We need more shows about nonprofit work

Like most executive directors, I come home exhausted from hours of telling staff what to do and taking credit for their work. To de-stress, I’ve started watching ridiculous amounts of television. And I started noticing something. There are plenty of shows about lawyers, doctors, detectives, cooks, servants, zombies, etc., most of them featuring attractive actors who spend endless episodes in frivolous romantic triangles with one another (except the zombies).

Unfortunately, not one of these shows is about nonprofit directors. What kind of example does that set for our kids? Do show producers think we are boring? Do they not realize how incredibly exciting our work is? In either case, I am going to write to David E. Kelley with an idea for a show, called “ED,” featuring a group of Executive Directors of several nonprofits. The show will explore their struggles helping to improve the world while balancing family and other obligations. It will chronicle the hard choices they have to make; the triumphs and challenges; and the friendships they develop, usually through happy hours. There are tons of exciting stuff to mine from the nonprofit world.

Pilot episode: A meeting room at the Coalition for Excellence (CFE). Tension so thick you could carve a statue out of it. Maria, the ED, prepares to present a cashflow report. Things do not look good, and she knows it. Meanwhile, at another nonprofit, Think of the Children (TOTC), Troy is furiously typing. He cries out in pain, cursing his email-induced carpal tunnel syndrome. But this grant is due tomorrow, and it’s a general operating grant! At another nonprofit, Unicycles for Guns (UFG), Vinh, a particularly dashing Asian ED, has a flashback. He is sitting in front of his parents at dinner. He tells them he is pursuing a Master’s in Social Work. They are silent, the sound of their chopsticks clinking on porcelain bowls mournful and ominous. He snaps back to the meeting he’s having with his Development/Human-Resources/Finance-Director/Janitor, Loan. She is tired of having multiple responsibilities and wants to a clearer work plan.

Episode 2: Maria’s board has voted to apply for a line of credit. This is a small victory, short-term. They did not seem to understand that fundraising efforts will need to increase. Staff morale, meanwhile, is down. She calls her Program Director, Arlene, into her office to plan a teambuilding retreat with no funding. At UFG, Vinh’s back hurts from endless hours of meetings. He holds in his hand a grant letter. He is afraid to open it; it could be a rejection. He decides to get it over with, when his phone rings. It’s Troy from TOTC; he got the grant he wrote and is calling, ecstatic, to invite Vinh to happy hour. Vinh looks at the letter in his own hand. “While we had many qualified applicants…” He retraces steps in his mind. Did he talk too much during the site visit? He felt like a failure, imagining all the kids now who couldn’t trade their guns for unicycles.

Episode 3: The Coalition for Excellence wildly succeeds at its annual dinner, and Maria has a good night’s sleep for the first time without Ambien. At TOTC, Troy welcomes an influential board member that he had been pursuing for months, Louis, whom he does not know had a relationship with Maria. He also does not know that Louis has loyalties to Think of the Children’s competitor, Care for the Children (CFTC)! The smart and inexplicably sexy Vinh, meanwhile, finds a coupon for 20% off reams of copy paper. He rushes to Office Depot. Little does he know that at that moment Loan is plotting with the board Treasurer to get Vinh fired.

In the season finale, viewers are left with cliff-hangers: Will Maria get together with Louis? Will Louis destroy Troy’s organization?! Can Arlene find a pro-bono facilitator for the team-building retreat??! Will Vinh be able to carry a ten-ream box of copy paper with his bad back and carpal tunnel???!

If that’s not compelling television, I don’t know what is. I’m going to develop a more detailed script for the pilot episode. Maybe I should add a zombie or two. If they don’t like “ED,” I also thought of another show, one from the perspectives of spouses of Executive Directors and what they go through. It’ll be called “Living with ED.”

Site visits: uncomfortable, yet terrifying

officeThis week, VFA had a site visit. Whenever we apply for a grant, the second-best outcome is a site visit (the best outcome would be a funder saying, “We’re funding you, and in fact, doubling your request and sending the kids in your after-school program a laptop and a bunny each!”)

I always get excited about site visits. We write these grants telling people about how cool our programs are, but to have funders actually come down and visit is affirming. And terrifying. It’s a weird contradiction, like it’s your birthday—yay!—but you’re also getting a colonoscopy.

Before the visit, we try to prep as much as we can. Making a good impression is important. This includes tidying up the place and putting away our fold-out cot, which staff use for naps during particularly long days, or just weekdays. I also gather up all the papers on my desk and shove them into the overhead bin.

The staff’s personal appearance is also taken into consideration. “What kind of site visit is this?” one of them asked, “how should we dress?” The more funding is at stake, the better we dress. Less than $10,000, we dress a little better than normal, but are still generally shabby. At $10,000 to $19,000, we wear button-down shirts and tuck them into our jeans. $20,000 to $49,000, we wear slacks and a nice shirt, maybe a tie. $50,000 or over, I might require some of the staff to get Botox.

“$80,000,” I responded. “Ooh,” they said, “you better get a haircut.” A year ago, an hour from a visit with a major foundation, I checked myself in the mirror. Normally I look like a movie star, an Asian Steve Buscemi if you will, but this time I had a greenish complexion overshadowed by cowlicks so unruly, they were really goatlicks. Quickly I ran downstairs to a barber shop and got a trim. I made it to our program on time but was horrified to see that my face, neck, and shoulders were covered with bits of hair. “Quick, grab some tape,” I said, and for the next ten minutes, two staff used masking tape to remove offending pieces of hair. We got that grant, but the staff have never let me live that down.

On the day of this recent site visit, I was at a Leadership Tomorrow training. “Tidy up office, prepare slideshow,” I texted James, our Director of Youth and Community Engagement, who would be managing the project if we received this grant. This was only an office visit, not a program visit. Program visits have special challenges. We want our funders to see our programs in their natural state, so we don’t prep our students too much, except to tell them that a few people might be visiting and that if they don’t behave, Justin Bieber will stop singing forever.

When these visits go well, everyone leaves with a good feeling. The staff feel affirmed; the funders feel warm and fuzzy. Once in a while, though, they coincide with a crappy day, when kids have low energy, or some staff are absent, or the ED is hungover. Funders are usually pretty understanding and sympathetic when that happens, but I haven’t yet seen a bad site visit that has resulted in a grant or even a second-chance visit. It’s a horrible feeling watching a group of funders leave after an uninspiring tour. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re practicing for hours at a yo-yo trick and it’s awesome and you’re excited to show your older brother, but then the trick doesn’t go right, and he tousles your hair and says “That was a nice try, Vu, I’m sure you’ll get it eventually,” and you’re mad at yourself because you already got it, dozens of time, so then you hide his car keys under the couch cushions.

Office visits are challenging in that funders don’t have the visceral experience of our programs, a chance to meet our kids and stare into their big, liquid eyes brimming with hope and potential. So we create a slideshow to give them an impression. Two hours before the site visit, I texted James to “make sure only cute kids w big eyes are in slideshow.”

On my way back, I got a text from James. “They are here thirty mins early! They in conf room relaxing!” Crap, I thought, I don’t have time to clean up my desk! The previous evening, I had eaten some Morningstar vegan barbecue ribs and left the plate out on the desk. The office had been cleaned, so my cubicle would be the only messy area. They’re going to think I’m disorganized and sloppy! How could they invest in an organization when the ED can’t even clean up his mess after eating vegan BBQ ribs?!

I arrived at the office with twenty minutes to spare, but somehow felt late and anxious. I ran up the stairs and burst into the conference room to greet the four visitors. This was $80,000 on the line and I was blinded by their radiance. Program officers are on average 27% more attractive than civilians, and like Galadriel the Elven Queen from Lord of the Rings when she nearly held the One Ring of Power, they can be both beautiful and terrible to behold.

“I’m so sorry for being…early,” I said, breathless. They cracked up. Maybe they’re just humans, too, after all.

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.