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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The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildlings, and White Walkers

wallLast 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.

Another unhygienic wildling asking for general operating
Another unhygienic wildling asking for general operating

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.

white walkersWe 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?

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Related Posts:

Collective Impact: Resistance is Futile

Site Visits: Uncomfortable, Yet Terrifying

The Most Crotch-Kickingly Craptastic Grant Application Notice Ever

Nonprofit Funding: Ordering a Cake and Restricting it Too

Collective Impact: resistance is futile

honey-bees-326337_960_720In the past few years, the concept of Collective Impact has covered lots of ground, with great results. Concerted efforts can kick some serious butts. Look what Strive has accomplished. Characteristics of CI are a common agenda, shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities, constant communication, a backbone organization, and monthly happy hours.

However, like taking naps at work, Collective Impact should be done strategically and sometimes not at all. Recently, I’ve started seeing it become more and more like the Borg in Star Trek, a species that assimilates other life forms in a quest for dominance and perfection. Controlled by a hive mind that neutralizes any sort of individualism, and comprising billions of annexed individuals, they are strong and terrifying, like an army of zombie robots, each with one eye that has a laser beam. Resistance is futile, since any entity that tries to put up a fight is either assimilated and loses its identity, or else destroyed.

That, unfortunately, is what it feels like sometimes by those of us on the ground, the nonprofits that work directly with individuals and families. While no one is arguing with the importance and effectiveness of collective impact, it can be a little frustrating. Three or four times this year, we were told by various funders we need to align with The Borg. (There are several great CI efforts all around, so by “The Borg,” I am not referring to any specific one). Program officers, who are the Sherpas on the oftentimes Everestian slopes of foundation applications, have seen this shift in paradigm and have been trying to be helpful. Once a while, I get a call like this:

Program Officer: I’m calling to provide some feedback on your proposal. Are you in a secure location?

Me: Yes. I just walked into the bathroom.

PO: You need to mention a little bit more about your work with the Borg. The review team is looking for projects that really align with the Borg’s strategy.

Me: All right, we can expand that section. Thank you.

PO: I never called you. This conversation never happened.

Sometimes, we actually align with the Borg, in which case I’m happy to expand on how wonderful it is to be assimilated into the Borg hive mind. But occasionally we do not align. Heck, once in a while it makes no sense to be. As powerful as the Borg are in Star Trek, they were never able to assimilate members of Species 8472, which looks kind of like bugs, but that’s neither here nor there. Species 8472 is just so biologically different and incompatible, assimilation would only lead to disaster. A parallel can be made with collective impact efforts that try to involve communities of color, who have unique strengths and needs. Oftentimes, the first instinct is to assimilate everyone under one umbrella, and that could work. However, sometimes it does not work, and it may not necessarily be anyone’s fault. Several umbrellas may be needed.

Another frustration I’ve seen is funders’ shifting the funding priorities from direct service work to collective impact efforts and backbone organizations. Queries about support for direct impact programs often come back with “Sorry, we are now prioritizing funding the Borg’s work. Maybe you should go talk to them.” This is extremely frustrating. While the push is for everyone to align with CI efforts, the funding is not equitable. Direct service organizations, especially the ones that focus on communities of color, can only be involved in these amazing, region-wide efforts if we are strong and stable and have credibility with our clients. VFA has been getting requests to join various CI efforts and we have become more and more involved. If we were to shut down our after-school, leadership, parental engagement, and community-building work, no one would approach us, because we would have no connection or credibility. In order for these major collective impact efforts to succeed, funders must continue funding direct service organizations in parallel.

Much more importantly, however, is that clients may not be able to afford the time that it often takes for Borg-like efforts to achieve perfection. CI usually takes years. A kid who is failing school or an elder who needs food doesn’t have years. I just talked to a principal of a school with 90% low-income kids of color. She would love a common agenda and shared measurements and fully supports the work in this area. But right now her school desperately needs an after-school tutoring program because many students are several grades behind and they go home to empty houses and get no support.

In the Star Trek universe, there are few things more terrifying than a Borg invasion. They sweep through and assimilate or destroy everything. They absorb all resources. Collective impact should not have to be like that. The premise for collective impact is that we can do things much better by working together than by working in isolation. This is a premise that all of us on the ground fully believe in. But funding must be equitable and direct service must be simultaneously supported.

Site visits: uncomfortable, yet terrifying

officeThis week, VFA had a site visit. Whenever we apply for a grant, the second-best outcome is a site visit (the best outcome would be a funder saying, “We’re funding you, and in fact, doubling your request and sending the kids in your after-school program a laptop and a bunny each!”)

I always get excited about site visits. We write these grants telling people about how cool our programs are, but to have funders actually come down and visit is affirming. And terrifying. It’s a weird contradiction, like it’s your birthday—yay!—but you’re also getting a colonoscopy.

Before the visit, we try to prep as much as we can. Making a good impression is important. This includes tidying up the place and putting away our fold-out cot, which staff use for naps during particularly long days, or just weekdays. I also gather up all the papers on my desk and shove them into the overhead bin.

The staff’s personal appearance is also taken into consideration. “What kind of site visit is this?” one of them asked, “how should we dress?” The more funding is at stake, the better we dress. Less than $10,000, we dress a little better than normal, but are still generally shabby. At $10,000 to $19,000, we wear button-down shirts and tuck them into our jeans. $20,000 to $49,000, we wear slacks and a nice shirt, maybe a tie. $50,000 or over, I might require some of the staff to get Botox.

“$80,000,” I responded. “Ooh,” they said, “you better get a haircut.” A year ago, an hour from a visit with a major foundation, I checked myself in the mirror. Normally I look like a movie star, an Asian Steve Buscemi if you will, but this time I had a greenish complexion overshadowed by cowlicks so unruly, they were really goatlicks. Quickly I ran downstairs to a barber shop and got a trim. I made it to our program on time but was horrified to see that my face, neck, and shoulders were covered with bits of hair. “Quick, grab some tape,” I said, and for the next ten minutes, two staff used masking tape to remove offending pieces of hair. We got that grant, but the staff have never let me live that down.

On the day of this recent site visit, I was at a Leadership Tomorrow training. “Tidy up office, prepare slideshow,” I texted James, our Director of Youth and Community Engagement, who would be managing the project if we received this grant. This was only an office visit, not a program visit. Program visits have special challenges. We want our funders to see our programs in their natural state, so we don’t prep our students too much, except to tell them that a few people might be visiting and that if they don’t behave, Justin Bieber will stop singing forever.

When these visits go well, everyone leaves with a good feeling. The staff feel affirmed; the funders feel warm and fuzzy. Once in a while, though, they coincide with a crappy day, when kids have low energy, or some staff are absent, or the ED is hungover. Funders are usually pretty understanding and sympathetic when that happens, but I haven’t yet seen a bad site visit that has resulted in a grant or even a second-chance visit. It’s a horrible feeling watching a group of funders leave after an uninspiring tour. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re practicing for hours at a yo-yo trick and it’s awesome and you’re excited to show your older brother, but then the trick doesn’t go right, and he tousles your hair and says “That was a nice try, Vu, I’m sure you’ll get it eventually,” and you’re mad at yourself because you already got it, dozens of time, so then you hide his car keys under the couch cushions.

Office visits are challenging in that funders don’t have the visceral experience of our programs, a chance to meet our kids and stare into their big, liquid eyes brimming with hope and potential. So we create a slideshow to give them an impression. Two hours before the site visit, I texted James to “make sure only cute kids w big eyes are in slideshow.”

On my way back, I got a text from James. “They are here thirty mins early! They in conf room relaxing!” Crap, I thought, I don’t have time to clean up my desk! The previous evening, I had eaten some Morningstar vegan barbecue ribs and left the plate out on the desk. The office had been cleaned, so my cubicle would be the only messy area. They’re going to think I’m disorganized and sloppy! How could they invest in an organization when the ED can’t even clean up his mess after eating vegan BBQ ribs?!

I arrived at the office with twenty minutes to spare, but somehow felt late and anxious. I ran up the stairs and burst into the conference room to greet the four visitors. This was $80,000 on the line and I was blinded by their radiance. Program officers are on average 27% more attractive than civilians, and like Galadriel the Elven Queen from Lord of the Rings when she nearly held the One Ring of Power, they can be both beautiful and terrible to behold.

“I’m so sorry for being…early,” I said, breathless. They cracked up. Maybe they’re just humans, too, after all.