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.


Not ANOTHER Nonprofit

About a year ago I was teaching a class on fundraising for a local university. Bright kids, good questions. After the session, they worked on an assignment, and I lingered to help out. Not after too long, one student approached with a question that didn’t really fit the scope of the class. When I asked her to clarify, she responded: “Because I want to start my own nonprofit.” 


Disappointment, personified.

I’m not one to crush dreams, though in that moment I felt like the Hulk (smash). She went on to explain what her nonprofit would do, which was to provide super-specialized care to a hyper-select population of women-in-need. Essentially, Planned Parenthood with a different logo.

We see this a lot in the field. Eager, emerging nonprofiteers who have so much energy, they just want to get out and do their own thing. They’re everywhere, and truth be told, many of them are great, energizing colleagues. BUT. I believe wholly in the process of experience, through which we often learn about doing our best work by being part of something, rather than being our own something. [Aside: At the end of the movie SLC Punk, after years of fighting the establishment, the main punk yields and decides to become a lawyer, noting: “We can do a hell of a lot more damage in the system than outside of it.”]

In Houston (Harris County) where I live, there are over 26,000 nonprofits. That’s nearly one organization per 175 people — numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole truth. Many of these institutions are doing fine work, great work. However, unless this student herself had the answer to all women’s reproductive issues — and I doubt she did — I felt compelled to encourage her to spend some time working in and around the field. You know, before making the leap to incorporating, identifying a board, filing with the state/IRS, putting together an inaugural fundraising plan, crafting a marketing/branding strategy, etc., etc., etc.

There are some great, new nonprofits out there. Some have found a niche, aren’t duplicative in their efforts and have traction — I volunteer on the board for one such organization, and got involved because of the founder’s passion. We did it the right way by putting together a strong team that is playing the long game. I suppose that’s my takeaway: make moves, but first take baby steps.


You. Are. Not. Seasoned.

A delicious steak is lightly seasoned. Middle Eastern chicken might be zataar-seasoned. A nonprofiteer in their early 30s — not seasoned. I learned this lesson the hard way a while back on a resume-updating exercise.

A friend was helping to improve my materials, and poked at how I boldly described myself as a “seasoned nonprofit leader,” which was a stretch. At best, he clarified, I was “experienced.” That new, accurate resume put me on a pretty awesome new path, though it came with some hits to my title. I realized then, titles are just words, and it built perspective for me on how I interpret my work, and how I represent myself in the field.

I’m sure, like me, you see evidence of it all over LinkedIn and the interwebs: people with modest experience who drink a bit too much Narcissism Juice. I find it sad on a practical level, because I can actually see potential in some of these folks… maybe five or 10 years down the road, with the right leadership.

Maybe I’m biased, given my background — I’m a recovering nonprofit arts producer-turned-fundraiser. And boy, if you ever want to see ego in action, look no further than creative nonprofits. Perhaps we do that ourselves, and perhaps it’s bred by competition, but I think always and in all ways we should strive to be better, not just “better than.”

Heck, maybe it’s as simple as reading more Jim Collins. Maybe all we need is that right leader, or opportunity. But one thing I know for sure — a steak ain’t ready til it’s ready, and that just takes time.


Loic Djim (Unslplash)


…Thank You?

It’s a simple enough thing, saying “thank you.” It doesn’t even need to be those exact words — Thanks so much! Appreciate it! Xièxiè! With much ease, there are myriad ways to show gratitude. It’s the only sentiment I know in nine different languages, because I wholly believe it’s that important. And it’s one of the most glaring missed opportunities I’ve found in nonprofits.

I had a manager once who seemed allergic to the words. Even some of the worst bosses feign being grateful… sociopathically. However, I can count on one hand the number of times this particular one actually took a moment to thank me, or anyone for that matter. I can’t tell you how crappy that made me feel on almost a daily basis.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not (entirely) needy. Not every single thing done needs an overwhelming display of recognition. But I tell you what… in all my years seeing people disenfranchised with, or because of nonprofit work, never once was it the result of too much appreciation. Have you ever known someone who left an organization because they were thanked too often?

There’s no great mystery to it, and I once neatly heard the concept phrased as an attitude of gratitude. And I really do think it can be an attitude or, more specifically, a behavior.

I have really fond memories of a peer who really lived this attitude. He was the organization’s tech/AV/guru-of-all-things; you know, one of those positions that works 100-hour weeks with little praise. He approached every single interaction with grace, even (and especially) if it didn’t go smoothly. He would always thank me for my time and my input, and it made me value his time and input even more.

All this is to say… approach your work and your colleagues as if their support is welcome, and makes a difference, even if it’s that one boss who never does the same for you. You’ll thank yourself for it later.


Morvanic Lee (Unsplash)


Weightlifting and Work

My wife and I exercise at LA Fitness. I don’t know about all their locations, but the one near us is filled with lots of DudeBros. If that’s an unfamiliar term, let me clarify. You can most easily recognize a DudeBro by some of the following traits:

  • Grunting (often)
  • Taking up multiple machines at one time
  • An overwhelming scent of Axe Body Spray
  • Meandering around the gym using their phone

Apart from all that, you will often find them trying unsuccessfully to lift more weight than they can manage. That, my friends, is a problem I notice all the time around the nonprofit world.

It’s okay for something to be a challenge. Some of the best colleagues I know are people who thrive under a little pressure. However, if there’s any chance you can’t finish what you started, re-think what you’re doing or ask for some help. This could be one of the myriad reasons there is mind-boggling turnover in our field. Someone lands somewhere, bites off more than they can chew, and then they flee. Heck, in fundraising the average tenure is only 16 months; that’s not even enough time to figure out where they keep the good coffee.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. A lot of it relates to hiring practices, how honest the organization is when it brings in someone new (so do all the staff have to pick up the ED’s kid from daycare?), the environment and so on.

But seriously, think of your efforts in your jobs much like you would weightlifting — don’t lift it up if you can’t see it through. Rant, over.