“On the Threshold of Awesome”: An ED’s speech to his staff before the annual event

Source: alanarnette.com

My team, this week will be our organization’s annual fundraising event. These three words have struck fear into the hearts of even the bravest of us since the beginning of time.

The intensity of the past fortnight must be acknowledged. I see it on your weary faces, gaunt from lack of sleep, haunted by endless tasks, by worst-case scenarios, and by the merciless passage of the hours. I see it on your hands, marked by papercuts from sponsorship packets and development committee meeting agendas. I hear it on your voices, made frail by hours of phone calls to vendors, guests, volunteers, and the Liquor License Board.

No one would think less of you for admitting that you feel some trepidation now, at this moment, three days before the culmination of all our hard work for the past seven months. I, too, am nervous, and during my own slumberless nights, I confess that I sometimes envision running off into the wilderness to live as a hermit, surviving with small woodland creatures I’ve befriended who help me gather berries and mushrooms. I would have a pet chipmunk named Mr. Squeaken, and Mr. Squeaken and I would live a simple existence in the forest, away from speeches and auctions and check-out lines.

It is OK and normal for all of us to feel nervousness and even fear at this time. For the things in life that are most worth doing will usually be the hardest. We as human beings all feel fear at various points in our lives. But did fear stop Sir Edmund Hillary? Did fear stop Lewis and Clark? Did fear stop the Wright Brothers? No! They ALL had to plan at least one annual fundraising event, and they did fine. Yes, Sir Edmund Hillary also had challenges with the registration line. And we all know Lewis and Clark’s “Hot Soup Dash” resulted in minor injuries to many guests, and thus everyone now does “Dessert Dash” instead. Despite these challenges, their events were successful.

I know then, from history, that our event will be OK. In fact, it will be awesome. It will be awesome because the work we do to lift up families and communities is important and this event is toward furthering this goal. It will be awesome because our supporters are some of the most generous and understanding and good-looking people ever and they will forgive minor mistakes. It will be awesome because it has been getting more and more awesome every year since we started doing this.

As importantly, it will be awesome because we are us. Look around you. Are these not some of the most brilliant and talented people you have ever worked with? Is this not the most dedicated Development Director and Development Committee and board members ever? Sure, we are slightly disheveled after moving large pieces of decoration and picking up 40 vases and whatnot, and the stubbed toes and carpal tunnel don’t help. And James, you should see a doctor about your twitching eye. But we are a team, an amazing team, and if anyone can pull this off, it will be us.

The next three days will be more intense than ever. Last-minute registrations will come in, and we will be spending hours figuring out which table is placed where. Some people will cancel. Some sponsors won’t be able to fill their seats and we will rush to fill them. Critical volunteers may come down with the stomach virus and not be able to help. There will always be a case of stomach virus at this time. Desperate calls will be made. There may be some crying in the fetal position, but I will try to control myself. The office will be packed with crap. Many of us will stay late preparing logistics while listening to 90’s hip-hop. During these next three days, we must be patient with and supportive of one another, even of those coworkers who keep playing Dave Mathews Band’s “Proudest Monkey” over and over again, arguably one of the dumbest songs ever written, for God’s sake!

But it will all be worth it. Our students and families and community depend on our programs. We will have an incredible event, an event for the history books, an event that we will tell our grandkids about. Long after we are all gone and time has erased our footprints and other traces of our lives, people will still be talking about this day. And they will say, “Those folks at that organization, they did good. I’m glad my grandparents raised their paddle.” Then they will hop on their hover board and fly off to the moon or something.

So have heart. We now stand on the threshold of awesome, and this week we will cross it. We will do so because we are us, and we always get stuff done. You may feel stress and trepidation now, but remember the inspiring words of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He said, “The only thing we have to fear…is probably audiovisual glitches. That $#!% will seriously mess up your event.”

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Nonprofits: We must break out of the Scrappiness Cycle

Next week my organization is having its annual dinner, which means that right about now everyone is busy and on edge. Occasionally we share our anxiety-induced nightmares with one another as a form of stress relief:

“There I was, sitting at my table next to the Mayor and Benjamin Franklin. Suddenly James comes on stage, and he was holding a giant raw fish as a prop for one of his jokes. And I thought ‘No! You can’t handle raw fish on stage, since you’ll be shaking hands with everyone! We’ll get blamed for an outbreak of salmonella!’ I tried screaming, but no sound would come out. We were doomed. Doomed…”

The dinner has been consuming all our waking, and apparently non-waking, thoughts. Last month, a donor sent in a gift basket for the staff for the Lunar New Year. It contained high-quality chocolates and cookies and was wrapped up all nicely. We quickly sent a thank-you note. At the next staff meeting I took out the basket and started to open it. A hush fell on the meeting room.

“What are you doing?” someone asked, shocked.

“I’m opening it,” I said, “it’s for us.”

“Wait!” said the group, “it’s too nice! We should use it as a raffle item at the dinner!”

These last few months have made me realize that we nonprofits are constantly in the Scrappiness Cycle. We are always scrimping, trying to find the best deals, trying to get stuff discounted or preferably free. We scour Craigslist looking for usable furniture, and we pounce on businesses that are moving or closing, hoping to score a kick-ass filing cabinet (with a lock!). It has become a mindset that is ingrained in all of us. It is our donors’ money! We must save! We must be responsible!

We totally should. But I think we have gone too far. Scrappiness and frugality are great skills that everyone should have. But like sake bombs, they should be taken in moderation. It would be better for our organizations, our clients, and our own sanity to actually be a little LESS scrappy.

First, there is the time and opportunity Cost: In our quest to save a few bucks, we miss out on more productive opportunities. To save about $2,000 to furnish our previous office with 8 work stations from IKEA, for example, a staff and I rented a Uhaul, drove to a business that was moving, and brought home 8 wooden desks or so. For free! They were heavy and the project took us a whole day to move, several days to assemble, and another day to get rid of the desks once we found something better and equally as scrappy.

This time that we spent moving and assembling furniture could have been spent connecting with donors, writing grants, or otherwise doing something that could have brought our organization money. Worse, while assembling a desk, a piece fell and scraped my shin, leaving a painful bruise that lasted literally months. If I weren’t so nice and hadn’t initiated the project, I could have sued the organization.

Second, scrappiness prevents us from thinking beyond the short-term. When we are scrappy, we tend to skimp on necessary resources like the right people and the right tools, which means we can’t be as effective, which means we have to be even scrappier to survive, perpetuating a vicious cycle that keeps us from moving forward and leads to really crappy office chairs from Craigslist. How many boards are so fixated on how much is spent on office supply or other expenses, instead of focusing on the long-term growth and awesomeness of their organization? I was facilitating a retreat a few weeks ago for the board of another nonprofit. This was clearly a dedicated, passionate working group of people. But they were stuck in the present, and with almost no staff, they were reaching burn-out. Running completely on volunteers is very scrappy, but it is difficult to sustain.

Third, and most importantly, we nonprofits really need to get out of this Martyr Mentality. It seems we nonprofit staff take an unspoken vow of poverty when we enter our profession. It has been beaten into us over hundreds of years, and like smoking or checking emails in bed it is a very difficult habit to break. But we have to. This mentality is ineffective; it drives talented people to burning out and to leaving the field, and it negatively shapes the perceptions of people who are not in the field, preventing good ones from even thinking of entering.

We need to believe that we are not bad people for wanting nice things like a decent work space (See “Nonprofit office space: We deserve better!“). I’m not talking extravagant things; this is not a carte blanche to say that we should skip out on due diligence and go crazy buying caviar and use fancy French terms like “carte blanche.” But buy a metal filing cabinet with locks. Take the team out once a while for lunch. Hire the necessarily staff. On occasion this may seem risky, considering how unstable our funds are and how society expects martyrdom. But society cannot expect us nonprofits to continue to hunker down, be scrappy, avoid risks, and hope to thrive. But it will if we ourselves keep believing and perpetuating this cycle.

The Scrappiness Cycle doesn’t work in the long run. And we and our community deserve better.

So. Back to the gift basket. “Our annual dinner is coming up,” I said, “and this basket would make a nice raffle item, ’tis true…

“But no, it’s for us,” I continued, finding momentum in my speech, “We work hard. We deserve something for ourselves once a while. We’ll find other stuff to raffle off. Plus, it’s not nice to the person who gave this to us if we give it away. We’d be disrespecting their wishes. No, it is our DUTY to eat these treats!”

“Eat these treats! EAT THESE TREATS!” the staff chanted in unison.

All right, they didn’t do that. They still looked at me like I was crazy. But they reluctantly accepted, and I tore open the cellophane…

What the…

Dammit! There was nothing vegan for me!

We wasted a nice pre-wrapped basket for NOTHING!

Which comes first, the Equity Egg or the Accountability Chicken?

chicken and eggThe last few weeks have been rough. Not only did the baby grow his first tooth and got an ear infection and has been miserable, but also my lucky bamboo, which I got to boost the feng shui in the office, mysteriously turned yellow and died.

None of that, however, compared to getting news that one of the schools we partner with didn’t get the grant that it applied to. I helped them to write this massive, 30-page narrative, sitting at the principal’s desk and typing away as she ran in and out of her office to deal with one situation after another. The grant was painful. It was like taking a pint of kumquats, freezing them overnight, putting them into a gym sock, running the gym sock though some poison oak, and then beating yourself in the face with it while watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace, that’s how painful it was. (I helped another school last year to write the same grant, and wrote about how awful that was).

We wrote this grant for several days. This is a school with 95% kids of color, 85% low-income, and this was their third time writing this grant and failing to get awarded. It was a devastating blow for a really great school. “I’ll buy you a drink,” I told the principal; we both felt like crap.

A few days later, I ran into one of the executive board members, “Frank,” who approved the decisions. I told him the grant award system was messed up and he needed to change it. “Well,” he said, “there are always winners and losers. And we need to focus on schools who have principals who are accountable and taking lead to improve their schools.”

As much as I love the US, we have some major things to improve on. One of those things is this zero-sum game that we play, and it often manifests in the form of “accountability,” a catch-all concept that everyone now uses because it makes them look smart and responsible. Accountability now equates with excellence and quality and bald eagles and apple pie.

Unfortunately, this concept has been thoroughly misused, wielded as a tool to perpetuate many crappy and unjust systems.

At a panel I was on, the topic was parental engagement. “We can talk all we want about all sorts of things,” said one of the other speakers, “but at the end, it comes down to parental accountability. Parents need to be responsible for their kids’ learning! They need to read to their kids and make sure they do their homework!”

Yeah, said the room, clapping, that’s the American Way!

“I agree,” I said, “parents should be involved in their kids’ education.” But, I pointed out, many of them don’t have the language skills, or they are poor and work several jobs. And then because they are poor, they tend to go to struggling schools, and those schools don’t have translation services, or any staff who can spend time with the parents, so even if a parent really wants to be engaged, they come to school and there is no one to help them. So if we want parents to be accountable, provide them the resources they need first.

We have a very punitive sort of mindset, and oftentimes it makes no sense. Let’s punish the schools that don’t do well by taking away or not giving them the resources they need. THAT will incentivize them to get better, those lazy, good-for-nothing schools who have no accountability.

Also, let’s force low-income schools to write painful 30-page grants to compete for these funds that are designed with equity in mind to help struggling schools with high numbers of low-income students. Grants that are so painful it’s like taking a mason jar, filling it with apple cider vinegar, running through a blackberry thicket, then pouring the vinegar all over yourself. The best-written grants should be awarded, because that’s accountability. Let’s ignore the fact that the schools that are most struggling, and thus most in need of these funds, are probably the ones that have the most challenges writing these grants.

People, even well-intentioned people like “Frank”, use “accountability” as a crutch to not have to deal with the much harder task of achieving equity. Why spend five times more effort to define and find the most struggling schools, work with them to develop a strong plan to support their students to achieve, and provide them with funding and guidance to succeed? Why do all that when you can make all the schools write a sadistically burdensome grant, grade them on a 100-point scale, and pick a school that scored 87 points over a school that scored 85 points? Your process is clear and “accountable,” you’re forcing the schools to be “accountable,” and no one can yell at you for being unfair.

People who believe that competition and the focus on accountability will lead to equity are deluding themselves. They believe everything should be like the Olympics, where those who perform the best should get the gold. Most of us, though, enter into the field of nonprofit or philanthropy because we know the games are screwed up, and our job is to do whatever we can to bring balance by making conditions equal. How can you give someone a gold medal for Alpine skiing, for instance, when they have two skis and the other skiers have only one ski, or a broken ski, or there is not enough snow on their track? Let’s focus on making sure everyone competes under the same conditions before we reward the best performers.

Even if conditions are equal, though, sadly the competition will still not be fair. That’s because everything is relationship based. Those who have the best relationships will always get ahead, and poor families, and communities of color, and struggling schools and scrappy nonprofits will seldom have the same level of relationships with influential people.

That’s why our work is important. We above most people understand that equity comes first. Sometimes, though, we also forget, and we also fall into the accountability trap.

If we want equity, we must start with equity. And there are instances where it is working. Finland, for example, has become one of the best school systems in the world, if not the best. They focus on ensuring there is equity first. In fact, they don’t even have a word for “accountability.” There are few standardized tests, for example, and they don’t make their principals spend 80 hours writing a grant to get the resources they need, a grant so awful it’s like taking a handmade quilt, gathering crazy ants onto it, then wrapping the quilt around yourself while listening to Passenger. They focus first on making sure every student has the same opportunity. And yet they are excelling. In comparison, Norway, with a similar homogenous population, has bought into this system of competition, punishment, and accountability, and they are not doing nearly as well. This is only one example, but it is a strong one.

Now that I’ve become a parent, I think a lot about how families are structured and what kind I would like mine to be. Imagine a family that is ultra competitive, where children are in constant competition with one another and rewarded by their parents. “John got 5 A’s this quarter, so we’re going to take him to Disneyland, yay! Have some more food, son, you deserve it. The rest of you, you got B’s, you need to shape up. Jimmy, I don’t care that you got mugged twice last month while walking home. Toughen up and stop whining. Be a man like John here.” (Sadly, I actually know some parents who are like that).

Most of us can see how awful it would be to live in such a family. But this is what our society is increasingly becoming like.

Many of us continue to do this work because we believe there shouldn’t be have to be winners and losers all the time, especially when we are talking about kids. All of them deserve a chance to succeed, and it pisses me off when idiots wield “accountability” as a reason to justify their thoughtless decisions. If we want EVERYONE to succeed, and not just a select few, then we must ensure everyone has the same opportunities. When it comes to accountability and quality and equity, it is not a chicken-and-egg argument. It is equity that will lead to quality and accountability, not the other way around.

Nonprofit professionals: You are each a unicorn

 

The more I work in this field, the more amazed and inspired I am by the people in it. You are some of the smartest people I know. You could choose to pursue work elsewhere for much better pay and prestige. But you are here in this field fighting each day to lift up our families and strengthen our communities. You are awesome because you know that awful things in the world do not stop happening when we don’t think about them. You chose this work and stick around because you believe that if we want to make the world better, we can’t wait around for Fate or other people to take care of things.

The work is never easy, and we put up with a lot of crap, and in the quest to help end homelessness, to make elders feel less lonely, to expose kids to art and music, to make the world greener, to change unfair policies, to undo the forces of racism and homophobia and sexism and oppression, and overall to make the world better, we sometimes forget to stop to appreciate ourselves and give ourselves and each other some credit.

So today, Valentine’s Day, I just want to say that you are each a unicorn to me.

To the program staff who are on the front line helping clients, who stay late in the evenings and weekends to tutor a student or serve a hot meal to the hungry or comfort the lonely, you are each a unicorn.

To the development professionals who stuff thousands of letters, make dozens of calls per week, write grants, lead program tours, coordinate special events, and generally keep the organization afloat, you are each a unicorn.

To the admin staff who spend endless energy herding cats and putting out fires, who wake up in cold sweat after having nightmares about the budgets and HR policies and being able to make payroll this month, you are each a unicorn.

To the social justice activists and advocates who stand on the sidewalks in the cold to gather signatures and to push for better laws, who sometimes get arrested for civil disobedience in the name of equity, you are each a unicorn.

To the office management staff who keep the lights on and file paper and manage people’s schedules and check the mail and pay the bills and answer phone calls, you are each a unicorn.

To the financial management staff who make sure we stay on budget and can answer questions about where we’re spending money, who understand and explain obscure concepts like unrestricted and temporarily restricted and balance sheets and reserves, you are each a unicorn.

To the volunteer managers who wrangle the best out of people, to get them to pull up blackberry brambles and pick up litter and mentor kids, and make them feel appreciated so they come back and do it again, you are each a unicorn.

To the marketing and communication staff, who are keeping the fires alight so others can see the importance of our work, so the world can see the people whom we see every day, you are each a unicorn.

To the community organizers and community builders who get people to talk to one another, to help them realize their individual and collective power, to get neighbors to be more neighborly, you are each a unicorn.

I know I might have forgotten some people. Thank you for all that you do. Today, take a moment to give yourself some credit. You are a unicorn. A smart and charming and good-looking unicorn who is helping to make the world better. Take a moment to tell your colleagues that they are a unicorn to you.

Then, go home early and try not to work this weekend. Injustice and inequity will still be there to do battle with you afterward. You deserve a break, you awesome unicorn you.

8 Recipes from the Nonprofit Cookbook

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Every once a while I get a chance to infiltrate the campus of a major corporation like Microsoft. Usually it’s to beg someone to join our board or to be a sponsor of our annual event (ideally, both). These places are very different from nonprofits, but luckily, I’ve learned to blend in by using the lingo. Walking up to the reception desk, for example, I’ll pretend to say something on the phone like, “Yes, I know you’re cranking against deliverables–we all are–but the adminisphere needs the CRM to be in beta drop and repro by next week or we are all SOL, so tell your PM to get the chips and salsa buttoned down!” Except for my aura of stress and exhaustion, no one suspects that I am from the nonprofit world.

Until I enter the cafeteria. Did you know many big companies have cafeterias? Last month, I visited he one at Microsoft, and it is amazing! They have these cool stations, with different types of hot food. They even have vegetarian/vegan food. All for very reasonable prices. I get so excited seeing all this convenient and affordable food, freshly prepared every day, and it shows. I ran around, expressing delight at everything, embarrassing the host. “Dude, calm down,” he whispered, “It’s like you’ve never seen food before.” The forks and spoons are all compostable, made from potatoes. “This is totally awesome,” I said, chewing on a piece of Panko-crusted tofu, “This tofu tastes like childhood. And this fork is delicious!” Ah, to have hot food prepared for you every day, to eat with edible utensils!

“So,” I said, calming down, “would you consider joining our board?”

It’s disappointing to come back down to earth, where we have no company-sponsored cafeteria, where last week one of the staff interrupted me to ask whether there was any food left over from the meeting the previous night. Let’s face it, we nonprofit folks have different eating habits than the corporate types. First, because we don’t have the same financial resources. Second, we usually also don’t have a lot of time, since we’re always helping people and stuff. 

However, that shouldn’t mean that we can’t eat delicious, nutritious, and affordable meals. Also, we don’t like to waste food, and there is always a ton of food left over from various meetings. That’s why, prompted by Director Jen of Virginia, I’ve been thinking of writing a cookbook for nonprofit professionals. I’m working on it between episodes of the Walking Dead, but I wanted to give you a sample of what will be in the book. Here are a few recipes. I also asked friends of NWB’s Facebook page for suggestions.

The ED Ramen Bowl: Prepare one package of ramen. Add some frozen vegetables. Microwave for 5 minutes.  Eat while reading financial statements or having a meeting with a staff. One hour later, eat a Cliff Bar while running to a meeting. Serves 1.

Fundraiser Wine Sangria: After every annual event, you will inevitably be left with several bottles of wine that have been partially finished. Don’t dump those down the drain! Combine and pour about 2 bottles’ worth into a punch bowl, add 2 sliced lemons, 2 sliced oranges, 2 shots of brandy or vodka, and 4 cups of leftover club soda or ginger ale or whatever, stir, and chill for a refreshing drink at the debriefing session. Serves 8, or serves 4 twice.

I-Forgot-My-Lunch Pasta: Having dried pasta and jarred spaghetti sauce in the office is a major time and money saver. For a quick meal, add dry pasta to a large microwave-safe glass bowl. Add water to one or two inches above pasta. Microwave for 15 minutes. Go answer some emails. Check for doneness and microwave 3 more minutes as necessary. Carefully drain pasta and return to bowl. Add pasta sauce to your liking, and stir. The hot bowl will heat up the pasta sauce. Serves 1 to 5. If you want more nutrition, add frozen or fresh vegetables and microwave an additional 3 minutes.

Hummus Platter Pizza: Hummus has gotten very popular, and that’s why 95% of nonprofit group meetings will feature this item, along with baby carrots, sugar snap peas, broccoli florets, and pita wedges. You will always have more hummus than people will eat, so why not make a delicious “pizza” after the meeting? Take leftover pita wedges, spread hummus on top, slice and add leftover baby carrots, snap peas, and broccoli, cover with shredded cheese cubes leftover from another meeting, and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Serves 1 to 5.

Morning-After Breakfast Melt (Contributed by J Eric Smith): “Put the leftovers from last night’s meeting/event snack platters in a bowl. Pretty consistently, the things that no one ever eats off the platter are the pepper jack cheese, the weird salami looking stuff with more white fat than red meat in it, the cauliflower florets, and those strange, flat, brown things in the snack mix that taste like Worcestershire sauce. Heat in microwave until the cheese melts. Eat at desk, with aspirin garnish.” Serves 1 to 8.

The Team-Building Stone Soup: Food being left in the fridge for too long can cause consternation among staff. So every month, make a delicious “minestrone” soup. Add one carton of vegetable stock and one jar of tomato-based pasta sauce to a large pot. Season with salt, pepper, and a tablespoon or dried Italian seasoning (rub between your fingertips as you add for extra flavor). Add a splash of red wine left over from an event and half a cup of small dried pasta. Then have each staff look through the fridge and see what they can contribute to the soup: cheese, tuna salads, that weird kombucha tea with its “mother” floating inside, other soups. Simmer till the pasta is cooked. Not only is this a great way to clean out the fridge, it’s also a wonderful team-building activity. Serves the entire team.

Pastry bread pudding: Breakfast pastries are like government grants. At first they seem like a good idea, but you quickly get sick from how heavy they are. And yet, which nonprofit has not had a box of assorted pastries left over after an early-morning meeting? Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut 8 pastries into small pieces, shove into a baking pan, and drizzle 3 tablespoons melted butter over pieces. In a mixing bowl, whisk 4 eggs, 2 cups milk, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ½ cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour over pastries and make sure everything is covered in liquid. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes. Serves 3 to 8.

The Development Director Omelette (Contributed by Rachel Schachter): “Take a dozen eggs out of the fridge. Give your ED a list of donors to call. Wait one week. Throw one egg at him for every donor not called. Go to store. Buy more eggs, repeat as necessary.” (Note from NWB: This is actually not a recipe and is very wasteful of eggs, which should be saved for the real recipes, like the bread pudding above).

I’ll be developing more recipes for the cookbook. Please send in your nonprofit recipes and any suggestions you may have. Remember: Just because we’re in nonprofit, and cranking against deliverables, doesn’t mean we can’t eat well. 

Ooh, my ramen is ready!