Youth Development: Why it is just as important as Early Learning

teenagerFor the past few months, I’ve been thinking. Mainly about a Broadway show highlighting nonprofit work, called “501c3, the Musical.” It’ll be awesome, and I’ve starting coming up with titles and lyrics for potential songs, for examples “Another Evening in the Office” and “I Should Have Listened to Ms. Cleo.” (Hit me up if you have any connections to Broadway producers).

But I’ve also been thinking about the youth development field. Specifically about the difficulties of seeking funding for direct service youth programs as more and more funders shift their focus to collective impact efforts and early learning programs. It is the nature of the work that the funding tides shift back and forth from one worthy concept to another. But still, it has been frustrating and discouraging, and I don’t think I am the only youth development professional who feels like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, fighting constantly to save programs that serve youth, to convince funders that our society’s well-being depends on our having strong services along the entire continuum of our kids’ journey from birth to adulthood.

Two years ago, I served on the Families and Education Levy advisory committee, which was determining how to allocate the $232 million in funding that we would be asking of Seattle voters. The early learning advocates were organized, providing impressive data on return on investment, showing that a dollar invested in high-quality early learning programs could yield an eight or ten-fold return to society. They had convincing research results on brain development and a compelling argument that an ounce of prevention was so much better than a pound of cure.

No one in their right mind would argue against the importance of early learning, and now that I have a kid, I appreciate it even more. What is alarming, though, is that we have started moving into this zero-sum mentality of funding and programming. I remember during one Levy meeting when someone said, “We don’t have much funding, and if we spread it around too much, it won’t be very effective. I propose we invest all of the funds in early learning.” Several others agreed, and I probably pissed off a few people by opposing that idea, saying that we have to support kids at all points of their lives.

Youth Development, as a field, has many weaknesses. First, the term “Youth Development” is confusing. When we hear “Early Learning,” we instinctively have an image of what that is. It is easy to understand: Children, learning early, and thus getting a head start in life. “Youth Development” meanwhile, what the hell is that? It sounds like we’re trying to reverse aging. What’s the definition of youth? And developing what? What are we trying to develop our youth into?

Second, the field itself is nebulous and disorganized. “Youth Development” encompasses so many things: mentorship, tutoring, extended learning, leadership, arts, sports, media, mental health counseling, identity formation, environmental stewardship, career exploration and job searching, etc. Because the field is so broad, we have only started to pin down our common goals, compelling research, key messages, outcomes, evaluation tools, etc. In fact, Youth Development, as a field, is similar to the lanky, awkward, potential-filled youth that we serve. We are trying to find our identity and our place in the world. We have made great progress working together though organizations like Youth Development Executives of King County (YDEKC), whose board I am on. Still, we are behind and are playing catch up with other much more well-organized fields.

Third, it sounds crass, but let’s face it, babies and small children are much cuter than the pimply-faced and cranky older kids and adults they grow up to be. Just thinking back on what I was like as a teenager, with the braces and the severe acne and the constant sullenness, I can see why it is just easier to invest in the little kids, with their big adorable eyes, innocence, and endless curiosity. (I still have severe acne, but at least most of it is masked by wrinkles). We are programmed to protect our young, and when we have compelling research on brain development and return on investments, funding early learning programs is a sexy no-brainer.

But we must have a balanced approach. Despite all the weaknesses of the youth development field, or because of them, it is more important than ever to invest in youth programs. Just because we, the adults, have not been the best at organizing ourselves and our work and coming up with a more compelling name than “youth development,” it doesn’t mean our kids should be punished.

But that’s what’s been happening. An Executive Director colleague told me last week several hundred thousand dollars in grant funding was moved from her organization’s youth program to fund early learning. Across the board I hear of more and more youth programs being cut. It is depressing. This approach is discouraging, and it is counterproductive. Usually the first programs we cut are programs that kids love–like art, sports, nature exploration–programs that keep them motivated to learn and to remain in school. We MUST support youth programs as strongly as we support early learning programs, for several reasons.

First, kids get older. They will soon grow out of early learning programs, and life only gets more and more complicated. They may now face bullying, identity issues, clashes with their parents, academic challenges, hormones, discrimination, finding a sense of belonging, comprehending the nature of the world and why awful things happen to good people on the news, and multiple other stuff, usually in a single day. All the gains kids make early on in their lives through great early learning programs will likely fade unless we continue to support them through these turbulent years.

Second, many kids do not have the opportunity to benefit from early learning programs. Many of our struggling kids are immigrants and refugees who arrive to the US when they are older, bypassing early learning programs. The ones who arrive after the age of 12 face the greatest challenges, dealing with the above barriers while also experiencing language problems, cultural adjustment, and parents who work several jobs and are never around and who are also struggling themselves. We cut programs that support these older kids, and we wonder why they keep disproportionately failing in school or ending up in the criminal justice system.

Third, the return on investment for youth programs is just as high as for early learning programs. As this analysis shows, an investment of $1 in youth leads to a benefit to society of $10.51, assuming that the program helps the youth to graduate from high school and get a job and pay taxes and stuff. This doesn’t even yet account for the savings we’ll get by not having the kid going to jail and costing tax payers tons of money in dealing with crimes, etc. Yeah, the analysis is not perfect, but it is a good start. We youth development workers just suck at communicating these types of messages.

I know we’ve been talking about making the choice between prevention and cure. But for a second, let’s stop talking about our children as if they are diseases. Instead, let’s agree that all our kids deserve a good start to their lives, and that’s why we should invest in early learning. High-quality early learning programs are critical to our kids’ success.

But as children grow, things get more complex and more challenging, so in addition to a good start to their lives, they need a good adolescence, and a good bridge to their careers, and that’s why we must all invest in youth programs. With everything that our kids face every day, trying to grow and learn and understand themselves and get along with their friends and family and graduate from high school and take care of their acne problem and apply to college and find a job in this challenging economy, it is more critical than ever that all of us—early learning advocates, youth development advocates, collective impact advocates, funders, policy makers—work together to support our kids throughout their ENTIRE journey from birth to adulthood.

Letter to my newborn son, in case I die early

Hi everyone. I have been thinking of my son and what would happen if for some reason I die early. I don’t plan to, but who the heck knows what Fate has in store. Having a kid, and running a nonprofit, makes you think about your own mortality a lot. So I wrote him a letter. I am posting it here so that it doesn’t get lost. If Fate doesn’t want me around, please make sure the baby gets this some time.

Moon-fullDear Son,

By the time you read this letter, I am probably no longer around, and you’ll probably have a hover board and a flying car. That would be awesome. No, not the part where I’m no longer around, but the part about the hover board. If time machines have been invented, please bring me back a hover board.

Your mother and I have had you for two months now. I still remember when we were waiting for you to arrive, anxious to meet you. One day you had the hiccups, and I rested my hand on your mom’s stomach and could feel you jolting every few seconds. Despite all the ultrasound pictures we had of you, you had always seemed distant to me, like a baby unicorn, cute but mythical. But with every jolt of your tiny body, it became clearer and clearer to me that you were real, and that you would be here soon, and that I would get to hold you and sing to you and watch you grow, and maybe use you as an excuse to avoid many, many evening meetings in my nonprofit work.

The past two months have been more difficult and wonderful than I could imagine. I stare at your hands and feet and can’t believe how tiny they are. We have been sleep deprived and exhausted and smelling like spit-up and hand sanitizer, but there are moments—when you smile or talk or fall asleep on our chest or shoulders—when your mother and I just stare at you and selfishly wish for you to remain this small forever. The other day, when you were soundly sleeping, you started laughing, and I wondered what you were dreaming about.

You’ve been appearing in my dreams a lot, probably because I’m thinking about you all the time now. You were about one, and I was holding you, and you got distracted and started squiggling around and tried to climb down the bed. You were too small and the bed was too high and you were afraid to let yourself drop the four terrifying inches down to the floor. You looked up at me with your big liquid eyes, and at that moment, like any good father would, I ignored your plight and frantically tried to find my phone to take a picture of you.

Not all the dreams are as happy. Recently I dreamt I had a terminal illness and only a week left to live. I was sad, one because I would not get to continue watching Game of Thrones, a great television series that I hope you will get to enjoy when you’re old enough, like 30. And two, because I would only have a week left to get to know you. In my dream, I sat down and started to write a letter to you listing out some important life lessons I wanted to teach you, hoping that you would read it one day and know that your father thought of you and loved you more than Game of Thrones, more than the Walking Dead or Arrested Development, more than his own heartbeats, which he needs to watch his favorite shows. Yes, your father sometimes refers to himself in the third person; all fathers must refer to themselves in the third person when they’re writing these types of letters to their children. You’ll understand one day when you have your own little ones.

I woke up from that terrible dream and was happy that I had more than one week left to live. But then I thought of how ephemeral life is. Any of us can go at any time. I should write you a letter any way, just in case. This is supposed to be a private letter to you, and that’s why it’s so long, but your mother and I have poor record-keeping skills, so I am hoping one of my friends on my blog will be able to pass this on to you should anything happen to me.

My son, these below are the lessons that I want to pass down to you. These lessons are not original. I’ve learned them from many people, especially in my work in nonprofit, which has some of the coolest people ever, in case you ever decide to go into this field. Through experience and sometimes painful failures, I have found them to be helpful to live by. Depending on when you read this letter, they may not even apply to you at all. I hope you will read this from time to time, and maybe it may make better sense at different points in your life. Read once a while and let these principles guide you to a long and meaningful life that I wish for you:

Never judge anyone for anything ever. Unless you are in the same context, with the same upbringing, the same genes, the same brain structure, unless every atom of your existence is the same as theirs, you have no basis to judge most people. Try not to judge anyone. Even people who create stupid commercials, like those Subway commercials with the annoying adults with kids’ voices, what the hell were they thinking? Also, people who don’t know how to correctly use “literally.” They say ridiculous things like “that meeting literally made my head explode.” It’s easy to judge them, but try not to, since it doesn’t make you any happier in the long run.

Always assume the best intentions in people. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Some people will prove to be unpleasant to deal with and you will encounter many, many people that you will just want to punch in the mouth, but most people are good, and we all have bad days. Don’t burden yourself too much being angry at people and thinking they intentionally mean to hurt you. Most people are also just trying to make it through the day, to get home to their family and a cold drink and their favorite TV show, so if they cut you off in traffic or bumped into you on the sidewalk, they probably didn’t mean it.

Find beauty and humor in the world around you. Sure, it’s really crappy sometimes, with bad things happening to good people all the time. But like Don Quixote said, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams, this may be madness…Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.” This is one of your father’s favorite quotes, and I hope that you will always try to see life as it should be.

Never think you are above anyone. No matter how successful you are, a major part of your success is the context of your existence. You are born to us, including a very cool dad, in this country, and we are lucky to have so many rights and privileges, but you could have been born elsewhere under different circumstances, and your fate may have been completely different. Be thankful, and never look down on anyone.

Never think that you are beneath anyone. By the same measure, never think that you are beneath anyone. It is normal for you to go through a period where you see others being more successful than you, and you may feel like crap when you compare yourself to them, especially when your family is all like “why aren’t YOU a successful real estate investor like your brother or a doctor like that Nguyen kid?” Use others’ success to motivate you, but again, everyone’s circumstances are different, so comparisons are often meaningless. Be thankful, work hard for what you believe in, and don’t waste time with self-pity.

It is not talent or genius that leads to success, but hard work and perseverance. 95% of the time, those who have C+ talents but A+ perseverance will always be more successful than those who have A+ talents but C+ perseverance. Pursue your dreams, pursue them hard. You will face countless rejection and failure and naysayers who naysay things like “Vu, a teeth lacquer-tattoo business is a bad idea,” but keep trying, because the road to success is littered with geniuses who give up.

Follow your life’s passion, but give back to your community. While you pursue your dreams, don’t forget that you belong to a community, a society. You will never achieve happiness, even if you achieve your dreams, unless you contribute back to the world in some way. Volunteer. Donate. Join a nonprofit board. Help your friends when they’re moving.

Always keep your word. Few things build respect as quickly and consistently as when you do what you say you’ll do. Not just for the big stuff, but also for the small things, like when you say, “I’ll send you that recipe” or “we should get coffee, I’ll email you to arrange a time” or “I’ll drop by your office with Season 6 of Burn Notice.” We have too many let’s-get-coffee’s that never lead anywhere. Your word is your promise. Never promise anything that you do not plan to follow up on.

Acknowledge people. Everyone has an important story that you can learn from. Try to learn people’s names and their hopes and dreams. You may forget, and that’s understandable, but try to really “see” the people around you: your family, friends, co-workers, teachers, bosses, but also your mail carrier, neighbors, waiters, grocery baggers, bus drivers, etc. Be genuine and present when you talk to anyone, no matter if you will encounter them again in your life or not.

Don’t be restricted by labels: The world is complicated, and we are tempted to categorize ourselves and others: Democrats, Republicans; Male, Female; Gay, Straight; Orange juice with pulp, orange juice without pulp. But the world and you are much more complex and interesting than that. Try not to label others, and apply labels to yourself only if you find them helpful. Otherwise, explore the awesomeness of life and existence and do what makes your life meaningful, as long as you don’t hurt others.

Never be too certain of anything: Life is full of uncertainty, and reality is weird and unpredictable, and that’s what makes it both terrifying and interesting. If you become too certain of anything, you may close yourself to the possibilities that may exist. Keep an open mind; listen to others’ perspectives. Otherwise you become that annoying know-it-all that no one really wants to hang out with.

The right things to do are usually the hardest: For example, getting up to go to work, apologizing to someone you wronged, calling up your parents and asking how they are when you just want to go partying with your friends in college, not taking that fifth glass of red wine at an annual fundraising dinner. Try to always stand up for what you believe in, and always do the right thing, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if people dislike you, even if they think you’re an idiot. It is always better to be an idiot who did the right thing.

One person can make a difference: Never listen to anyone who tries to convince you that the things that you are trying to do is too big and that you are just one person. It always starts with one person, who through courage and perseverance inspires another person, who inspires another, and so on. That is the only way things happen. Always do the right thing, even if you are the only person doing it.

You can get a lot of things done if you don’t mind who takes the credit: I know very few people whose life goal is “to get a lot of credit for doing something.” The people you should get to know are those whose goals are to achieve something, to change the world for the better somehow. The argument over who gets the credit can oftentimes be distracting or even destructive. Fame and approval should be a bonus, or the tools for achieving your goal, not the goal itself. This can be a hard lesson to absorb, but I’ve learned it works well when everyone buys into it…Of course, there’s a limit to this, so if anyone continually steals your credit and it distracts you from your goal, don’t hesitate to kick ass.

Never forget your family and heritage. Our family has gone through a lot—several wars, countless heartbreaks. Your paternal grandfather was sent to reeducation camp. Your paternal grandmother pedaled her bicycle for 30 miles each day to sell grains and feed your aunts and uncles and me. I’m sorry that you never got to meet her, as she would have loved you more than you can know. They, and your mother’s side of the family, have gone through things that you and I can only imagine. These things, and our families’ tireless perseverance, led to me and to your mother and to you. For whatever reason, you are born to us. Learn where you come from, and as much as you can keep and pass down your heritage. You will go through some times when you are frustrated at your family. It’s OK. You can love people, and not like them from time to time. But just remember that no one loves you more than your family.

Be generous with yourself and others. You will make mistakes, and so will others. Your father has broken many of these rules that he has written down here in this letter to you, and likely he will do so again in the future. He has screwed up lots of times. You will also screw up from time to time. Learn from your mistakes, and forgive yourself. Try your best to be a good person. Don’t expect perfection in yourself or others.

Appreciate the little things, the small moments, in life. Finally, the last lesson I want to make sure to pass down to you, is also one of the most important: Don’t take the details for granted. The little things, that’s what life is made of. I was visiting Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee)’s grave, and this was carved on it:

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” (Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky)

I have known of this lesson, but only in the last couple of months having held you and gotten to know you and getting spit up on by you, that I really understood it. I have learned this lesson from you. I have learned that time does not stand still. I start thinking of how many more times I will get to hold you and read to you and swaddle you and rock you to sleep on my shoulder and place you gently down in the baby swing. Soon you will be walking and talking and going to kindergarten and getting your first job and going to high school and entering college and experiencing your first heartbreak, hopefully in that order.

I am writing this to you on my first Father’s Day, and you are only two months old, but if you are reading this, then you are already much older. We may have already gotten into arguments about how dangerous hover boards are. You may have already run away from home once or twice and stowed-away on a shuttle to the moon colony or something. You may already have been embarrassed multiple times by your dad showing up in his beat-up hydro-powered car to pick you up from your underground school, spouting some stuff about social justice and cultural competency.

I do not know how many more Father’s Days we will have together. If Fate is kind, it will give us our afternoons, and the twenty or so times where we can watch the full moon rise. I would like that very much. And hopefully I will be there when you have your first little one. If Fate is not so kind, if my life is cut short for any reason, I want you to know that your father has had a good life so far, made much more complete now that he has held you and listened to you laugh in your sleep, and that he loves you more than he ever thought he could love anything.


When Wombats Go Wild: Cultural Competency at the Mezzo and Macro Levels

wombatinaboxLast week I delivered my keynote speech in front of 300 or 400 people at the Northwest Development Officers Association (NDOA)’s spring conference. I think it went pretty well, except that my light jokes at the expense of hipsters may have offended some people. A young man came up to me after the speech and said, “Maybe next time, you might want to refrain from making fun of some people. I mean, I’m not a hipster, but if there were any in the audience, they may not have liked to be made fun of.”

Look, nonprofit work is plenty serious and very stressful, and if we can’t make gentle fun of hipsters and their asymmetrical hair, skinny jeans, and ridiculous glasses at a conference for fundraisers, then there is no hope for humanity.

Anyway, the speech was about cultural competency and community engagement. It was 35 minutes long and I swear only about 3 minutes total were spent ribbing on hipsters and their Pabst Blue Ribbon and weird, weather-inappropriate scarves. (29 seconds were spent making fun of “gluten-free” people who don’t have Celiac disease).

Since the speech was so long, I thought I would summarize the main point. Basically, “cultural competency” is a term we throw around a lot in the field, usually with metaphors like “Cultural Competency is not a destination, it’s a journey” and “Culture is like the engine of a car: You don’t see it, but it is integral to and greatly influences the car” and “In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director lemonade on demand, so get to it!”

What I’ve been seeing is that the discussion of cultural competency usually stays at the micro level, the differentiated interactions between individuals: Take off your shoes when you enter an Asian person’s house; hugging is not big in some cultures, so don’t hug everyone you meet; it’s not “Chinese New Year” it’s “Lunar New Year” since many Asian countries celebrate it besides China; label food, especially when you serve pork; just because a person doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t mean they’re trying to be disrespectful; etc.

With so many cultures in existence, it is impossible to understand and be fluent in all of them. When we mean well, but because of our gap in knowledge we screw up, I call that being a cultural competency wombat, because wombats are cute and cuddly and they probably don’t mean any harm. I have been the recipient of wombat interactions, and I have been a wombat on numerous occasions. All of us are wombats from time to time, and it is OK, as long as we learn and don’t make the same mistakes.

But cultural competency extends beyond the micro level. At these higher levels—organizational, systemic—where our inherent wombattiness can cause some serious damage. Or at least, be extremely annoying.

When Wombats Go Wild, Mezzo Level

wombats 3When you have some color in your background, you’re a person of color. This is easy to understand. In the same vein, when an organization is led by communities of color and serves communities of color, it’s basically an organization of color. And when a school is 95% kids of color (and we have several in Southeast Seattle), it’s basically a school of color. We have to understand that it’s no longer just an issue of people of color, but whole organizations and schools and neighborhoods of color, and the challenges faced by an individual of color is replicated at these higher levels too, and cultural competency must extend to these levels.

One challenge, for example, is that organizations of color become that one kid in the class that has to teach everyone about his culture. Or that Spanish speaking kid that has to help other kids with their Spanish homework.

Seattle has a strong emphasis on inclusion. We LOVE getting input from everyone on everything, and we know it is essential to get the communities of color’s input (even if we do absolutely nothing with it). Which is why my organization, the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), gets hit up for everything. Each week we get at least two or three requests to recruit our Vietnamese clients for some focus groups—on education, safety, transportation, sewage overflow, you name it—usually without a single thought that we may require funds to do the work.

Inclusion is commendable, but if it doesn’t come with resources, it becomes a burden on organizations of color. I was on a committee that was in charge of allocating a bunch of money. We were reviewing a list of requirements to put in the RFP. Among the requirements were “Applicants must get input from communities and families of color.” That sounds great. But what happens, at least in Seattle, is that mainstream organizations cannot reach the communities of color. So then they contact organizations like VFA and Horn of Africa and Filipino Community of Seattle and East African Community Services to get help. These sort of well-intentioned “inclusiveness” opens the floodgate. It’s like if you’re a teacher and you’re teaching a lesson on Latin American countries and you said, “Pick a Latin American country and write a report. But before you turn in your report, check in with your classmate Pedro to make sure it’s accurate.” So now all the kids descend on Pedro. It’s not that Pedro does not want to help, but he has his own challenges and his own report to write.

The funding for “inclusiveness” is usually never equitable. In fact, most of the time, it’s never even a consideration. Two weeks ago someone called me to ask us to help recruit Vietnamese clients for a focus group. They hired an outreach staff, but she had no luck getting people to sign up for the focus group, so they called me. I said, “So…basically, you got some money to hire a staff, but that didn’t work, so now you’re asking my organization to do this for you for free?”

Some requests are as ridiculous as some hipsters’ hair. One time a mainstream organization contacted me asking for help. “Can you spread the word about this community event?” the rep asked, “Also can you look these documents over to make sure they’re translated correctly into Vietnamese? It’s due in two days, so if you can get back to me by tomorrow, that would be great.” (I sent her a link to a translation company). We nonprofits of color do not have magical unicorn outreach power. Engagement of communities of color takes five times as much effort, since we’re dealing with language, transportation, socioeconomic, and other barriers. Even for VFA’s own workshops and community meetings, it takes calling our clients multiple times before they show up. Most don’t have emails and Google calendar. They have to be reminded a week ahead, three days ahead, one day ahead, the day of, and then relationship building follow-up the week after. This sort of work, if it is valued, must be funded. Just like people of color face challenges, nonprofits of color face challenges. Schools of color, neighborhoods of color face challenges. Often, it’s in the form of “Well, we can’t fund them because they don’t have much capacity. But we still want them to be involved. That will make them feel good to be asked to be involved.”

At this level, funders should try to distribute funds equitably, and try to contract directly with organizations of color if that is what the work entails. Mainstream organizations, if you need help with outreach, build sufficient funds into your project budget to compensate nonprofits of color for their time and expertise.

When Wombats Go Wild, Macro Level

Awombats go wildt the systems level, that’s when we see how critical cultural competency is. For the past couple of years, I have been chairing the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a collaboration of nonprofits of color, schools, families, and community members working together to improve schools in SE Seattle, the most diverse quadrant of the City. 8% of SE Seattle is White, compared to 43% district-wide. 72% of the students are free and reduced lunch, compared to 43% also. 22% are English Language Learners, compared to 10%. We have awesome restaurants down here, and also the most struggling schools. Seattle Public Schools grade their schools from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest in performance. In SE Seattle, with some of the most amazing educators, only a single school is graded above a level 3. That would be Mercer Middle School, Level 5. Over 50% of kids of color will fail to graduate from high school.

It’s been like this for decades. And the lack of cultural competency at this level is pretty glaring. For example, I was attending a meeting on SE Seattle a while ago, and we talked about these issues, and a school board member was there. Everyone was upset by the disparities in SE Seattle. The school board member stood up, the sun dappled on her hair, and a hush fell over the room (I’m trying make this story more interesting, since this blog post is pretty long). “These numbers are unacceptable,” she said, “I need all you guys to send in letters and emails and bring your community members to show up at board meetings, because without an army behind me, there’s nothing I can do. Parents at other schools organize and send 50 emails, and they get what they want, so we have to do the same.” People murmured their agreement, vowing to rally the troops.

That was totally wombat, because the intention was good, and at first it makes sense. A man stood up, his face gaunt with time and planning too many annual dinners, his back hunched from too many meetings. “We can try to do that,” he said, “because our parents must make their voices known. At the same time, many of our parents don’t speak much English. Some have never touched a computer, much less know how to send an email. They work several jobs, so they might not be able to join meetings. How fair is this system then? While we build the capacity of our families, we MUST also change this system.” This system that exists, where the loudest voices win, is culturally incompetent and has been perpetuating inequity in education and other areas for decades.

We see this lack of cultural competency play out again and again at the macro level. The Families and Education Levy, for example, is supposed to help schools like the ones in SE Seattle. But the grant application is ridiculously complicated and burdensome, which is fine if every school had the same resources to write it. But the schools that have the least capacity to write these grants are the ones that most need the grants, as usually they’re the ones with the most kids of color and low-income kids. I was helping a school with this grant. This school has 97% kids of color. The principal and I locked ourselves in her office for several days to write this thing, and by the time we were done, the narrative was 28 pages long. It was the most ridiculous grant I had ever written, and it was like giving birth. (I know all about the pains of giving birth now that I have witnessed it first-hand). Another school, with even more needs, did not apply.

Cultural competency is extremely critical, especially when the injustices that we are trying to address usually disproportionately affect communities of color. The concept has been tossed around a lot and beaten into all of us, but usually only at the micro level. What we have at all levels are often well-meaning people who are trying to help, but all of us naturally impose our own perspectives on to things and people. If VFA has time to recruit people for their workshops, why can’t they recruit the same people for my focus group? If I can access social media, other people should be able to. If I can write a 28-page grant, why can’t these school principals? If some parents can write emails and testify at school board meetings and write op-eds, why can’t other parents? These wombat assumptions are annoying, but at the higher levels, they can be deadly, silently perpetuating the cycle of inequity while all of us are talking about whether it is culturally appropriate to shake hands with some clients or not, or whether we should take off our shoes.

10 Steps for Writing a Kick-Ass Nonprofit Organizational Budget

planets-light-380x235Every year, at about this time, I start having night terrors. A lot of this is due to watching Game of Thrones and seeing all my favorite characters killed to death in gruesome ways. But it is also because my org’s fiscal year ends in June, and we must go through the annual budgeting process, which is about as much fun as juggling baby porcupines.

Actually, no, baby porcupines are cute. Budgeting is about as much fun as juggling open jars of spicy chipotle mayonnaise. It’s messy and painful.

So I thought I would write down the steps to developing an awesome budget for a small to medium organization. This is not a guide for those who are starting a nonprofit, but rather for new EDs or board members of organizations that have been in operation for at least a year and will need to develop next year’s budget, or anyone who needs a refresher. Follow these steps below, and you will have a kick-ass budget that you can proudly show to your friends and family.

Step 1: Rally your team. This may be your finance committee. If you don’t have a finance committee, assemble a Budgeting Task Force. Make sure you call it “Task Force,” since Task Force sounds cool, like a team of superheroes who are called into action when the organization sends a distress signal (and at the end of every fiscal year, we are all sending distress signals). Include your board Treasurer, your Accountant/bookkeeper/finance person, one or two key staff, and an astrologer.

Step 2: Have your finance person provide data on up-to-date spending actuals for each program, as well as administrative and fundraising expenses. It is important to know how much you’ve been spending in each category this year, so that you can ignore all of it while you develop next year’s budget.

Step 3: Talk to your key staff to figure out the programming expenses for the next fiscal year. Ideally you will have a strategic plan on which to base next year’s staffing and programming (I’ll write later on how to develop a kick-ass strategic plan). If you don’t, it is important to get an idea from your staff what it is they need to make their programs successful next year. They are in the trenches, so they know best about programming stuff. Be aware that putting all staff into a room together to discuss their needs for the next year may lead to what I call “Mad Max-Budget Thunderdome.”

Step 4: Unfortunately, many requests can only be fulfilled in a mythical magical world with sufficient unrestricted funds, so you must bargain with your staff and be creative to reach middle ground. For example, a staff may say, “I need a unicorn in order to effectively do my work,” then you say, “we can’t afford a unicorn,” and your staff will say, “without a unicorn, I can’t do so and so and I am burning out,” so then you say, “how about a work-study unicorn instead?”

Step 5: Personnel expenses are the biggest and most critical category in your budget, since it takes staff to make things happen. It is important that your staff are paid a fair and decent wage that are increasing with cost of living. Go borrow the United Way’s Wage and Benefit Survey from one of your nonprofit friends (or order it online if you’re one of those big nonprofits who can afford it). Look up all the positions you plan to keep or develop, and it’ll tell you what on average those positions are paid in organizations your size.

Step 6: Put your computer on hibernate, close your door, and gently weep for five or ten minutes, thinking about all your wonderful staff and how horribly underpaid they are, according to the Wages and Benefit Survey, and about all the stuff you could do if you only had more resources. Then dry your eyes, open your door, and if any staff happens to ask what’s wrong, just give them a hug and tell them you’re proud of them and that the work they do is so important and that they’re making the world better, then go on a walk to clear your head.

Step 7: Now that you have all your projected expenses down, you must look at the potential revenues. Review all the funders who supported you this fiscal year, and categorize each of them by “will not renew since it was a one-year grant,” “possibly renewable, but is so restricted that it may actually cost the organization more to administer than the grant is worth,” “long-shot,” and “no clue, since they’re in the middle of a strategic planning process and we’re not sure what their priorities will be next fiscal year.”

Step 8: It is now time to put your astrologer to use. Have them create a chart of where the planets are this year in relation to your organization, as that is the best way to predict where the rest of your funds will be coming from. Mercury (representing foundations), Venus (representing individual donors), and Saturn (representing government funding) are in rare alignment right now, which may mean that it is time to focus more fundraising energy on those areas. The tiny and distant Pluto, representing general operating funds, is no longer a planet, but it still greatly impacts nonprofits, so make sure your astrologer includes its trajectory in the charts.

Step 9: It is unlikely that you will have enough projected revenues to meet projected expenses, so start cutting things and finding creative ways to obtain resources. For example, can you ask for donations of food for programs from local restaurants? Can the children in your programs spend one or two hours a day making products such as shoes or backpacks that could then be sold? And do staff REALLY need dental and vision insurance?

Step 10: Once your Task Force agrees on the draft budget, voila, you’re pretty much done! Forward it to the rest of the board to review and approve. They’ll likely be shocked at how much they’ll have to help raise through individual donations and the annual dinner and will likely ask you to cut down expenses even further. Resist the urge to break down weeping. Just smile, give an inspiring speech about working together, and reassure your board that you won’t be submitting any grants on any day when Mercury is in retrograde.

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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.