Nonprofit Work … My Take

To be perfectly honest, I have recently had both terrible and wonderful experiences in Nonprofits, and my advice for most people is the same as for any other industry: buyer beware. There are great nonprofits, ethical, solid, and serious places to work which are making a positive impact in the world.  Then there are nonprofits which are disorganized, or toxic, or simply ineffective which are full of people with petty little fiefdoms, lazy slobs, and genuine saints.

There are a few ways in which nonprofits do have some common tendencies.  Not radically different from other places, but a slight leaning in one direction or another. You will find a slightly higher proportion of resistance to change, conflict avoidance, and a tendency to “save face” rather than transparently face errors and failures.  On the other hand, you’ll meet an incredible number of people who genuinely care about you as a human being as you work along side one another.  You will see the very best of humanity and develop a more complex and nuanced understandings both of what is causing harm and the solutions which improve lives on a daily basis.

The almost-universal frustration I have experienced is that even in mid sized nonprofits, good resources and tools are scarce.  At a recent job, it took me almost 3 months to convince my boss to purchase a $55  license to adobe acrobat so I could create forms and PDF packets. We panic too often about the mythic administrative:program ratio, and keeping costs low, often to the point of priding ourselves for our time-wasting work around solutions and normalizing “penny wise but pound foolish” decision making Too many versions of this story take place in nonprofits basically every day.

One other warning.  People in nonprofits do NOT work less, less hard, or less ambitiously than other professionals.  I’ve encountered job applicants who say they want to “take a break from the rat race” and come work for us. Every single one of those survive less than six months, because they greatly misread how much would be expected of them at a nonprofit. Nonprofits cannot afford to carry dead weight, so people do get fired, and often work two or three jobs worth of work.  It’s more akin to start up culture than low-key small business most of the time. It is NOT easier, but it is different. A lot of highly trained people who perform highly skilled and extremely complex jobs also add a few hours at the end of the work week to clean the break room floor, take out the trash, troubleshoot the copier, clean up the flier which needs printing, or they buy a 3lb can of coffee from costco for the group because budgeting for staff coffee seems like a luxury. I know so many executive director who spend nights at shelters because a hurricane is blowing in and two paid staff are required to keep the doors open during the storm.  If you work for a theater or art museum, you’re going to regularly go home with bruises, paint on your cloths, splinters from carrying around risers, or an hilarious story about holding the ladder for your curator as he/she hung that 40 foot high thingamabob.

The public do not often think before speaking about nonprofits.  Donors are like clients/customers, but you are not selling them anything of value they can take home in exchange for their money.  Your have to give them good feelings and meaningful stories instead.  Their egos are bottomless-black-holes of want and need. They are also generous, kind, hilarious. One of my best friends now was once a prospective donor on my assignment list; we clicked and hang out at least once a week. Fundraising events are almost universally loved by attendees and hated by the staff who put them on.  They don’t make financial sense if you account for staff time costs, but almost no other strategy engages as many stakeholders so quickly.  Volunteers are the life blood of nonprofits, under appreciated and ignored, but also needy, frustrating, unreliable, and an absolute godsend when you forgot you needed to get 500 invitations out by Friday and you can’t afford a mailing house.

People who need services (often called clients also) are like customers as well, but often they are in the middle of trauma, disease, fear, they are young, hungry, smelly, or have their own emotional issues.  They will overwhelm you with gratitude one day, and spit in your face the next.  They will challenge every assumption you have about race, class, working hard, why people go to jail, the legitimacy of work in general, the valuation of art, how to talk to a human being, and what works for people.  And they will be late, forget about appointments, fail to show up, and blame you for their problems.  They are humans, and often we meet them in the moment when they literally have no energy or emotional strength to be their best selves.  Trauma (and poverty itself is traumatic, if nothing else) causes humans to be irritable, forgetful or to skip a shower.  Stress makes people struggle to complete a sentence, or remember to … what was it?

I’m not trying to scare you away.  But I want you to know, working for nonprofits is just that – work.  And it’s often like working in an emergency department or urgent care medical clinic – you have conflicting priorities, people competing for your attention, but there is absolutely no where else you would want to be. Because at the end of the day, the look on a young woman’s face when she tells you her new job at Target pays $14 an hour, full time, with health benefits, is priceless.  The sigh of relief from a man who has slept outside for weeks and hears you have an emergency bed with a private shower is the most beautiful thing in the world. So is the donor who THANKS YOU for the opportunity to participate, or the volunteer who comes back every Tuesday at 6am to chop up pieces of fish to feed the aquarium’s animals.

That is why we do this – we know we’re making a difference in our small corner of the world.  It’s messy and exhausting.

And I might be ready to give it up. But I will walk away proud, and pleased that for a while, I was capable of being part of the better part of us.

How Much Does Your Gift Demand?

Just remember.

Many of the best nonprofits are not ones you know about.

The ability to market, tell a story, and convince you of the importance of a cause do not necessarily reflect an organization’s ability to complete their mission. Unless their mission is about educating the public.

But for the rest of the organizations… arts organizations and human service providers and small grassroots groups? Often the ugliest communications and least emails from an organization with badly designed brochures and a few misspellings in their news letters are part of organizations who help the most help to the desperately needy. Their clients are very much not ready for prime time.

Perhaps, give these organizations a different type of consideration. They lack the resources to create flashy campaigns, but did they fund an independent audit this year by an outside accounting firm? Are they spending a few thousand dollars this year on professional exterminations to prevent the shelter or thrift store from having roaches? Do they spend money for staff and subscriptions for a good database? Is continuing education a budget line item available to staff? These are questions which reveal whether decision making is conscientious and strategic.

I’m not advocating for the end of professional fundraising or marketing. I’m simply arguing that if you want to do GOOD, don’t ask the nonprofits you want to support to spend 15 or 20 cents per dollar raised by creating flashy marketing materials, paying outreach staff, or expecting intense fundraising recognition projects. Those signs on the wall? They cost a lot of money. And no, the sign makers cannot just donate them to every nonprofit trying to thank their donors. And finding a donor to fund that sign? That takes staff time. Yeah, basically, I’m trying to point out to you that each of the clever little ideas of “reduce our overhead” … we have thought of those, and weighed the costs – which include staff, printing, materials, and often enormous amounts of time. By the way, have you ever tried to demand a vendor get every detail right? Now imagine that negotiation when you are NOT PAYING for that contract.

Right. It’s hard to hold people accountable when we also have to keep them happy so they will keep giving us their service. That’s why nonprofits need BUDGETS to pay for vital services – we cannot afford to lose our donor software because some company’s “strategic giving plan” changes or they have a bad sales quarter.

SO, please consider this: if an organization reaches a budget of a million per year, it should be spending $200,000 on administration, marking, fundraising, human resources, financial processes, and public relations. How much can a business do on $200,000? Because these are services and products which may be discounted, but nonprofits must pay for them too. We do not get free websites, database software, technology, electricity for our offices, rent, workers compensation insurance, general liability, health care, paper, or office supplies simply because we have a 501c3 determination letter and a great cause.  At the very least, we have to invest enormous amounts of staff and board time to keep getting those discounts or thanking those in-kind donors.

So we stretch our people, our supplies, our limits. We work 60 hour weeks on $11 per hour. We skip lunches, answer texts at 11pm, pinch pennies. I can’t tell you how many of my co-workers (across six organizations) make a habit of “failing” to submit receipts for reimbursement on parking for donor events or city hall visits; how many purchase their own pens, pencil cups, three ring binders for work. How many have bought food for their staff, birthday cards for donors, or even paid for their own conference registration to present on an organization’s work.

Did you volunteer that one time and the event felt disorganized and like you were not getting what you wanted out of the experience? Did you wonder why you didn’t walk away with that great big glow of satisfaction which comes from touching and changing a life. Well, the volunteer coordinator probably worked three evenings last week and met with four other groups. He is frantically trying to help connect people to our mission who might not show up at the last minute, leaving him scrambling to cover the lost labor.

So, when you walk into a nonprofit which looks disorganized, or are disappointed that the letter isn’t amazing, stop and imagine how hard people must be working to have not been able to plan for you. Ask a staff person “what is stressing you out this week?” and “what have you accomplished?”  To find out what’s really driving their time.

Before you think “oh it’s so much more fun to donate things than dollars!” stop and consider the among of a time a nonprofit has to spend processing your “fun” donation. We must count, inventory, store, and find a STRATEGIC use for whatever you’ve given. “but you asked me” you said. Yeah, well, we know that you or another participant MIGHT give us in December, so when you acted excited about a clothing drive, we said yes.    But what we really need? $35 to pay for unemployment insurance, health insurance, or pay the water bill that provides showers to our homeless clients.

SO, yeah, Hold the toothbrush drive AND host a fundraiser too. YES, that is more difficult for you. But when it gets hard, tell yourself this:
• My stress at this very moment means there is a case manager who can focus more fully on the homeless LGBTQ youth in front of their face.
• My frustration permits a job training mentor to spend an additional twenty minutes with a person in recovery who is trying to get their life together.
• The $50, $5, $500 dollars which I raise from this irritating moment is going to pay for a database that impacts HUNDREDS of clients a year, and makes sure they are getting what they really need, not just what is convenient to give them.
• Every time I call a friend to ask for support, an angel gets their wings. (In this case, wings = a meal cooked by a volunteer who knew when and where to go because the volunteer coordinator emailed and reminded them to show up with spaghetti for 25 tomorrow at 11:45.)

So, THANK YOU. Because you really DO make it possible for us to build the world we want to live in.

Non-Toxic Masculinity

I am tremendously glad Terry Crews participated on a panel at the Women of the World summit and said some pretty terrible things.   He acknowledged that,

[Women are] like, ‘Why don’t you hear me? Why don’t you see my feelings?’ And [men are] like, ‘But you’re not all the way human. You’re here for me, you’re here for my deal.’ It’s real.

Thanks to the Cut, I was made aware of his comment, and again, I say, THANK YOU, Terry.

Terry’s blunt acknowledgement of the worst kind of sexism – the kind we do not see often or recoil from when we do – helps us remember that atrocious horrors and microaggressions are made of the same fundamental essence.

We must acknowledge the extremities of sexism, even though many of us only face microaggressions, subtle expectations, and polite or even benevolent sexism on a daily basis.    Because like any insidious garden vine, we cannot get rid of it by only attacking the leaves which are relatively innocuous and easy to spot.

When draw the lines and make connections between the merely-irritating and the truly obscene, we can begin to truly uproot the un-examined limitations which oppressive gender standards place on humans. (Yes, ALL humans).

So, stop telling women they are overreacting. She is not. Ever. When someone appears on high alert do not dismiss or minimize their fear. (p.s. It never makes people more confident when you tell them they are idiots).  Consider that they have probably seen or experienced something you did not see.  Give them the benefit of the doubt – and by “them” I do not mean the accused. I mean the accuser.

Listen to Terry Crews, and ask yourself, what small moment of assumption have I imposed upon other people?  What have  I rejected, refused to understand, or failed to care about because of my own lack of empathetic imagination?  How have I tried to reimpose roles upon unique humans and thus, failed to appreciate them?

Because that’s all it takes to be in a better work: take a step back from your fears and defensiveness, pause, and made good-faith attempt at empathy.

Ennui, Despair and Hope wrote a poem together

Did you ever wonder if maybe this
Is the distopia of which we are afraid?
This land of physical confort and spiritual

A time when the greedy run amok
Treating those who accomplish tasks as less than
Those who sit around and think the m up.

Where hard work gets you almost enough to afford the many things which stand between me and a days worth of bread.
When shelter means an energy bill, and phone, and water,a and something called insurance
Which they tell us will cover our losses
If they happen to be caused by this
But not that
Or that
Or that.

I’m tired of pretending
That the color or fabric
of my shirt indicates something
That avoiding rips or stains makes me, what?
A person whose clothes conform to some bizarre
Cultural definition of

Fuck that.
Your system sucks.
It turns children into
Contractual obligations.

Let’s try this.
We work together.
I give up something. Maybe my precious sense of being right.
Maybe my privacy.
Or the lie that I’ll be happier if you’re sadder.
Or the illusion of control.
You give up that upgrade. The illusion of better.
The need to compare yourself.
In exchange, we get something new.
Something old.
A social contract.
Less stifling ozone
More life
Less stuff.

But not in a silly way. I’m talking maybe I don’t get to take a shower everyday, but everyone in Cape town has enough water to flush the toilet.

For those of us who thing in terms of systems and scale and whole cultures, it can be scant comfort, but there is truth to the knowledge that these safe relationships, imperfect and small as they are, are tiny pockets where the universe meets it’s potential and humanity flourishes .

Reflections on the Post, Part 2

Gate keepers are virtually nonexistent and twitter can distribute to the entire world the voice of a person who was completely anonymous and powerless yesterday.  Some are tangential, like the decrease of words per page in printed materials (often replaced by photos or graphics, but also

  • A new set of questions about who owns rights to information
  • a blurring of the lines betwween truth
  • The rising ubiquity of graphic design in all things
  • A strange generational gap around font choice and perception of some rather controversial ones (e.g. comic sans).


But another interesting result or correlative change has been the fact that in a sublimated-information world, we exist in such multicultural environments that the kind of virtue signalling and membership-indicative behaviors which previously indicated fairly reliable information about a person’s relationship to a group are in no way universal.

For example: tattoos. Once only appropriate for sailors, bikers, convicts, and others whose lives were disconnected from mainstream, white, middle class America, tattoos no longer reliably represent rebellion.  In fact, they do not reliably represent anything, having been embraced by nerd cultures, sports, hipsters, celebrities, business people, and many others.

How then, does a person learn to operate in a world where symbols may mean things entirely different than they may have a few years ago, or something which is opposite what you were taught?

This arose from a conversation with a friend who is currently trying to negotiate with two carpenters.  The first is a paperwork-heavy, detail oriented approach to planning and creating the estimate.  The second is a relationship focused, creative planner who forgets to return phone calls, but charges less and to be honest, does more beautiful work.

She and I got into quite an argument about whether the failure to return phone calls or produce incredibly detailed paper work reflected on his ability to be a superior contractor or not.  I know the second guy really well, and to be perfectly honest, would put my life in his hands any day of the week. PLUS, his work is exceptional.  But, yeah, he requires a little more energy because he will not step in and project manage your construction for you.

Seems unrelated doesn’t it? but in the middle of the conversation, I realized something:  There was a time when it was generally true that: the accuracy rate of details can identify how much a business person cares about me and my accounts.

To some extent, that’s still true.  Being on time, that matters.  Getting names spelled correctly? Every time.  But when information travels without any hindrance of  printing, editing, and reviews, typos get through, and they do not represent the same kind of failure to attend to something real.

What does this really mean?

Honestly, I think it means we need to relearn how to communicate.

Reflections on The Post, (1 of 3)

First, The Post is terrific, extremely relevant, and as well acted as you’d expect from the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Bradley Whitford.

One scene has been haunting me since I watched the film. There were several shots of the printing process: not merely the newspapers flying down a conveyor, but also the man sitting at a keyboard, typing, to place each physical letter block for the press into place into line.  All together, these would become the block of letters which make up a story, which is fit into the place on a page to be literally pressed into ink and onto paper.

Yeah, you say, so what? I have seen printing presses before.  But in this case, the words were actual objects.  The maguffin of the entire movie (to bend a trope a little) literally was two filing boxes full of thousands of papers of documents.  That information would not be shared or known if those physical objects had remained where they belonged.

We do not live in that reality anymore.  Google was founded on September 4, 1998. Twenty years later, the idea that information can be contained to a physical transmission feels like historic science fiction.

This transition, in which information not simply moves faster than the human body but also is replicated a million times without significant energy or time per copy, will be as radical as that of the printing press.  I am sure that historian have a name of this sublimation of information, but I prefer sublimation.

For non-nerds out there, sublimation is the term used when a solid evaporates directly into vapor/gas without becoming a liquid in between. The molecules detach from a rigid structure, and become tiny enough to float, fill a space, and seep through the tiniest of openings.

Doesn’t that sound like information in our modern day? We can share without the limitations of the structures we first used to learn the information. A thousand different internet based channels permit that information to fill every empty space, and information, once confined to methods which required significant time and energy per copy is no longer confined to a single structure or container.

Once upon a time, newspapers required time to print. Each copy required paper, ink, energy, and distribution.  Now, the editor says, “ready,” and that article can be in the hands of thousands (millions) of people within seconds, or minutes if your cell reception isn’t great.

What was it really like to live in a world where answers were not at your finger tips? How does one’s understanding of multicultural living shift when it was truly possible to live without experiencing other people or cultures, not even in television?

No conclusions here, just a question to contemplate.  What implications and results do you see from this true revolution of information changes?