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)