Feng Shui for Nonprofits, Part 2: The 7 Basic Meeting Formations

meetingWhen I was growing up, my mother always told me to study hard. “Study hard,” she said, “so that you can work in an office one day and go to meetings and push paper, and not have to do manual labor like me and your dad.” Then she would add: “And eat some food. You look like a pale exhausted monkey and are the second least attractive member of our extended family.” (Thank God for cousin Nghi and her one twitching eye).

Anyway, Mom got her wish, because I do work in an office and I go to a lot of meetings, and sometimes those meetings are even useful. Our field does a lot of meetings, and yet we don’t stop to think much about them. Today, we’ll talk a little about the layout of the room and how it impacts the dynamics between participants. We barely notice, but simple things like where tables and chairs are placed and where the meeting participants are sitting in relation to one another makes a huge difference in power dynamics, and thus, the outcomes of the meeting.

First, let’s talk about large meetings with multiple people. The results of the meeting can be determined before anyone even walks into the room by how the tables and chairs are arranged.

The Power Formation. The front of the room is the seat of power, and people in the front are perceived to be more powerful than everyone else. This is why we naturally place politicians, panel speakers, and other experts and authority figures in the front of the room. This can be tricky, though, because sometimes you do not want them to be perceived as more powerful than you. One time, I was attending a community meeting designed to hold some higher-ups in Seattle Public Schools accountable for the inequity among our schools. This meeting was organized by the community. I entered the room and saw 8 seats in the front, facing the audience of 15. While the intent was to place the officials in the “hot seat,” the reality was that they now seemed like authority figures towering over the rest of us.  By the end of the meeting, they got us to promise that we’ll work harder to close the achievement gap.

The Circle Formation. Having everyone sit in a circle (or square) conveys a sense of democracy and community. It is also is the appropriate diffuser of power, forcing authority figures to recognize unconsciously that they are just like everyone else, the toiling, unwashed masses. This is what we should have done instead of the Power Formation in the situation above. Plus, the Circle Formation is the most efficient formation for snack distribution.

The U Formation. Arranging tables in a U shape conveys a sense of regalness. The person placed at the head of the table cannot have a diametric opposite, meaning this person has ultimate power. This formation best used when there is a very special guest of honor present, such as the Queen or an Iron Chef, in which case, break out the fine linens and hire some butlers. Otherwise, this formation is pretty stupid and should be avoided at all times.

The Small Groups Formation. Having people sit in small groups fosters both teamwork and competitiveness. It reminds people of high school, when they had to sit in small groups and do projects together, occasionally teasing that one lanky vegan kid who with the bad haircut because his dad always cut his hair. Well, oh yeah, David? Look who’s a nonprofit executive director now while all you got is a “JD”?! What is that anyway, some sort of degree you made up?!

Sorry, I got distracted. This formation is a great way to get people to know one another, especially if you throw in a competitive game or two. It is also an effective diffuser of power. When you have multiple authority figures, scatter them across different groups. When more than one is present, their power combined is not additive, but exponential, along with how annoying they are, being all chummy with one another and saying stuff like, “Yes, let’s get lunch soon” and “Vu, why isn’t the draft of next fiscal year’s budget done? The board must approve it at the next meeting.”

Many of our meetings are one-on-one. For those meetings, it is important to analyze with whom you are meeting and for what purpose. Then determine the appropriate formation to take:

The Adversarial Formation (aka The Interrogation Formation). Sitting directly across a table from someone sends the message that you want to be formal. We use this position when we are playing competitive board games, like Chess. This is a good position when you want to keep your distance or seem imposing. Sometimes it becomes the Interrogation Formation, where a panel of people sits across the table from one person, usually to glare at them while asking interview questions and looking cryptic. Generally I avoid sitting directly across a table from anyone in a one-on-one meeting, as it is unconsciously intimidating. It is useful though when you’re dealing with unsolicited visitors, people you’re meeting for the first time, staff who want to meet with you to complain about their health insurance not kicking in even though it’s been eight months or some other ridiculous reason. Or you are just trying to hide a fifth of whiskey. The bigger the table, the more formality is conveyed. If the table is small, though, such as at cafes, the effects are greatly minimized.

The Intimate Formation. Sitting on the same side of the table as someone sends the message “We’re on the same team” and is really creepy. Unless you know someone well, never ever sit on the same side as they are sitting. It’s like giving an awkward hug, but for an hour, or however long the meeting lasts. Exceptions can be made if you need to look at some documents together, or if for some reason the two of you are on the porch with a cold beer each, sharing war stories or something.

The Corner Formation. Sitting across from someone in such a way that there is one corner of the table between the two of you is a great middle ground between the intimidating Adversarial Formation and the creepy Intimate Formation. I like to use this position as the default when I am meeting with people one-on-one. It makes me seem approachable, but there is still a buffer between me and the other person, allowing them to feel a sense of security. This is a great formation to use when interviewing people for jobs, as it allows them to feel relaxed in a formal setting. It’s also great to use when you have to give bad news or feedback.

Those are the 7 main meeting formations. Learn them well and you’ll be able to greatly affect the outcomes of any meeting. But there are other formations, for more advanced meeting goers. For example the Flanking Formation, where two people from the same organization will flank someone from a different organization, causing disorientation and intimidation. Then there’s the Wagon Wheel Formation, the Intervention Formation, the Fish Bowl Formation (aka the Thunder Dome Formation), and the Lemmings Formation.

But we’ll discuss those later in a future post. We’ll also discuss the different snacks and how they affect power dynamics. Hint: Hummus is an effective tool when deployed strategically.

Cultural compentency wombats: My keynote speech at the NDOA conference on June 7th

wombatHi everyone. Sorry I’ve been absent for two weeks. I am going to try to consistently publish each Monday morning from now on, rain or shine. With such a schedule, the quality of the posts may be lacking, but at least they’ll be consistent. Like someone once said: “Consistent adequacy always trumps inconsistent excellence,” a motto that I want to pass down to my son in one of those idyllic father-son moments. With the setting sun painting the skies crimson and amber in front of us as we sit on our porch, the last remnants of summer fading to the mournful song of the cicadas, I’d turn to him and say, “Son, excellence is hard to achieve, and consistent excellence next to impossible. Aim for reliable mediocrity…”

With so many profound life lessons to share, I am glad the Northwest Development Officers Association (NDOA) invited me to be their keynote speaker on June 7th at their Spring conference. This decision to invite me just proves that NDOA is run by highly-intelligent, innovative, and good-looking people. Public speaking is scary, though, and I want to be very honest and say that I am freaking out more than a little and have thought once or twice about running off into the wilderness, far far away from civilization…like maybe Federal Way, Washington.

Still, it is a great honor, and a great chance to avoid my staff for several hours, so I will work hard to ensure that I don’t suck at my speech in front of three or four hundred development professionals.

So, what am I going to talk about? Cultural competency, community engagement, and wombats. I have been writing about these topics for several years now, including a post called “Are You a Cultural Competency Wombat? Take this Quiz to Find Out.” Of course, this was a while ago, so only 7 or 8 people actually read that post (and only because I threatened to cut their health insurance), so I am going to just repost an excerpt here:

Are You a Cultural Competency Wombat? Take this Quiz to Find Out.”

The term “cultural competency” has been thrown around a lot. For instance: “We must be more culturally competent in our outreach efforts in order to synergistically shift the paradigm for collective impact.” And also: “Stop being so culturally incompetent! In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director a mango lemonade while he naps!”

We all agree that Cultural Competency is a good thing, but do any of us really understand what it is? I mean, sure, there are tons of research papers and books and stuff on the subject, but who actually reads them when we all have so much work to do and Season 3 of Downton Abbey just started? [Note, this post was written in February, when references to Downton Abbey were still relevant and very cool].

Cultural Competency is complex, and we can delve deep into it for hours. But for this post, I just want to spend a few minutes discussing cultural competency and how it manifests in the basic logistics of community engagement. Let’s begin by checking to see how culturally competent you currently are.

Question 1: You are leading a committee to talk about community safety and you want to ensure participation from residents of color. Where should you have the meeting? A. At my office downtown; it’ll make it easy for everyone, since downtown is a central location. B. At the local bar, since it’s an informal place where people can be free to express their opinions. C. Maybe a library, or a community center, some place with easy parking.

Question 2: You are thinking of having food at this meeting. What should you order? A. Prosciutto finger sandwiches, baked brie and dried pears, crudités and olives, accompanied by a nice pinot noir. B. Grilled pork banh mi’s (Vietnamese sandwiches), spring rolls C. Pita and hummus, chicken skewers, fruit.

Question 3: You want communities of color to be well-represented at this meeting. How should you go about outreaching? A. Send out flyers, emails, and Facebook messages. B. Call up the various ethnic organizations and ask them send out word to their community members. C. Have information translated and placed in ethnic media such as newspapers and radios, send staff to physically visit various places with translated materials.

Scoring: Give yourself 0 points for every A answer, 17 points for every B, and 900 points for every C. If you got 0 to 900 points, you are a cultural competency goblin. If you have 901 to 1816 points, you are a cultural competency wombat. If you have 1817 to 2700 points, you are a cultural competency platypus.

***End of excerpt. Read the rest of the post here.***

Most of us are wombats. Wombats are cuddly and cute in their clumsiness. But in order for us to be effective, to bring about change, to successfully fight for social justice, we must strive to be a cultural competency platypus. I will be talking about experiences I’ve had and observations I’ve made about wombat-like behaviors that I’ve seen, both at the micro and the macro level (we’ll also discuss the mezzo level, which everyone ignores, because “mezzo” just sounds silly). We will brainstorm tips to be more cultural competent, within our own individual work, in partnerships with other organizations, and in systems that have been impacting our field and our clients. We will touch on community engagement, a crucial element of nonprofit work, one that many of us screw up on all the time, and how we can avoid sucking at that (Hint: stop asking ethnic nonprofits to recruit their clients for focus groups without sufficient funding).

We’ll discuss all those issues and others, and if we have time, I want to run by the group my idea for a Broadway show about nonprofit work: “501c3: The Musical!”

I hope to see you at the conference.

Ask a Nonprofit Director, Episode 2: Advice on child rearing, family dynamics, and halitosis

Welcome to another episode of Ask a Nonprofit Director. As we all know, EDs are excellent problem solvers. That’s why we are paid so well. But why stick to just nonprofit problems? We would make kick-ass advice columnists for everyday dilemmas! (Check out Episode 1)

chickensDear Nonprofit Director: We recently moved to Seattle from Texas, and my 14-year-old son has been having challenges adjusting. He has no friends, spends all his time in his room, and just looks sad and miserable all the time. It breaks my heart to see him like this, as he was always an outgoing and cheerful boy. What can I do? Beginning to Lose All Hope

Dear BLAH: Huge changes can severely affect the morale of any team. Take your son to lunch to express your concerns and listen to his side. Oftentimes, just knowing that you care can do a lot to raise his spirit. Work with him to figure out a strategy to ensure he has a meaningful and productive experience while in Seattle. For example, perhaps he can join a gluten-free baking club, an artisanal urban farming chicken raising class, or an organic biking meet-up group. If things do not improve, you may want to consider counseling. In any case, express to your son your expectations that he meet the outcomes you and he agreed to when he joined your family.

Dear Nonprofit Director: My four siblings and I live in the same city. We used to be very close until last year, when our oldest brother decided to spend Thanksgiving with his partner’s family out of town. So then my younger sister figured it would only be fair for her to spend Christmas skiing with her friends, which led to my other brother deciding to go to Vegas. My mother was very hurt, and now no one is looking forward to this year’s holidays. I’m trying to be the bridge-builder but I’m getting tired. Stuck in the Middle

Dear Middle: Your family may benefit from a weekend teambuilding retreat to reenergize and develop a strategic plan for how you spend the holidays. Determine your objectives and budget, then draft up an RFQ to hire a facilitator. During this retreat, make sure you do some trust falls and other team dynamics activities involving blindfolds. Do not leave the retreat without a one-year action plan as to who will spend which holiday where, along with specific metrics and evaluation instruments to determine if each holiday was successfully enjoyed.

Dear Nonprofit Director: I am thinking of giving my seven-year-old a small weekly allowance to teach him financial responsibility. My husband is reluctant, insisting that kids should just be kids. Who is right in this situation?  No Clever Acronym

Dear NCA: A team cannot function if each of its members does not have clear roles, responsibilities, and autonomy to make decisions. Giving your son an allowance and a clear line-item budget along with an orientation on which items he has full control over will increase his skills in financial management, develop his sense of ownership and investment, and relieve some of the burdens on you and your husband to take care of certain lesser purchases, such as food and clothing. Make sure your son documents all his spending with receipts so that you can do final accounting at the end of the fiscal year.

Dear Nonprofit Director: My daughter seems to favor her 10-year-old son “Billy” over her 12-year-old daughter “Abby.” It is sadly obvious. Abby gets into trouble all the time for the littlest things, while Billy can get away with anything and is rather spoiled. Abby confided to me that her mother is unfairly biased toward Billy and asked me to intervene in her behalf. I told my daughter this, but she became resentful and said I was intruding on her rights as a parent. What should I do? Concerned Grandma

Dear Grandma: The children are your daughter’s direct reports, so she does have the right to supervise them without intrusion, within reason. You made the mistake of intervening in your granddaughter’s behalf, which now creates tension between your daughter and granddaughter. What you should have done, and should do next time, is to encourage Abby to give feedback directly to her mother. This helps to increase respect between the two and helps Abby learn to problem-solve. If this does not work out, you may have to consider if your daughter is the right driver for this bus.

bad_breath-300x300Dear Nonprofit Director: My boss has severe halitosis, smelling of a toxic combination of rotting garlic, sardines, and compost. Plus, he’s a “close-talker.” I dread any one-on-one meetings with him. How do I politely tell him without hurting his feelings or putting my job in jeopardy? Hate It Down in Ellensburg

Dear HIDE: Most people do not know that they have bad breath, which may be a sign of dental or even heart problems. They tend to appreciate the feedback, since very few people are courageous enough to deliver it. Let your boss know in private, and also tell him that he’s too close when he talks. If you feel that being direct might put your job in danger, it may be helpful to bring in a consultant to survey all the staff about the work environment and write up a report. Oftentimes, you can say something for months and get nowhere, but a consultant comes in, says the exact same thing using a report with some colorful graphs, and your boss will think it’s pure genius.

“Ask a Nonprofit Director” is the premiere syndicated advice column on life issues from the perspective of an Executive Director. Send your questions to askanonprofitdirector@gmail.com and it may be published in Episode 3. Also, check out Episode 1 of “Ask a Nonprofit Director” for even more awesome advice.

The most crotch-kickingly craptastic grant application notice ever

crotch kickToday, I paid 10 bucks to get kicked in the crotch by a funder. Well, not literally, but that’s what it felt like. We had applied for a significant grant (over 100K), in partnership with another organization. Yesterday, we were excited to get an email from this funder asking for the ED to come downtown for a meeting, and to bring copies of the grant application. Sweet! One step closer!

Normally, this is how a grantmaking process works: First, an RFP is released. We review the RFP, figure out if it’s a good match for our mission, rally potential partners, write the application, and submit it. Then we wait. Usually, one of three things happens. The best scenario, of course, is getting a phone call saying we got the grant, in which case, depending on the size of the grant, I close down the office, tell the staff to stop helping disadvantaged clients for the day, and we all go out for ice cream.

The most common scenario is we get a letter saying, “Blah blah, we had 300 applications and there is only so much funding to go around; your application, while strong, did not qualify; we’re available for feedback,” in which case, depending on the size of the grant, I close down the office, tell the staff to stop helping disadvantaged clients for the day, and we all go out for alcohol, and in an inebriated state we beg the bar owner to be a sponsor or at least for some sympathy fries on the house.

A third result is an email or phone call asking us to come in for an interview or a meeting, in which case, a whirlwind of activities happens, including reviewing the grant application (because by then, we’ve forgotten what we proposed, something about helping kids), doing a pre-meeting to determine who says what so that we don’t trip over each other, and determining logistics such as carpooling and whether we should color coordinate our interview outfits and get haircuts.

The interview stage does not automatically mean that we get the grant, but it is exciting to think that we are a little closer to being able to do some cool programming and help some great kids and families. I am on paternity leave, but this was a large grant, so I dragged my fellow ED from the collaborating organization, Sharonne, and one of my staff, James, and we drove downtown, getting there 30 minutes early to review our game plan. James had spent the previous night creating a chart to better illustrate our program model.

We walked into the room, ready to answer questions and dazzle the two grant reviewers, who seemed like nice women.

“So you know how this process works,” said one of the women, “we got 10 applications, and could only select 2. Unfortunately, VFA is not one of the two organizations. However, you came real close and just missed it by a couple of points.”

WTF? We looked at each other, confused. “We have some feedback here for you, and can answer any questions you have. Would you like to hear the feedback?”

Silently, we nodded, thinking this was the most bizarre meeting ever. She went through a long list of feedback about our applications, both good and bad, and we sat there, stunned, like we were in some weird sort of nonprofit twilight zone.

“So,” she said, “do you have any questions?”

We paused.

“Yes,” I said, “when did the notice about the grant go out? Did you send a letter saying that we didn’t get this grant? Because we didn’t get any notice…”

The women looked at each other.

“Well, uh, no, sorry, I know it’s a little cryptic when we called you in, but we didn’t want the word spreading about who got and didn’t get the grant, so we, um, wanted to call you in and talk to you, and THEN we send out the notices.”

I was trying hard to control my temper, and I could feel the anger rising in Sharonne and James.

“We feel blindsided,” I said, “Normally we get a rejection letter or phone call, and then we ask for feedback. We are used to rejections, so that is not the issue. You don’t call people in, leading them to think that they are advancing in the process, only to tell them they didn’t get the grant.”

“Well, uh, that’s the process that [our supervisor] set up.” She looked at her colleague. “That’s funny, this is the first time we’ve gotten this feedback.”

“I don’t appreciate this,” I said. I had had all of two or three hours of sleep each night for the past 18 days and was in no mood to be extra nice.

“Your assistant asked us to bring in copies of our grant application,” said Sharonne, “why would we bring copies if it’s just a feedback session?” She had driven over an hour to get to this meeting.

“Well, uh, we see what you mean,” one of the women responded, “we certainly didn’t need copies. We have so many!—“

“Which we thoroughly reviewed,” the other woman chimed in cheerfully.

“We’ll talk to our assistant,” they said.

We left, feeling extra crappy. Not getting the grant is one thing, and something that all nonprofits are used to even though it hurts each time, but driving all the way downtown and wasting our time preparing for this meeting only to get 5 minutes of feedback that could have easily been delivered by phone, simply because they didn’t want word spreading prematurely—that sucks. Since this was downtown Seattle, we wasted 20 bucks on parking the two cars, making us all feel like we each paid to get kicked in the gonads, and not in a good way.

“Let’s go get a drink,” I said, and others thought it was a great idea. After a mimosa in each of us at 11:37am, the episode seemed hilarious. This was hysterical! Ha, James stayed up making a chart! Sharonne drove up from Olympia! Me spending several minutes this morning figuring out if I should wear my red button-down shirt, which conveys power, or my purple striped button-down shirt, which conveys practicality. (I chose the purple one). We didn’t get the 100K grant that we had spent hours working on! It was really, really funny!

I love this work. It is never boring, even on some days when I wish for it to be.

Our waitress was extra nice when we told her what happened. “Keep trying,” she said. I should have asked her for some sympathy fries.


The annual dinner is over. Long live the annual dinner!

Thanks, Dave Greer, for the awesome pictures

In life, there are few things sweeter than that beautiful moment after a fundraising event is done (provided the event didn’t suck completely). It’s like living in a part of Alaska where it’s dark for six months at a time, and then finally seeing a sunrise and knowing that the darkness is abating. It reminds me of that time after my wedding reception. It was an awesome reception, complete with glowsticks and a live bunny and tons of booze, and we felt so much love and support and had more fun than we could remember. But that day that followed, that was magical. Sure, there were thank-you notes to write and other stuff to do, but slowly we started to feel a semblance of normality, like we had been lost in the woods and raised by wedding-planning wolves and now we were back to civilization.

Wedding-planning wolves, that’s hilarious. I am so sleep deprived. For the past couple of weeks, I have not been able to sleep. This is partially due to the baby, who wakes up every 30 minutes for the express purpose of wailing and spitting up on his father. But also because of this dinner, a 9-month ordeal very comparable to childbirth, including the screaming and crying and fetal positions, but without a cute baby at the end. For all the stress and night terrors and occasional fist fights, though, it actually turned out pretty well. We had an effective planning team team, led by our no-nonsense Development Director (slash Finance Director slash HR Director slash Office Manager) Rachel, who, like any good Development Director, inspires people even as she simultaneously strikes fear into the heart of everyone around her.

300 or so people came, including several political leaders, and the event started and ended on time. For days I was worried about my speech, the standard inspiring ED speech, having had no time or energy to work on it. I was supposed to practice for a couple of hours before the event, but then exhausted I promptly feel asleep, waking up an hour before the dinner started, panicking and hoping the Maya just miscalculated their calendar and that the Apocalypse was still going to happen before I had to speak.

Anyway, I didn’t screw up my speech, or at least I didn’t think I did; I couldn’t tell, since in my baby-induced exhaustion it seemed kind of like a day dream, except this time, I wasn’t an Iron Chef on the Food Network. I think we may reach our goal, and besides one person who emailed later to say he and his guests hated the food and the location and their sound system and their table position and my suit and said the decorations gave him cancer and who actually had gotten his table to get up up and walk out (!) of the event in protest, I think the guests overall had a good time.

Still, we could certainly improve for next year. Here are some lessons I learned:

  • Don’t seat politicians all together at the ED’s table. Politicians always leave early, since they run on political time, which is twice as fast as civilian time. Halfway through the dinner, I was left with my wife and baby and three other guests. I felt like a loser table captain who couldn’t fill his table. Next time, scatter the pols around, or seat the ones who plan to leave early in the back.
  • Using tablets to do floating registration is awesome. We had volunteers with tablets who just went around the room checking people in, which completely cut out the waiting-forever-in-line-at-the-registration-table curse that plagues many annual events. Technology is so cool. Eventually, we’ll just have volunteers wearing Google Glass go around blinking at people to check them in. That’s the future.
  • Check and double check the AV system, and spend money on a professional if necessary. There will always been AV issues. We had trouble with the microphones, which cut in and out, and all sorts of other stuff. The most painful part was during the heart-tugging video, which we had spent months on, and it turned out really well. But the 7-minute clip froze and buffered, ruining the momentum, and with each buffer my eye started twitching more and more, and I put my face in my hands to stop myself from openly weeping.
  • Try to get a good night’s sleep before being video-taped for the heart-tugging video. I had a rough night the previous evening, and it showed in the video, where I look like Steve Buscemi’s less attractive younger brother who has slightly better teeth. (This, however, may have spurred some people to donate more out of pity.)

All right, there’s a whole bunch of other lessons learned, but I have to sign these acknowledgement letters and write little handwritten notes on each one before Rachel strangles me with her Development Director hands, which are super strong from all that envelope stuffing she does for our mailing campaigns. I am tired, haven’t slept more than 3.5 consecutive hours in the past 15 days, and smelling like spit-up and diaper rash cream. And yet, I feel good, and this high will last for a month or two, before we start planning next year’s event.

Thank you so much, to all our friends and supporters, for helping VFA to lift up families and communities.