About Leadership and Leading


Nonprofit leadership is a bizarre thing.  I’ve been through some interesting challenges.

Once, a few years ago, I had a work situation go all sixes and sevens.  Belly up.  Fucking ridiculous.  I had honestly been despairing and half-heartedly looking for work for almost nine months at that point, but not with any real ambition or plans.    I had begun to look at graduate schools options (again!), and I knew I wasn’t going to last until my initial goal date.

See, things were bizarre.  There were a number of meetings in which I found myself thinking this organization really just exists to reduce enough harm that no fire alarms will be signaled. And that our parent company did not want us to be effective.   One project that I completed included one word which had almost twenty years ago been a buzzword to mean “radical progressive trouble maker.” My boss delayed the publication of that work for almost three months dithering about whether it was too scary to publish, even though the purpose of the project was at the center of our mission, AND experts in the field had reviewed and given high accolades and unconditional agreement of the sentence and use of said term.

Then, my boss asked me my option about strategy one day, and I offered it.  Not tactfully, because I struggle with that, but honestly and not harshly.

A week later in my annual review, I was criticized for offering opinions on strategic planning.  I realized the next day that I was being punished for having seen what she had refused to see previously and being right.  She wanted to be the idea generator.  Oops.

After I gave notice, I made a really stupid decision.  I went to the boss’s office and asked her if we could talk. Part of the reason I was leaving was I truly believed she wants the best for our parent company, and I had some observations to share.   Honestly, after I’d been fussed at for being right strategically, what made me think that conversation could happen?

So, I sat down and talk with her.  And I cried, because that’s what I do when I’m angry or sad or tired. I cry.   And then there was a fire drill, which ended our meeting.  And my boss went to HR and claimed I’d yelled, screamed and threatened her.  She maintained that lie until the day I left.

Gaslighting – she would look at my face and try and tell me that I’d threatened her. Gaslighting – telling me that my concerns were all based on my own mental health.  Gaslighting – pretending that my annual evaluations for the last two years had been anything but “exceeds expectations” because she came to realize I saw her moments of inability or deceit.

That was when I stopped caring.  I started showing up and pretending to care.  I got a lawyer who ensured I would not lose anything when I quit.

And then I moved jobs, because I was young, and it was easy to find other work (pre-crash… things were different).

And my next boss right after that?  A micromanaging, yelling, terrified bundle of anxieties who could not reign in spending or sign off on a thank you letter.   A guy who thought his personal layout style was some kind of standard, and who once looked me in the face and said that my experience with a board of directors never happened.

Somewhere along the way, even as I  kept telling myself that people treating me badly  does NOT mean I “asked for it,” deserve it, OR could prevent it by being a better person,  I began to lose confidence in my abilities.  Lost confidence in my abilities to function as a human being, in normal relationships.   Internalized the conviction that I was like a jellyfish – never hostile or meaning to hurt anyone but with cells that AUTOMATICALLY shoot out poison if brushed against.   

Because why else would I have repeated struggles with bosses?  (I’d struggled with previous bosses, but never this bad).  CLEARLY it was me.  CLEARLY I was the pattern here, the commonality, the factor that could be changed.

I don’t have a happy resolution to this story.  I’m still working through my feelings.  BUT I have some skills and tools that are helping me.   That’s actually why I wrote this post: to put down in writing what might be helpful for someone else.

(1) Someone else’s bad behavior is NEVER your fault.

Gas-lighting is always the choice of the person telling lies.  Never justified and never acceptable.  Responding to someone else’s pain with gas-lighting is a second level of evil that pounces upon a vulnerability simply because it’s available.  As the person being mistreated, it’s not actually possible to “nice” a bully into reforming.  If you are bullying someone else, it’s not their fault that you have bad reactions.

If you’re over a certain age, it’s your responsibility to learn when your feelings are overwhelming and find healthy, nonviolence, nondestructive ways to feel them, not let them fester or ignore them.

If someone is treating you badly, you didn’t ask for it, cause it or deserve it.  I don’t care WHAT you did – they are choosing to respond badly.  You did not make them do it.

(2) Don’t blame your team for your failure to lead.

Micro-managers who cannot complete their own tasks are not bad at their jobs because their subordinates fail to instill confidence.  If you’re the leader, than LEAD.  Stop waiting for your employees to magically understand what you want or become stronger.  If they aren’t finishing the task, ask yourself (or your team!) what other tools they need and PROVIDE THEM.    IF it happens repeatedly, and they show no interest in improving – let them go.   and DO NOT punish the competent because you’ve known a few lazy slobs.  Learn to distinguish between the two.  And if you can’t – stop being a manager and become a doer, a developer, or self employed.  Discernment, project management, articulation of vision, goals, expectations and clear measures of success, are all basic leadership skills.

If you don’t know how – get help.  Take a course. Find a coach. Read a book. Ask someone.

(3) Patterns are not always patterns.

Randomness happens.  Look out, prepare, be smart.  But sometimes shit happens.  Sometimes you think you’ve found a healthy work environment and you end up with a painful, mean colleague.  Sometimes you win the lottery: not often.   Sometimes,  two abusive bosses in a row does not mean that you were a terrible employee, sometimes it’s means life is hard, and you were unlucky.

After that bad year, it would be easy to diagnose myself as broken, or the entire nonprofit industry as a waste of time and full of abusive, incompetent, power hungry bullies.  But that isn’t true.  People go into social work and nonprofits because they want to make the world better.  People are broken, mean, sinful or stupid, but they are usually doing their best.  And it’s trite but true – you don’t know what pain or burden they are carrying.

My last boss?  The mean micro-manager?  He was in pain all the time from gall bladder stones.  And he was so worried about the organization we worked for that he scheduled a laparoscopic surgery even though he was a very high risk patient who should have planned to get traditional surgery with the six weeks of recuperation that entails.  He literally lost his life because he wasn’t willing to go an extra mile to get the best care for himself. He died from surgical complications because he treated himself with the same pushy, mean, harsh demands that he made of us.    It’s impossible not to have compassion for that kind of misery.  May he rest in peace, really.

(4) Sometimes, Patterns are Real.

There IS a leadership crisis right now.  Maybe it’s the generational conflicts been boomers and millennials.  Maybe it’s the pressure of a slowing economy and the natural tightening of nonprofit budgets as a result.  Maybe it’s a failure of npos, boards, funders, and grantors to prioritize or invest in leadership development, but there is a crisis.

Too many micromanagers.

Too many bosses with zero training.

Too many who don’t know much about casting a vision, delineating goals, or characterizing and describing expectations.

Too many executive directors who walk around panicking that they are going to get fired for a few wrong decisions.

Too few mentors.

Too many organizations running on shoe strings so small that they can not afford continuing education or coaching or even workshops and webinars.

Too many expensive webinars and conferences not suited for shoe string budgets (yes –  FUNDERS – free workshops make a difference. If you do not invest in those who research and develop training courses, there will be none available).

BUT we can make a difference.  I’ve had several great conversations recently, with leaders at the Georgia Center for NonProfits, an organization entirely dedicated to strengthing NPO leadership, and other consultants and coaches who spend sixty hours a week each strengthening leaders.  I’ve seen grant applications that offer more than 5% or 10% budget for “overhead”.  I’ve seen challenges to the “overhead vs. services” model of judging a nonprofit budget.

The pattern? We need to do more.  Find those exciting voices.  Listen. Add your voice.

What’s your prescription for better leaders?

Nihilism in 2018


So, it seems that 2018 has become the year in which the dumpsters fires are so common that culture as a whole simply looks down and scampers past, hoping not to get caught in the flames and smoke.

A part of me would like to argue that 2016 in America was the end of our (white) liberal fantasy of moving toward a multicultural, anti-racist, post-sexism, kumbaya cultural progress.  “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” we reminded ourselves, forgetting the King was shot down by those who believe the moral arc of the universe demands purity, and a rigid hierarchy of haves and slaves.  But that fantasy was already dead. This simply put another nail in the coffin.

Regardless, for many 2016 stripped away the veneer of false hope. So, 2017 was the year of the protest. Women’s march. March for Science. Register to vote. Get on your feet. The Oscar’s were full of “shame on you” speeches …

But 2018?

Parkland shooting.

Soros, Clinton, Obama – all recieved pipebomb mail in October.

The despair is beginning to sink in, become enmeshed with our daily lives.

We have become accustomed to an “economic recovery” in which stocks rebound and “unemployment rates” are tiny, but labor force participation has fallen and poverty rates are NOT falling.

Despair and nihilism.  That seems to be the current theme of 2018.

But in the last few weeks, I’ve seen something; some hope.  IT’s all summed up in one word:


I don’t have enough readers for it to matter, but I’m going to say it anyway, because JUST ONE MATTERS:



What is Value?

It’s time.  We need to have this conversation. I’m not the first, and I need to  research the scholars and activists already engaged.

What determines the value of a thing, an hour, a person?

I have become slightly obsessed with concern over the inequity of how we value labor, and humans in our modern world.  I think this has arisen in part from my work as a nonprofit fundraiser.   In the most blatant fashion, fundraisers are trained to spend more time, energy and strategic thinking on those donors who have capacity to give the most dollars.  It’s truly and utterly that simple.

This does not work for me.  I love, and want to focus on leadership development.  I am far more passionate about the conversations with a board member who has basically zero capacity for individual giving, but who wants to truly become a powerful advocate, and who shows up every single time our doors are open.  I’d rather spend hours coaching the enthusiastic board member with great concern for quality, than fifteen minutes pretending to care about the perfection (or not) of the aesthetic value of the table settings at the fundraiser, or why having an awkward speaker who happened to be a former client and a great person was “embarrassing.”


Because it’s never embarrassing when a person whose life is focused on raising her daughter, remaining healthy why living with HIV, and being a passionate advocate for women of color living with HIV does not have the polish of a Hollywood speaker.  These are valuable human beings.

So, what is value? Why do we permit this system to stand which gives some people too much, and others far too little?

What makes strategic thinking inherently more useful than cleaning toilets?

Why do we assume/believe that in order to wield power or responsibility, a person should be compensated better?  The truth is, that we can not justify that position if we question it.  For, the reality of the situation is we are paying people based on who is powerful – the person who demands the most, and is willing to do the worst things  to get it, wins the most booty.

For this reason I pretty much hate negotiating.  It is fundamentally weird and basically dehumanizing.  Rather than setting prices based on costs, we set them based on what we can demand for our items.

It’s all a false system of “value” based on who is stronger, louder, worse.


CAN WE PLEASE Start deconstruction of this system?   Of dehumanizing others by a system of power and bullying? of treating some as great and others as terrible, based not on their compassion or empathy or artistic capability, but their connection to and wielding of power?

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.