Thoughts

Got ABS, bro?

Abs are great and all, but have you ever tried being a great steward of the trust your donors put in you by contributing to your organization?

See for me, that’s abs: Always Be Stewarding. It’s somewhat of a lifestyle for me, the way exercise might be for others. I write about it a lot, though I’m not sure it can be overstated.

Over 15 years in and around nonprofits, one sees myriad ways of demonstrating appreciation. Some organizations barely scratch the surface (thank you letters/emails) while others are utter rockstars with full stewardship programs (donor newsletter, event invitations).

Forever I worked in arts and culture, before transitioning to other types of nonprofiteering. Different sectors appreciate their donors differently, though I’ve consistently found a foolproof practice of sharing what you might consider “mission moments.” In this way, rather than telling donors what they get for their giving, show them how their generosity makes a difference.

I tried this at the end of last fiscal year a simple one-page letter with five short paragraphs, each spotlighting a different area of our work. I titled it simply, “impacts and benefits.” Nowhere in the letter did it ask for anything, rather, it was straight appreciation. This wasn’t novel, and in fact, it was a lightbulb idea after talking with a friend who’s a donor to the organization. And something funny happened.

A few weeks later, we started getting checks in the mail. And most of them were additional gifts beyond what the donors had already gave — not renewals of previous gifts, but increases. Again, we reinvented no wheels, but we put some gas in the car. This was sort of wonderful, and rather affirming to know people felt strongly about our efforts.

So how are y’all getting your abs?

Standard
Thoughts

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Most of us are familiar with the classic holiday Andy Williams song. But the song was actually co-written by George Wyle and Edward Pola. Behind the scenes, the two crafted possibly one of the most well-known Christmas songs, ever. A lot of great things happen behind the scenes, and the movers and shakers often get less credit than they deserve.

As a nonprofiteer, I think about that a lot during the holidays. I think about all the terrific things happening throughout the year, and I certainly think about the equally terrific people who make those things happen. In our world of fundraising — especially as it relates to corporate and foundation partners — those people are not always the top figures. They might be coordinators, executive assistants or other complementary collaborators.

Each year, at some point between Thanksgiving and December 31, I always make it a point to set aside a good chunk of time to not only reflect on the past year’s meaningful experiences, I make sure to thank each and every one of those complementary collaborators. I pick up the phone, I write notes, I send e-mails. Some I’m closer with, and some I’ve never met, but in no small way, they have all made my life easier and better, and they deserve exceptional appreciation.

So as we inch closer to December 31, won’t you all join me in sharing thanks with these superheroes? Because really, it IS the most wonderful time of the year.

Standard
Thoughts

The Calligraphy of Gratitude

Note: This is an update from a 2017 piece on the topic of being thankful, sharing again under the guise of Thanksgiving!

In my last office kitchen there was a microwave. This wasn’t a special microwave, though when your food was ready, the screen flashed: ENJOY! Not DONE or FINISHED—instead, it displayed a warmer sentiment. It was a light touch, though every time I warmed my food, it was a pleasant surprise.

For me, it’s the same when someone shares a “thanks” when you hold the door, or a “gesundheit” after a sneeze. Expected? Maybe. Typical? Not so much. It’s 2018 and things are only moving more and more quickly — like Brooks said in Shawshank Redemption, “…the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” We sometimes forget, while these little social graces are pleasant, they are meaningful.

If we think in terms of business, like a meeting, a donation or any transaction, we have a tendency to rely on quick, standard, electronic-only gratitude — a “thank you” e-mail, a social media post or the dreaded e-newsletter auto-signup.

I challenge that we give thanks in a more personalized way.

This can be difficult with today’s pace. We get so fixated on quantity over quality,  at times we feel fine with complacency. Truth be told, our stakeholders (defined however you do in your industry) are generally fine with it, too. Though, who ever really shined in their efforts by being “fine?”

Thank You

Matt Jones (Unsplash)

So, what can we do? You can start by spending a few moments more when you show your appreciation:

  • Sending one of those “thank you” e-mails? Personalize the header from “Dear Mr. So and so” to “Dear Bill” (if appropriate) and make it an actual letter or card. Mailing addresses are pretty easy to find these days.
  • Posting some social media love? Share the appreciation more publicly in a way that stakeholders will see, like in-office, in-store or elsewhere.
  • Auto-signing someone up for that flashy e-newsletter? Pick up the phone and share some exciting news about a program or product.

And another thing, while we’re on the subject…

  • Something not go exactly your way? Take the opportunity to travel the high road and—even in response to an unfortunate experience — share your gratitude.

I believe these are things we can do with ease, and even begin to enjoy. Think about calligraphers and how they spend their time meticulously crafting their words in a creative, meaningful way.

So, be calligraphers of gratitude. You’ll thank yourself for it later.

Standard
Thoughts

The Dying Art of Asking Questions

By nature, I am a curious person — annoyingly so. My parents never complained about it, though I was definitely the “why?” child. While I’m sure this can be outwardly irritating, as an adult this practice keeps me well-informed on things of immediate or peripheral importance; a valued skill in nonprofits.

In recent years, however, I have noticed a downward slope with regard to asking questions, and this comes on all sides. Board members who express little interest in knowing what’s happening; staff who miss opportunities to learn more about the organization’s direction; “leaders” who make decisions based on internal feelings rather than seeking input. While not attempting to break this down on a systematic or psychological level, from my direct experience I’ve surmised a few roads which lead to lack of questioning:

  1. Time. “There are only so many hours in the day; I don’t have time to seek feedback and input when things just need to get done.”
  2. Fear. “Gosh… what if I get an answer I don’t want, or don’t like?”
  3. Ignorance. “Oh, wait, was I supposed to ask someone about this?”
  4. Ego. “I know better than everyone, so why would I waste my time asking questions to which I already know the answer?”

Those things all read badly, though not all of them come from a bad place. How many of us enter a situation where — sorry for using this phrase, but — we don’t know what we don’t know. The people before us didn’t keep running records or manuals, the staff has 100% turnover so there’s no institutional knowledge, and the Board are nowhere to be found for inquiries.

For whatever reason, we are losing the drive to be curious. Lack of creativity and inquisition are an issue in schools with children, but gosh, it’s an atrophying skill in adulthood too. In organizations, some of this is a top-down issue. Years ago I worked in places where questions were frowned upon, because how dare you question the all-knowing executive director.

I am, however, finding pockets of hope. I very recently joined the Board of a scrappy (their word, not mine) creative nonprofit, which has been enlightening. At each meeting, I talk with the team about fundraising, future planning, etc., and to my surprise… they ask a lot of questions. There are things about which they don’t know, and they want to know. As a volunteer, it’s kind of amazing to see the lightbulbs go off, but that really only happens when people ask genuine questions, and genuinely want to know the answers.

AskAway

This is creepy but cute, right?

As a fundraiser, I believe there is an art to asking questions. Some of the best visits I’ve had with donors and prospects end with the people saying things like, “Gosh, it was so nice learning about you!” In reality, I’m simply asking questions about them (some guided, some open-ended), which get conversations moving. It’s not simply “What are you interested in supporting and can we have your money so we can do that?” Rather, it’s asking about their experiences, what interests them, what organizations they believe are doing great work, where they see philanthropy making a difference, and so forth. Little of that is about “me” or “my work,” yet at the end of a good conversation, you can paint a nice little picture, simply by asking questions.

So ask away, friends! Ask genuinely and honestly. People want to share, and sometimes it simply takes a little prompting. “The smart ones ask when they don’t know,” mused Malcolm Forbes, “…and sometimes when they do.”

Standard
Rants

Say What You Mean

ShrugWe all know what nonprofits mean (or don’t mean) when they put “other duties assigned” in a job description. But there are lots of other words and phrases in those postings which warrant some attention. Here’s some quick decoding of some of my most favorite jargon…

  • Flexible: We have zero idea what we’re doing, so on our absolute best day, we’re going to be all over the map. You need to not only predict all that nonsense, but respond to it like a clairvoyant. Also, if you are pregnant, a minority or have a foreign-sounding name, we may ask you to pretend otherwise in front of donors.
  • Self-starter: Since we have zero idea what we’re doing, there will be no guidance from management. Other than (maybe) pointing out your desk, the extent of your onboarding will be a walk-through of the kitchen area, focusing on which coffee filters to use… if the admin remembers to order coffee filters.
  • Collaborative environment: Our board is wayyyyyyy more involved than they should be, and you need to be okay with their input on how Times New Roman 11.5-point font size obviously looks much better on this thank you letter than Times New Roman 12-point font size.
  • Fast-paced environment: The executive director will dream up more mission-drifting projects than you can handle, with the expectation that you raise enough money for, and market them by yesterday.
  • Entrepreneurial: We can really only afford a 22-year-old, but we want 10+ years of experience, so we need someone who’s okay with ambiguity at all levels, which may, at times, feel like “entrepreneurship.”
  • Sense of humor: This is the saddest, most melancholy work environment in the country, and we desperately need someone with jokes to help with morale.
  • Passion for the mission: Low salary, no benefits, toxic environment, extremely long hours… but there’s a small possibility you’ll feel really great about the work itself.
  • Must be able to lift 20 pounds, bend, stretch, stand for extended periods of time, climb stairs, reach, twist, walk and run: You will do all of these activities on a daily basis, and often. Also, must have a valid driver’s license and a car, so you can pick up the executive director’s child from daycare; no, we will not reimburse you for mileage for doing this.

And there you have it. Now get those resumes updated, and be sure to let people know your references are available upon request — nonprofits love when you take up one-third of your resume with that phrase.

Standard
Rants

Thanks But No Thanks

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

I knew that quote long before I knew the name of its author, Elie Wiesel. Wiesel seemed like a pretty stand-up guy — activist, Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor — one of those people who make you feel really unaccomplished on your best day.

I think Wiesel’s quote can relate to work. In terms of nonprofit work, it might read: “The opposite of good work is not bad work, it’s indifferent work.” What really anchored this for me was an experience I had last year as a donor.

I made a modest gift to a friend’s organization, not just to show encouragement, but because I believed in the work. The online donation form was easy and clear, but after clicking DONATE… nothing. No e-mail confirmation, no word from my friend. Radio silence. I actually had to check my bank statement to make sure the payment went through. In my mind, this was bad. But more than that, as the days, weeks and months went by — and I heard absolutely nothing from the friend or organization — I thought more about how it was simply indifferent.

This was a missed opportunity. My gift wasn’t going to make or break the organization, but the indifference was wholly off putting. About eight months later, I eventually did hear from someone at the organization, but this person wanted to visit and “talk about considering deeper support” of the organization. LoL, no thanks.

HowAboutNo

I’ve said before how the nonprofit sector is the field of feel. And while we should be involved — volunteer, attend a program, donate — for logical reasons, quite often we are driven by passion for a cause. With that kind of engagement there’s a lot at stake, and indifference creates an unnecessary hurdle. If we treat our inner-circles poorly, what’s to be said for those further from the center? Read more on that, here.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Heck, it’s really, really difficult to be thoughtful, and a lot of organizations would benefit from stepping up their stewardship game. But friends… we all have a lot of competition out there, especially as it relates to funding. It’s become somewhat of a constant drone in these blog posts, but y’all… hear me now:

BeBest

Standard
Rants

“Bad Leaders” Don’t Exist

I’m on a mission to re-frame the way we think about nonprofit leadership — specifically, “leaders.” I’ve been listening for years to people talk about their experiences with “bad leaders,” and it has left me with the following conclusion: if leadership is supposed to be a good practice, why do we so loosely throw around the title with regard to bad practitioners?

Who’s had horrible managers? Can I get a show of hands? Folks, those people are not “bad leaders.” At best, they’re sh*tty bosses. There’s a much larger issue at hand when those sh*tty bosses keep on keepin’ on, though that doesn’t make them any less sh*tty.

TurnSingal

In any case, this rant is all about analogies which compare sh*tty bosses to drivers, and their use of turn signals… or lack thereof. So bear with me while I present to you four different fictitious sh*tty nonprofit bosses.

  • No Signal, No Action: For the sake of this analogy, let’s call his person “Bob.” Bob is nice enough, but as the months and years go by working with Bob, you realize not only does Bob have no plans, he doesn’t actually do very much. Bob never uses a turn signal, because he never goes anywhere. Bob would be better suited as a popcorn vendor at a movie theater.
  • No Signal, Action: Let’s call this person “Donna.” Oh Donna… Donna has a sordid past. She’s “resigned” from several jobs under questionable circumstances, yet nonprofits keep hiring her for “leadership positions.” Donna never signals where she’s going, but she turns all the time, leaving people totally confused and aggravated. Donna should marry into money and stay home.
  • Signal, No Action: Here we have “Phil.” In every staff meeting, Phil tells the team about his plans — and might even lay out steps for the plans — but three or six months down the road, Phil hasn’t done or managed any progress on the plan. Phil uses his turn signal, but never actually turns; he just drives straight for miles and miles, leaving his blinker on, frustrating the entirety of the driving citizenry. Phil should be a professional Yelp reviewer.
  • Signal, Different Action: This is “Clark.” For some reason — probably because Clark has been at the organization over 20 years — he pretty much does whatever he wants. He takes lots of action, though much of it is different than what he says he’ll do. When Clark uses his left turn signal, he turns right, but not before cutting someone off. He should go into consulting, where no one will hire him.

All that considered, it behooves me to mention one contrarian perspective: Signal, Action. This person is “John,” and in this analogy, John is the good egg. John follows the rules of the road, and knows where he’s going and why. When John signals right, he turns right. Everyone around him appreciates it, and those who travel with him enjoy the ride. John acts like a leader, and we should all aspire to be like John.

At the end of the day, many of us don’t have a John. And as an industry, we need to be better about shaping all the bad drivers out there into Johns. But rest assured, there is life after Bob… And Donna… And Phil… And Clark…

Standard