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.



Listening > Hearing

For a hypochondriac, it’s bizarre to get good news from a doctor about one thing, when you’re at the doctor for a different thing. Such was the case a few months ago when I thought I had my fourth ear infection in as many months. After a barrage of tests — including a hearing exam — I came to not only find I was sans ear infection, but I evidently have “impeccable hearing.”

For someone who spent 20+ years in rock bands, this was fascinating news. And while it didn’t solve my health issue, it left me with a thought: hearing is only a physiological process; listening is what’s important.

Once, I had a particularly unfortunate nonprofit manager who said a lot of things — let’s call this manager “Don.” Those things varied in scale from inconsequential to flat out offensive. When someone would disagree, Don would famously say, “you’re not hearing me.” To be fair, while we may have been hearing Don, very few of us were interested in actually listening.


A little chart about shenanigans

When I play the experiences back in my mind, I realize a pretty common nonprofit thing was happening. Rather than listening to the staff, Don simply waited for breaks in conversation to interject his point. Often, those points flew in the face of good practices, ethically and otherwise.

At the time, our team had decades of great experience, and was really skilled in our respective areas. Don, on the other hand, was not, and so many of his interjections were things we couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do. When someone manages with this lack of reality-based understanding, I believe it shows a major listening deficiency. [I talk a bit about that, here]

The takeaway? Just remember what acclaimed rock band Jimmy Eat World has to say on the subject: “Are you listening? Woaaaaaaaaaaah.”


The Five People You Meet In Nonprofits

The other night I was doing my husbandly duty of vacuuming the house. We have this ridiculous Black & Decker with 300 attachments, half of which are incredibly loud and you need a physics degree to operate. Anyway, I was downstairs trying out these myriad attachments, and before too long my wife yelled down, “Are you actually cleaning or just making noise?

Of course, this got me thinking about the last ~15 years of my life in nonprofits, and just how many of my colleagues weren’t ever really doing anything, they were just making noise. Here’s some of those people, with fake names of course:

  • Susan, the ED’s assistant — The office chatterbox. Complains about everything, especially being overworked, but is conveniently missing whenever you need her. Somehow has eight weeks vacation which she always takes at once.
  • Francesca, the COO’s assistant — The organization really isn’t big enough for the COO to have his own assistant, so Francesca objectively doesn’t have much to do. Wastes a lot of breath talking about being “from New York,” but she’s from Schenectady. Wants to run her own puppy nonprofit, but couldn’t spell “canine” with a dictionary. Her clothes are uncomfortably tight.
  • Timothy, the millennial program manager — Dear lord the boy must’ve had six cups of coffee today. Learned one important idea in a conference six months ago, and won’t do any work that doesn’t directly support that idea. Thinks audacious neckties are a right, not a privilege. Hasn’t taken a single note in a meeting, ever.
  • Lynnhe (pronounced “Lon“) — Not a single staffer could tell you what Lynnhe’s job is, so let’s just call her “office activist.” When she does show up, she spends half her time loudly and angrily watching CNN, and the other half being vocally outraged at presidential tweets. It’s unclear if she owns more than three shirts.
  • Michael, the operations guy — Very particular and vocal about who calls him Michael, Mike, Mikey, M-dawg, etc. Rants often about how things “used to be” when so-and-so ran the organization, but shows no initiative to find new employment. The scope of his job might be replacing the name labels on the office mailboxes. Wears jeans everyday with no exception, even though the office wardrobe policy was essentially written because of him.

So, there you have it… a smattering of people we’ve all worked with in nonprofits at some point in time. I hope you n’er have to work with them again.


Dear [donor]

I believe people like to feel special. That can be inherent, or it can also be an outcome, like when someone buys you flowers, or compliments a job well done.


Special feelings are, in my view, sort of a superpower in nonprofits — we have the ability to be transformative with our work. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we are fortunate enough to receive donations as a result of that work. When that happens, we should always share our appreciation with those donors.

There are innumerable ways to steward philanthropy, but one pretty typical, immediate standard is a thank you note. I hear a lot of debate on whether those should be paper, email, postcard, etc., but whatever you choose, please for crying out loud be accurate. Know if the recipient is a man or woman, if their spouse is alive or deceased, or if they’re Michele with one “L.” Above all, have a system in place that allows you to be vigilant about what goes out the door.

One organization I support recently sent me a gift acknowledgment letter which opened with:

Dear [donor]

Not my name, but literally “Dear [donor],” which I’m guessing was the likely result of a lazy mail merge. If that weren’t egregious enough, it was as form a letter as you could find. No mention of my specific gift amount, no messaging about how it supports the mission, no EIN (tax number) for me to keep on hand for tax purposes and — to bring it all home — the letter was a photocopy. #SMH, or so the kids would say.

For me personally it was disappointing, and for the organization it was a total missed opportunity. Granted, I don’t give them a lot of money, though “fixing” these letters would be a really simple task. They already wasted the sheet of paper, why not spend a few minutes more on some simple tweaks? I can’t imagine if I were a major and this showed up in my mailbox, I’d be like:


So let’s do better by our most trusted supporters y’all, okay? There are too many organizations out there they could support, but they chose ours, so let’s act like we care, all right?