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.

***

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

7 self-care tips for nonprofit professionals

Today, I was at the grocery store trying to decide whether it was worth it to buy twelve organic blueberries for five dollars, when I noticed chanterelle mushrooms. Chanterelle mushrooms! Already?! There is nothing in the world that I love more than chanterelle mushrooms, and yes, that includes my wife and new baby. With their bright orange color, sweet apricot aroma, and meaty texture, eating chanterelles is like being punched in the mouth by happiness. I eagerly anticipate them every fall, one of the few consolations for the melancholy end of summer. Delirious, I bought half a pound for seven dollars and came home, inspired to make a risotto.

Risotto can be a difficult dish to make. It involves a lot of stirring, followed by more stirring, then more stirring, and then you run to the bathroom for two minutes and come back and your risotto is burned and you’re all bitter…as bitter as your risotto.

While cooking, I thought, Dude, risotto is a delicious culinary metaphor for our work! Specifically, our pace of work. We are constantly adding broth and stirring! We talk about self-care all the time, but most of us suck at it. My staff, for example, work ridiculous hours, often late into the evening and on weekends. Last week I caught one of them sneaking into the office. He was supposed to be on vacation, and I specifically forbid him from coming to the office. “Go home,” I yelled, looking around to find some stones to throw at him, “get out of here! You’re not wanted!”

We all suck at self-care, and we burn out, and that is not good for us, our clients, our families, our organizations, or the field. Which is why, while making the risotto, I thought up these tips so we can all take better care of ourselves:

Assess what is on your plate and taking up all your time, and also what is draining your energy. Are you attending like way too many useless meetings? Are you on too many committees that meet in the evenings? Do you have annoying coworkers that you hang out with but you don’t really want to hang out with them too much, mainly because it’s fantasy football season and that’s all they can talk about? Listing these things out will be helpful, because then you can prioritize.

Make a not-to-do list: Every once a while, I make a to-do list, which I get through half-way, then other stuff get in the way, and I abandon it. Then I started making not-to-do lists, and that was much easier. You should try it. It can be a list of stuff you are currently doing that you might want to consider no longer doing, for example, do you really need to have a staff meeting every week or is biweekly ok? It can also be a list of stuff that you are currently not doing, but it’ll make you feel better to write them down and check them off. For example, on my list I have “Not sucking up to this one corporate sponsor; not attending this one management training; not attending this fundraising breakfast held by a partner organization.” Check, check, and check. I feel more productive already.

Determine what brings you energy. Make a list of stuff that makes you happy or that you enjoy. Hiking? Chocolate? Pictures of bunnies? Taking naps? Whittling small animals out of soap? Contra dancing? Self-care is about what recharges your battery. This list varies from person to person, and that’s OK. Sometimes self-care tips prescribe things that you should do, like exercise for 30 minutes each day. If those are helpful, great, but if not, they might make you feel bad because you can’t or won’t do those things. For some people, early morning yoga before downing a kale-flavored smoothie energizes them, and that’s great for them. For me, I’d rather juggle Ziploc bags full of live scorpions than do “yoga,” or drink “green smoothies,” or “shower at least once a week.” Find what works for you.

Do the crap that makes you happy: Every day, take time, even ten minutes, to do something on the list you made of things you enjoy. If you enjoy them, it shouldn’t be a chore for you to do them. Still, it may be hard at first, because habits can be difficult to develop, especially the good ones. At work, find stuff you can do while working. For example, taking a break to look at pictures of cute animals (which actually is proven to increase productivity); listening to your favorite 90’s hip-hop songs while writing that grant; or making sock puppets during meetings.

Recruit your coworkers: It’s often more fun to do things with other people. Chances are, everyone in your office is as stressed as you are. At the next staff meeting, share and brainstorm ideas for self-care. Select a couple of them to implement. Don’t be overly ambitious, or you’ll feel like crap if you are not successful. Explore a new restaurant together for lunch once a month. Go on a walk as a team once a week. Have an office talent show to display your awesome sock puppets. Of course, if your coworkers actually drain your energy, then maybe just avoid them until fantasy football season is over.

Learn to say no: Self-care is also a lot about self-protection, specifically from excessive demands. I find that the only reward for competency is more work. The more competent you are, the more people will ask you do to stuff. But, luckily most people usually understand when you say, “I’d love to help, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities at this time.” You can also preemptively buffer yourself from being approached in the first place by feigning incompetence, which I have been successfully doing for years.

Stop feeling bad about self-care: It’s amazing how many people stress out about self-care—“Eeek, I’m not doing enough self-care!” or “Eeek, I’m not doing self-care right!”—which I find to be very ironic.  Dude, self-care is about feeling good, so if thinking about how to make yourself feel good is making yourself feel bad, then knock it off for now, maybe come back to it later. Also, don’t let others make you feel bad about what brings you energy. I happen to watch probably way too much TV. At the end of each work day, I’m exhausted from hours of thinking and making decisions. What brings me energy is NOT having to think or plan or decide or be creative, and TV is awesome for that.

Hell, if work brings you energy and hasn’t been negatively impacting other areas of your life, like your romantic relationship, then don’t feel bad about working too much either. I love my work, and for a long while it energized me with the feeling that the efforts may in some ways contribute to making the world better. The hours flew by. Work WAS my self-care. Now I have a baby, and priorities changed, and a lot of my energy comes from being a good father. But still, this work, with all its craziness and frustrations, is fun and important, and a huge part of taking care of myself is doing a good job at my work, including working evenings and weekends on occasion.

I hope those tips are helpful. Our work never ends. There is always more stuff to do, more grants to write, more donors to cultivate, more research to study, more management concepts to learn, more relationships to build, more program elements to improve, more meetings to attend. And since this work is so critical, with real people being affected, finding down-time can be challenging, sometimes even guilt-inducing. If we stop stirring, we feel like the risotto may burn. But if we don’t stop stirring to take care of ourselves, we will all burn out. And then who the hell is going to make the delicious wild mushroom risotto of equity and justice for our community?

What do you do for self-care? Please add your tips in the comment section. See you later. I’m going to go enjoy my slightly-burned chanterelle risotto while watching “Under the Dome,” an enjoyably awful TV show.

PS: @AllAmericaCity on Twitter pointed out something obvious that I missed: Laughter. Duh! This was one of the reasons why this blog was started in the first place. We must be able to laugh at ourselves, and we should find other things that make us laugh. Poorly-organized panels? That’s funny. Applying to a grant and being called in thinking you are advancing to the next stage only to get kicked in the groin, that’s hilarious!

12 Tips for Not Sucking as a Panel Moderator

A while ago I wrote “Tips for Not Sucking when You’re on a Panel,” which went viral. (Among us nonprofit bloggers “going viral” means that at least 12 people have read your post). Of course, a panel can have awesome panelists, but if the moderator sucks, then the panel will also likely suck, resulting in disappointed audience members who are now in a bad mood though they can’t pinpoint why. It will also result in panelists who will immediately go to happy hour to drink and talk about what a horrible human being the panel moderator is for wasting their time and expertise.

Moderating a panel, however, is not like making meth, which I’ve learned in Breaking Bad is actually very complicated and precise. If you are asked to moderate a panel, or if you know someone who will be moderating one, just follow the simple steps below, and you are guaranteed to not suck. There are 12 tips, which may be hard to remember, so I’ve made them into an acronym: TPLFIDPPVCEC

1. First and foremost, Think of the audience. Yes, the unlearned, unwashed masses huddled silently in front of the refined and much better dressed panelists. Seriously, the whole point of the panel is to impart something useful to this lowly group of people. Panelists are just instruments toward that objective. You wouldn’t have a panel if you had no audience, right? You are there to serve the audience first, the panelists second. Always keep that in mind.

2. Prepare. Nothing is as annoying as a disorganized panel, except maybe toenail fungus or children singing in the background of rap songs. Communicate with your panelists so they know the objective of the panel. Read up on their work so that you are knowledgeable when you brainstorm your questions. Give them a few sample questions you may ask. Send reminders as the date approaches, and ask panelists to arrive 30 minutes early. Tell them it’s so that they can meet one another, but it’s actually just a good strategy to minimize lateness.

3. Limit your panelists to 3 or 4 people; 3 is ideal. I was once on a panel with NINE other people. By the time everyone finished their introduction, we had 15 minutes left. It was on a Sunday, too, so there were approximately 18 people in the audience. Fortunately, everyone left inspired, and by that, I mean bitter and angry.

4. Frame the conversation. In your short welcome speech—and make sure it’s short—repeat the objective of the panel. Why is this topic important? What is the problem? What do we want everyone in the audience to leave with? Framing will help everyone stay focused, especially your panelists, some of whom probably didn’t prepare at all and only signed up to be on a panel to avoid real work.

Also, use this framing time to establish some ground rules, including asking panelists to keep their responses to-the-point, and that you apologize in advance but you will cut them off if their answers are too long. It keeps panelists on guard, and it reassures the audience that you are on their side.

5. Introduce the speakers. You wanted them to introduce themselves? Ask a bystander to slap you right now for even thinking of such a thing. Giving panelists time to talk about themselves is tantamount to panel suicide, and I don’t use the term “tantamount” lightly. I’ve seen a panelist go on for 15 minutes about her background, and the moderator did nothing about it. If you introduce people, you can both make the panelists feel important (“Aw, he learned about my work and memorized a fun fact so he could introduce me…”) as well as control the time. If you insist on having panelists introduce themselves, fine, but say something like, “Please introduce yourself in one minute or less. I mean it, one minute.” Then glare at each of them and draw a finger across your neck to ensure they get the message.

6. Ditch the PowerPoint. As a panelist I never use PowerPoint. One, because I’m lazy, but two, because people don’t really want to look at PP slides, because everyone is generally bad at PowerPoint, adding way too much text and having too many slides. And when you have four or five people, each using a PP presentation, the logistics are annoying, and even if logistically everything goes smoothly, people will always go over time limit, limiting time for discussion, and the audience will be snoozing away. There are exceptions, but overall, a simple one-page summary handout will more effectively accomplish almost anything a PowerPoint can do and won’t make your audience members wish for the Mayan Apocalypse to have taken place.

7. Pay Attention. Some moderators feel like they are just there to kick-off the conversation and let the panelists take over until the Q&A section. No, that’s very lazy. As a moderator, your job is to moderate, thus, you are called a moderator…so therefore you should moderate. However, you can’t do that if you are not paying attention. Sit next to the panelists, or maybe in the corner formation (described here in “Feng Shui for Nonprofits, the Seven Basic Meeting Formations”). Have a notebook with you and write down things as panelists talk that you want to clarify or ask follow-up questions to, which we’ll talk about below.

8. Provoke reactions and discussion. You have a bunch of (hopefully) brilliant experts with a (hopefully) diverse set of viewpoints. It is a boring waste of time and opportunity if they don’t interact with one another. Panelists tend to be too polite (unless they read my Tips for not sucking as panelists, in which case they should be getting into fist-fights with one another), so you must force them to interact. You can do this tactfully by summarizing and asking for counter-opinions, e.g., “John: Susan said that parental engagement is THE key factor in student achievement. You had mentioned earlier that you were a terrible student.  I think Susan may have insulted your mother. How do you respond to that?”

9. Varietize. Too many moderators have the “assembly line” format, where they ask a question, then panelists go down the line answering. Usually by the time the third person speaks, half of the audience has tuned out. By the time the fifth person speaks, 75% of them have entered some sort of trance-like state where they are daydreaming about inventing a time machine to go back in time and prevent their parents from meeting so that they wouldn’t be born and thus would not have to attend this panel.

Assembly line is fine once a while, especially if your questions are good, but don’t keep using it. Call on different people for different questions. Ask panelists to rank or prioritize things and defend their positions. Point out potential disagreements. You must be on your toes to do all of that, but the audience and panelists will get a lot more out of it.

10. Cut off long-winded speakers. A major, in fact probably most important, job of the moderator is to intervene when panelists are off track or rambling. If you followed Tip #4 and framed the conversation right, it will help people to not be offended. Now it’s just a matter of politely jumping in with things like, “I’m sorry for cutting you off, John, but I’d like to get the other panelists’ viewpoints before we move to the next questions” or “John, it seems like you have a lot of valuable insight on this topic, but we have several questions left and I want to make sure we get your perspective on those questions too” or “John, excuse me…John? Hey, John…listen…can you…I’m sorry for…John, just shut up! Shut up, John!” It’s uncomfortable to have to do that, but that’s your job.

11. Engage the audience. If you watch talk shows, notice how skillful they are at engaging the audience. Audience members are asked to participate in everything. On The Doctors, they pull audience members up to feel fake mucus in an enlarged sinus. I think that’s what I saw once. Talk shows know that without the audience, there is no show. Depending on how big your audience is, you may want to do things like ask people to briefly introduce themselves, do a quick ice breaker (here are some icebreakers that don’t suck), have small-group discussions, raise their hands for various questions, come up to feel fake snot, etc. Then leave plenty of time for Q&A, since an engaged audience will have more questions.

12. Conclude with practical take-aways/advice. Do not ask your panelists to go down the line summarizing what they just said, or to conclude with some final words of wisdom or something. Chances are, the panelists will waffle something incoherent. Best to end with something like “What is something concrete the audience members can do today to blah blah” or “what are three practical pieces of advice you have for our audience for blah blah” or “In one word, what do you think will solve the problem of blah blah.” Don’t actually say “blah blah.” Replace it with the relevant topic. (Although, blahness is a really big problem in the world)

Get those 12 tips down and you should be a pretty decent panel moderator. Just remember TPLFIDPPVCEC. Leave additional tips in the comment, and please forward this list on to your panel moderating friends.

PS: Bonus tip: Reconsider giving panelists mugs as a thank-you (I have eight from panels). We don’t expect any gifts, but if you are going to give a small token of thanks, here are some acceptable items: Movie tickets, gift cards to local coffee shops, or bars of dark chocolate (at least 65% cocoa). Mugs are fine, but maybe fill them with whiskey first.

Work styles: Are you a Dragon, Pegacorn, Phoenix, or Griffin

 

beast-986054_960_720[Note: The set of creatures originally comprised Dragon, Unicorn, Phoenix, and Lion-Turtle. Due to copyright and other reasons, it has been changed.]

Most of us in the field have done various “behavioral styles” activities.  With so much of our work being relationship-based, it is important for us to understand one another. This will lessen our chances of strangling our coworkers or boss or board members or even some funders or clients.

There are dozens of categorization systems, some using color, directions, or adjectives such as amiables, expressives, drivers, analyticals; or controllers, stabilizers, persuaders, analyzers, etc. Whatever the system, everyone tends to agree that there are four different behavior styles.

It is always good for us to get regular refreshers on what those four styles are. But colors and directions and adjectives are so boring. Here, I’ve relabeled the styles after bad-ass mythical creatures, each awesome (and also sometimes sucky) in their own ways. Find out which style you and the people around you are, and then try to get along with everyone.

How do I know which bad-ass mythical creature I am?

The best way is for you to show this blog post to three or more people, ask them to read it, and then tell you which of these styles most closely describes you. That’s because what we think we are may be completely different from how others perceive us; for instance, I used to think I was an amazing beat-boxer, but based on feedback I was really more like a dying weasel with a spittle problem…

If you’re too lazy to ask three people, just take this one-question quiz below.

When you read the title of this blog post, what was your first thought?

  1. Whoo hoo, Dragons, Pegacorns, Phoenixes, Griffins! Sounds like a drinking game!
  2. This is stupid. I don’t have time to read blog posts about work styles. I have stuff to do.
  3. Hm, this article sounds silly, but I should read it to determine if it has any validity.
  4. Aw, someone took time to write this blog post. I should read it because they spent so much time working on it.

If your answer is 1, you’re a Phoenix; 2, you’re a Dragon; 3, you’re a Griffin; 4, you’re a Pegacorn.

Note: Everyone tends to have a dominant style. But we all have all styles within us, and they change depending on context. You can be a Dragon at work, but a total Pegacorn at home, for instance. Or you can be a Griffin in the board room, but a Phoenix at a gala. See “Have you flipped your iceberg lately?” for part 2 of this.

Dragon

(Red, North, Fire, Controller, Director, Driver, Dominance, Decisive, Sophia)

“When is this meeting over so we can do stuff?”

dragon_stickerWhy Dragons are awesome: Dragons are decisive and like to get stuff done. They are action-oriented and efficient. They hate long meetings, and they’d usually rather juggle live cobras than have to do a wishy-washy ice breaker. Dragons will drive teams to take actions and to be expedient. They wish you would stop reading stupid blog posts like this and do something, like your job.

Why Dragons sometimes suck: They can be brusque and impatient. In their drive for action and efficiency, they can make mistakes. And they can run over people. Then they might roll their eyes when the people they run over want to talk about their feelings. Feelings are for losers, according to Dragons, because while people are all experiencing emotions and crap, stuff is not getting done.

How to best work with a Dragon: Get to the point quickly. Be action-oriented. Don’t make them share their feelings. Just do your job.

Dragons will have most conflict with: Pegacorns. They find Pegacorns to be indecisive, emotionally weak, easily manipulated, and their focus on harmony and snuggling an annoying waste of time.

Phoenix

(Yellow, West, Air, Persuader, Socializer, Expressive, Influencer, Interactive, Blanche )

“Let’s go to Happy Hour after this meeting!” 

Why Phoenixes are awesomephoneix_stickerPhoenixes are visionary, big-picture thinkers. They are optimistic, trustful, and have unlimited energy. They bring fun wherever they go. They are creative and spontaneous. Phoenixes are great at building relationships, since they are charismatic, great talkers, and excellent at convincing people to think and do things differently. They love to get everyone to go out for drinks after work. They like to be around people, and they’re often hilarious.

Why Phoenixes sometimes suck: They can be unfocused and fail to follow up on things that are not fun, which, unfortunately is about 85% of work. They are not good at details and get bored easily. They can be distracted and distracting, and sometimes they burst into songs, which, depending on the timing and frequency, can be either endearing, or make you want to throw a stapler at them.

How to best work with a Phoenix: Get to know them on a personal level, and let them get to know you. Participate in the stuff they suggest, praise them, and go out for drinks with them. (Hint: Phoenixes like to buy people drinks)

Phoenixes will have most conflict with: Griffins. They find Griffins to be way too serious, stuck-up, and boring as hell.

Griffin

(Blue, East, Earth, Analyzer, Thinker, Analytical, Conscientious, Cautious, Dorothy)

“I’ve prepared handouts for everyone for this meeting.”

Why Griffins are awesomeGriffin_stickerGriffins are diligent, careful, logical, and accurate. They take time to do their work, so it is usually high quality. They are detailed oriented, often picking up stuff that other people miss. They love processes, data, and well-reasoned arguments. They bring grounding and balance to any team, encouraging everyone pay attention to boring technical crap like objectives and timelines and data. They are not sure this description of them is accurate; they need more time to think about it first.

Why Griffins sometimes suck: They require a lot of time to think and plan, which can be annoying. Also, they keep wanting more and more data, and keep asking questions all the time, like “what’s the budget for this?” and “what was the process for coming up with this budget?” which can be infuriating. Sometimes they seem boring, since they often like to keep work life and personal life separate, meaning they might seem stand-offish when everyone goes out for drinks and they don’t.

How to best work with Griffins: Be specific, thorough, and demonstrate that you have thought thoroughly about stuff after doing research. Be consistent and predictable and don’t seem too impulsive.

Griffins will have most conflict with: Phoenixes. They find the Phoenixes to be silly, narcissistic, drunkards, and time wasters.

Pegacorn

(Green, South, Water, Stabilizer, Relater, Amiable, Steady, Stabilizing, Rose)

“Let’s make ‘snuggling’ the first item on the agenda.”

Why Pegacorns are awesome: Pegacorns are considerate, thoughtful, and good at listening. pegacorn_stickerThey like harmony and use their pegacorn powers to help people get along. Pegacorns will always be on the lookout to make sure everyone is comfortable and no one feels left out. They are good at mediating conflicts and getting people to hold hands and snuggle and crap like that. Even though they are gentle, they will stab injustice in the face with their horns of equity. 

Why Pegacorns sometimes suck:  Pegacorns are always searching for consensus, so they can be indecisive, needing to check in with everyone. They can be conforming, insecure, and wishy-washy. Wanting to avoid conflict, sometimes they bottle up their feelings, absorbing the stress until it reaches a breaking point, and then they explode, getting messy pegacorn bits all over the place.

How to best work with a Pegacorn: Do what you say you’re going to do, be kind and considerate to everyone, tell them you appreciate them.

Unicorns will have most conflict with: Dragons. They find Dragons to be insensitive and thoughtless clods who don’t value others’ feelings.

***

I hope that was helpful. Remember, no one mythical creature is better than any other. A good team will have at least one of each of the styles. And also, keep in mind that while we each have one dominant style, we can (and should) learn other styles and transform into different mythical creatures as situations demand. If we can all learn each other’s styles and learn to work with one another, maybe, just maybe, we will survive planning the next annual fundraising event.

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Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address. Also, join the NWB Facebook community for daily hilarity.

Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organization, Rainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

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Community Engagement 101: Why Most Summits Suck

blenderHi everyone. I just came back from Port Orchard for a friend’s wedding. A day-trip with 3-month-old infant is grueling. It was like writing a grant. A cute, drooly, moody grant who spit up all over my suit. I’m exhausted. That is to say, I don’t know how this post is going to turn out. This may not be my finest post, but I am committed to getting a new post published every Monday. Like I’ve been telling the baby, “Consistent adequacy is always better than inconsistent excellence.” And also: “Please don’t throw up on Daddy.”

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A few months ago, I received a request from a staff at the City of Seattle’s Department of Critical Services (DCS)*. “Vu,” said the staff, “can you gather a whole bunch of Vietnamese people so that the Director of the Department of Critical Services can come and listen to their concerns? We’ve already pulled together mini-summits with three other ethnic groups: Spanish, Somalis, and Canadians.” (Kidding about the Canadians).

Sigh. Despite my best efforts, this seems to happen a lot in Seattle: “Let’s get a bunch of ethnic people together and listen to them. I bet they’re just standing around; they’ll love to come to a meeting and be listened to, especially if we have hummus and baby carrots.” It is very well-intentioned, and usually ineffective in the long-run. Sometimes it is just insulting, especially when the hummus is all chunky and grainy and not smooth, like high-quality hummus should be.

Summits, conferences, and other gatherings, when used right, can be powerful tools for community engagement. Kind of like a blender. You get a blender and make some awesome margaritas, and people are like “this is the best party ever.” (This may be the worst analogy ever). These gatherings can connect people around a common cause, equip them with skills and resources, and energize everyone to take action. They also look cool: “Ooh, look, 500 people attended! Snap a picture for our annual report! (Make sure you capture the diversity).”

But lately summits have become the default shortcut for everything:

  • We need to demonstrate to funders that we are doing stuff. Let’s have a summit!
  • We need to kick-off our collective impact initiative. Let’s have a summit!
  • Our strategic plan needs input from communities of color. Let’s have a bunch of mini summits!
  • We need a cool picture for our new brochures. Let’s have a summit!
  • We need to spread awareness of a critical issue. Let’s have a giant summit and get a national speaker to keynote!

I and a bunch of other people in the field are sick of summit-like meetings, especially as tools for engaging communities of color. It’s like taking a blender and trying to make an entire meal with it, blending the salad, blending the entrees, blending the dessert (I’m not giving up on this blender analogy).

Here’s why most summits suck as a tool for engagement:

  1. They give a false sense of stuff actually getting done. Sweet, we placed sticky notes and stickers on easel papers and drew visions of an ideal community. Yay! We did stuff! (Hey, we got people to vote using sticky dots on easel paper and write their ideas on sticky notes! Yay! We did stuff!)
  2. They give a false sense of hope and then usually lead to nothing, especially the community input gathering sessions. Time and time again, we ethnic nonprofit staff rally our communities to various listening sessions. Time and time again, little if any of our community members’ suggestions are ever implemented.
  3. There is usually very little follow-through with relationship building. Summits are enticing because you can kill 50 to 500 or more birds with one stone. After that, though, 90% of the generated energy tapers off because there are usually no funds allocated for staff with the language and cultural skills to continue to develop the relationships.
  4. Funds to organize summits are inequitably distributed: I’ve seen so many summits that pay consultants and event coordinators, and allocate nothing to ethnic organizations to do outreach work. So what happens? The paid consultants and/or event coordinators start calling us up to ask us to do outreach for free. It’s very annoying. We got stuff to do, like, you know, running programs and stuff.
  5. The worst part of many summits, though, is that they supplant actual effective community engagement practices. They make people think “Yay, we engaged the communities of color, since they came to our gathering!” Then they might not bother with the one-on-one meetings. One-on-one relationships are the basic building blocks of community organizing and engagement. Absolutely nothing can replace it, and it is totally time-consuming.

Anyway, I told the staff at the Department of Critical Services bluntly that I didn’t have time to rally a bunch of VFA clients for his boss to listen to, and that I didn’t think these types of meetings would be effective anyway, consider how annoyed our community members are with the lack of follow-through from previous gatherings. What would be effective, he asked. Well:

  • Meet with community leaders one-on-one, on their own turf. Go yourself, don’t send your assistant. It’s a respectful thing to do, and the relationship building will pay dividends. Stop it with this “I’ll come down from the mountain once a while so that the people may rejoice in my presence” business. That’s not what you mean, but that’s what it feels like when the only time the community sees you is when you’re pushing some project.
  • When you meet with people, ask them to refer you to other people, and meet with those people one-on-one. It’s time-consuming, meeting with individuals, getting coffee, listening to them tell their life stories, finding out about their hopes and dreams and their worries about their kids, etc., but you cannot engage anyone until they feel like you know and understand them and vice-versa.
  • Be where people are. There are tons of places people are already gathered: Senior programs, churches, temples, youth groups, etc. Go down there, meet the coordinators, go multiple times, build the relationships. Attend organizations’ events.
  • Budget for outreach staff who can do on-the-ground relationship building year-long, and not just during summit time, along with funding  for translations, interpretations, childcare, food, and transportation for community members when you have events.
  • Budget for funding for ethnic nonprofits to collaborate with you to do your work. If you value the outreach work these CBOs do, build it into the budget.
  • Do your research to ensure you’re not repeating something that another organization has done and published a report on. It’s frustrating to have to answer the same questions over and over again.
  • If you are going to have a summit, do all the above, and also commit your team ahead of time to actually accept and follow-through on whatever action steps are decided at the summit, if that’s the will of the community, even if you may not like them. So often the only things that get implemented are whatever aligns with the summit organizers’ preconceived agenda. Well, that’s just stupid and tokenizing and a waste of people’s time. If you’re going to get community members’ input, trust and act on their recommendations.
  • Funders: Fund on-going, on-the-ground relationship-building work, and fund communities-of-color-led nonprofits to do it.

Gatherings are enticing, since you can reach more people in a shorter amount of time. When it works, it can be awesome, like a Vitamix blender, which can make delicious hummus and can puree a digital camera. Lately, it’s been sucking, a lazy and superficial way of engaging communities of color. So many of the community members I interact with are so skeptical of any more “coffee chat with so-and-so important person” or “summit to discuss our concerns about the education system” that they’d just laugh in my face if I ask them to come to one more thing. I don’t want them to laugh in my face. I get plenty of that from my family for being in this line of work.

(*This is a pseudonym. There is no Department of Critical Services at the City of Seattle)

For more on community engagement, check out “Being a Nonprofit with Balls” parts 1, 2, and 3, which launched this blog and gave it its title.