stuffing my face with street food and coconut juice. But, before I go, let’s address some irritating trends that have surfaced in our sector. Below are a few that the NWB Facebook community came up with. See if you agree, and for the love of hummus, if you are guilty of any of them, cut it out right now.
Ignite-style presentations: “Ignite” involves a five-minute Powerpoint presentation with 20 slides, where the slides advance themselves every 15 seconds. It cuts off long-winded people, and it’s kind of fun to see how speakers match up their speech with the slides. When done right, and used mostly for humorous and easy-to-understand stuff, it can be great. But I’ve seen it too often used for novelty’s sake to explain difficult nonprofit concepts or missions, in which case it becomes “presentation by karaoke,” underestimates the intelligence of the audience, wastes endless hours of speakers’ time in preparation, and makes me want to punch the event organizer in the neck. I once attended an event feature five of these short presentations. People had a great time—“Ooh, that lightbulb graphic appeared JUST when she said ‘I had an idea!’ That’s so, like, awesome!”—but by the end of the night, no one in the audience remembered anything the speakers said. Continue reading