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.


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.


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:



“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.


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…


Working with Nonprofit Millennials

Millennials are everywhere, and they’re not all baristas… some of them have spilled into the nonprofit sector. While there are hundreds of articles on LinkedIn you can read about engaging with or managing them in the workplace, I have for you six easy tips for working with millennials:


  1. Treat them like you would every other human. They are entitled to nothing.
  2. Treat them like you would every other human. They are entitled to nothing.
  3. Treat them like you would every other human. They are entitled to nothing.
  4. Treat them like you would every other human. They are entitled to nothing.
  5. Treat them like you would every other human. They are entitled to nothing.
  6. Treat them like you would every other human. They are entitled to nothing.

So there you go. Now you know how to reach the unreachable generation. Stop Snapchatting them; they have email like everyone else.


Work-Work Balance Tips

Based on absolutely zero research, and having consulted no experts, I’ve followed in the footsteps of every “thought-leader” ever, and concocted a short-list of benign power tips for being successful on the job. These will change your life, and truly create a scalable value-add to your work-work balance. But first, a completely gratuitous, incorrect, mis-attributed quote.

Wishing upon a star is not a completely formulated plan, but it leads all the fish to water.” – Michelle Obama

1. Show up relatively on time, as in mostly exactly on time, though sometimes late, but also sometimes a few minutes early, so it looks unpredictably rational.

2. You don’t need to re-make the office coffee if you don’t technically finish the whole pot; always leave just enough for about 2/3rds of one more cup so it’s the next guy’s problem.

3. No matter what she says, Sharon* is always going to gossip about your business, so be careful what you say around Sharon.

4. Taking one online HR class absolutely makes you qualified to navigate the intricacies of the workplace; you can prove this by showing folks the certificate you received.

5. Don’t listen to what those sour grapes say; a casual dress code totally makes up for having to deal with a horribly toxic work environment.

* This is also true for Jenni, Nick, and some Heathers


Get it Done > Getting Credit

I have a multi-faceted philosophy on work, which often begins with: worry about getting it done. One of those facets, specifically, goes: worry about getting it done… not who gets the credit.

I grew up with a relatively no-nonsense approach to work. If something needs doing, you do it. No big fuss, no big reward. It was therefore strange entering nonprofits ~15 years ago, where I continue to find myriad colleagues who require great recognition for tasks big or small. [If you have 2 minutes, this video paints a clarifying picture.]

I’m getting at the concept of humility. In my short career, I’ve spanned public programs to administration to fundraising, and I’ve done those things at cultural institutions, universities and beyond. At the end of the day, I’ve often found colleagues — irrespective of the sector — unable turn on a dang light switch without exorbitant self-aggrandizement, either in person or on social media. More on that, here.


This also speaks to the idea of “me” instead of “we” — or “I” instead of “our.” As in many fields, much of our work as nonprofiteers does not happen in a vacuum, and fewer things get under my skin more than people taking singular credit for joint efforts. I don’t care if it’s something big like your organization’s 5k run-walk or annual luncheon, or something simpler like cleaning up a database — if you’re in it for yourself, my feeling is you’re generally in the wrong industry.

Maybe this kind of behavior is inherent. Or maybe you learned it, working for a few bosses who always stole the thunder you deserved. Either way, it’s a disappointing characteristic, and for the savvy among us, it’s totally obvious. When people tell me tales of how they individually accomplish something, I respond with inquiries about the micro-steps of which I know, for sure, they were not part. I’m passive-aggressive AF, and there’s only a “me” in “team” if you rearrange the word. Even then, it would spell “at me,” and if you take unwarranted credit, I will come at you, bro.

come at me

So next time your nonprofit — which is staffed by what? people — does something totally stellar, make sure you take a look around and consider the fine folks who helped bring the thing to fruition.


Dear Potential Collaborator

Dear Potential Collaborator,

I’m sorry, but it’s just not going to work out between us. I appreciate all the time and energy it took for you to copy, paste and send me the same “respectful request” email you sent to everyone else in town, but your public program idea is, well, terrible.

I know it would be the “perfect alignment of our organizations’ missions” and even more pointedly, “a guaranteed, easy way to garner media interest and earned revenue.” But truthfully, if I agree to do this, you would drive my staff absolutely bonkers before we even sign the MOU.

Now don’t get me wrong. Somewhere, in some corner of this giant metropolis, are a few people who would find this thing interesting. I wholly believe that. There is a cadre of hipsters, somewhere, who would actually spend their hard-earned money to come see this “cultural,” poorly conceived, far-too-lengthy imagination mind screw. But it’s just not going to happen in collaboration with me or my staff.

You might ask yourself, “How could you say that? Do you know who I am? Did you not see the critically acclaimed (well, one guy with a blog) ground-breaking event I did three years ago at my cousin’s nail salon? Have you even bothered to read the 12-page artistic statement I attached as a Microsoft Publisher file?” Well, no. It’s definitely a “no” to all of that.


Even if I, my colleagues and the community thought this was a good idea — which, again, we don’t — there’s the whole issue of funding. Specifically, how you want my organization to front all the costs, grant-writing and venue space (an investment, I believe you called it) only to then split all revenue equally. Seems totally legit to me…

And another thing. I know your brother-in-law works with the chairman of my organization’s board and, as such, you may be tempted to ask said board chairman to strong arm us into this collaboration behind my back. However, engendering goodwill that will not. I can’t stop you from doing such a brazenly unfortunate thing, though I will plenty mock you for it with memes on social media after this whole ordeal is over.

So let us recap, if you don’t mind:

  1. This is a bad idea
  2. You want us to do most of the heavy lifting
  3. You’ll probably find some sneaky way to make this thing happen, irrespective of blatant disinterest

In closing, I’m very much looking forward to working with you on this truly transformative partnership. It will be the bane of my existence, and the most effort I put into anything this fiscal year, for the absolute least possible return.