The ED vacation

vacationI am in Vietnam on vacation and have been looking forward to lounging on the beach, a cold coconut in one hand, and in the other: Fundraising: Hands-On Tactics for Nonprofit Groups, by L. Peter Edles, Second Edition. This is not my ideal book for leisure-time reading, but there is no other time to read it, and VFA’s new part-time Development Director, Rachel, insists I read it. Like other effective Development Directors, she can be bossy and scary, always saying stuff like, “Sign this stack of acknowledgement letters by Friday” or “Are you really going to meet a program officer wearing that shirt?” or “Go comb your hair; here’s a Tic-Tac.”

I think there are several reasons for EDs to take long vacations. First, it is a stressful job, and we need time to recharge and de-agify. Second, it is good to put some distance in order to get a clearer perspective on work. And third, it’s a good test for staff in working together to solve problems, and a good leadership experience for whomever is in charge while we’re gone.

Still, it is not as simple as most people think. There’s all this preparation that has to happen first, such as establishing a chain of command. “Hong is in charge,” I said. He smiled, starting to put his fingers into the “power tent” position. “However, you can override him with a two-third majority.”

Then there’s a whole bunch of important projects that have to happen. “UWKC’s outcome reports are due on July 23rd and the demographics reports are due a week later. SVP is still waiting for our program outcomes as well, now that the school year is over. HSD’s contract renewal package should be coming in while I’m gone, but that can be signed electronically, so ensure that if I don’t get to it, find a way to get a hold of me. And of course, don’t forget the CAPACD and Medina grants, which we are still behind on—Actually, you know what, I’ll just cancel my ticket…”

“Go!” they said. Maybe a little too eagerly.

I am now in the beautiful city of Da Lat, in the mountains, 4,500 feet above sea level, at an internet café, because I knew this blog post was due. On my right is a snot-nosed little teenager who is smoking, and his fumes are wafting over as I type this. “Son,” I said “blow your smoke the other direction! I’m trying to work!” There are no laws against smoking indoors here, so I have to suffer. “It’s not me, it’s the wind!” he protests. “I don’t care, knock it off,” I said.

I don’t think EDs can ever truly have a real vacation. We constantly think about the thousands of emails breeding like rabbits in our inbox, about the important time-sensitive stuff we might be missing while we’re away, about how our staff are doing and whether they are planning a mutiny, and then—deep down—all of us are always kind of hoping that they are planning a mutiny. It has made for a very tense few days, and everywhere I go, I hunt down WiFi so I can check my emails on my smart phone. Three days ago, I was in my home village, up in the mountains, where pine trees grow out of red earth, beautiful and tranquil. And where there is no WiFi! For three days I couldn’t check my email. I was going through withdrawal symptoms, twitching and scratching. But then, I started relaxing a little bit!

For almost all my vacations, the first five or six days are spent with a severe cold. This seems to happen with other EDs. I think the constant high level of stress keeps our immune system working, and as soon as we relax, it also takes a vacation. This year is no different. I have been sick two days now, hacking and coughing and stuffed up. Last night, we went to a pharmacy, where they prescribed four different kinds of medicines, and I have no idea what they are. This idiot next to me continues to smoke. I am irritated. It’s no fun being sick. But I have only myself to blame. I shouldn’t have gotten so relaxed! Stress keeps me from getting sick. There’s only one thing to do: I’ll go back to my hotel and open Fundraising: Hands-On Tactics. I’ve tucked a copy of VFA’s cash flow chart in the book.

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.

Special event planning: as fun as 19 consecutive root canals

turtlesRecently, we met with Tim, our Lead Partner with Social Venture Partners, to go over SVP’s Organization Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT). Tim travels a lot and always comes back with inspiring stories. This time, he told us of the giant sea turtle, which digs a hole in the sand, where it lays over 100 eggs. The mother turtle buries her egg and then leaves. A couple of months later, baby turtles hatch and crawl out of the sand.

“They’re really cute,” said Tim, “and this usually happens at night when they hatch. But somehow, they see the ocean—maybe it’s just a little bit lighter in color or something—and they start heading for it.” We started imagining these tiny little turtles, newly hatched and filled with thirst for life, heading toward the horizon to start their journey. “But then,” continued Tim, “all these seagulls and other predators start swarming in on them in a horrible feeding frenzy. A few of them barely make it to the ocean, and those that do usually get eaten by fish and other things in the water.”

This made me think of several things. First, don’t call Tim when you’re having a bad day. Second, baby sea turtles trying to make it to the ocean and being eaten by seagulls is a great metaphor for diversification of funding in the nonprofit world. Grants, individual donors, mailing campaigns, these are all hopeful little baby sea turtles trying to reach the horizon.

For the past eight months or so, VFA has been hatching one of our baby turtles, the annual event. I am not an event planner. In fact, I and other Executive Directors find the process of planning a special event so horribly painful that the Department of Homeland Security should consider using it as an interrogation method: “So, you refuse to talk, huh? Well, let’s see how defiant you are after serving six months on an annual dinner planning committee!”

Special events are challenging because there are a billion pieces to worry about, all of them having to come together at precisely the right time, and each of them requiring at least three arguments and 30 emails to settle. Fortunately, we at VFA have perfected the art of productive debates:

“How about we call the first award we’re giving out the ‘Community Service Award’?”

“That’s so boring and clichéd!”

“Your FACE is boring and clichéd!”

“I suggest The Golden Hedgehog Award for Awesomeness.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Your FACE is stupid!”

Don’t even get me started on the debate over the menu (“Your FACE is too many pork dishes!”).

Even though I am not fond of event planning and would in fact rather undergo nineteen consecutive root canals, I have lots of great ideas about how to make them more successful. For example, “We should have a non-dinner,” I said, “where instead of having a dinner, we don’t have one, and people buy tickets to this non-dinner, and they donate money, but they get to stay home, and all the money goes to VFA programs!”

“That’s a great idea, Vuey,” said Rachel, one of our co-chairs, “we’ll definitely think about it.” I went back to my cubicle, disheartened. This was like my wedding reception all over again, where all my great ideas to make the event better (“We should have a non-reception…”) were also condescendingly ignored.

Luckily, we have a great planning committee. Just because I dislike event planning, doesn’t mean that there are not others who are really great at it and who actually enjoy doing it. I will never understand them; their eyes light up at the thought of things like cakes, a critical element for any benefit dinner. Recently, the team has become more cohesive and has taken control of the entire event, which is great, but I am becoming kind of worried that the committee may be getting too powerful. “We will have ten cakes for the dessert auction,” I was told, “The Committee has decided you are going to bake a vegan cake. The Committee has also decided that your speech will be 3 to 5 minutes long, focused on VFA’s accomplishments this past year. Keep working on your table and potential sponsors; the Committee will contact you with further instructions.”

As we approach D-Day, we get more and more stressed, and when I get stressed, my face breaks out into constellations. With a billion elements in play, there will be some that do not go right, no matter how competent we are in controlling for them. Every other week, the Committee has been meeting, and soon it will meet weekly. I try not to attend, as I will either take over, or else end up in the fetal position under the conference table.

But I have hope. Like the mother turtle, who lays her eggs and then leaves, hoping against the odds that Fate will be kind to her offspring, perhaps slightly in denial, I go off into the distance to Google recipes for vegan cakes and maybe to order Proactiv since there is a special deal for 19.99 with free shipping if I call within the next thirty minutes. In two months, I am sure our baby turtle will make it safely out to sea

Don’t get rid of that 3-legged chair; it’s my baby!

squirrelAs a small nonprofit, we don’t take anything for granted. Funding for supplies and furniture is hard to come by, so when there’s free stuff, we usually take it. We, like other similar agencies, are a nonprofit squirrel, hoarding supplies for the programming winter.

“Hey Vu,” said an ED buddy two years ago, “I have a few pens that we’re getting rid of. Do you want to swing by to see if you want them?” Pens, I thought, I lose one a day, and it’s not like those things expire, so why not? That was how we ended up with three gallon-sized Ziploc bags, each filled with over 200 pens. I was ecstatic. Think of all the events we do, all the signing-in! We would never run out of pens again!

Another nonprofit moved, leaving behind literally over a thousand coloring pencils and markers in two boxes. We could save them for our summer program, said a staff, so we took them and shoved them into the supply cabinet. A bank went out of business. Word spread of filing cabinets, good ones with slight dents and scratches. We borrowed a pickup truck and moved them, slightly bruised afterward but overjoyed at our bounty.

Soon, chairs started appearing, mismatched, multicolored chairs from other agencies or from Craigslist. One was so unstable that only staff were allowed to sit in it, and only after going through a quick orientation on safe sitting.

Before the New Year, the VFA staff decided to do a purge. It had gotten unbearable: the endless dusty binders, the hundreds of books that no one ever read, the random chairs floating ghostlike around the office. The supply cabinet had become a scary vortex from which nothing returned. We left it alone in the corner, afraid its doors would break open and a lethal shower of pens and sharpened pencils would engulf an unfortunate intern.

The staff and I showed up early on a weekend, excited. But the amount of junk we had accumulated was breathtaking. I could not bear to get rid of anything. Overwhelmed, we called in Jennifer, one of the board members. She arrived, was horrified, and after some vague threats about my annual performance review, started sorting. Four hours later, the office looked like a tornado zone. “Why…how…do you have so much stuff?” said Jennifer, pulling out a box full of playing cards and dice, which we thought three years ago would be good manipulatives for teaching math.

The sorting brought back memories, which might be why it’s so hard to toss things. Each of these things harkens back to a time in VFA’s leaner years, when we couldn’t afford books for our after-school program, or markers for our kids. A working stapler or hole puncher was a luxury to be treasured. We looked on this crap fondly. Plus, it’s still the lean years! We must continue to prepare for the winter.

With Jennifer’s help/coercion we started tossing things. It took a three whole days, and there is still stuff to get rid of. We moved some of it outside the office and put up a “Free” sign. We posted on Craigslist. We made runs to Goodwill. Within hours, things started disappearing. It felt good, as if a burden had started lifting. There was still stuff, though, in a big pile. I stared at it for a while, feeling bad that such potentially useful items might go to waste. I called up an ED friend. “Hey,” I said, “we have a thousand coloring pencils we’re tossing. You think you can use them in your after-school program?”