Hi everyone. This is Nonprofit With Ball’s historic 100th post. It is a momentous occasion. When I was a little boy growing up in a small village up in the mountains of Vietnam, my father said to me, “Son, we may be poor, but that does not mean we can’t accomplish great things. You are the smartest, most-talented, and, in certain very dim lighting, best-looking kid in our family. Bring honor to our name.” Well, look dad, I wrote 100 blog posts about nonprofits, many mentioning unicorns! I think our ancestors would be proud. They’re probably tweeting about it right now.
For this 100th post, I’m going to provide excerpts of some of my favorite early posts, the ones that you probably haven’t read because they’re so old. If this sounds very lazy, like those TV shows that do montages as a special episode (“Instead of writing a real episode, let’s spend 10 minutes looking at all the times that Joey said ‘How you doin’?’ and all the times that Ross acts like a completely unlikeable character”) you are right. But hey, this only happens every 100th blog posts; we’ll be back next week with new content. Here, read these posts below if you haven’t. And I think it’s only appropriate that we all go home early today in celebration.Continue reading “Nonprofit with Balls’s 100th post! Let’s celebrate by going home early.”
Hi everyone, I was going to write “10 Lessons for Nonprofits from Game of Thrones,” but that requires way too much analysis and I just ate an entire bag of bittersweet chocolate chips and can’t concentrate. Here, however, are 10 Game of Thrones quotes that you can use in everyday nonprofit work. Don’t worry if you are not up-to-date with the show. There are no major spoilers here. Also, even if you don’t intend to watch the show ever, you might as well learn some of these lines so you can fit in at the water cooler…if your nonprofit can afford a water cooler, of course. (We just put a bucket on a chair and fill it with Capri Suns). I like to run into a meeting, scream “I will take what is mine with fire and blood!!!” then quickly grab some baby carrots and hummus and run out.
1. “You know all that from staring at marks on paper? You’re like a wizard”—Gilly, encountering written words for the first time.
Perfect for: Board meetings, when the Treasurer presents the financial statements. Or when consultants present their final report and recommendations.
2. “If we die, we die, but first we’ll live.”—Ygritte to Jon Snow.
Perfect for: A pep talk before an annual fundraising event.
3. “Has anyone ever told you you’re as boring as you are ugly?”—Jaime Lannister to Brienne of Tarth.
Perfect for: Staff performance reviews.
4. “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”—Tyrion to Jon Snow.
Perfect for: Coaching and mentoring up-and-coming young professionals.
5. “I will hurt you for this. A day will come when you think you are safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth. And you will know the debt is paid.”—Tyrion to his sister Cersei.
Perfect for: A coworker who ate your food from the office fridge without asking you.
6. “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”—Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish.
Perfect for: Motivating youth in a leadership or employment program
7. “Paint stripes on a toad, he does not become a tiger.”—Sandor Clegane.
Perfect for: Sniping at rival organizations that seem to have an unlimited marketing budget.
8. “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”—Ramsay Snow.
Perfect for: End of the fiscal year, when a new budget is being created. Or when coworkers leave their dirty dishes in the sink for days.
9. “Winter is coming”—the motto of the Stark and Winterfell.
Perfect for: Explaining to staff why their program budgets have been reduced.
10. “I will take what’s mine with fire and blood!”—Daenerys Targaryen
Perfect for: Motivating a team after losing a major grant or contract to another organization. Or when there’s leftover snacks after a meeting.
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Last week I wrote about the Sustainability Question and how it is symptomatic of an ineffective funding system where funders and nonprofits are not equal partners but more like frenemies. This apparently resonated with many readers, at least 138, since that’s how many people shared it on Facebook, and only 26 of those were from me mandating staff to do it. “Yeah, Vu, high-five!” said a colleague at a meeting, and we high-fived, which was tricky, since I was holding my 5-month-old baby Viet. We are doing a nanny-share with another Executive Director, but even with the split costs, we could only afford it four days a week, so on Fridays, we two EDs tote our babies around.
The post sparked some great conversations, especially around the challenges of communication between funders and nonprofits. “I call it the Wall of Philanthrophy,” said one of my ED friends. She painted the image of a physical wall between funders and nonprofits. “There is a tiny window in the wall, and every once a while it opens just a little bit, and maybe there is an exchange of ideas, but then it quickly closes, and it’s solid wall again.”
This reminds me of the Wall in the Game of Thrones. It is 700 feet tall, 300-mile-long wall made of solid ice to keep out the Wildlings, people who are regarded as primitive, cruel savages who have poor hygiene. The Wildlings live North of the Wall, a barren, desolate, cutthroat, and eternally wintery landscape that has very few good restaurants. Every once a while they try to cross the Wall and get South into the warm Seven Kingdoms, which are more civilized and you can go to the bathroom for more than two minutes without fear of frostbites and gangrene. While a Wildling or two sneak past the Wall here and there, in a thousand years not a single assault on the guarded Wall has succeeded.
I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like nonprofit organizations and staff are like the Wildlings trying constantly to make it past the Wall. “Sound the alarms! There is a group of Wildlings at the base of the Wall, and they are chanting ‘General Operating Funds! General Operating Funds!’ Quick, prepare the hot oil!”
This Philanthropic Wall manifests itself in many ways:
After the site visit, we hardly see funders at programs and special events
Nonprofits are rarely invited to conferences and other important gatherings of funders
It takes anywhere from a week to nine years to get a hold of some funders, often when we are trying to get support for time-critical projects
Funders almost always refuse to join committees for projects initiated by nonprofits
Not a single funder accepted my invitation to 80’s-themed trivioke night, a combination of trivia and karaoke.
I don’t think I will be able to scale this wall in my lifetime, which is why I’ve been training my son Viet when I have him on Fridays, hoping that one day he will follow his father’s footsteps into nonprofit and continue the work. Instead of children’s stories, I’ve been reading strategic plans and annual reports to him. “One day, son, all funding will be general operating. I probably won’t be around to see that. Learn and grow strong and help to make that happen.”
Every once a while, though, there is a glimmer of hope. An Executive Director friend of mine said she was invited to a conference of funders to present her organization’s work. “Really?!” I said, nearly choking on a pluot, “you’re attending a conference of funders? No way!”
“Yeah,” she said, “but they made it amply clear that I am not to approach any of them to solicit funds. Actually, it was hinted that I shouldn’t talk much at all. In fact, I have to wear this scarlet N on my nametag to mark me as a Nonprofit.”
We nonprofits can understand why people feel that the distance between funders and nonprofits is necessary. After all, there are so many nonprofits, and funders should be fair and should not be playing favorites. However, the quest for objectivity and impartiality has led to an unhealthy adversarial system that has been harmful to the field. How can conferences to talk about funding structure and collective impact and other important stuff be effective when the people doing the direct service work and thus have first-hand knowledge of client and community needs are only marginally part of the conversation?
Plus, when there are insurmountable barriers to communication with funders, it just means that the nonprofits with the strongest relationships and connections make it through, finding support for their own projects. So many great ideas never get off the ground because many nonprofits leaders do not have the behind-the-scene connections with funders, and on the other hand, so many crappy ideas do get funded because someone knows someone who knows someone.
Funders have more power, and thus must take a larger share of the responsibility for perpetuating an ineffective system where we nonprofits spend much of our time trying to figure out how to survive instead of innovate. We have been at the base of the Wall chanting things like “general operating funds!” and “overhead is necessary” and “standardize your budget forms!” for a long time now, with little result.
But we nonprofits are not off the hook either. Like the Wildling tribes, we are constantly in competition for survival, which tends to happen when resources are scarce. We have to work together and support one another while simultaneously delivering common messages and proposed solutions. We can’t just keep grumbling at the base of the wall. We must unite.
We must ALL unite. In the Game of Thrones the Wall wasn’t originally built to keep out Wildlings. They were just unlucky enough to be caught on that side when the Wall was built thousands of years ago to defend against the White Walkers, who are kind of like scary-as-hell evil ice mummies who could turn dead people and animals into evil ice zombies and the army of mummies/zombies went and killed everyone, Wildlings and civilized people alike, until they were driven back to their cold, wintery home and the Wall was built to keep them there. Winter is coming, it lasts whole generations, and the White Walkers are stirring once again.
The point is, there are greater threats out there—poverty, racism, violence, loneliness, war, inequity, oppression, homophobia, injustice, unaffordable childcare, hunger, illness, death, etc., the White Walkers of our nonfictional world—and we should be working together to defeat those things, not focusing so much of our time building and maintaining walls around ourselves and each other. Funders and nonprofits must communicate better and work in partnership more effectively.
How about we start by carpooling to the next trivioke night?