Distancing language, what it is, and why you must crush it

Meeting-of-the-BoredLast week was rough, as we received not one, not two, but…ok, two grant rejection notices (so sweet and thoughtful of people to wait until after the holiday break to send rejection letters). Whenever I get stressed, my face breaks out, which causes me stress, thus perpetuating a vicious pattern that I call the Pizza Face Cycle. During these times, to avoid scaring small children or potential donors, I usually hole myself in my cubicle, away from the world, listening to 90’s Hip-Hop, coming out every once a while to feed on ramen while avoiding the gaze of cruel or indifferent passersby.

And that’s what happened last week after getting the grant notices. Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid several meetings and thus had to bring my face, like a minor Jackson Pollock painting, out in public. It was during one of these meetings that I noticed the nuances of the words we use during meetings. Specifically, how people unconsciously use inclusive or distancing language and how it affects the rest of the group.

Simply put, inclusive language indicates that you consider yourself a part of a team (e.g, “We need to revise our mission statement to include unicorns”) while distancing language indicates that you see yourself not a part of the organization or effort (“You need to revise your mission statement to include unicorns.”) This may seem trivial, you guys, but it is not:

  • New board members will use distancing language when they first join the board. As they identify more and more with the organization, they should start using inclusive language pretty much all the time.
  • If you do a good job at your programs, the clients should see it as THEIR programs, and they will use inclusive language when talking about these programs.
  • Consultants for short-term projects will use distancing language. The longer they are with a project, the more likely they will lapse into inclusive language.
  • Donors and volunteers who are especially invested in the organization will sometimes unconsciously lapse into inclusive language. This is a great sign. I was inviting one of our donors to our holiday party. “We should have beer at the party,” she said. “We totally should!” I said.

Distancing language can be a symptom of a greater problem. For instance, if after a year serving on the board, one of your board member says something like, “So when is your annual dinner this year?” something is not right.

It is also extremely contagious, and if left untreated will infect an entire group. I was on a committee made up of people from several organizations. We were brainstorming ideas about outreach. “I have an idea,” said one person, “you should make a list of all the organizations in the area and then call them individually.” “Great idea,” said another person, “you should also visit the community centers.” “Yeah, face-to-face is really critical for relationship building,” another person chimed in, “you’ll get better results that way.” It was a surreal meeting.

And that’s why you should be on the lookout for distancing language, and when appropriate you must crush it like an overcooked lentil! Here are some ways to do that:

  • Counter with inclusive language. If you use “we” often enough, especially after every instance of distancing language, it will likely stick in people’s minds.
  • Counter with your own distancing language. If you are the lead of a committee, people may direct all their ideas and feedback at you, unconsciously implying that you are going to do all the work. Use distancing language back at them might shock them out of it. E.g., “I completely agree. You should visit the community centers!”
  • Gently call it out. Say something like, “Hi everyone, I notice that we’ve been using ‘you’ a lot. This is a collaborative effort, and all of us are on the team, so let’s try to use ‘we’ more often?” It is helpful to pair this speech with inclusive body language, opening your arms wide and sweeping them toward yourself to emphasize “we.”
  • Follow up individually with people whom you notice use distancing language often and ask for their thoughts on the project. Chances are, they are not yet fully committed, and their language reflects that. The more you communicate with them, the more invested they’ll feel.
  • Be more direct. After several gentle reminders, I just correct people on the spot: “You should have a graphic design student work on the logo—” “We, John, WE should have a graphic design student work on the logo. Don’t make me have to remind you again…”

Once you start paying attention to this, it can be very helpful. Just a quick word of caution, though. At one of the meetings this week, the finance committee, we were discussing VFA’s financial management system. “You should revise your charts of accounts,” said one of the members of the committee, “and you should start developing a dashboard of financial health for the organization.” I knew from experience that I had to put a stop to the distancing language before it went too far. “Whoa, whoa, what’s with the distancing language, lady?!” I said, “You’re a part of this organization, aren’t you? What’s with all the ‘you should do this’ and ‘you should do that’ here, huh?!”

Apparently, that is not how you’re supposed to talk to a board member, especially a very dedicated one who had given months of notice in advance that she may be taking hiatus from the board to focus on taking care of other important things, so I would like to apologize.

10 Nonprofit New Year’s Resolutions…for Other People

skinny jeansHi everyone. I am in Alabama visiting in-laws for the holidays. It looks like the nonprofit funding landscape: dry, barren, everything withered, a few ravens squawking on brittle, gnarled branches.

Every year, I make a list of resolutions. Not for me, though, since I will invariably fail at all of them. So I make a list of resolutions for other people to improve themselves. It’s very therapeutic, and way more fun than making resolutions for yourself. Try it.

Nonprofit with Balls’s 2014 New Year’s Resolutions (for Other People)

People who use “literally” wrong. Seriously, you guys. It has become a pandemic scourge on society. On TV some woman said something like, “After I got my bearings, I was literally the eye of the tiger.” That makes no fricken sense! In 2014, you will learn to use literally right, or just avoid talking to me.

Staff who leave dishes unwashed. They are gross, and you fill them up with water so that the food doesn’t get stuck, which is great but then you don’t wash them in time, so the standing water becomes rancid and starts breeding mosquitoes or hipsters. In 2014, you will wash your dishes as soon as you are done using them. Unless you’re the ED, in which case, you can leave them for as long as you want.

Staff who leave food in containers in the fridge for months or years. After a while, the food start developing molds, and if left a while, the molds start evolving and becoming advanced civilizations capable of space travel. Then they go colonize other foods. Eat your food, or take it home right away.

People who use other people’s research/presentations without permission or without crediting the original source. This lackadaisical attitude in nonprofits’ use of data and research must stop, all right? We produce all sorts of awesome reports and presentations, taking hours to gather information. If you’re going to use it, ask first, or at the very least give credit to whomever you got this data from. Otherwise, my friend Director Mona will punch you in the neck.

People who have terrible paper formatting skills. In 2014, you will be more conscientious of how you format your handouts. Here are the worst offenders: PowerPoint handouts where there is one presentation slide per handout page. No one wants a 30-page package with with 9 words in 48-point font on each page! Condense your handout to 4 or even 6 slides per page, and use both sides! Also, the “dangling sentence,” knock that off. That’s when you have just one sentence on the last page of a handout. You are wasting an entire page because of one sentence! In 2014, preview before you print, and reduce your font size or margins so you don’t continue wasting paper. Or I will punch you in the neck.

Program officers and contract monitors who don’t respond to emails or phone calls. I know everyone is busy and overwhelmed with emails. But when people are emailing you three or four times, respond to them! Even if to say, “Sorry, I have no interest in your project about a nonprofit musical.” We are used to rejections, so that’s fine. But the radio silence is aggravating. In 2014, you will respond faster, even if it’s unfavorable. You are missing out on this awesome musical I’m working on.

Color-blind” people. Listen, you guys, it’s 2014. Being color-blind went out of style along with Vanilla Ice and parachute pants. Maybe it’ll come back later, who knows, which is why I still keep my parachute pants in storage just in case. Until then, saying you don’t see colors just makes people look at you funny, like you just showed up in a bunny costume to a non-costume party. The thing now is to see colors and to appreciate diversity and stuff.

People who contact our agency asking for help. Every week we get random people who call asking for help on varying sort of non-mission-related stuff. We got one guy once who called requesting help with a business he’s trying to start in Vietnam. And there was one dude who thought we were a dating service. Read the website, and stop asking us for help. We’re trying to help people!

People who automatically add my name and email to their newsletter mailing list. I get hundreds of emails each week, literally. 25% of those are from other organizations automatically adding me to their mailing list without my permission. Then I feel bad unsubscribing. So now I just don’t give out business cards any more. I don’t know what the solution is, since all of us are trying to build our base, and in some ways, I kind of envy how efficient other orgs are about adding people to their database. In 2014, maybe you should keep doing that, but leave me out of it?

Finally, people who wear skinny jeans to nonprofit meetings and functions. Please knock it off. You may think it’s stylish, but you look ridiculous, and there are very serious health problems such as constricted blood flow and pinched nerves that you might want to look into. But mainly, nonprofit events are a space for people to think about making the world better. We should not be forced to spend mental energy gazing at your skinny legs and wondering how you got into your pants. On that note, in 2014 also stop wearing scarves when it’s not cold. There is no room for style in the nonprofit world. We gave that up when we entered the field.

All right, there’s more stuff, but I’m hungry, so I am going to try to find some vegan food in Alabama. What other resolutions can you think of for other people? Write it in the comment section.

An immigrant kid’s reflections on community

Christmas_Town_by_PhilipstraubAround this time of the year, as I drive by the houses lit up with holiday lights, I think about Mr. Farnon and his family. It was about this time during the year when my family and I first arrived to the US, to Philadelphia. This was after a half-year stint at a refugee camps in the Philippines, where the adults were talking so much about how awful the communists in Vietnam were that I slept with a stick under my pillow to fend off any communists who tried to attack us at night. They were sneaky like that, those communists.

Life in Philly was wonderful, and by wonderful, I mean difficult. None of us spoke much English, and everything was new and strange. I remember going grocery shopping and being amazed by the aisles, how clean they were, and how there was not a single chicken running around, tracking mud everywhere and weaving between cheerful women who were hacking away at fish or bamboo shoots on giant tables under the pale glow of dirty and worn blue tarp.

School was pretty rough too. I was eight. Each morning I woke up dreading the day. I would watch Care Bears and The Thundercats, getting sadder and sadder as the shows reached their conclusions and I would have to leave my mother and walk in the freezing cold to the bus stop to be taken to a place where I didn’t understand anything. My mother gave me two quarters one day. At recess a group of children asked if I wanted to go buy some snacks. “How much do you have?” they asked, or at least that’s what I thought they were saying. I pulled out the quarters. “50 cents?” they laughed, “that’s all you have?” I remember feeling the shame of having only two quarters and wishing desperately that my mother had given me a whole dollar. A whole dollar would have solved all my problems.

I was anxious to get home each day, because everything was overwhelming at school, with the tests and the homework that I didn’t understand, and the kids who had stickers to show off and I had none. But it was also because I wanted to open the fridge and see if my water had turned into ice. In Vietnam, only very rich people had refrigerators, small ones, so the fact that we had a giant one in our house was astounding. Ice was a treat you could only get when your dad takes you out to a café. I left water in various bowls, hoping to make some ice, and came home disappointed to find only a thin layer had formed on the surface.

A couple of months after we arrived, it got very cold, and at night some of the houses lit up with colorful lights. We had never seen so many lights before. They made the cold, empty streets seem so much more inviting. My two brothers and I were walking around the block when we found a string of lights someone left in a trash pile on the curb. We dragged it home, taped it to the wall, and plugged it in. Magically, most of the bulbs lit up, and it was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen. They were our very own colorful lights, and we kids, aged 12, 8, and 5, would spend hours staring at them.

The hardest part about being in a new world was the community we lost. All my friends were gone, along with my teachers and neighbors and aunts and uncles and cousins. The women who sold fish and vegetables at the market were my mother’s friends, and now she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Our new neighbors would wave to us once a while when they saw us, but otherwise we were in our house, trying to make ice or plugging and unplugging our awesome one string of Christmas lights.

Around this time, a family “adopted” us. Mr. Farnon and his wife and daughters, probably through a program organized by their church or a nonprofit, came to visit us, bringing food and pots and pans and other useful things. Mr. Farnon was in his 50’s, and he and his family were the bridge to our fascinating new world. One day they came to pick us up, dressed up all nice. They took us to a restaurant that served these giant, flat cakes covered with sliced meat and vegetables and some gooey melted rubber-like substance. This was our first pizza, and it was difficult to swallow, but we knew Mr. Farnon was proud to show us this aspect of American culture, so we tried to eat as much as we could and to be appreciative. We couldn’t finish, though, since the gooey cheese was much too rich, and Mr. Farnon insisted we take the leftovers home.

After pizza, the Farnons took us to see the Nutcracker. I grew up in a little mountain village surrounded by red earth and pine trees, where kids make boats from banana leaves and float them down the rivulets that appeared after  the monsoon rains. The music and costumes and colors and grandeur of the Nutcracker were so foreign, so spectacular, so I promptly fell asleep.

It was a strange and unforgettable evening, with the pizza and the ballet, but we were anxious to get home. Mr. Farnon escorted us inside, where he placed the leftover pizzas in the fridge. “What is this?” he asked me, pointing at my different containers filled with water. “I make ice,” I said. He laughed. He opened the freezer, which was above my head so I never paid much attention to it. “You need to put the water in here,” he said, and that changed my world. I got even more anxious to get home each day, and sometimes I couldn’t sleep, so excited and happy I was that I could now make actual ice.

After six months in Philly, we moved to Seattle. During those months, Mr. Farnon continued to visit regularly, always thoughtful and trying to help us in whatever ways he can, connecting with us through simple words and pantomimes. They brought us warm clothing, which we would need when we encountered our very first snow in life. Vietnam is a tropical country, and most people will never see snow in their lifetime. Like being able to come to America, snow is something they only see in movies and something to dream about.

After we left, my father would continue to write to Mr. Farnon in his broken English, updating him on our journey across the US. At Dad’s insistence years later, I wrote to him to thank him for all the help he gave our family, and to tell him that we kids were doing fine, that we were in college. I told him I liked pizza now, and that I thought of him and his family each time I have a slice, or whenever I fall asleep at the ballet. After a few years of communications with my father, Mr. Farnon stopped writing. We never knew why.

Each year around this time, I remember our first few months in the US, how new and overwhelming and wonderful and scary everything was. And I remember the kindness Mr. Farnon and his family provided us. This kindness was one of the things that spurred me to go into nonprofit work. It made me realize the importance of community, and how building community is one of the most critical services we provide our clients.

This sense of community is something we don’t talk about often. It is too fluffy to be an actual outcome that anyone would fund. We talk about how many kids we help to graduate, or how many hot meals we provide, or how many jobs or affordable homes we help people find. But we nonprofits should be proud that we also provide community and a sense of belonging. Our clients come to our programs to get help with their homework or food for their family or whatever other services we offer. But they also come because if we do a good job, we help them feel that they are part of a community that cares about them. For those who have lost their community like my family and I did when the War forced us to leave our homeland, it is like we are water floating around, and community is a container to hold us so that we can gain strength and become solid in a beautiful but at-first cold new world. This service of building and strengthening community, as nebulous and difficult to measure as it is, cannot be undervalued. It is one of the most critical and noble things we do nonprofits do.

I recently googled Mr. Farnon and found his obituary. He died 5 years ago. As I drive around and see all the lights on the houses, I think of him and take a moment to be grateful for all that he and his family did for us. They brought us food and clothing and helped my parents find work and exposed us to new foods and cultural experiences. But most importantly, they made us realize that just because we left our community behind in Vietnam, it does not mean that we can’t have an equally caring one here.

Song of the Executive Director

NinjaLast Friday, 9 EDs got together for our monthly ED Happy Hour (EDHH), a time for us to discuss the challenges of our field and brainstorm ways to collaborate so that we can shift the paradigm and move the needle on collective impact around systemic change. Or something like that. OK, we just drink a lot and complain about stuff. It’s very therapeutic.

We were at a sports bar, and the basketball game on the TVs around us cast streaks of light on the shiny black tables.I was sipping on my WTM, which the waitress told me stood for “White Trash Mimosa,” a combination of orange juice and beer, and looking around the table at my fellow EDs, at their salt-and-pepper hair and their button-down shirts that they probably got at a Ross Dress for Less.

“Sad story time, you guys,” said Director Margaery, “we applied for a major grant. It failed.” (I’m using pseudonyms, since the second rule of EDHH is that everything that is said at EDHH stays at EDHH. (The first rule of EDHH is that you can’t ask an ED to be a table captain at your event.))

“That’s 10 ED Points!” I said. We have a system of ED points, which you can earn for doing different ED things. The points add up and earn you awesome titles. For example, for 100 points, we earn the title of Cat Herder. When we reach 1000 points, we are bestowed the highest rank, Equity Ninja. No one has yet reached the status of Equity Ninja. I think one person has achieved the third highest rank, 800 points, Synergy Harvester.

“I talked to a foundation and requested $40,000, and it seemed really positive” said Director Catelyn, “they came back with an offer for $10,000. That’s $10,000 we didn’t have before, but still, it hurts…”

We spent some time sharing sad stories, about funding and sustainability, about board members we have to wrangle, about the overwhelming number of emails we each receive every day, about the staff we loved whom we had to lay off because we didn’t get a grant, about the complete lack of separation between our work life and personal life.

I looked around at some of the smartest and most dedicated people I know. Their faces were gaunt and hollow, ravaged by time and countless special events. These visages, once vibrant and full of life, are now tired, leathery facades, crumpled like a stack of cobbler’s aprons that have fallen off a truck and been run over by a motorcycle. An ED’s face is like a tree trunk: You can tell by the number of wrinkles how many fiscal years this person has survived. “Ah,” you might say, “this wrinkle is especially deep. This must have been the year when they weren’t able to meet the goal for their annual fundraising dinner. What a sad and noble fella.”

The challenges of the position may explain why no one wants to be an ED. Seeing our tired, weather-beaten faces every day, most staff would rather eat their own arm or marry an opossum than become an Executive Director.

“I gave notice,” said Director Olenna, “I quit. Five years of full-time work without health benefits, that’s enough.”

We looked at her and took swigs of our respective drinks. Director Olenna brings so much energy and fun. Each time an ED leaves, it hurts. All of us are fighting the long and difficult fight against inequity and social injustice, and when an ED quits, it’s like having a comrade fall in battle. This is the 2nd ED I know who is leaving in the past two months.

“Where will you go?” I asked, “What will become of you?”

“I think I’ll take some time off, go to Japan, visit the 88 temples for a year,” she said, “and then I’ll come back and figure out something.”

At a previous EDHH we talked about what we would do if we weren’t in this line of work. One director wanted to be a wedding photographer. One wanted to make documentaries. I would love to work for the Travel Channel in a show called “Vegan Bizarre Foods,” where I travel the globe and sample wacky, but completely vegan, foods.

“Can I tell a happy story?” said Director Ned.

Sure, we said, we’d love to hear a happy story. We don’t always just complain about stuff. Most of the time, we are loud, laughing and cracking jokes and talking about “Storage War.”

“So someone contacted us,” said Director Ned, “and asked if we took stock options as a donation! Stock options, you guys!”

What, we said. No way, we said. Shut your face, Director Ned, you bastard, I said. While all us EDs look haggard and cobbler’s-apron-ish, Director Ned always looks fresh and full of energy, and for that I want to punch him in the face a few times so he would look like the rest of us.

Each time we gather for EDHH, it would last four or five hours. When it’s at another ED’s place, we would bring snacks and wine leftover from other meetings and events. Sometimes we sip on our beer or wine and stare into the distance, imagining a better reality, a reality where grants are multi-year general operating, which would allow us to focus on improving our programs instead of merely trying to survive. We imagine these things called “holiday bonuses” for our staff, like we see people getting in the movies. We imagine a world where children say “When I grow up, I want to be an executive director.”

No kid ever says that. I don’t think any of us thought we would end up as an ED. The profession calls to us like a siren, beautiful and haunting and madness inducing. And, while we lament about the challenges of our field and age twice as a fast as the general public and daydream about being a wedding photographer or whatever, the reality is that we still choose to heed the call, to listen to this song.

A new Director arrived, her first time at EDHH. She seemed nervous, but the group was welcoming, offering to share our hummus plate. I had to leave early to go to our office holiday party. On the way out, I was thinking how lucky I was to get to know and work with such amazing leaders. And I calculated that I had earned 12 ED points that day, which means I was 12 points closer to being an Equity Ninja.

Nonprofit Cocktail Recipes

cocktail-1058237_960_720A while ago I wrote about self-care, and how we should all try to find time to do the things that make us happy. For me, one of those things is mixing drinks. It makes me happy to discover or invent new cocktails. Here are several that are inspired by people and concepts in nonprofit work. I also asked friends on NWB’s Facebook page to send in their own recipes, and those are listed at the end. Please submit your own inspired creations in the comment section.

The Executive Director

1 oz vodka

2 oz grapefruit juice

2 oz passionfruit juice

1 more oz vodka

Another oz vodka

Put ice into glass or mug. Pour everything else in and stir. Garnish with more vodka. Drink at either 9am or 9pm at the office. Strong, and slightly bitter.

 

The Retreat

1½ oz coffee liqueur

1½ oz brandy

1 oz nighttime cold and flu medicine

2 Tylenol Extra Strength tablet

Pour coffee liqueur, brandy, and cold and flu medicine into glass without ice. Drop in Tylenol tablets. Drink the cocktail slowly while discreetly checking emails on your smartphone.

The LOI

1/6 oz dry gin

1/6 oz Kirsch

1/6 oz orange Curaçao

1/6 oz dry vermouth

1/6 oz sweet vermouth

Strip of lemon peel.

Mix all ingredients together with ice and strain into a shot glass. Garnish with lemon peel strip. Give it to someone. If they like it, make them another, but instead of using 1/6 oz for each ingredient, use 1 full oz, but change orange Curaçao to blue Curaçao and Kirsch into blackberry brandy.

 

The Strategic Plan

½ oz blue Curaçao

1 tsp raspberry syrup

¼ oz maraschino liqueur

¼ oz yellow Chartreuse

¼ oz Cointreau

Chill everything for several hours, including a shot glass. Slowly and carefully pour the liqueurs in the order listed over the back of a teaspoon into shotglass. Do not stir. When done correctly, you will have a colorful, multi-layered drink that is not only delicious, but beautiful to look at. Do not drink it. Show it to everyone, then put it in the fridge and then throw it out after a year or two. 

The Annual Event

1 piece edible gold leaf

2 oz Cinzano extra dry vermouth

½ oz framboise

½ oz black Sambuca

½ oz pureed sardines

rose petal, lime wedge, lemon peel twist, raspberry, pineapple piece, candied hibiscus, black truffle shaving, cape gooseberry

Put gold leaf into glass. Shake Cinzano, framboise, and Sambuca with ice and pour into glass. Float pureed sardines on top. Garnish with rose petal, lime wedge, lemon peel twist, raspberry, pineapple piece, hibiscus, truffle shaving, and cape gooseberry. Drink up, rest for three months, then start gathering ingredients to make another one.

The Earnest Volunteer
Contributed by Krystyna Williamson

1/2 ounce dark rum
Jamaican ginger ale
1/2 tsp lime juice
mint leaves
1 1/2 ounce simple syrup

Muddle the mint in the syrup, add the rest and stir gently. Comes in on fire, heads off in three directions, and never really gets the job done. 

The Corporate Foundation Administrator:

Contributed by J. Eric Smith

2 parts Jagermeister
1 part Mayonnaise
1 part Worcestershire Sauce
1 part Cottage Cheese

Mix ingredients, shake vigorously, and drink very, very, VERY slowly, smiling all the while. If you gag or frown, you do not get the grant. Ever.

The College Intern

Contributed by Claire Petersky

1 1/2 oz vodka
3/4 oz peach schnapps
1/2 oz creme de cassis
2 oz orange juice
2 oz cranberry juice
1/4 cup white sugar
Orange slice and maraschino cherry for garnish

Very sweet, has some power – but you don’t want more than two of them.

The Development Director: 

Contributed by Sharonne Navas

1 ½ oz Bailey’s Irish Cream
1 ½ oz Butterscotch Schnapps
¾ oz Goldschlager
1 tbsp 151 Rum
1 dash Cinnamon

Mix all ingredients with ice in a shaker and pour into glass. If your Development Director has gotten the organization to fundraising goal by mid-year, you can light this drink on fire. If the Director hasn’t, you can light him/her on fire.* Win-Win!!

The [Certain Grantor]’s Website

Contributed by Claire Petersky

5 cherries

Angostura bitters

Lemonhart 151 rum

3 oz gin

1 bar spoon rosewater

½ oz lime juice

Place cherries in your mixing glass, add sugar. Place equal portions of Angostura bitters and Lemonhart 151 rum into an oil mister/sprayer. Mist the Angostura mixture through a flame. Flame until sugar caramelizes. Fill with ice and add gin, rosewater, and lime juice. Then, because the cocktail has timed out, throw the entire concoction down the disposal. Take a bottle of sriracha and splash a drop in your eye. Beat head against your kitchen countertop. Repeat from the beginning, at least three times.

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(*Note, Nonprofit with Balls does not condone the setting of anyone on fire, even Development Directors who haven’t met outcomes).

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