How to Fail Well: for Nonprofits

Failure is one of the most universally feared experiences human beings share. Certainly, a major reason for this is that, culturally, we are all trained from the time we are small children that there is a right way and wrong way to do just about everything. We go to school to learn, and are taught facts and figures. Then, we’re rewarded for regurgitating them to the teacher’s satisfaction. If we get something wrong, we miss out on the rewards - or, very often, experience negative repercussions. Of course we’re fearful of failure. It’s engineered into from the time we’re very young.

What else could we possibly feel about failure - even when we hear about “fail fast and fail often” from adventurous entrepreneurs - we still have a visceral reaction to the idea of failing at anything.

In fact, the fear of failure makes it into quite a few top ten lists of common fears - in one such list, it’s number 7, nestled between Death (at number 6) and Rejection (at number 8).

You might think, if you’re feeling especially evolved right now, that this fear doesn’t affect you. If that’s the case, check out this list of questions from Tellman Knudson, CHT at PsychCentral:

  • “Do you ever put off doing something because you’re ‘not sure how it will turn out?’”

  • “Do you avoid situations where you will have to try something new in front of people?”

  • “Have you ever put off doing something you know will improve your life, even though you have ‘no good reason’ not to do it?”

Hmmmm. I don’t know about you, but I am a notorious procrastinator - mostly when it’s something I haven’t done before, feels like it has high stakes, or will potentially lead to embarrassment or feeling judged by my peers.


So, what to do?

Fingerpaint Instead of Starting with the Masterpiece

Most of us feel we need to do things perfectly the first time. I suppose this is true if we’re talking about something like, say, skydiving, where a mistake could be a literal life or death situation. But let’s be real, almost everything else (and most definitely almost everything you try in your organization) is not life or death at all. With most things, you have a little wiggle room.

When I teach workshops, I want people to get a real, meaningful result. That’s one reason I ask people to commit to their thoughts with pen and paper as we move through a given process to reach a specific result. ALMOST EVERY TIME I ask people to do this, I have to work through some very serious deer in the headlight moments. They look at me, pleading.

“Sarai! I haven’t had time to think about this for weeks and weeks on end! How am I supposed to work on this now?!” To which I remind them about Parkinson’s Law - that work expands to fit the time allotted. It also contracts to fit the time allotted when the time is short. Making the first mark on a blank sheet of paper can make us freeze or fill us with anxiety. That’s fear, darling. But it doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks.

That brings me to that first principle - approach your creation as a fingerpainting, not a masterpiece. You don’t have to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on your first try. All you need to do is slap some color on a canvas, and you are in business. That is, you can build what’s called a Minimum Viable Product (I call it Minimum Viable Program when I’m talking to Nonprofits) to get something out into the world. A Minimum Viable Program (MVP) is a simple model - simpler than a traditional pilot project, even - that launches a problem-solving service or program into the world.

(FYI - the Mission Canvas is a great way to put your MVP together and get it out into the world, so grab it here).

Here’s the thing - starting is better than not starting at all. Try something and see if it works.

If you’re stuck and struggling to get going, here’s a trick I use to get myself to move forward on something I’m procrastinating: set a timer. That’s simple, right? Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and promise yourself that you’ll spend at least that many minutes on the project, then DO IT. When the timer goes off, check in with yourself. Do you have momentum? Can you keep working on it with less resistance now? Usually, the answer will be yes to both things, and then, you can shout “hoorah!” and keep going.

If you struggle still, set another timer interval and go for it. Think of it like HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) for your productivity - when you put time brackets on your work, you can get more done in less time because you are actually doing the thing instead of worrying about the thing, or avoiding the thing, or trying to look for the thing on Facebook, somehow, oh wait - still avoiding…

Measure Your Progress

Before you launch an MVP, you have to acknowledge that what you’re doing is building a Change Hypothesis. You essentially say, “we think this problem can be solved with this activity, and it will result in this outcome (individual level change).” Your Change Hypothesis must include metrics that allow you to measure whether the change you believe will occur has in fact occurred.

Measurement isn’t always our strong points in the sector. However, you will never learn to fail well if you aren’t able to define and measure metrics that support the outcomes you seek. This is true on multiple levels. First, you need to define metrics that support the individual/personal outcomes from the program itself. Second, you must define metrics that will indicate whether your program is working for the organization overall. Does it cost more to run than you thought? Are people signing up at the rate you imagined? What is really happening underneath the gloss and glow of a new thing?

Learn from Your Results

Once you have build your MVP, launched it, and gathered data based on your selected metrics, you take a moment to assess your results. What has worked? What has not worked? What went as expected? What was surprising? If something isn’t working, what now? What if it is working? What does that mean?

When you have your data results in hand, you get to decide whether to persevere or pivot. You can choose to keep moving forward, expand the MVP, seek more funding, or whatever makes sense - only if your measurements indicate that this is a reasonable way forward.

On the other hand, if you’re not getting the results you want or need, you will get to pivot. A pivot can mean you completely stop the MVP before it costs more ore does more damage. It could mean you change one or more aspects of the MVP, launch again, test again, decide again.

Failing Well is largely about your mindset - and resilience

Failure is not only an option, it is an essential ingredient to making a difference in an ever-changing world. We are not able to innovate or invent or impact anything without taking a chance. How we cultivate safe spaces to fail well is up to us - and to our partners - including funders.

If you want more help failing well…

Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I are holding a free workshop on October 24th, 2018. You can sign up here, and learn more about how to Think Like an Entrepreneur for Your Nonprofit.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! (This is just my favorite infomercial phrase, so forgive me for using so transparently)…she and I are doing this webinar as the first offering in what we believe will be a huge benefit to organizations that want to think and act more entrepreneurially so they can build long-term, strategic funding streams to create viability and sustainability long into the future.

We’re launching a set of services - Entrepreneurial Nonprofit. It kicks off with this webinar, and follows shortly thereafter with a six-week program to help you and your organization put the entrepreneurship awesomeness into action.

Join us!

Sarai Johnson is the founder of Lean Nonprofit and one half of the dynamic duo behind Entrepreneurial Nonprofit. She is a Book Yourself Solid® Certified Coach and GrowthWheel® Certified Business Advisor. She has worked with nonprofits for two decades, and works to improve the nonprofit sector.

Why Nonprofits MUST be Entrepreneurial

January, 2008. I got a job at a nonprofit that had a seemingly airtight business model. They sold homes to low-income first-time homebuyers at below market rates. They mostly got grants to build the homes, provided homeownership education and counseling, and lived on the proceeds of home sales.

Then again, it was 2008. If you were a cognizant human at the time, you might remember a little something we affectionately called “The Great Recession.” The housing market crashed.

And that meant we were up a creek if we didn’t think fast.

Long story short, we did (think fast). And we grew. (This is one of the biggest yada-yadas ever, by the way).

That is to say, we thought like entrepreneurs, figured out how to solve problems, and created business models to support the activities we implemented.

We did our best, and we managed to save something that was important. I learned a lot about what entrepreneurship looked like in action. I also some things we could have done better. It was this experience that first made me incredibly aware that nonprofits need to be entrepreneurial if they hope to survive and flourish in an uncertain funding environment.

What Is an Entrepreneurial Nonprofit?

Entrepreneurial nonprofits look for problems their stakeholders could use help solving, then look for opportunities to solve those problems with new and innovative programs or services.

They know we operate in “environments of extreme uncertainty,” to borrow Eric Reis’ definition of The Lean Startup, and they move quickly and decisively in response to, and in anticipation of challenges that arise.

Entrepreneurial nonprofits understand that relying on a single funder or even a single prominent funding source (be it grants, a big donor, or even earned revenue alone) will thwart your viability, and that diversifying funding sources and strategies is essential.

Entrepreneurial nonprofits aren’t afraid to take appropriate risks.

They understand how to fail fast and fail well.

They care about measuring results so they can make better decisions and know where to wisely invest the funds with which they are entrusted.

In short, entrepreneurial approaches to doing nonprofit work ensure the mission isn’t dropped in the midst of a particularly tight month because your funding mix is diverse and well-planned, that the programs actually work (and you have measurable data to show for it), and that the beneficiaries are included in the development of interventions.

Nonprofit Entrepreneurship is within Reach

The good news is, any nonprofit can learn how to be more entrepreneurial. It starts with deciding to become more nimble and action-oriented, showing you’re not afraid to question what you’ve “always done” before, and moving toward taking reasonable risks and failing quickly and well. You can learn to celebrate productive failure instead of punishing it. You can learn to take the time to test and evaluate your ideas on a tiny scale instead of dumping tons of resources into full-fledged programs that you hold your breath a pray will work (but you can’t bring yourself to really look at it it because you’re afraid your work will not be supported by the evidence).

If you’re interested in learning more about some methods to integrate so you can learn how to think like an entrepreneur, come to a free webinar where you can hear all about how this works with me and Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising. Rock and Roll! Join us!

When to Say Yes

A few weeks ago, I was a guest speaker in a nonprofit consultancy class at the University of Oregon. When I speak at such events, I delight in sharing the joys and pitfalls of consulting for nonprofits, how to do it well, and why on earth one might consider building a career based on serving organizations that all too often equate the term "nonprofit" with "NO MONEY." 

One of the points I make in that particular presentation is that one should never take a consulting job that pays less than you are comfortable receiving for your work. Your work is valuable. You deserve to be compensated for it. This goes for career nonprofit people too, by the way. Just because you're working to change the world for the better doesn't mean you deserve to get paid a fraction of your private sector counterpart. If your organization can't afford it, you have a few choices:

1) Put up with low pay and struggle along, building bitterness and frustration into your daily routine and setting yourself up for burnout;

2) Find ways to raise more money to reinvest into your VERY IMPORTANT mission. If your mission wasn't VERY IMPORTANT, you wouldn't be working so hard on it, would you? And if it is so VERY IMPORTANT, other people will want to support it, won't they? So ask. 

I've slightly digressed because the issue of nonprofit pay gets me all riled up, but let's return to the matter at hand. I'm in front of a class full of graduate students, saying, "Don't take consulting jobs that don't pay you what you think the work you provide is worth." 

A student raised his hand and asked, somewhat incredulously, "But, what if they can't pay? Can't I do a job for less for them?" 

My answer? 

"You should do what you want to do."

And that isn't cheeky. That is the honest truth. Sometimes, we force ourselves to do things we don't want to do. We think it's the right thing, or it's helping someone, or it's our obligation, or we just aren't good at saying no. 

But the reality is, we don't do anybody favors when we ever-so-slightly resentfully say yes to things when we are not wholehearted about it. Do I take on contracts that pay less than my list price sometimes? Of course I do. But I do it on my terms and only when I truly want to do it. And when I do it, I make sure the people receiving the benefit of my reduced price understand the value of what I'm giving to them - usually in an invoice that shows a discount. 

I learned this the hard way. We've all discounted ourselves - literally or figuratively - a time or two. When we do that with a whole heart - with a resounding "YES" - we don't mind. We get the result. We build the relationship. We move forward. When we do it with a sense of obligation, desperation (if I don't do X, I won't get Y; or, for consultants, "I REALLY NEED THE JOB!"), we often fail to get the result we wanted. Our follow-through is wanting. The relationship is strained. Why? Because, we are witholding some level of our energy and commitment from the project. 

How do you know you're wholehearted? 

You feel excited. You feel light when you think about it. You feel like you would do it for free or less if you still got to do the work. You feel committed. You feel honored and honoring of others. 

On the flip side, you dread it. You resent it. You feel heavy and fold inward when you think of it. You complain about it to your friends. You feel scandalized. You feel like someone is taking advantage of you. 

Be wholehearted. Say YES when you want to, and say NO when you don't want to say YES with all your heart. That will simplify and strengthen your whole life.


Fear and Loathing in Nonprofits

As an avid nonprofit nerd, friend, and occasional obnoxiously bossy big sister, I recently joined a massive Facebook group for nonprofit people. It’s a goldmine of support, love and answers to questions. It’s also a bit of a landmine for despair, frustration, ire and rampant slightly-veiled burnout. So, a mixed bag, really.

One thing that has struck me over and over again as I browse the posts is that there is so, so, so much FEAR.

It is an intense, palpable sense of fear. Fear of an Executive Director secretly lurking in the group just for the sake of identifying and destroying errant staff members. Fear of losing funders. Fear of losing jobs. Fear of saying what they know needs to be said in their organizations because they’ll be fired – or worse. Fear of leaving. Fear of winning. Fear of…everything.

Maybe it’s my nonprofit PTSD that makes this particular aspect of the posts generated in this group so apparently riddled with fear. Maybe it’s that Facebook knows what I’m looking for better than I do, and they only show me the posts where people are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But maybe it’s this: way too many nonprofit organizations run fear-based cultures. I’m gonna go ahead and just go with the latter.

Here’s why I’m putting my bets on that last thing, and it’s not just because I’m a jerk and I hate nonprofits or something (nay! I love them, duh! That’s why I do this!!). It’s not me, it’s [social] science. Sociologist Ron Westrum studies (among other things) accidents and human error in the fields of healthcare and aviation – and his work applies far beyond these industries. Through his research, he identified three categories of on a “continuum of safety cultures:” pathological, bureaucratic, and generative organizations. (Check out one of his papers on organizational culture here, if you’re nerdy enough to check out the source).

Before I go into more detail on this, let me note that nonprofits actually have more in common with safety cultures like healthcare and aviation than you might think at first glance. Nonprofits often deal in high-stakes work – domestic violence, child abuse, homelessness, and other critical, safety-based, trauma-informed work. We also have myriad regulations with which to comply. We are bound by rules, laws, funder guidelines and requirements (anybody working with Federal grants??? You get me, right?). So, while we may not be dealing with hurtling people through the skies, or surgically removing or repairing parts of human bodies (though more than a few healthcare nonprofits exist, of course), we are dealing, very frequently, with life and death.

I would assert that nonprofits, just like safety culture organizations, exist in the categories Westrum posits. Pathological organizations are engrossed with “personal power, needs and glory;” bureaucratic organizations are preoccupied with “rules, positions and departmental turf;” and generative organizations focus on the mission, and all activities and behaviors intentionally support the achievement of this mission. In generative cultures, the mission supersedes personal power, needs, glory, rules, positions and departments. The mission is the reason for everything.

In a perfect world, we would all be working in generative cultures – especially in nonprofits. After all, we’re all capable of rattling off the ubiquitous mission statement (especially if we ever have to write grants)…But generative culture is usually not what we get. We end up, all too often, mired in the creepy pathological cultures that are based on personal needs and preservation of power at the expense of others.

Let me be clear on this, though – I don’t think that most nonprofit people are in it for the personal glory. Obviously, nonprofit work tends to require personal sacrifice and, even when we don’t do it perfectly, working toward a bigger cause than any one of us can represent on our own. But something about nonprofit structure lends itself to pathological cultures. In Westrum’s work, he focuses on two critical things that are pertinent to our discussion here: flow of information and alignment. Flow of information, in my opinion, is symptomatic of a deeper cultural foundation. Alignment is as well, but I think is a bit more causative. In generative cultures, people align with the mission – everybody buys in – everybody puts their allegiance and effort toward the mission at all costs. This is, in some ways, fearless. Your role, your position, your needs, your power, your departmental boundaries – all of this is less important than accomplishing the mission. In real life, is this something you feel comfortable with? Think about it: right now, today, do you feel you could let go of your title and status and whatever shreds of power you might hold in the culture in which you exist? In all honesty?

In pathological cultures, people align with a personality or clique. In nonprofits, most often, this is the Executive Director, or, in some cases, it could be a powerful board member or a compelling staffer, usually in a leadership role. Sometimes, factions exist, wherein people create alliances with each other based on their personal needs and desire for power (and safety), but where they may clash with other cliques within the organization. Information in these cultures is strategically administered to serve purposes other than purely meeting the mission. It is doled out when it is deemed necessary by those who hold power. It is hoarded. It is pieced together. Conjecture rules. Gossip and collusion are rampant. When something goes wrong, a witch hunt is launched to find a scapegoat – blame is more important than accountability.

This kind of pathological alignment happens for several reasons, the most interesting (to me) of which is our tendency to over-identify with our work. This is the biggest risk of nonprofit work! If you devote your life to a cause - something so big and important and world-changing - you are going to get some of your identity from it, most likely. However! This is a point of caution. When we get too wrapped up in our work and the success of that work, we get grabby and freaked out. We start to do things we wouldn't normally do. We start to work really hard to preserve our sense of power and self-worth. We may damage other people in the process. We will, in all likelihood, create or contribute to a pathological culture.

In pathological cultures, fear and punishment rule. In pathological cultures, the truth is obfuscated and nobody fully understands what is going on, and may feel like they are crazy or out of control. In pathological cultures, the mission suffers. Founders’ syndrome prevails. Turnover is likely astronomical. It’s a bad deal, you guys. I have a million stories about this kind of culture, and I’m sure one day I will tell them all…for now, suffice to say, a lot of us know what this is like. Way too many of us know what this is like. According to my new friends in the Facebook group, this is an everyday reality for tons of people.

Interestingly, an organization I worked for straddled the line between pathological and bureaucratic. I think we were moving along the continuum. A natural response to deal with a pathological culture is to attempt to impose some order on it, while also preserving personal power and boundaries. We all have a very human need to own our own domain. We all want to contribute something. It is easier for us to put rules and regulations around a pathological culture, once we realize it is ruining everyone and everything, than it is for us to jump to a generative culture, where we let go of our own turf and power, and instead focus all of our efforts on the mission.

In bureaucratic cultures, information flows along clearly prescripted lines, and alignment is primarily to one’s department. In cases like this, department heads often make decisions based on protecting their turf or their staff at the expense of the whole organization and its mission. There may be excessive lines of approval (if it’s egregious, this may be, yet again, a sign of a pathological culture)…for instance, my former organization sent out a set of various email newsletters. It seemed there was always another we wanted to add to the stack for some additional audience or purpose. Yet, when it was time to send them, we had to route them for approval and corrections from the communications person, to the department manager, to me, to the Executive Director, and then back again. It could take days…weeks…sometimes, MONTHS. This is not a joke. Then, we would face the wrath of missing deadlines (ahem, pathological again), because of the impossible process.

Whew! No wonder we’re so fearful! Holy mother of mothers.

So…here’s the deal. Fear is imposed when you are knocked off balance every day because you exist in a pathological culture. You may be dealing with some seriously messed up systems, alignments, and bizarre internal politics that fly under the radar because they do not match our idea of what a nonprofit is or should be. You might talk all day and night about the mission. You might have rallies and picket lines that insist that your mission is super much the most important thing ever in the world. But if you go to work and suffer at the hands of a pathological culture every day, you will simply be, by turns, inspired and then confused and then horrified and then fearful and then depressed and then, you’ll call it burnout.

It can be healed, but culture takes a concerted, honest effort from leadership – starting with the board – to create and handle. Without intentional and purposeful work, culture becomes whatever it will be – for better or worse – and it is dependent on the personalities at hand when it starts. This is a dangerous game. And yet, nonprofits don’t typically see it fit to invest in culture. It’s seemingly complicated and it feels like a luxury. BUT IT IS NOT A LUXURY. It is necessity. Without it, you will waste time, energy, effort, people and donor dollars frittering away your organization’s life on handling a dysfunctional culture. It’s a disease, and it must be addressed. For some hints about how to start, check out this blog about why everybody may be fleeing your nonprofit, and how you can change your culture…and in the meantime, just know you’re not alone, and you’re not crazy, and you don’t have to live in fear.

People doing the work of changing the world – and this might sound crazy, but bear with me – should not live in fear of their own bosses. Of their boards. Of their funders. People doing the work of changing the world should be supported in their fearlessness to uphold their missions and address the injustices of abuse, poverty, violence and the degradation of environments, among many other worthy causes. People doing the work of changing the world are heroes. Let’s start living like we are – humble heroes, stronger than we think we are, bigger together.

Sarai Johnson is an author, speaker, host of the No Nonsense Nonprofit podcast, and purveyor of nonprofit wisdom. She is the founder and principal consultant of Lean Nonprofit, which helps nonprofits build better businesses to get real mission results and inspires passionate people to build world-changing careers.


When You Have to Stop

You’re a busy person, right? There’s always something to do, someone who needs something from you, some pressure, some deadline, some work to be done. Sometimes it feels like you’re spinning plates - and that if you stop, everything will come crashing down and you will probably die. That’s not even an overstatement. I know when I was at my busiest, my most workaholic, my most frantic to perform - I literally thought I would die if I stopped - or even slowed down.

But sometimes, life forces a hard stop.

It won’t negotiate. It might be delayed, sometimes. But it won’t drop it until you just give in and stop. Sometimes, this is in the form of an illness. Sometimes, it’s a family crisis. Whatever the case - life will insist on grabbing all of your attention, at least for a while.

About two weeks ago, I had my tonsils out. Getting your tonsils out is funny when you’re an adult. It’s clearly a surgery meant for smaller, more resilient people. You know, like, kids. Kids get their tonsils out and it’s a sore throat, eased by feasting upon popsicles and ice cream while you cuddle on the couch and watch Bugs Bunny. When you’re an adult, every single person who finds out you’re undergoing the procedure tells you it will be the worst thing you ever experience and that you will want to cease to exist. “The worst sore throat you’ve ever had” and a list of complications that would daunt even the most intrepid Foo Fighters fan (deep 90’s reference! See: Learn to Fly, with a nod to my children, ages 3 and 5, who are obsessed with this song, and who recently named a new stuffed animal “Dave Grohl”) don’t begin to describe the experience of being knocked out and muted for several weeks. It was the most passionate pre-commiseration conversation I’ve had with people since I was pregnant and everyone thought my baby bump was an invitation to share their most traumatic birth stories.

Thing was, they were all correct. I have a thing where if I have to have some kind of medical treatment and there is a specific recovery time estimate, I assume I need about half the time. This assumption has never been true, but apparently, I am such an audacious optimist, I continue to believe it, even when proven wrong constantly. This time, I was maybe three days in, having slept for all but maybe 3 or 4 hours out of them, when I realized it would definitely take the whole time. And more.

(Um. In case you’re getting worried, I will stop talking about my tonsils very soon).

Now. Before this surgery happened, I spent a very frenetic week getting stuff done. I have been going through a shift in my business, growing, moving focus, bringing on people to work with me, and developing a huge amount of new content. I have imposed deadlines upon myself that would make a dehydrated stoic weep crocodile tears. I have decided that barring hell or high water, this empire will be built and we shall prevail! Hear, hear! Lean Nonprofit, ARISE!

What I didn’t account for, was that hell and high water combined are no match for a tonsillectomy.

The Friday before I had the procedure, I realized my website wasn’t working. I investigated, and it turned out all these connections between my domain provider and my website host were mis-pointed, and I had to fix them. I did that on Monday. In the meantime, because I am not a technology superstar and I don’t want to have to be one, I broke my email. I didn’t know that, of course, until one of my compatriots texted me moments after my surgery to tell me she was getting email bounces.

And I was flat on my back, dizzy, sick, incapable of speaking - not that I could formulate a coherent thought anyway - email was broken. After I just did a ton of outreach and lead generation and putting out offers and sending quotes...and all of that was just bouncing away. If anybody was responding, they got a “permanent error…” and I was just in bed, drooling more than usual.

It was at this point, that I finally had to stop. I had to surrender to the fact that time would pass before my email would be fixed. I had to let this be what it was and allow myself to flow with it. Will it destroy my fragile little empire? Will it bring me crashing to my knees, broke, and bereft? Maybe. This remains to be seen. Now that I can talk and sit up long enough to do something, I have rectified the problem. But still, it was a good solid week lost, and it was scary.

When something is scary and horrible and you desperately want to control it, and you physically cannot, it is insane. It feels like you are helpless and in mortal danger and you might as well just fade away because there is no coming back from this. That is, until you let go of your need to control and remember all the times you have been supported. All the times you have had everything you need. All the times you’ve thought you were done for and yet somehow, you survived. All the times something happened that ended one thing, leaving room and space for something new to begin.

When you have to stop, all you can do is remember these times, and remember that you are still supported, and still have what you need, and you still have value, and you still matter. All the times you have come back from the dead and have seen another day, climbed another mountain, seized another victory - you focus on that.

When you have to stop, be still, let the stillness wash over you, and be grateful, as much as you can, for the time to heal. Be well, get stronger, find your center and your heart. Stay grounded, and go deep inside your heart to connect with who you really are.

When I could finally talk again, I vented to my wonderful boyfriend, who is the kindest person I know, about all of my fears and lingering doubts, and foundational uncertainty that I can pull this (or anything else) off. He was uncharacteristically impatient. He was like, “Seriously. Come on! This isn’t where you find your worth. This isn’t what makes you valuable. And even if it was, you figure it out. You always figure it out. And you will be OK - you are OK.” And then I felt like he was reading my blogs and I was being a hypocrite.

And that’s true (not the boyfriend reading the blogs thing, but that I would figure this out and be OK). It’s more true than the fear and doubt that make me want to pull back on everything and say, NEVERMIND!! It’s too scary and too risky and maybe nobody wants what I’m selling anyway! If you’re a nonprofit person, you would think maybe you don’t make a difference after all and your solutions aren’t good enough and nobody will fund you anyway...We all give up in small, sneaky ways sometimes. And it isn’t helpful. If we can be bold and strong, if we can surrender to the stops along the way that help us recalibrate, reconnect and reconfigure, we can tap into a source of love and energy and inspiration that will take us to the next level in our lives and work.

And if the stop does happen to be permanent, which it sometimes is, we can turn the love, energy and inspiration to other things. And that is OK too.

So, friends, when you have to stop, take a breather. Let it be for your good. Let it be more than a source of frustration and helpless, thrashing anger. Be with yourself, and then, figure it out. You can. You will.

How Your Vulnerability Makes Everybody Safer

Are you lucky enough to have a friend (or a few) in your life who isn’t afraid to share anything with anybody? I mean, not in an uncomfortable, super-awkward oversharing way, but in an authentic, open-hearted, empowering way?

I am.

And you know what happens when my dear friends share their honest struggles, talk about mental health issues like anxiety and depression, share about their marriages falling apart, losing their jobs, or getting sick? It makes them safer. It makes me safer. It makes everyone around all of us safer.


The truth is, when you peel away a layer of shame so you can talk honestly and boldly about something that you’ve previously hidden, you make it possible for other people to get more air.

Shame is like this: Imagine a thin layer of fabric. Every time something happens in your life - to you, or something you do, it doesn’t matter - shame wants to wrap us up in one more layer. We let it, because we think it will make us safe. This fabric creates a barrier to the world, and hides us a little bit. We think it protects us. We think it makes us OK. It’s cozy. It’s small.

Yet, after a while, there are so many layers of fabric wrapped around us, we get paralyzed by it. It’s too heavy to move. It’s suffocating. We start to buckle under its weight.

And the truth is, most everybody is just like you - all of us, wrapped up like little mummies, jerkily walking around, feeling our way through, barely able to move.

What happens, though, when you look at the layers and layers of fabric that cocoons you - and you realize it doesn’t make you safer? It doesn’t actually provide any real buffer between you and the world - if anything, it only invites more and more and more layers. You realize you have almost disappeared under the sheer weight of your load. What can you do?

Well. You can start by peeling away a layer. You can take one off and discard it. You do that by being honest - first with yourself - and then with others. You do it by reflecting compassion to yourself - as you offer to others. You do it by speaking and owning what is true about you. Are you lovable? Do you deserve to be cherished? Do you deserve to be cared for? Do you deserve respect? (Answer key: yes, yes, yes, and yes).

When you take off a layer of shame-fabric, you feel lighter (and you might also feel a little embarrassed at first - like when you finally realize you don’t have to wear a T-shirt over your bathing suit). You feel healthier. You are more radiant. And other people around you get the tacit permission to do the same. When you give yourself that permission, and other people get it for themselves too - inspired, sometimes, by you - the entire world is lightened. It’s as if your decision to take off a layer of fabric erased its existence from the planet forever. No longer does the shame fabric take up space here on earth. It’s gone. It gets erased. And the scales tip a little more toward freedom.

How can we be bold and share our truth more freely? How can we speak our experience with confidence and resiliency? And make no mistake, we do need that resilience to keep removing our layers - it isn’t easy - a lot of people want to keep us wrapped up tight - so tight, they can’t hear us. Even so, the most important thing is for you to keep shedding that shame. Keep peeling it off, gently at first, and then all the way, until, finally, you stand without encumbrance. All of us are better off for it. All of us are strengthened by it, if we allow it. All of us can be inspired by your courage. All of us are a little safer because your shame doesn’t weigh down the world anymore. And now, I can let go of mine too. And mine doesn’t weigh us down anymore, either. We stand together, clean and pure.

One day, if we keep it up, we can finally fly. See you in the sky.

Baked Goods and the Nonprofit World - A Loving Review of Vu Le, He Who Hath Balls

Hi loves! Sarai here - this is the first of what I hope to be MANY from our newest Lean Nonprofit Genius and all-around champ, Jerrica Becken. What’s that, Jerrica? You’re taking a hard pass on blogging forever instead of me? Dang it. Oh well - I’ll take what I can get, because this is pure gold. I think you, reader of my heart, will love it too. Enjoy!

Without further ado, I present to you, Jerrica:

Good morrow fellow nonprofit aficionados! You don’t know me, but I am one of the newest additions to Lean Nonprofit and am excited to be part of this rad organization. Pleased to meet you. My name is Jerrica and I have a funny feeling that we’re going to be friends.

Last week I had the great pleasure of accompanying Sarai to the 2016 Young Nonprofit Professionals Network National Conference in Portland #YNPN16 (phew), where she dropped some mad nonprofit knowledge and shared the up-and-coming awesomeness from Lean Nonprofit. The YNPN conference (it’s called Activate! Summit, we’re going to go with this since it rolls of the tongue a little easier) features nonprofit professionals from all over the country who have come to our neck of the woods to share their infinite wisdom on topics ranging from the “Dynamics of Oppression” and “Opening the Door to Equity” to “Building a Gratitude Strategy” and “Fail[ing] Forward”. But what I want to talk about today is the keynote speaker, who wholly and completely rocked my world. I might never be the same.

His name: Vu Le. His game: Executive Director of Rainer Valley Corps and writer behind He also has a thing about unicorns. His newest fan: me.  

Vu was the keynote speaker at Activate! and discussed a topic which affects us all…”What the Bleep is Social Good?” His speech addressed several myths that we face in the nonprofit sector including the overhead myth (which is a personal thorn in my side) and the sustainability myth, in addition to how we, as professionals in this sector, are expected to change the world and purvey “social good” all while running on full steam, trying the latest groveling techniques out on donors to get at the limited resources available for our cause, and accepting less than market value for our work.  

The thing I liked best about Vu was his incredible ability to take convoluted topics that are often next to impossible to explain to donors or stakeholders, and turn them into relatable and repeatable real-world analogies. The second best thing I liked about him was his slide presentation, which was heavy on pictures of cute baby animals. But I digress. During this metaphor madness sprinkled with photos of tiny hedgehogs and bunnies, Vu broke down the two myths about the nonprofit sector that often stump us as we try to gain support for anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The Overhead Myth…dun dun duuuuuuh! I imagine you’re pretty familiar with this one as websites like Guidestar and Charity Navigator have been around foreva, and the criticism of overhead as an indicator of organizational success isn't exactly new. But sometimes trying to explain to a potential supporter that the ability to turn your lights on and off is essential to you functioning as a viable nonprofit and is not an indicator of your fiscal responsibility and/or capacity to uphold your mission without bursting in flames out of pure frustration can be tough. Enter Vu and his gluten-free veterans in need of a cake.

So bear with me. Let's pretend you're a bakery owner in our fair city of Eugene. Which obviously means you provide gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, vegetarian products. Vegan upon request. Obviously. Someone comes to you with a cake order for gluten-free veterans. And you, being your kind-hearted, spread-the-social-good self, obligingly agree. But (and this is a big ol' "but") the customer only wants to pay for 1 cup of sugar, half a stick of vegan butter and a dash of salt. Which means you need to find four or five more people to cover the rest of the cost of the cake. problem.  

Oh but there's more! The customer doesn't like chocolate – say goodbye to your Death By Chocolate gluten-free go-to. And they only support nut-based dairy alternatives, so no soy milk for you or anyone else who wants to participate in the cake-sharing. Also, those eggs better be from cage-free, vegetarian-fed chickens. Are you starting to catch the drift?

So after you've found four to five other people to pay for the cage-free eggs, the almond milk, the buckwheat flour, the vanilla (organic please) and all the other necessities for a badass cake worthy of these veterans, you present the final product to the customer...who claims that it's tasteless and too dense. Why? Oh probably because you had a thousand other demands to meet from the four other customers paying for 20% of the cake.  

In order to create a delicious cake masterpiece (or a fantastic new program at your nonprofit) you need all the ingredients. And a donor who is willing to pay for everything but overhead is like a bakery customer who is willing to pay for a whole cake...minus the eggs. Overhead myth meet your coup de gras.  

Next the sustainability myth. Say that same customer at that same gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, vegetarian bakery is only willing to buy a cake for veterans if you can prove, right then and there, that you will still be in business in 5 years when they want to buy another cake...I mean...really?

Vu's main point from these appetite-inducing analogies is that we can't keep expecting the nonprofit sector to perform phenomenal tasks and produce change if we repeatedly ask them to do it with their hands tied behind their backs while balancing on a stability let's just give them the dough (see what I did there, he he) and let them work their magic.

Now I'm not advocating for being fiscally irresponsible nor am I saying that nonprofits shouldn't be transparent. What I am saying is we can't limit our funding of a program or project to the elements we think are doing the most good (the programming or the outreach) while refusing to pay for the infrastructure that supports them (the people, the facility, the *ahem* overhead). Nor should we expect them to have every single detail of how that program or project will produce outcomes over the next 5 years figured out. I mean, is that really reasonable.  

In summary, Vu was basically the coolest human ever and I want to be his best friend. He had many wise things to say about how we need to change in our sector if we're going to share the social goodness. This blog only cover one or two of them but I hope to share more with you soon. However, the main takeaway and what I urge you to consider is how you can either talk about overhead (insert baked goods here) or how you think about it. This is a conversation that we're still having...but should it be? I'm gonna say hell to the no.

Dear Nonprofits: Invest in Your People, Or Fail

It’s no secret that I’ve been harping on nonprofit turnover and culture for a good while now. Just scroll through the Lean Nonprofit blog, and you’ll find example after example of my highly opinionated ranting about our high turnover, lack of succession planning and staff development, and seeming inability to hire from within.

As such, you won’t be surprised when I tell you this: If you fail to invest in your people, you, your organization, and your mission will fail. Our staff turnover rate is an indicator of our health as a sector. It tells us whether people are happy, progressing, and succeeding in their work. It tells us we are able to pay people fairly for their contributions to our mission, and that they feel at least generally fulfilled by their work. At this point, our health is just as bad as it was last year when I told you all about the Circle of Strife.

The 2016 annual Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey results were released in April, to the same groans, weeping and gnashing of teeth they elicited last year. This time, though? This time, I have to admit: I think nonprofits are truly out of their minds when it comes to handling retention and planning for the future.

Last year, our turnover rate was 19%. This year, it’s 19%. Again.

The overall turnover rate across all industries in 2015 was 16.7%. This difference is meaningful. Our turnover rate is more than 2% higher than the overall rate (which includes us, mind you).

Incidentally, this year, 84% of nonprofits report that they do not have a retention strategy.

Let that sink in.

OK. Thoroughly horrified? Good.

Over the next year 76% of nonprofits say they don’t plan to invest in taking the time to create a formal retention strategy.

Dude! Do you have any idea how much this costs you every year? Do you realize how many donor dollars are flushed down the proverbial toilet every time staff leaves your organization?

Let’s start here.

Center for American Progress produced a study in 2012 that pegs turnover costs at four different levels. 

For jobs paying $30,000 or less, the cost is 16.1% of the annual salary.

For jobs paying $50,000 or less, the cost is 19.7% of the annual salary.

For jobs paying $75,000 or less, the cost is 20.4% of the annual salary.

For executive jobs and those requiring specialized skills and experience, the cost is upwards of 213% of salary. This is not a typo. Two-hundred-thirteen freaking percent, you guys! That’s a lot!

So. Let’s come up with a nice, simple scenario. Imagine you run a nonprofit that has 10 employees. If you have a turnover rate of 19%, that’s about 2 employees who leave each year. Now, if that’s the lower wage program employee, which is the hardest to keep, assuming their salary is $32,000 a year, you’re looking at about $12,608 in hidden costs. That’s bad enough, in and of itself. But! It gets crazier. If the Executive Director and Development Director both left, and they both make about $85,000 a year, say, you’d be looking at $362,100 in hidden costs to replace these positions.

These numbers are drastically different - but here’s what they have in common: they are significant sums of money; and, they are hidden costs. Turnover stays under our radar because we don’t actually write a check to pay this expense. We don’t have to fill out any forms to create a purchase order to cover the cost of paying for turnover costs. We don’t think of it as real money. The only problem with this way of thinking is: IT IS REAL MONEY.

What’s the biggest way we can steward donor dollars by making changes right now, today? Handling our turnover problem. We need formal retention plans. We need to invest in our people. We need to take our people seriously and pay them what they’re worth. We need to ensure that they receive the recognition, training and support they need in order to be successful. We need them to want to stay!

Retention is a development issue. It’s a responsibility issue.

Why Not to Start a Nonprofit

Do you have a business idea nobody wants to buy, or a world changing idea?

As a nonprofit consultant, I get a lot of inquiries from people who want to start a nonprofit. “Oh! You’re a nonprofit consultant? Cool. I want to start a nonprofit that does [fill in the blank here].” Almost always, I hear someone describe a business that might exist for a socially beneficial reason, but that is not necessarily a candidate for full-on nonprofit status.

Here’s the thing: nonprofit status is not something to be approached lightly. Almost always, the business ideas I hear are potentially viable (though we won’t know until we test it, will we?). The prospective founder is usually so entranced with their vision, that they are resistant to even the idea of a board of directors. Well...they are resistant to the idea of a board of directors that actually does its job of leadership and governance of the organization.

Some people have asked if they can just make a board of themselves, their spouse and their best friend. Well...technically? Yes...but, is that going to accomplish the work you intend to do in the world? Is a board of directors and all the red tape of nonprofit-dom really worth it to you and your dream? Is there another way you can accomplish similar goals without going all in on a long-term special relationship with the IRS?

So, if you want to start a nonprofit, ask yourself these questions:

  • If I had unlimited resources and time, would it be possible for me, alone, with no support or involvement from another human, to accomplish this work?

  • Is nonprofit status attractive to me when it comes to this venture because I feel uncomfortable with the idea of sales?

  • If a board of directors were in place, and they challenged my assumptions and vision, would that tick me off? Would I be able to tolerate someone else’s leadership and guidance on this idea?

  • Is it possible to generate revenue with this idea, and would the revenue itself be enough to sustain the vision, once it gets to scale?

Here’s a secret tip: If you answered “Yes” to any of the questions above, you might reconsider going for nonprofit status. It might be smarter for you to consider launching a small business or social enterprise instead.

The reality is, if you can accomplish the work of your “nonprofit” idea alone, without involvement or significant leadership from someone else, you don’t need or want a board. If you want to do what you want to do, do it. A board will only slow you down with process and Robert’s Rules of Order. These are good things when we’re talking about what is essentially a publicly owned entity (a nonprofit); it is not a good thing when you are a visionary founder who has some stuff to do and you want to just go ahead and do it.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of sales - you feel weird promoting yourself, your ideas, your product, your work - to the people who will buy it, or to third parties who might subsidize it - what makes you think you will be OK with fundraising? Fundraising is sales. Shocking, I know. Sales and fundraising alike provide an opportunity for someone to get a benefit - whether it’s a product, service, or altruistic sense of purpose - people are going to buy what you sell. If you can’t sell, you can’t raise money either. If you think grants will solve this problem, you are super, super mistaken, and are in for a world of annoyance and irritation on the grants front too. Don’t get me started on grants. They are wonderful for venture capital for organizations, and they do not, ever, no never, work as a long-term, sustainable solution to funding your ongoing operations. Don’t think grants are the key to your viability. They are certainly not.

If you feel that getting a board of directors together - a real one, not made up of your closest friends and lackeys, plus you - will cramp your style because you might be challenged or questioned - you should not start a nonprofit. Stop considering it right now, because this is not the right direction for you. Boards of directors, when they are operating appropriately, will take responsibility for the strategic direction, financial management, compliance, and organizational culture. If you want to be in charge of that stuff - or at least, in some way have ownership of it - do it yourself. Get an advisory board together if you want advice. You can take or leave the advice of an advisory board. It’s informal and totally voluntary. With a nonprofit, the board of directors is a real, legally bound entity, and they must be treated as such, whether you love their direction or not.

If you can generate enough revenue to make your vision and mission sustainable when it gets to scale, by all means, go for it. This doesn’t preclude your nonprofit hopes, though. This is just to say, if you can generate enough revenue to keep this mission going, and you can do it without the hassle of running a nonprofit, and that is appealing to you, just start a business. It is infinitely easier, faster, smoother, and less political. You can start a business in five seconds after you read this article. That said, if you can generate money to sustain the mission and you think it is bigger than just you, and you are willing to gather and defer to a board of directors, and you can raise funds without fear, and you are ready to handle the back end management of nonprofit compliance with IRS rules and guidelines and filing deadlines and the like, start the nonprofit.

Just, do me and the rest of the world a favor: don’t call it “my nonprofit.” It’s not yours. It’s ours. That’s the point of a nonprofit. It’s a corporation run by a board of directors, who are to guide the nonprofit’s direction, steward its resources, and accrue benefits to society (that’s you and me and everyone we know, baby!) while reinvesting in the mission of the organization. This is not something you can own. It is something you can birth and foster and love deeply - but it is not you, it’s not about you, and it, ideally, should continue long after your involvement has ended.

How to Get Grounded in Times of Change

Last week, I spent several hours doing something I have never done before. It was an activity I have always secretly scoffed...that I imagined was frivolous and silly.

I’m not one to hold back on admitting I’m wrong about something, so I’ll tell you right now, I was wrong about this.

What I did, to no longer keep you in suspense, was make a vision board.

Yep, a vision board. And it was the most grounding thing I could have chosen to do for myself and my business on that day at that moment.

You see, life changes constantly. When you work in a nonprofit, or run a small business, the environment around you simply does not cooperate long enough to get you into a super comfy groove, does it? Once you think you know what you’re doing, everything has, once again, shifted - sometimes slightly, sometimes drastically.

The truth is, without understanding your core - all you care about, the values you carry with you that don’t change - you can’t find your footing fast enough to keep up. That’s why I took time out last week to build my vision board - it helps me remain anchored, no matter how choppy the seas are, when I continuously focus on the big picture. Why am I here? What do I want to accomplish? What makes me who I am? How will I live into my own essence?

The most valuable part of it was just taking the time to think it through. It’s the root of all self-care. Who am I, and what do I need? When I know where I am going, I can get out a road map and figure out a whole bunch of different routes to get there. It changes the stakes of everything I do. Instead of putting all my hopes and dreams into one route, only to find it’s under construction and closed to thru traffic, I can be adaptable, flexible, lithe. I can roll with the changes because I know the route isn’t the most important thing. What matters is what drives me in the first place. That makes me want to go where I’m going. Detours are no longer nuisances or something to be feared. They become a happy surprise.

Here are the four main questions I asked myself, and around which I built my vision board. I’ll tell you something - you don’t have to sit around cutting pictures out of magazines and gluing them onto poster board to find grounding. You can, of course, and it’s worthwhile, if you ask me. But I think the biggest value to me is making a space where I can constantly remind myself of what I want in these areas:

I want to feel…

I want my body to…

I want the work of my hands to…

I want my environments to…

Framing my heart’s desires in this way allows me to keep my efforts and attention focused on creating what I want in the here and now - instead of only focusing on the destination. Yes, I have places to go - some of which I’ve decided, others that have yet to unfold. I know some elements of them...yet, I’m still moving toward them openly and with a light-hearted spirit. Even though I’m in a time of flux and change and uncertainty, I know I will be OK (am OK).

Take five minutes to fill in your own answers to these four statements. It’s a few minutes out of your day, but I promise, you’ll find out more about yourself in these moments than you will in a day of running around saving the world without taking a minute to connect with yourself.

Here are the things I’ve said, to get you started:

I want to feel…

  • Content

  • Happy

  • Inspired

  • Delighted

  • The sweetness of my life

  • The love that surrounds me

I want my body to be…

  • Flexible

  • Strong

  • Agile

  • Loved

  • Whole

  • Lively

  • Healthy

I want the work of my hands to…

  • Be fun

  • Be significant

  • Provide a bountiful living

  • Provide opportunity for others

  • Make a difference

  • Transform lives and organizations

I want my environments to…

  • Make room for play, rest, healing and work

  • Be beautiful

  • Be comfortable and cozy

  • Reflect love, peace and joy

  • Provide expansive space for creation and exploration

Your turn! Feel free to share some of your “I wants” below. Once you know what you want, the way to get those things will become clear to you as you move through life.

How to Know You're Hard to Work With: True Confessions Edition Part 2

This week, I posted Part 1 of my True Confessions, and you can read it here. In it, I share with you my thinking about why it’s valuable for me to share how I’ve been hard to work with. In case you don’t have time to read all about it, here’s the gist: everyone is hard to work with sometimes, in some ways, for some people. We’ve all seen these articles before, right? “How to Spot an A**hole at Work” or “How to Know You’re Hard to Work With: Because I’ve Worked With a Bunch of Jerks, and Perhaps You Are One of Them (But Secretly We Both Know You’re Reading This Because You Want to Send the Link to Your Co-worker).” The reality is, with all your goodness and wonderful intentions and heart in the right place, we all employ behaviors that aren’t helpful at least some of the time. If we can step back and look at them and see them for what they are, we can learn to replace them with something better.

It’s important to note that just because I am/have been hard to work with, and you might be too, that it doesn’t mean we are bad people or that we suck to be around. Probably a lot of people love us and think we’re great to work with - maybe more people think that than think we’re the worst (I hope)! Ultimately, the reason I can take a look at these behaviors in my not too distant past and see them for what they are is because I have learned to love and appreciate myself for who I am. My behaviors reflect my circumstances, my knowledge at the time, my level of fear or safety, my sense of belonging and my ability to make survival choices in the moment. Sometimes, I’m better off. Other times, I act like a monkey on crack.

Further, the reason this came up for me was because I have been thinking a lot about organizational culture of late. In my mind, I’ve been running a post-mortem on a culture I was in that was...challenged (read: horrifyingly debilitating). It is natural to want to blame someone (usually the leader...or...just, anybody who isn’t you, let’s be real). The thing is, culture is complex. If relationships are complicated - just between two people, the interplay of relational dynamics compounds exponentially in organizations. The channels get mixed, the signals are scrambled, the communication sometimes doesn’t land. We doubt other people, we doubt ourselves, we distrust everyone. We find ways to survive when we feel unsafe - and cultures that perpetuate negativity and butt-covering/under-the-bus-throwing are the epitome of unsafe. That said, we all have a role in creating and perpetuating such cultures. We are part of the system, and as such, we make a contribution - positive or negative (there is no neutral, so don’t kid yourself). These “hard to work with” things are some of the ways I accidentally helped make my organization’s culture toxic - and how I could have made a better choice. Of course, sometimes the best choice is to leave, which is why I am able to see it for what it was now.

Without further ado, here are even more ways I’ve been hard to work with:

Conspiring and Colluding

What I Did: This is one of the most shameful things I’ll have to admit to doing. The stuff I mentioned the other day is pretty embarrassing and sad, but this makes me feel worse, because it directly tore down other people. That’s not what I’m about - it’s the opposite of what I’m about - but it’s what I did when I was not in alignment with my values and my true heart. One thing that happens in unhealthy cultures, is a whole helluva lot of gossip. When you work someplace, and you find you start to speak in a hushed voice all the time, you are probably talking about something you shouldn’t, or that could be dealt with in a more honest and forthright way. I found myself speaking in hushed tones or off-site constantly to talk with people I was close to - usually other managers, but sometimes my own team, about our culture problems and our fears and our discomfort and what needed to change. I knew other people were having similar conversations about me, sometimes with my boss. Honest conversations were necessary, in some way, but the more appropriate avenue would have been to bring them to the attention of our boss or board and have them out in the open. Bemoaning our fate endlessly in the darker corners, sometimes with tears, did exactly nothing to change the situation. It was a terrible situation, I’m not going to lie. I still have stress dreams about it all the time. But I helped keep it going, and that situation was definitely partly crafted by yours truly.

What I Didn’t Realize: I didn’t realize my voice mattered. I didn’t know I could stand up and speak my mind honestly to my boss and not get fired on the spot. I didn’t realize that when you are in a role like I was, it’s very hard for an organization to explain if you are let go capriciously. I didn’t trust myself and I didn’t trust my boss, and I didn’t trust about half of my co-workers. And many of them didn’t trust me, either. It was weird, man, but what I needed to know at that time was that you do the hard thing, even if you face consequences you’d prefer not to face. I did eventually learn to stand up for what I thought was true and right - a little late, but still, I tried. Things changed. Slowly. They never got totally better - until I finally said the most true thing at a moment of decision: I said it was time for me to go.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation called “triangulation” before, but I can tell you that it is one of the most crazy-making things I’ve ever endured. It’s when you’re a manager, say, and your direct report goes to your boss over your head and/or your boss goes to your direct report...what...under your head? And then you get ensnared in it one way or another, and there’s a lot of hearsay, and confusion and frustration and mostly, a lot of instability and unsafe feelings. I felt very unsafe. I reached out for support to other people who felt unsafe. I went to them for confirmation - am I crazy? Am I OK? This happens when people are in abusive relationships and abusive work cultures. I will talk a lot more about abusive work cultures one day, but for now, let’s just say, I chose those behaviors, again, not out of divisiveness or a desire to harm anybody, but out of self-protection and a need to belong. It wasn’t the right choice. I wasn’t healthy. It was cowardly and damaging.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I’m very bored with talking about other people. I still talk about my old work sometimes, and I’m honest about that. But, I don’t have a need to be suspicious of, or tear down other people behind their backs nor to their faces anymore. This is a need I have let go of, as I have learned to find my value intrinsically, and also have created a stronger connection to myself. This behavior is associated with two main things, in my opinion: low self-esteem, and burnout. Both were happening for me then, and both are definitely on my radar now - it’s a practice to hold myself in high-esteem; and it’s a practice to care for myself so I don’t burn out. I now know how long to stay and when to go.

Perpetuating and Workaholic Culture

What I Did: My day used to look something like this:

5:00 AM - wake up, check work emails, read Something Important to keep up on the latest trends in the industry;

6:00 AM - freak out about the day AKA check work emails;

7:00 AM - arrive at work and get stuff done before everyone else comes in;

7:15 AM - talk to the one other person in the office at this time about how crazy everything is, but it’s not going to last more than another, eh, 6 months or so [cue maniacal laughter];

8:30 AM - frantically prepare for the onslaught of the 10 million meetings and impromptu people visiting my office for advice, information, decisions, signatures, questions, commentary, venting, weeping, telling jokes, complaining about spouses, and sometimes, talking about actual work that needs to be done;

9:00 AM - 5:30 PM - attend all the meetings, ever;

5:30 PM - 6:30 PM - pick up the kids, feed them, get them to bed ASAP and/or foist them off on their dad to do bedtime because “I’m so-busy;”

6:30 PM - 2:00 AM - catch up on work. Sometimes, this would extend into all night, if there was a grant due, for instance;

2:00 AM - 5:00 AM - sleep in between work-related stress dreams. Occasionally send work emails when stress dreams wake me up and remind me of something oh, so critical.

Note: food was smooshed into meetings, usually. So a lot of people had to watch me eat whatever crap I could get my hands on to keep my body minimally alive. Hence, the meals were not warranted their own time slot in my Super Important Person Schedule.

At the very same time as I was working like this (and I assure you, this schedule is not an exaggeration), I spoke passionately and eloquently about self care and not working too much so as to avoid burnout. “Use your vacation hours!” I’d say, having read Something Important about how that’s a thing. Meanwhile, I capped out at the company sanctioned 160 hours and lost about 2 weeks of vacation per year that wasn’t allowed to carry over.

I was the exception, you see. I was so very devoted to my job and the work and the mission of my organization, that I was impervious to said burnout, and I magically had the superhuman capability to stay productive and useful for approximately 20 hours a day, and more on weekends, if I could get the kids’ dad, or their grandma, or anybody, really, to take them. For mere mortals, though, they should be able to leave the work at the office and get on with their lives. Meanwhile, the mortals are getting emails from me at 3:00 AM, and constantly when I rarely went “on vacation” which was a fancy phrase I used to mean “working remotely from my home or occasionally a different place.”

What I Didn’t Realize: You know that thing parents supposedly say (not mine, because mine were actually quite devout)? “Do as I say, not as I do?” Yeah. That’s not something that actually works. It turns out, I didn’t notice that my actions didn’t match up with what I claimed were my values. I didn’t realize that my way of operating made everyone else think they, too, had to live up to the impossible standard I had set for myself. I didn’t realize that because of my insistence that working all day and night with virtually no personal time was sucking my life force and turning me into a husk of a person whose only identity was Important Working Person. As a leader, it is not your job to work until you very nearly (or literally) die. It is your job to provide a sane, reasonable example of how to work smarter and better so your employees will have a template for how they are expected to behave. Nothing makes people feel more insane than being told one thing and shown another. That’s called gaslighting - named after a super old movie where a dude made a lady feel like she was insane because he constantly and intentionally questioned her reality and her experiences. You might not be doing it on purpose, but if you are talking big game on self care and never ever ever ever taking five minutes to gather your thoughts or value your life, or invest in your relationships (surprise! I’m divorced! Woops!), you are gaslighting people. And yourself.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern by now. Most of the behaviors I’ve exhibited were based on fear of losing my job/title/status/self-respect/the admiration of others and/or my own sense of worthlessness. This is no different. I was running away from the emptiness of feeling worthless and not good enough - and toward the promise of “If I just try harder, then…” and “Just a little further and more hard work, and then I can be happy and slow down…” Of course, “enough” never comes. It just keeps moving further into the distance like a desert mirage. The thing that’s funny here is that I thought I had inordinately high self-esteem. I think I can do anything, and usually, I’m right. I can. That doesn’t mean that any of it makes me happier, or better, or more worthy. The truth is, my entire concept of personal value used to be based on my ability to perform. If I didn’t, I was a failure and I crumpled. If I didn’t fail, but didn’t do something perfectly, I was still a failure and I didn’t deserve to live and was lucky to have a job and to have any friends at all, because boo, I sucked. Truth is, my value had to come from within. Without that, nothing will fill the void that comes from feeling ungrounded, like you don’t belong, and like you don’t deserve to be loved unless you’re super amazing 100% of the time.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I constantly choose to connect to my value as a person. What I do does not dictate who I am and how OK I am. How I perform does not indicate how worthy or unworthy I am. I know my value, and I refer to it when I doubt it. Most of all? I attend to what I need. I get enough sleep. I eat food regularly - usually pretty good food, too. I make sure I drink enough water. I have fun with my kids and with friends. I do stuff that I like doing that has nothing to do with work. I have learned to allow my work to be an expression of my heart and purpose without needing it to give me significance.

Not Recognizing Burnout

What I Did: As you may have guessed, based on the description of my work habits above, I eventually hit a place where I was so burned out, I probably left little streaks of charcoal on everything I touched. No matter how exhausted, frustrated or flat out furious I felt, I ignored it and kept going. With greater and greater frequency, I found myself crashing. Migraines. Needing to go to bed at 7:00 PM. I would “rally” and just do more work.

What I Didn’t Realize: My heart had left the situation before I let my body do so. That’s how Dr. Dina Glauberman described burnout in her wonderful book, “The Joy of Burnout.” I happened to read it when I needed a four month (not kidding) nap after I left my last job. I didn’t realize that I had truly maxed out all of my bodily systems, ravaged my brain, frazzled my soul, and ignored every single thing that mattered to me (besides my work, for the reasons recounted above).

Why I Chose My Behaviors: I really did care deeply about the work I was doing. It was passion-driven. It was exciting and wonderful. It was addictive to me to create and launch the kinds of programs we were constantly creating. There was a clear moment when I realized I had sacrificed too much of myself, my energy, my life to something I was when I realized I wasn’t living up and that, against all of my deepest hopes - I probably never would. BUT! Instead of taking some time to ask myself where I wanted to be and whether I wanted to be where I was, I doubled down and worked harder. I did more. I got up earlier, stayed up later, put in more time and effort, got better, did the introspection, did the work on myself. It got me someplace. But it didn’t get me to a place of wellness. I was burned out, and the only road through burnout is one that attends to your basic human needs. Sleep, love, empathy and compassion. It takes a lot to stop - you think you’ll die - but then, you don’t. But you might if you don’t slow it down or stop.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I pay attention to my heart. I know when I want to be somewhere and when I don’t. I know when I’m putting more energy in than I’m getting out, and I adjust in the moment to make sure I’m still fulfilled by what I’m doing. This sounds esoteric - but it was really about reconnecting with my body. I used chakra meditations as one tool for this - whether you believe in energy centers in the body or not, the practice of feeling specific parts of your body is extremely helpful in rebuilding your intuition and your trust in yourself.


We all have things we could do better. Chief among them, is spending time developing our hearts and our souls. It takes everything within you to always become a better person in order to rise to the occasion and lead humbly and lovingly. I think, underneath all of my bad workplace behaviors, fear and low self-worth lurked. Your behaviors might be a little different, but I’d be willing to bet, the reasons you do them are pretty similar. The good news is that we can all make improvements in our own behavior and when we do, our workplaces and our missions will be better for it. You can be your very best.

Now. What do you need to make it so?

How to Know You're Hard to Work With: True Confessions Edition Part 1

I’ve read lots of blogs and articles about people who are hard to handle in a work environment. Most of them come from the perspective of, “I’ve worked with a bunch of jerks, and this is what they were like.” This article is more like: True Confessions of Someone Who Didn’t Realize They Were Hard to Work With, but it Turns Out They Were, By Sarai Johnson.

You see, I think people are a mix of light and shadow. We all have great qualities and beautiful souls to offer the world - and we all have darker tendencies, and odd behaviors that might come to the surface when we are under duress or when we are not being vigilant in our self-examination. It is all too easy to vilify people who we think suck - because it makes us feel better to imagine that we are different. We would never behave badly! Of course, these “other” people are flawed and horrible, but we are pure as an angel’s tears.

The problem is, that’s not true. Other people do what they do for the same reasons you do what you do: needs. Everything we do is motivated by a need. Whether we behave well or poorly to attend to that need depends on a number of factors, both individual and systemic. As individuals, our health and mental health, sense of safety and stability, sense of belonging, self-esteem, and self-awareness all play into what behaviors we choose in the workplace (or anywhere else, for that matter). Systemically, we respond to the environments in which we operate - this includes the culture of your organization, and also the overall culture of your country of origin, your city, your subculture. When we are doing well on these matters, and our surroundings support us - we feel well and safe, we feel we are loved, and we love ourselves. We are more likely to choose behaviors that are productive to ourselves and our coworkers. When we are lacking in these areas, or when our environments are not healthy, we tend to choose behaviors that are controlling or manipulative to fill our needs.

It may strike you as odd that I am “coming out” as hard to work with. I’m a consultant, after all, and all I do is work with people. Here’s the truth: every leader - consultant or other - gains their experience and chops through a combination of successes and failures. What we do with our failures says a lot about our ability to lead with compassion and vision. I have learned everything I’ve learned through trying it. Sometimes it goes great. Other times, not so much. Everyone has failed - you have, I have, even the most perfect-appearing person has failed. If they haven’t, it’s probable that one of these four things is true:

  • They are lying;

  • You simply don’t know about their failures;

  • They really have never failed, in which case:

  • They are definitely lying.

Part of the reason this is so important is that it forces me (and hopefully, by extension, you) to face the fact that our self-concept doesn’t always line up with what other people experience. Sometimes, it’s good to let go of caring too deeply how others perceive you (need help with that? I’ve got you covered) - and sometimes, it’s good to make sure you get a sense of why those perceptions exist and whether they have merit. You see, I’ve always thought I was fun and awesome to work with. I’m funny and light-hearted, and also, I work hard and get the job done well. I’m smart and competent, innovative and clever, and I’ve been told by many people that I inspire and motivate them. But I also know that my wonderfulness has a shadow side. So does yours. You’re both wonderful and also probably kind of a jerk sometimes, inadvertently or no. It’s good to know which is what so you can continuously become a better person in order to be a great leader.

On Being Hard to Work With From Someone Who Thinks She Is Pretty Fun and Cool, Generally

Without further ado, here are 3 ways I’ve been hard to work with, why I chose the behaviors I chose, and how I avoid making the same choices now (and so can you!). Tomorrow, I’ll give you a few more, just for good measure. Since I have a lot to say about them, and because I think it will be more useful to give you the rundown on what I did and how I avoid doing negative, obnoxious and downright harmful behaviors now, splitting them into two posts will be a mercy.

I have a lot of work to continue doing on these issues, by the way. It’s a life-long practice to choose positive, productive behaviors, after all. After you read about my foibles, it might do you some good to sit down for a few minutes to go through some ways you might have similarly driven people nuts. Where have you made some errors in your attempts at being awesome? Where have you stepped on toes - purposefully or otherwise? Where do you need some insight and change in your life?

Moving Too Fast

What I Did: At the nonprofit I worked for the longest, I was in charge of many things - chief among them all of the programs, ever. I also spent a good amount of time and work on organizational development. When I started in the organization, we were very small. We had about 6 people, and half of us worked on program stuff. When it was that little and cute, changing things or adding things or doing things a new way was easier. As we grew, it became more complicated to get everyone on board or informed as things went. The other challenge was that we were trying to do what amounted to lean startup work, without a framework, which was...messy, to say the least. The most common complaint I heard for a long time was “you move too fast! Nobody can keep up with you! Slow down!” The first two things, I took as a compliment. The later, I ignored.

What I Didn’t Realize: Moving quickly and being nimble were valued at my organization. I thought I was moving those values along at a nice clip. However, if I ever would have stopped to look around me, I would have realized nobody was following me anymore...or at least, they were far in the distance, panting and gasping for breath, begging for some water. It was hard for me to manage my pace, and I didn’t recognize that everyone else needed time to adjust and adapt to something. Change comes easy to me. In fact, I thrive on it. It was very hard for me to understand that just about everybody else on the planet isn’t quite as cool with it.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: I went fast because I am naturally inclined to see a problem, find a solution, and address it. If something isn’t working, I notice and make a change. I don’t shy away from change, and I don’t shy away from decisions. All of these things are fine on their own, but you don’t work in a vacuum. In the end, I realized I was choosing these behaviors because I was running all the time. I never learned how to walk or stroll or even jog. It was part of who I thought I was, and when it was brought to my attention that I needed to slow down or everybody else would die or quit, I didn’t even know how (or want to). I thought everyone else should just hurry up.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I still move fast. I have learned that when people know what to expect by way of pace and change, they handle it more readily. I also make sure that I insitute processes and systems to provide a context for changing course regularly. The Lean Nonprofit process of program development allows for iterative progress that is constantly monitored, measured and adapted. We can make pivots, but that expectation is built in. What I once did by instinct and gut, I now do with structure and support.

Not Communicating Enough or Effectively

What I Did: A funny thing about a lot of these not so pleasant behaviors is that they stem from something that would otherwise be a positive trait. However, because I wasn’t mature enough or self-aware enough or in the right time and place in my life to know it, I used them in less than advantageous ways. Communication is one of those things. I’m a good communicator. I always have been. But because I move fast, I often communicate too little too late, or overcommunicate with very long, stream of consciousness emails and other eloquent attempts at addressing the masses. If you’ve read any of my blogs, you get what I’m saying. This is basically a normal email for me.

What I Didn’t Realize: Communication is the most important thing a leader and manager can do with their people. When I was working at the self-same nonprofit I mentioned above, there was a period of time when I had a department that consisted of three people and myself. We were in charge of resource development, program development and organizational development. Our projects were sweeping and majestic - and onerous and insane. We ran a massive workplanning process along with the budget process each year; we did all manner of tinkering with databases; we created new processes and systems (our organization had doubled in size year over year for three years running and things were nuts)...What I didn’t know was that in other (siloed) departments, the managers of which I once oversaw, the staff called my team “Black Ops.” They were suspicious of us and what we were doing. They were resistant to every single thing we tried to implement and obstructed our work. We were frustrated, they were freaked out. Everybody lost. Communication would have gone a long way toward helping this. Of course, changing the weird culture that allowed for these sentiments to pervade departments would have been even better, but at least, I could have been more open with what we were doing, as we were making decisions.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: I thought I was communicating. It turns out, it was hard for people to accept and adopt entire new processes and procedures and policies when they arrived via email at a random time on some given day. They weren’t included (didn’t always need to be, but should have been at least some of the time), and they had no idea the context of why things needed to be done. I thought that if I mentioned something once, everyone would know and do it correctly forever. Obviously, to anyone who has ever worked with a human before, this is an errant assumption.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I communicate continuously and openly, without filter and without political concern. I am honest and forthright. I deal with issues as they arise instead of waiting until they get so overblown they are nearly impossible to handle. I realize that my main job is communication - not just getting stuff done, but telling the story along the way.

Covering My Butt Through Manipulation, Deflection, and Blaming

What I Did: I am an ambitious person. I mean, I want to do every awesome thing I can possibly do in my life, and I want my life to matter after I die. I want to leave a legacy, if you will. I also want to make a difference because I truly care about the world and want it to be a better place. When I was younger, and I felt less safe, less stable, more at risk, and had a vast and unending need to please everyone all the time (my true-life, I’m not making this up, motto was: “YES TO EVERYTHING!!” which, ironically, I didn’t realize meant “no to a whole lot of things that matter, but especially to myself”), like everyone else, I made mistakes. I didn’t do things right. I forgot about things that would fall through the cracks. I was experiencing information overload with reams and reams of handwritten notes from the (apparently) thousands of meetings I attended each day, which I basically recorded verbatim and then left to die in my piles and piles of papers (sometimes files, if I remembered about Getting Things Done right then)...I was terrified of getting in trouble. I mean, I thought of it exactly that way. I was afraid of “getting in trouble.” As an adult woman. A high-level professional adult woman. So. I was manipulative. I shared or withheld information as it suited my needs. I planted ideas until someone thought they were their own and then ran with them. I put the onus of failure on other people to try to make myself look better. Hell, when things got really bad at work, I bought new clothes and got a haircut, which worked like a “Hey, look over there!” deflection trick. Another weird manipulation trick I did was take responsibility for everything, even when it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do any of this consciously or with evil intent. I did it as self-preservation.

What I Didn’t Realize: I was codependent as hell. Like, the definition of codependent was my face next to the caption reading: “She thinks “YES TO EVERYTHING” is an appropriate life motto.” Look. I didn’t know I was scared to death of losing my status or my job. I thought I was doing what I needed to do to get by and protect myself and my team and my friends at work and the organization and endless other rationalizations that would have made me feel OK. I acted without integrity, but I didn’t know I was doing it, and wouldn’t have realized it to save my life. Except, one day, my friend Lori came by my office after everyone else had left for the day. She was not surprised to find me there, because I was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. She asked why I was still there. I said I was working on a project because it needed to be done and even though someone else on my team could have done it, I would rather suffer than make them do it. She said, “That’s pretty codependent, don’t you think?” I was like…”Huh. I’ve heard that before, and Googled it.” When I was finally able to go down to the basement to collect my lower jaw, I thanked her for letting me know, and embarked on a journey to try to figure out what on earth to do about it.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: Being driven can be healthy...but it must come from a sense of wholeness and completion as a person. I, however, was driven by an insatiable sense of unworthiness. I was driven to do well at work at all costs because I felt, deep inside, that my life literally depended on it. My work ethic was the only way I knew to prove I was worthy and valuable. It was all I could do to show that I belong somewhere. This isn’t a pity party, and it isn’t an excuse. But it does explain a lot.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I know what my integrity means to me. I know how to connect with my body so I can sense when my gut tells me I’m out of alignment. I make choices more quickly when I realize I’m in an environment that isn’t right for me. I leave when I know I might get sucked into a culture that is damaging and harmful. And I know what my values are and how to uphold them. Mostly, though? I have learned to love myself and find my value in the fact that I exist. I don’t need the external stuff and approval and “not getting in trouble” to make me feel OK. I feel OK no matter what, because I am OK no matter what. So are you.

Until the Morrow, My Love

This is enough honesty for the day. On Wednesday, you’ll get to see several more ways I’ve been a huge bummer to work with, and how I managed to perpetuate a bad culture in a very wonderful organization full of amazing people who did incredible work. Life is full of strange contradictions, isn’t it? Even well meaning souls like us can sometimes do things that hurt the thing we love the most. Let’s learn to live with more conscience and more consciousness, shall we?

The Nonprofit Culture of Poverty Part 2: Power Structures

This is the second in a series of posts examining the Nonprofit Culture of Poverty. The first can be found here. Even though today’s post might be infinitely more interesting, depending on your taste, it’s probably a good idea to read that one first. Then come back. Then tell all your friends.

To extend my comparison of the culture of poverty to the attitudes and patterns in which nonprofits tend to operate, we have to take a look at how nonprofits associate with power. People who exist within a culture of poverty have a...nuanced...relationship with institutional power. People living in poverty tend to be unbanked, as they are suspicious of financial institutions (and vice versa). They tend to maintain low-wage jobs with little room for advancement, where they are expected to keep their heads down and do their work without protest or opinion. They live outside the mainstream systems we have set up to conduct business, accrue assets, and enhance financial stability and mobility.

Nonprofits, too, have a complicated relationship with power - especially when it comes to money. I’ll caution you now: I don’t work for any single nonprofit anymore, and as such, I feel very free to say whatever I think about funders and foundations and corporate giving. I shall. You might not like it, or you might be like, “THANK YOU! SERSLY!” The latter would make more sense to me. If you are a funder, you’re welcome for speaking the truth and telling it like it is. You need to know, because I know you’re actually trying to help. Let me help you help.

As for power, money, and funders, here’s a little story for your reading enjoyment. Years ago, when I was a fresh-faced young nonprofit executive, I attended one of those fun “meet the funders” roundtables hosted by a local nonprofit networking group. As I rounded the tables and met the funders, I heard a few things over and over again. They were things that I had read in guidelines many times, but had a hard time actually believing until they were repeated to me in real life. Things like:

  • We don’t fund any overhead: “Not even 10%?” “Nope. Not even 10%. We want to see our money going to actually help people.” This is a load of tripe, and everyone who runs a foundation absolutely, deep in their hearts must know that. I can’t imagine foundation leaders suggesting to themselves, “let’s run on just 10% overhead. Welp, guess that means our gold-plated penthouse office in the center of a very expensive city has got to go. Let’s see if someone can just donate some space to us. Oooh, and I guess we’ll have to cut back on our program officers...Ooooh, and I think our CEO gets paid too much, so let’s make sure he [interjection: I said “he” because as a high-dollar budget organization, the CEO is far more likely to be a man] draws a modest salary” This is a double standard in the most egregious form. You want someone to “actually help people???” Pay them. PAY THEM TO DO IT. And pay them to do it right. Funders perpetuate a culture of poverty when they insist, with all the earnest paternalism in the world - that we need only a certain amount of money to do what we need to do. And that they can choose to only pay for certain line-items because that’s where they want to make an impact.

  • We don’t fund [fill in the blank]: Not only at this roundtable I attended, but within countless rejection letters, funders reiterated their commitment to purity by noting what they would and would not pay for. I once received a rejection letter from a foundation that said, and I am completely not making this up, “We don’t fund staff, capital, overhead, program or project expenses.” I was left baffled as to what they actually did fund, but I was too bemused by the letter to bother asking. I did keep that letter and show it to everyone, because it was a hilarious. Hilarious in a laugh until you cry, but then you might be honestly crying, kind of way.

  • We only fund emergency services: This was interesting to me. What about work that helps decrease reliance on emergency services? This would allow for emergency services to focus their efforts on helping those who need the help most, and…”Nope! We just fund emergency services.” At the moment this discussion happened, an epiphany hit me like a choir of violent angels. “OH. A lot of funders only pay for emergency services - and also not overhead - which keeps the nonprofits doing that work barely surviving, just like their clients - and because the same clients come back year after year after year, they look like they’re serving a lot of people...and the people who work in those organizations also don’t make enough money, so often qualify for the services of said nonprofit as well, contributing to their numbers and the need, and...oh my god. It’s a trap. It’s a scarcity trap. Holy crap.”

  • We have a 9 billion step application process that takes a year: Have you ever applied for food stamps? Or any kind of aid? Or applied to go to college? Or filled out a FAFSA? Or applied for a government job? Demoralizing and the worst, right? Look. I understand funders need to institute processes to screen organizations. As I’ve read in countless rejection letters from foundations, “There is always more need than we are able to fund…” I get that. But making the process onerous and time consuming is not helpful for nonprofits, who are already strapped for time. Further? It keeps them scrambling in the moment to reach another immediate deadline rather than doing work that is focused on the mission result.

  • We require you to implement the latest fad: Theories of Change? Collaborative Impact models? You name it, if it was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review* once, we’ll make you do it, even if it doesn’t make sense for your organization, or you implement it poorly just to get the grant.

*with all due respect to SSIR, which I freaking love, but you know what I’m saying…

  • We need you to make this project sustainable within three years with no further funding from us...and of course we don’t fund fundraising! Duh!: I have no words for this. I am a HUGE fan of looking at grant money as seed capital - as venture capital for nonprofits. Often, it’s a great way to get self-sustaining programs and products off the ground to meet mission needs and support the nonprofit’s bottom line. However, not all projects and programs will work this way. Some of them don’t have revenue generating potential and yet serve a vast community need. What then? We have to magically leap to the inane conclusion that we’ll find other funders who will cover the program by then. The reality? We’ll probably just repackage the program and push it off on someone else as a “new” thing. Speaking of which:

  • We don’t fund ongoing programs...but we want to only fund “evidence based” programs at the same time: Ah! No problem. So, we’ll just constantly come up with something new to offer grantors...that has been clinically proven to work (somehow? By someone somewhere?) and of course we’re not chasing money! We’re just “innovating…” or “replicating?” This is not really quite intellectually honest. Everybody wants to put their name on the next big thing, and at the same time, they all want to make sure they’re paying for something that will work. Can we have it both ways? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably sometimes.

These are just a few silly examples of how funders give nonprofits the runaround. Why can they do this? Well, they are the ones in a position of power. They give the money out, right? That means they can call the shots, right? Or does it?

Throughout history, oppressed people have risen to the occasion to claim their power and create a more advantageous distribution of power. The labor movement. Every revolution, ever. Even where they are not successful, the idea is to wrest the unfair amount of power wielded by the powers that be to allow others to participate. Nonprofits have such a moment right now.

Funders are your partners. They are here to help. If they aren’t helping, they need to know that. They need to hear it from you. Instead, what they mostly get is quiet, cowering fear. We don’t want to challenge them because we don’t want them to take away our money. We don’t want to burn our bridges when we say we can’t live with 10% overhead with a well-reasoned case, so we say nothing, swallow our objections and make do. It’s not healthy. And it isn’t helping.

Here’s the thing. Nonprofits, you, like workers who might could form a union, have power. If we all work together to create a reasonable case for our businesses, we could make changes and have influence. It’s already starting. Groups like Dan Pallotta’s Charity Defense Council are rocking some change on the overhead front. The insanely perfect Nonprofit With Balls blog (no, I’m not jealous at how apt and hilarious and poignant all of his posts are. Why do you ask?) constantly points out the silliness of how we do business and how funders pay us.

When we live in a culture of poverty, we not only lack power, but we are suspicious and fearful of those who do have it. We don’t need to feel that way, though. Instead, we can join together and take courage. We can have conversations with our funders that provide them with honest feedback. We can demonstrate to them what it really costs to do the work we do, and how much we have to twist ourselves into human pretzels to do it within the competing parameters different funders require. We can ask them to help us help them get the impact they want - by funding the work appropriately and sufficiently.

And so, I urge you, dear countrymen and nonprofiteers, to speak up. What do you really need from your funders? How do you really need them to partner with you? What would your relationships with them look like in a world where they were truly working with you every day to make a difference in the world? Think about it. And then...say something. I dare you.

Here are my suggestions as to what you might ask for:

  • Sufficient overhead funding

  • Seed capital for very small pilots (minimum viable programs) that you can build, measure and learn from quickly and nimbly with little investment

  • Ongoing funding for programs that really do work

  • Simpler application processes

  • Capacity building

  • Funding for fundraising

  • Funding for evaluation (if you want it, you gotta pay, son!)

Godspeed. You got this.

The Nonprofit Culture of Poverty Part 1: How We Do

Nonprofits do the work of changing the world every single day. One of the ways we do that is through challenging systems and rebuilding structures that lead to oppression and poverty.

So, why has it taken us so long to do the same for ourselves?

The cycle of poverty continues for generations. People are born into it, and without a way to break the chain of circumstances, they remain within it. They lack familial resources to provide the intellectual, social and cultural capital that would allow them to accrue the right connections, financial capital and overall stability that would help them escape - and stay out of - poverty.

There are many approaches to dealing with the cycle of poverty. Most involve the development and infusion of education, financial resources and social-cultural supports that provide a framework for people who would like to move out of poverty. The most effective interventions target multiple generations - usually parents and children - to provide jobs and training for parents and early childhood education for the kids.

This blog is the first in a series that will examine the parallels between nonprofit organizational management and the culture of poverty. This installment will cover how we relate to ourselves, as a sector, and how we tend to operate day to day. I will also provide some ideas as to how we might begin to adapt our orientation toward poverty and scarcity, and instead move toward bigger mission impact and scaling world-changing work.

What The Nonprofit Cycle of Poverty Looks Like

Because I am aware of and sensitive to issues of poverty, and especially to generational poverty, I want to be careful and respectful in drawing this comparison. After years of working toward greater economic justice, and helping people get ahead financially and socially in life, I am aware the issues faced by people living in poverty are monstrous and devastating.

At the same time, I’m not known for my small opinions.

Here’s the thing: we nonprofits perpetuate our own version of generational poverty. We face similar cultural markers as the culture of poverty generally face. Dr. Ruby Payne identifies a few key areas where this may be observed in her book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” which I am glibly repurposing here (and I will recommend you read it, for all purposes, but mostly because it is really helpful). The ideas she covers in the book that stand out to me as pertaining to nonprofits are listed below. Please note, these cultural markers are not inherently negative and are not meant to be - they can be benefits and allow for survival - while simultaneously posing challenges when it comes to advancement and leaving poverty. I’ll use her labels, and expound on them from what I observe as to how nonprofits generally operate.

  • Importance of personality: We rely on charismatic leaders who can carry a cause forward - regardless, all too often, of their actual credentials or capabilities. We want flash, we want someone who can make the funders swoon. If this personality isn’t found in the CEO or Executive Director, chance are, it will be in the Development Director or another key leadership role.

  • Importance of relationships: Without relationships, nonprofits don’t exist. Period. Need funders? Check. Need donors? Check. Need board members? Check. All of these require significant investment in relationships, and place major pressure upon their success. Note: a lot of relationships in nonprofits are less than reciprocal. We often rely more on others than we think we provide in return. Notice I said “think.” That’s because we do provide major value - we’re just not great at talking about it.

  • Matriarchal structure: In nonprofits, this issue is complex. Women dominate the field by the numbers - about 75% of nonprofit employees are women, according to HR Council for Nonprofits - yet women represent only 33% of board leadership among nonprofits with budgets of $25 million or more annually. Given the sheer number of women in the ranks, nonprofits tend to operate under female guidance and influence on a day-to-day level. This disparity in representation in positions of leadership versus direct service and other positions has more to do with distribution of power, which I’ll cover in the next installment.

  • Oral-language tradition: I can’t begin to tell you how many nonprofits I’ve known and loved which had little or no written policy, procedure, cases for fundraising and on and on. They instead relied on people to relay this information as folklore.

  • Survival orientation: Never mind the daily existence of never having enough - down to locking the Post-it’s up in a cabinet lest they be wasted by frivolous staff members (an actual nonprofit job reality I once experienced) - let’s get down to how nonprofits position themselves for fundraising purposes. For all the appeals I’ve seen that are so rife with scarcity, they practically drip desperation, I would guess that most nonprofits are on the verge of closing their doors tomorrow, unless, of course, I can give them $25. Here’s the danger with Survival Orientation - it keeps us constantly treading water. We can keep our heads up just enough to get by and avoiding drowning - but it isn’t enough to get us to propel ourselves forward. By staying always focused on just getting by, we are not able to plan for the future, invest in our organizations, and advance our causes effectively. We are able, solely, to avoiding dying.

  • Identity for [employees] tied to rescuer/martyr role: The rescuer/martyr role that many nonprofit employees take on, and the attendant overwork and lack of investment in self-care (or support for employees, from the organizational standpoint) is responsible for the mass burnout and resultant turnover that happens in the nonprofit sector. It’s not ONLY this, but it is definitely an issue.

  • Ownership of people: As Dr. Payne describes it, this has to do with fear about people leaving their roots. In nonprofits, we do have concerns and difficulty when people leave an organization for another nonprofit, especially if it’s in another field. God forbid someone leave for the private sector. They may as well have never existed. It is my opinion that we would rather keep people where they are doing exactly what they do right now, than invest in them and help them advance their careers. This limits our succession options, and keeps us from hiring from within for executive management roles (only 21% of nonprofits do; compared with nearly 80% of for-profit businesses).

  • Polarized thinking: Some things are good, others are bad. Some people are good, others are bad. We do good things, corporations are bad (except when we need their money, obviously).

  • Time: Dr. Payne says it this way, “Time occurs only in the present. The future doesn’t exist - except as a word.” Nonprofits lack strategic plans that can help guide their priorities for several years at a time. That’s a big enough problem. But here’s the clincher: only 34% of nonprofits bother to produce written succession plans - as opposed to 85% of for-profit businesses. I don’t know if we think people never quit, retire, or die, but it sure as heck does speak to the Survival Orientation and present-focused time concepts.

  • Lack of order: Not all nonprofit offices look like a hoarder’s den, but a lot of them do. I once attended a meeting wherein the Executive Director had several garbage bags full of sheep’s wool in his office. He kindly offered me some, in case I liked to spin yarn, but alas, I’m not that cool. This weekend, I walked by a charitable mental health clinic and noticed with horror that the blinds were filthy and broken, the furniture was worn and the front door glass hadn’t been cleaned since the dawn of time. Why was this offensive to me? As someone who consumes mental health services, I know how hard it can be to ask for help in the first place. It can feel demoralizing and marginalizing to even seek out a therapist or counselor. To enter a building that looks like nobody gives a crap about the cleanliness and order can feel like a reflection on your own value. It’s not helpful.

Some or all of these items may be true of your nonprofit. If none of them are, that’s fantastic! Good for you! You should throw a parade with all the joyous energy you must have!

If some of these were true for you, though, I do think there are some things we can do to begin to shift this Nonprofit Cycle of Poverty. A little shift goes a long way.

How Nonprofits can Break Their Own Cycle of Poverty

Nonprofits have more power than we think we do. We are here to do the work of changing the world for the better. That’s it. It means a lot of different things to different people, but ultimately, the reason why nonprofit people get up every day is to make the world a better place. This is a noble thing to do - and it should be celebrated and appreciated. We can start by celebrating and appreciating ourselves more intentionally. We can start by shifting some of the habits and beliefs that are keeping the sector in a place of constant need instead of moving our missions forward and making the kind of positive impact we want to make on the world.

When it comes to these cultural markers, here are some suggestions about how to think about them differently to get a better result:

  • Importance of personality: Personality is valuable, but it is not the only thing that matters. We need to invest in credible leaders. People who exhibit high levels of integrity, competence, sound judgement, emotional intelligence and likability. We must consider what people actually bring to the table, including their track record and their performance. Do they do what they say they will do? Do they deliver the results that are most important to the mission? Do they make or recommend prudent (but also innovative) decisions? Do they exhibit strong and positive relationships with staff and others with whom they have relationships? Are they likable?

  • Importance of relationships: Instead of allowing our relationships to languish in asymmetry - with funders and supporters holding all or most of the power, consider approaching relationships as equals. Just because someone has money doesn’t make them know more than you do about your business. Yes, be respectful, inquisitive and kind. But don’t let your power get sucked out of the transaction.

  • Matriarchal structure: We can do two things that come to mind on this front: increase the involvement of men in nonprofit work at all levels of the field; and increase the representation of women in high-level positions of influence and decision making.

  • Oral-language tradition: It’s great to have an oral history. It’s better to record and document it. Create processes and structures, develop organizational stories and document them, ensure people in your organization understand what is happening now, what has happened in the past, and where you are going next. Keep track of it, and make these stories intentional and...again...document them. Especially policies and procedures. Please. For the love of all that is good.

  • Survival orientation: The only way we will make the kind of world-change we hope to make is by taking a long-view. We can’t do that when we are always barely surviving as organizations. We can’t build reserves when we can’t make payroll. We can’t make payroll when none of our funders will pay for staff costs (ahem, read the upcoming July 20th post for more on this). The key here is to think ahead, get through the panic of right now, and take steps toward the future.

  • Identity for [employees] tied to rescuer/martyr role: It’s not your job to save everybody - not everybody wants to be saved. First of all, this is a paternalistic and condescending stance. Ironic, isn’t it? Second, it will kill you if you live as a martyr (hence, the name, “martyr,” which clearly refers to people dying for a cause. Live for a cause. Live for it, and do the best you can do. And take care of yourself. Prioritize self-care for you, and insist upon it as an organizational value.

  • Ownership of people: Switch to supporting people. Respect them and help them find the best way to be self-determined in their lives. What do they want to do? Who do they want to be? Help them find that, and do it. Even if they advance, or leave. Think of ways to help people move forward into leadership. Invest in their professional and personal development (and yours).

  • Polarized thinking: Life is full of gray areas. It’s not always possible to know all the right answers to something. Open dialogue. Lead the way through asking questions.

  • Time: I may harp on this constantly, but, oh well. I will until everybody gets these two things figured out: you need a strategic plan and a succession plan. They go hand in hand. One without the other is still worth doing, but not nearly as powerful. And I don’t mean a strategic plan that is fancy and takes forever and sits on a shelf. I mean a strategic plan that allows you to take quick and responsive action now, with room for adjustments and advancement long into the future. Succession planning forces an organization to think of the future and to make sure staff and board are ready for it. Succession planning asks the questions: what do we intend to accomplish? Who will help us accomplish this? How we will help them to get ready for that responsibility? And then, creates a way for that to happen.

  • Lack of order: Look. You don't have to spend a lot of cash to make your office presentable. Clean it up. Make it feel welcoming. Make sure your clients, funders and visitors feel welcome. Keep it classy, even if you can’t afford a lot of fancy stuff. This is a matter of respect, at its core.

Nonprofits have thus far engendered a culture of poverty, living in scarcity and limits that are not helpful in advancing our missions. If we want to make a change, we must shift our thinking - our beliefs - about what it means to work in a nonprofit, and how a nonprofit ought to be run.

Check out Wednesday’s post for Part 2 of this series.

Everybody's Leaving Your Nonprofit - Could Your Culture Be the Culprit?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” thus saith the management dreamlover, Peter Drucker.

For someone who wrote the book on Strategic Planning That Actually Works (#shamelessplug), it says a lot that I completely agree.

Strategy is great, but what good does it do for an organization to be epic on strategy while running off the fumes of a negative culture? What good does it do for a nonprofit to get all the grants ever in the world while they can barely limp through the day because everybody in the building wants desperately to leave? How can we be of service to anybody when we treat our own staff like crap?

I ask you.

There are a lot of articles making the rounds about how to spot a bad culture, and this will be added to that glorious cannon. But, because I’m an optimist and a self-proclaimed sailor-tongued change agent, I also want to provide you with just a little bit of an idea as to how one might rectify such a culture, so you can go about your business of changing the world. After all, if your organization can’t first “be the change you want to see in the world,” (thus saith the nonviolent mastermind of the earth, freakin’ Mahatma Ghandi), you won’t change anything else.

How to Spot Bad Organizational Culture in Your Nonprofit

Here are some red flags to consider to see whether your culture might be a bit sour:

  • Your turnover rate puts the most prolific pastry baker to shame. That is, people jump ship regularly. If your turnover rate is over 15% annually, it’s probably too high. Don’t ignore it: find out why this is happening. For more on that, check out my “Straight Talk About Nonprofit Turnover.” You need to hear it, trust me.

  • There is a distinct need for staff to practice CYA (cover your ass, pardon my French - also, I warned you I was a sailor-tongued change agent, and hence, here we are). Staff may be more concerned with making sure they don’t get canned (so to speak), or otherwise in trouble than they are with doing good work.

  • Blame is rampant. Meanwhile, accountability is nowhere to be found. It’s easy to point fingers - until the finger points at you, and you reluctantly realize maybe this was your thing…oops. Is it safe to take accountability for something? Is accountability a word that makes you quiver and hide?

  • Communication is guarded at best, nonexistent at worst. Staff have to stifle maniacal laughter and/or tears of rage when management mentions words like “transparent.”

  • People call in sick. Like, a lot. And they don’t live in houses built on old landfills or anything, so you wonder…Absenteeism is a massive clue that something may be amiss with your culture.

  • People cry a lot at work. This isn’t a joke. It’s something that does happen, and happened CONSTANTLY where I used to work (myself included). Let’s be real here - we expect people to compartmentalize and buck up at work. Well...that’s not real, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think it is. If it isn’t crying, it’s getting angry. It’s shutting down. It’s somehow funneling overwhelming emotion somewhere, anywhere, in hopes of getting through the day.

  • Every time someone leaves – voluntarily or no (see: Turnover), the remaining staff get super paranoid and freaked out and speculate endlessly as to why the “newly available to the marketplace” person left. These conversations tend to be secret, and/or quashed by management at every turn.

  • The board is disengaged or appears to be controlled by the CEO or Executive Director.

  • The CEO or Executive Director appears disengaged or too engaged. When leaders over-identify with their jobs, they can get...weird...about it.

  • The organization has expanded beyond the leadership’s ability to manage it, so they inadvertently sabotage growth and progress. Changing their minds every time they give a directive, but not acknowledging the flip-flop? Withholding critical resources you need to do the job? Setting key people up to fail by not training, or not allocating support, or otherwise setting unrealistic expectations? Starting a project too big to chew, and choking on it halfway through? Define processes only to have them flouted immediately?

  • People spend more time complaining about the work environment than actually doing work. Meanwhile, management is like, “guys! Work harder! What gives?”

  • Lip service may be paid to “self-care,” but management doesn’t model or encourage it, and may instead model workaholic behavior. Others are expected to follow suit or “do as I say not as I do.” For instance, when the boss sends emails to employees late into the night, or while on vacation, employees feel compelled to work constantly and always be available and “on,” even while management may insist they want people not to do that.

  • Departments and individuals carefully guard their “territory” and resist calls for collaboration or sharing responsibility and working toward common results.

  • Try as you may, you can’t get staff to align on priorities or results…or nobody knows what they are, or what their role in achieving them is, and don’t know who to ask.

  • Bottlenecks abound. One person, or a few people, have input on every decision that ever has to be made, creating backlogs, slowing progress, and irritating everyone.

  • There is little or no autonomy. People have to get approval for everything, or they are observed and managed so tightly and severely, they feel like they’re in The Gulag.

  • People gossip constantly. They put other people down. Complaints about other peoples’ performance fill the halls, but never seem to reach a level of actually doing anything about it. The tone of conversation is conspiratorial and generally negative.

  • There is no staff development or effort to create opportunities for staff to advance through the ranks and into leadership.

  • A “hero culture” is exalted – wherein busyness and overwork are the norm, whether it gets any actual results or not.

  • Your organization is rife with mission mirroring, a phenomenon wherein a nonprofit reflects the condition it aims to solve in the community within the organization itself. An organization that fights poverty may underpay, overwork, and otherwise oppress its staff. An organization that fights domestic violence may abuse or otherwise harm employees. An organization that seeks freedom of expression may tightly manage internal and external communications.

Whew! That’s not even an exhaustive list. It’s just scratching the surface of a very deeply unfortunate way of doing business.

Here’s the truth: Nonprofits with bad culture are more common than we might think.

It may not be the norm (I truly hope not), but because it is so common, it bears addressing. When we get a bunch of well-meaning people together in one place, we can use their passion and power for good, or we can exploit it. More often than not, our nonprofit scarcity mentality (Never enough money! Always too much work! Oh, the humanity!) influences our (in)ability to create a positive culture.

Why? Because: culture is the result of intentional or unintentional conditions. We always have culture, whether we choose it or not. The key is, we have complete ability to define and uphold an organizational culture that is healthy and mission-focused. The problem with our thinking in the nonprofit world is that we honestly believe we don’t have the time or money to invest in culture. We think it’s a waste of time and resources. I know this is true because the evidence is more than ample to prove it. We don’t have leadership pipelines. We don’t care that our turnover rate is, on average, 19% - and in some industries and cases much, much higher. We don’t bother to hire from within. We don’t pay people what they deserve to get paid.

And we usually don’t stop long enough to ponder - “is this OK?” (it’s not).

Once You Realize It Isn’t OK to Foster a Crappy Culture…

Now that you know what you’re looking at, and have, hopefully, unlocked the reason(s) behind your misery and/or the misery of others, you can do something about it.

Because this is distressing, and because it works, I’m going to start off with a little tiny primer on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Your thinking influences your emotions, and your emotions influence your behavior. Your behavior gets you results - positive or negative.

Now, this works to do all kinds of good things in life in general. You can learn to change the way you think so you can change the way you feel, and when you change the way you feel, you can choose better behaviors, which will lead to better outcomes.

When it comes to culture, you can use these ideas. The trick is? Do it backwards.

- with a nod to the fabulous book, “Change the Culture, Change the Game”  by Roger Connors and Tom Smith.

  • Define your desired results. What do you want to achieve? What is your greatest mission-based result? Name it, prioritize it, plaster it everywhere. Tattoo it on your face. Make it known. What do you actually want to accomplish? This is not your entire mission. This is just what you’d like to accomplish in the next quarter or year. It’s a way to focus everybody on the same result.

  • Understand what kind of behaviors and actions will accomplish the result you want. Tell everybody. Help them see what you want them to do. Then, and this is key, you need to do it too. Culture change happens when the managers and leaders of an organization decide to make a change. They have to be on board with behaving differently so that others will take it seriously and believe it is going to be different. If you want to be a leader, you have to - HAVE TO - commit to being a better person, constantly, every day.

  • Identify the beliefs and ways of thinking that support the actions and behaviors you want people to take. At the same time, identify the ways of thinking and beliefs - warranted or no - that people currently hold in your organization. What can stay? What must change?

  • Create an environment that supports the ability of everyone to adapt and change their beliefs by providing a new experience for staff. The experience includes you making amends when needed (seriously, print out a 12-step program if you need to - this is a healing effort and it won’t be easy - you will have to admit that as a leader - or as a participant in the culture at any level - you have made mistakes and done some things wrong). The experience includes new ways of communicating - be clearer, more transparent, more direct. It includes clarity in direction. It includes addressing issues of performance early and clearly. It includes celebrating and rewarding the things you want to see more of, instead of tacitly rewarding things that are damaging and undermining to the kind of culture you want to intentionally create.

Can a bad culture be turned around to good? Sure. With a lot of effort and intentional work. Without a decent culture, though, your efforts will not be as fruitful as they otherwise could be. This is bad enough in a private sector organization. It is unacceptable in nonprofits, which exist purely and completely to provide positive returns to the community. If you waste your donor money, and your precious time languishing in a bad culture, you are doing a disservice to the world, and to your mission.

Don’t think you have the time or money to invest in culture change? Wrong. You can’t afford NOT to do it. As infomercial-esque as that sounds, it is absolutely true. Strategy is the delicious breakfast of culture. It can be a healthy and nourishing meal, or it can be the carnage of failure. It’s up to you to decide which.

A Nonprofit By Any Other Name

A year ago, I wrote a blog post called “Why ‘Nonprofits’ Should Be Banned.” It was the kind of sensational title people tell you to use when you want attention. It was contrarian enough to get some buzz, (I hoped - I was so new to blogging I think just a couple of my diehard fans - read: friends who would do anything for me, up to and, for some of them, including, reading my blog - even saw it). It was ranty and ravey and full of vim and vinegar, if you’ll excuse the malapropism.

It has come up lately, thanks to a grander nonprofit publication than that which my simple little blog represents, that the Nonprofit Sector ought to perhaps be named something else. Maybe we should call ourselves, the “Impact Sector” (now hiring crash test dummies!) or “The Third Sector” (creepy and connotes a wonderful sort of classism right in the name!) or “The Independent Sector” (because we totally don’t depend on the kindness of strangers to fund our work...wait…) or “The Social Sector” (since people who don’t know any better won’t get us confused with social media, of course)...and so on. I clearly have a retort for every proposed name. And there’s a reason for that.

There are two huge problems (among others) with rebranding a sector that still has lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of work to do on itself:

  1. It misses the point entirely (“Name it something new and people won’t remember the Soylent Green is people! Maybe, ‘S-Gee ‘would be hip and cool! Put it in minimalist packaging and we are in business, baby!”);

  2. It wastes valuable time, energy and resources that could be better utilized rectifying the issues that we actually face.

My “Ban Nonprofits” blog focused on the culture that I insisted was “ruining everything” (I have never been known for understatement). This culture is one of scarcity and feeling “less-than.” It is one where we downplay our contribution to the betterment of the world out of, I don’t even know - humility? Fear? Subservience?

By way of example, I have this conversation constantly:

SOME PERSON: How can you make a living working with nonprofits? Do they even have money to pay you?

ME:  *uncontrollable, barely concealed eye roll* Yes. Nonprofit is not a literal term. Isn’t that funny? It just means that nonprofit businesses don’t accrue financial benefit to shareholders. Instead, the funds they accrue [note: you should be accruing some funds, and if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong and we should talk #shamelessplug] are reinvested into the mission of the organization. The social benefits they create benefit society as a whole.

SOME PERSON, very confused: Social benefits, like social media??

ME: Uhhhh...Not that. Social benefits like, things that make the world a better place. Sorry I used jargon. My bad.

This is repeated on a near daily basis. This is the problem with the general perception of nonprofits - people seem to think “aw! They are just poor, poor organizations doing nice things and of course they can’t pay for anything, so let’s give them our castoffs or a lesser version of a service or product that we provide other types of businesses, but do it cheap or free (P.S. You get what you pay for).” It’s snobbery (and I’m not sorry I said it).  

There are pockets - the social innovation pockets, and the places where people are actually quantifying and proving their impact and communicating about it very well - where nonprofits are rising above this perception. This is wonderful! It gives us the opportunity to lift all boats, as people who pioneer new and better ways of doing nonprofit business help others along the way. It does not, however, warrant a name change for the sector.

Look, people need education anyway. We can call ourselves whatever the heck we want. I don’t care if we call ourselves the “The Third Independent Social Impact Brigade.” The point is, we have to understand and invest in changing the things that have marginalized our sector all along. Here are a few of them, just for reference:

  • When someone asks us to “do more with less” we should kick and scream and say “Absolutely not, because that is stupid. Please give us the appropriate amount of money required to do this work, or it can’t be done well.” Do more with more, baby. More with more. It’s just math.

  • When someone is deconstructing their offices built in 1957 and offering their office equipment to our nonprofits, perhaps decline and ask instead for a modest financial donation that will allow you to buy office equipment made in this century. The only time to consider saying yes to this offering is if the office equipment happens to be super rad mid-century modern office furniture. Then, by all means, take it! And invite me over, because I love that stuff.

  • Turnover. Maybe we should figure out why our staff flee the sector so rampantly. It is devastating. It’s a brain drain. It costs serious (but hidden) money for us to plug the holes they leave.

  • Succession. Maybe we should realize people retire, or leave (see Turnover, above), and that we might maybe possibly sometime think about planning for that eventuality.

  • When people ask us what we accomplish, we should know. And we should know how we know. It isn’t just a gut feeling that things improve here or there because of our work. We must measure our results and we have to be confident in them.

  • One word: OVERHEAD. No. I have more words on this, after all. We need to be able to invest in infrastructure, management and fundraising. This is not a luxury, it is a necessity and we, as a sector, do ourselves no favors when we pretend we can make things work on almost no money. Let’s band together and be real about this issue. We need funds to be less restricted - and that leads me to the next thing:

  • NONPROFITS ARE RUN BY COMPETENT GROWN-UPS WHO CAN BE TRUSTED TO INVEST DONOR AND FOUNDATION FUNDS IN THE MISSION WISELY. This is not always true, of course, because now and then we have a super scandalous fraud case on our hands, and that is a shame. However, instead of behaving as if only people with lots of money who might give us some of it know anything, let’s do better work on oversight and fraud prevention, and institute stronger financial controls because we take ourselves seriously and realize thinking everybody is nice around here is not a financial control…*deep breath* so we can build trust with society about our ability to be trusted with money.

  • Career ladders for people within nonprofit organizations who would like to advance is virtually nonexistent and this needs to change. This is my last rant for the day on this topic, but the way we treat early and mid-career professionals in our sector is egregious. Invest in your people and they will invest in you. Our entire sector will be stronger, more productive, and people will notice.

A nonprofit by any other name would be as amazing. Let’s reach our potential. Let’s put our energy and time and conversation and brainpower into changing things that matter. Let’s invest in ourselves and realize the Nonprofit Sector is powerful. Be mighty.

When You Accidentally Care What People Think

I don’t know about you, but ever since I was a kid, people have told me, over and over again, that it doesn’t matter what other people think. Be yourself! Don’t worry about the haters! Of course, this is usually tempered with some limits - “as long as you make me happy” or “don’t mess with my world” or “don’t rock the boat too much…”

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can achieve this fabled sense of freedom - we can eschew the roles and requirements of civil society (to a point) and be completely and totally ourselves, without fear and without shame. Sometimes, we can let go of our need to have a title to make us feel important and complete. Sometimes, we can make decisions based on trusting ourselves and our gut and not worrying so much about what our parents or friends or partners or kids or bosses will think. Sometimes, we think we really can handle life and all the challenges of running a nonprofit with a big mission, or a business with heart, or raising kids who will hopefully turn out to be pretty good people.


If we get really good at doing this self-empowered thinking and action because we practice and practice and practice it, we can make it a habit. We can find ourselves cruising along through life, easefully and with joy. We can see ourselves making a difference in the world, achieving the kind of impact we envisioned, and having fun while we do it.

Yet, sometimes - sometimes even when we have achieved a level of “not caring what other people think,” we might find ourselves in a little dip. A little moment of self-doubt. A few days of nagging, sinking dread that is hard to notice at first. Until, suddenly, we realize: “I think I might actually care what people think!” Oh, crap.

It’s not a pleasant thought, really. It’s not something most of us wake up to and relish. Most of the time, when it happens to me, I feel a bit let down. I feel kind of betrayed by my own psyche. “Come on, self! We were doing so well! We were totally cooking with gas! Don’t slow us down now!”

And psyche just gives a little shrug and stares back at me, like, “Well?”

This happened to me recently. I do consulting work for nonprofits, and one of my main contracts was up for renewal. The contract was for work I absolutely adore - and yet, the time it took to conduct the work had become onerous. My business is growing - on the verge of really taking off - and I was devoting more than half my work time to this one contract every week. It wasn’t really sustainable. So, I asked for what I needed. I’m hiring an assistant, and I’d like to delegate some of the work to this person - the work that is not confidential or otherwise regulated (it’s a sub-sub-contract on a Federal grant). They said no. Then, they added more work to the contract.

I was faced with a real choice, here.

Do I trust myself and my ability to grow my business faster and on my own terms? Do I believe that is possible? Answer to both: YES.

If I let this contract go, will I be able to continue building my business? Will I make enough money to cover expenses and more? Answer: I think so...

And then…”But what if I’m just irrational and blindly optimistic? What would [fill in the blank person] say? Maybe I’m not good enough, or I’m delusional, or everybody thinks I’m crazy or stupid or don’t have anything important to offer.” You know this kind of thinking, right? The spiral of asking a fairly reasonable question: “am I sure about this?” quickly giving way to “Nothing I have ever done was OK and I think maybe I’m the worst and everybody else thinks so too!” Right? Not helpful.

This layer of doubt lingered on top of my conviction that I can and will write my own ticket doing what I was born to do. I will. If it isn’t this, it will be something else. That doubt, though, made me susceptible to what other people think. My guard was down.

It didn’t help that while I was already reeling in my own self-doubt and second-guessing, someone confronted me about a book I wrote last year, where I wrote about real people in my real life in a very raw and honest way. It was someone whose story had been disguised, telling a story that happened 20 years ago - but that a third party had told my friend I had “stabbed her and her husband in the back.” I disagree. The chapter wasn’t about her, and it wasn’t mean-spirited...but she wouldn’t read it, choosing to instead believe the other person’s (I think unfair) assessment of what I wrote.

That little voice, “I must have done something wrong. I shouldn’t have written that book at all. What was I thinking to be so vulnerable? I should have just never said anything.”

That tangled up “need” to be understood - to get the benefit of the doubt - to be heard - it reared its head. And I had some more choices.

Do I just apologize? Do I explain myself? Was I really wrong to write that book? Didn’t I know this would happen (yes)...

So, what now?

Meanwhile, the rest of me battled to restore my sense of confidence and contentment with being a little…”different.”

Which reminds me of one of my favorite movies, What’s Up Doc, featuring the most adorable version of Barbara Streisand ever known to mankind. Her character, Judy, is a bit off-beat. She says:

Judy: I know I’m different, but from now on I’m going to try and be the same.

Howard: The same as what?

Judy: The same as people who aren’t different.  

This is a perfect quote. Because it means nothing.

If you’re not different, I guess you’re just the same. And what does that even mean?

Here’s What I Did When I Accidentally Cared What People Think

When we find ourselves under layers and layers of emotions and self-doubt, and confusion, and in-our-heads-conversations about what we should do, where we should go, how we should’s time to stop for a moment (or a lot of moments) to clear our heads and hearts.

When this was happening to me, I stopped what I was doing and spent some time taking deeper breaths. It was a mini-meditation. I just sat with myself and felt what I felt. I felt the gnawing anxiety of making a choice I didn’t want to have to make. I felt the disappointment at being a disappointment to someone else. I felt the sadness of loss and letting go of something I love. I felt the excitement of getting to devote myself more completely to what I truly want to do. I felt the elation of forgiveness - for myself and others - for misunderstandings and rifts. I felt the freedom of letting go of my need to control. I felt the joy of remembering all the times in my life when I’ve been OK - no matter what was happening around me - no matter who loved me or hated me, no matter what my job was or wasn’t - no matter how much money I had or didn’t have…

I just stopped.

And allowed the emotions to exist.

It’s really easy to pile on emotions, avoid them, judge them, and end up with an even bigger, twisted up pile if we don’t tend to them. It’s easy to pretend we’re OK and just barrel on. Or to give in to the doubts and do the easiest thing, or what feels safest.

But those things? Strong-arming our way through life, or playing small? Those things are not usually the best choices. The best choices are something altogether different.

Being determined is good. Making wise decisions when it comes to risk is good.

Being true to what you really want and know you need, even if you have to stop and think about it for a while - that’s even better.

Once I stopped and felt all the feelings, I asked myself these questions:

On the contract: Will this allow me to live out my purpose in the world in a big enough way that I am willing to sacrifice my other plans to do it? (Answer: no); If I let this contract go and need to replace all this money, can I think of ways to do it? (Answer: yes); Can I trust myself to actually do those things to see if they work? (Answer: YES). That last one is the key. “Can I trust myself to do this?”

On the book: Did I actively and knowingly harm anybody when I wrote this book? (Answer: no); Do I need other peoples’ permission and approval to tell my own story? (Answer: no); Has this book served a purpose other than making me “feel better” or gossip or complain? (Answer: yes). Do I need to apologize for putting it into the world? (Answer: NO). That last one, again, is key. This is a question of regret. Sometimes, other people will not receive what you do. If you’re saying something true and huge and challenging, a certain number of people will reject it and you with it. That’s true. It hurts, but it is true. Do I believe in my message enough to allow this truth to be what it is? Yes.

After these questions, I set intentions, made plans, and started executing.

My intention for my friend on the book debacle: to offer love, compassion, understanding, and set things right as best I can - and then, let it go. I can’t force a relationship, and I can’t force someone else to understand me or what I say. This is true, and it is OK. I sent a thoughtful message back, hoping to offer love. I let it go. I love her, and can love her from afar. That’s what I’ll choose.

My intention for the contract: to offer what I hope might be a mutually workable solution, and accept it if they say no. Either way, to reinvest in my business, train my sales team, get my content development up and on schedule, and write my next book. They did say no, and I have started the book. I’ve started training my awesome people.

What now? The sky’s the limit.

Caring what other people think in a way that bogs us down, or keeps us small, or makes us hesitant to speak the truth or move our lives forward is a trap. It’s a trap that keeps us from making the difference we can and must make in the world. It keeps us from being truly happy. It keeps us from loving ourselves and others as deeply and surely as we know we have the capacity to love. It keeps us stuck and stagnant.

Letting it go - through stopping, feeling, sensing, thinking, intending, planning and executing the plan - can provide us with a consistent (albeit, occasionally challenged) foundation of strength, power and energy to do what we are here on earth to do. Go do it!