Lo, Low-Key Braggarts

I started noticing this trend during Hurricane Harvey. For sure it wasn’t a new trend, though it only then caught my attention: people doing good-enough, selfless deeds, but not without posting serious self-kudos on social media. This was in Houston (TX), but with so many natural disasters happening around the U.S., I’m sure people see it often, throughout the country.

But why rant about this here? Well, the people I noticed doing this the most seemed to be my fellow nonprofiteers. Not that they were the only ones out there volunteering, delivering food, being good humans… but I’ll tell you it wasn’t my oil-and-gas, for-profit friends whose Facegrams and Instabooks were filled with low-key brags.


Caveat: This is a rant, not a diatribe. Lots of folks were posting calls to action, i.e. “I’m here at the Convention center; here’s what they need and here’s what you need to know if you’re coming out…” and as someone who was interested in lending a hand, I saw those as helpful, if not meaningful.

If I had to distill down the reason why this happens so often in nonprofits, I’d probably say — ego. And by ego, I obviously mean the Urban Dictionary definition“The main reason that I am better than you.” Ego can be an incredibly useful tool. It can get people to dream big about seemingly impossible (or improbable) outcomes. The flip side, of course, is self-aggrandizement, which is rampant in our field. If you spend enough time on this blog, you’ll notice people’s opinions of themselves is a sticking point for me.

On a more work-related level, I think LinkedIn is the other primary venue for undercover gloating. I mean, no one really cares you got invited to participate with some lackluster panel discussion about [insert benign topic here]. Well, maybe your mother cares, but probably not the entirety of the Internet. And why don’t they care? Because there’s no call to action (see above). Instead of just boasting about [benign topic], tell us why we should care. Tell us what impact it will have on us, our work, the field, etc. Maybe then we’ll “like” it or “share” it or even leave a comment. Oooooooooooooo.

Rant, over, but to help drive the point home, please enjoy this chart I made with Microsoft Paint. Thank you very much.



Work Hard, Not Smart

The Scene: Work. Early winter, mid-day. Left hand cramped from signing ~300 fundraising appeal letters. Jimmy Eat World on Spotify.

What’s an appeal letter” you say? Well, it’s a donation request for some program, event or cause. I’m sure, like me, you get dozens of them in the mail from various nonprofits throughout the year. And, like me, I’m sure most of those envelopes get flipped upside down to the blank side and used as scrap paper for your grocery list.

At my organization, we hand-sign all these letters — and usually add some type of little sentiment — rather than printing a digital signature. It’s a bit of work, though evidence shows personalization like this goes a long way. So that winter afternoon, I sat there, signing this mound of letters, and I thought to myself: there must be an easier way. I’m technically a millennial, so ideas like that creep into my brain once in a while. Work smart not hard, right?


Tom Hilton (Flickr)

Don’t get me wrong: when possible, it’s great to have steps in place that make things run, and run easily. We don’t need to always reinvent the wheel, and a system can be a good thing. However, in nonprofits, the philosophy of why we do what we do can easily get lost in this idea of infinite streamlining. Mechanisms for things like mail merges, donation processing, e-mail newsletter sign-ups… all great. Fast-tracking meaningful engagement with our stakeholders, however, not great.

Back to the letters… The Jimmy Eat World song ringing through my speakers at that moment reminded me that, sometimes, the one way of getting out is throughYou could spend hours devising shortcuts for your work, though sometimes getting it done just takes time. Like when I have a list of donors with whom I want to connect; copying/pasting the same email (ctrl+c – ctrl+v – send) is a real easy way to plow through the task, but how great it is to slow down, pick up the phone and actually do a meaningful thing.

Anyway, I did eventually get through signing all those letters, and I thanked myself for all that hard work with an extra-large bag of peanut M&Ms. Not the smartest thing to do.


Sharing Means Caring

Can you picture yourself in a staff meeting where the ED goes around the table and forces everyone to share something deeply personal?

I can.

This was a repeat exercise for me at one point. Our ED introduced the activity (called share time) during our weekly gatherings, and it went over about as well as you’d imagine. We started all meetings this way, with one staffer each week awkwardly answering whatever benign topic the ED chose as that meeting’s “theme.”


There was a lot of this.

In all my years nonprofiteering, I’ve prided myself on being a good colleague. I’m hyper-collaborative, honest and I don’t take myself too seriously. People feel open with me, so they share things. Ideas, challenges, gossip… it’s all very natural. Forcing people to share, care or otherwise feign connectivity, however, has never been my M.O., and I believe that to be a pretty bold expression of ineffectual leadership.

I live in Houston, where over 250,000 people (page 22) have jobs in some way connected to the energy sector — what I call the “real world” — including many friends. So while I float in nonprofit circles, this real world is all around me, offering up cues on business best practices, Human Resource issues and so on. When I talk with these friends about things like share time, responses are usually akin to “yeah, that wouldn’t fly where I work.” It’s comforting to be validated, but at the same time, depressing.

There are too many genuine, honest ways to engage with people at work. It baffles me sometimes just how difficult that can be for some people in nonprofits, where we’re supposed to be mission-driven, passionate stewards of goodness.

Alas, we choose what we choose, and I’m glad to be in a place with no share time. Shoutout to all my homies still fighting the uphill battle of ridiculousness — may your staff meetings be filled with useful things, instead of forced, time-wasting conversations that could have been emails.