Last week, I had bought my 9-year-old Viet his first bicycle. He got to choose it and he was very excited about it. It was my fault for leaving it overnight on our porch, where it got stolen. While he was at school, I went around the city to a few different stores, trying to find the exact same bicycle, coordinating with his mom so he wouldn’t know what was going on. We could have just told him the truth—and we will, someday, as an amusing anecdote when he’s older—but knowing our son, he would be worried about his bike, about the world. His excitement would give way to fear and anxiety. We wanted to save from that, to let him be a kid for a bit longer.
I was able to find the same bike, and he never knew what happened, and I left town for a speaking engagement in Park City, Utah. There I learned about the students and teachers who were murdered in Uvalde, Texas. We parents try to protect our kids from the horrors of reality. We replace their stolen bikes and sick goldfish and kiss their foreheads and tell them the world is not a terrible place. And then we send them to school, where they do active shooter drills to learn how to hide and remain quiet if someone comes to gun them down, and we hope they return home safely each day. The unimaginable pain and anguish the Uvalde families must be feeling, their lives forever shattered, knowing their loved ones, their babies, will never come home again.
Thanksgiving is coming up this week, and all of us in the US will likely be reflecting on things for which we are each thankful. That’s great. Gratitude has been scientifically proven to lead to all sorts of benefits, from reducing stress, to improving sleep, to making people around us less likely to poison our hummus.
Hi everyone, this post is going to be a little serious, but I hope you will read it and discuss with your team. The recent suicides in the news have made me think about our sector and our responsibility to one another.
Ten years ago, a friend of mine took her life a day after calling me asking to hang out. I would learn later from her mom that she had been dealing with bipolar disorder for a long time, and hid it from her friends and coworkers. I wished that I had been a better friend, that I had known what she was going through, that I had supported her more.
My friend’s suicide made me realize that we have a long way to go when it comes to mental health awareness, even among those of us who are in the nonprofit sector and thus are supposed to be more attuned to the people around us. Because mental health conditions are mostly invisible, our colleagues, friends, and family members may be going through challenges, and we may not be aware of it. Or we may be unintentionally creating an environment where mental illness is stigmatized, leading to further isolation.Continue reading “Nonprofits, we need to talk about mental health and suicide”
In college—Washington University in St. Louis. Yeah, go Bears!…If that’s still relevant!—I volunteered with the Campus Y and led a program called SAGE (Service Across GEnerations). We students would wake up early on Saturdays, hop on the school shuttle, and visit seniors at a nursing home. We played checkers and cards and talked to the seniors. There was Joyce, who enjoyed drawing penguins and who always called me Lou. And Mrs. Mosbey, a 90-year-old blind woman who listened to the radio and kept up with current affairs, who constantly ribbed me for being vegan. “You need to eat some meat,” she would say, “it’ll put some hair on your chest.”
As delightful as the visits were, it was extremely difficult to get other students to participate. Whereas the program where you read books to small children had over a hundred volunteers each day, SAGE always had just four to six of us. This was not from lack of trying. We had amazing posters! I remember how frustrating and demoralizing it was trying to convince other students to come along, to meet these incredible seniors. A one-hour visit would do so much to brighten their day. It was always a tough sell. No one wanted to spend time with seniors; it was much easier to ignore them and read to children. Continue reading “Kids are the future? So are older adults!”
Hi everyone. It is Thanksgiving in the US this week, a time for us all to slow down, stuff our faces with food, and try to avoid getting into drunken arguments with our older brother, who is a successful real estate investor who is always like “blah blah I’m so successful, when are you going to find a real job, derp derpity derp you ridiculous hippie with your Tofurky blah blah derp derp get a haircut.”
OK, he doesn’t ever say that, but I know he’s thinking it.
It is also a time for us to reflect on the things for which we are grateful. It has been a rough year in the US and the world, and it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We have our work cut out for us. But I want to just take a moment today to express my gratitude to our sector and everyone in it. Here are some things I am thankful for, in no particular order:
We have kind and brilliant people: Nonprofit work is difficult AF, with the overhead BS and the clueless public looking down on us, among hundreds of challenges. It takes a certain type of badass to do it. That’s you. You’re an amazing unicorn who brings balance to the world. You’re a Jedi unicorn, and I’m so glad you exist. This work, as hard as it is, is also fun. That’s because many of you, in addition to being kind and smart, are also hilarious! I love our sector because we have the best people ever.
We provide jobs and strengthen the economy: We are the third largest sector, we employ ten percent of the workforce, and we contribute 900 billion to the economy every year. (Here’s more data). Millions of jobs are created, and as many families are supported by these jobs, because of our sector. I know we have a lot of things we need to improve on (cough, stop asking for salary history, cough), but I am thankful every day that I get to do this for a living, that I get to do what I love while being able to support my family.
We handle stuff no one wants to do: So much of our work is because our government fails to do its job. Sometimes I daydream about a society where people would look out for one another, maybe paying more taxes so that the entire community would benefit. And then we nonprofits would be put out of business, and some of us would be able to pursue our dreams of opening a vegan food truck or something. Unfortunately, that is not yet the world we live in. So I am grateful for our sector coming in and filling out the gaps in society that leave so many of our neighbors behind.
We restore and build community: My family came over to the US when I was 8. We lost many things. The worst part though—besides getting haircuts from our dad because we were poor—was that our community was gone. I remember how lonely those first few years were. Many nonprofits stepped in to help my family. We got food and warm clothing and cooking utensils. But we also started regaining the feeling of belonging to a community that cared about us. With so many forces out there trying to tear families apart, I am deeply grateful for nonprofits and the work you all do to build and restore community.
We amplify voices that may not always be heard: Being a kid for whom English is a second language, I remember what it was like to not have a voice, to be taunted for being different and made to feel unwanted. You always feel like you live in the shadows, and eventually you might start to believe that you belong there. So many of you work hard to lift up the voices of people who may feel like they don’t matter or that society does not want them. We are not perfect at this, but we try. I am thankful every day for those who try.
We stand defiantly against injustice: This past year I’ve been so inspired by advocacy organizations and activists who stand firm against injustice. While people are getting deported and torches are lit in hateful marches, so many in our sector have been mobilizing to challenge bigotry and hatred in all its forms. You educate, you change laws, you protect people. Sometimes it feels like it is too much, like the tides are too strong. I am thankful for all of you who say “Screw the tides!” and jump in the water.
We bring hope: Since last Thanksgiving, many communities have been short on hope. It’s hard to have hope when you live in fear like so many of our neighbors have to do each day. The generalized anxiety has been pervasive. During these times, what has lifted me and so many others is knowing that good people like you are out there. I know that hope, like community, is not an outcome many of us put on our logic models or theory of change, but this is one of the most important things we do as a sector.
I wrote a while ago that nonprofits are like air, and for-profits are like food. Everyone can see food, take pictures of it, call themselves “foodies.” Even though air is all around us, no one acknowledges it unless for some reason it is not there. No one calls themselves an “airie.” We nonprofits are often not seen or appreciated until our services are needed.
This week, I hope that while you take time to be thankful for all your blessings, you also take a moment to feel appreciated for the work that you do every day, even if your family has no idea what you do or even looks down on your work, even if you rarely hear thank you from the people you serve, even if you will never see the difference you may be making. You strengthen the economy, lift up families, restore hope and community, amplify voices, and make our world better. You’re a badass Jedi unicorn, and I appreciate you. Please try to get some rest this week.
Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NAF by scrolling to the top right of this page (maybe scroll down a little) and enter in your email address (If you’re on the phone, it may be at the bottom). Also, join the NAF Facebook community for daily hilarity.
Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.
Donate, or give agrant, 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.