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?


The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Colleague

At some point in my career I became painfully aware of a phenomenon called the Dunning–Kruger Effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger coined the phrase in their 1999 paper, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Essentially, they posit, sufferers are ignorant of their own ignorance. Now, who hasn’t worked with someone like this?

You know the type. When they walk down the hall, colleagues run the other way; they burn through staff at rapid pace; they’re quick to throw anyone under the bus — and they do it all with great gusto. Maybe it’s just my luck, though I’ve had several managers like this throughout my career. After a while I began theorizing why, and this was my hypothesis: Some people find themselves in leadership positions because of particular skills, not necessarily because they are fit to lead.

An example might be the artist who ascends to the position of executive director because of their creative savvy, while lacking budgetary or philanthropic competencies. Or the development staffer who raises a ton of money and climbs to #1, without understanding the nuances of human resources.

Leadership is a sticking point for me (see here), and that Dunning-Kruger Effect is all over nonprofits, often in top positions. And while I’ve experienced my share of those who act heinously because of it, I’ve also seen people who admit they don’t know what they don’t know, and learn from it. I LOVE working with people like that, and I bet in turn they find me to be a pretty happy colleague.

Many days, I realize there’s a lot I don’t know, especially the older I get. On most of those days, I pridefully learn something new. I don’t have nearly all the answers, and it would be dangerous not only to presume I do, but to act on it. [Note: Here’s a handy visualization of this reality]

img_4920-1I don’t work for a Dunning-Kruger sufferer now, and I hope never to again. I know they’re out there, though, so if you come across one, feel free to print out this post and leave it on their desk — it’s likely they have a lot of work enemies, so they probably won’t know it was you anyway.


Things We Need To Stop Saying

Words have meaning, and they matter. You wouldn’t know it by looking around these days at business leaders, politicians and the likes, but they do. In nonprofits, we have lots of words and phrases, and in my view, a good number of them are overused. Here are a few in our lexicon I think we can do without — not comprehensive by any means, and if you have others, please share them!

  • Touch: In the 80s I think it was okay to talk about engagement with constituents as “touchpoints,” but… now we live in a different time. I read a recent annual report from an educational nonprofit, noting they “touched” 10,000 children through their programs. I might just be a focus group of one, but for me that’s a big old #FacePalm.
  • Community Outreach: It’s as bad a phrase now as it was decades ago, and it has a smarmy feel of the “haves” giving something to the “have nots.” What’s worse, it makes the gross misassumption that the “have nots” actually want it. If you must, call it “engagement,” but only if you really mean it. No one wants your pity outreach, and even less people are funding it these days anyway.
  • Curate: This may be my bias having spent far too many years nonprofiteering in the arts, but curating is a verb best suited for museum folk. We — the purveyors off programs and throwers of events — do not curate things, we offer experiences — experiences in which our constituents participate and, hopefully, enjoy.
  • Let’s Brainstorm: Let’s not. Why? Because at the end of this faux exercise, we’re just going to do what you want anyway. So why don’t you just give me some marching orders so I can get back to laughing at memes on my 30-minute lunch break.
  • Leader: Leadership is a practice. If you do not practice leadership, you are not a leader; simply having done something for X number of years does not make you one. So please, for the love of Zod, stop calling yourself a nonprofit leader, when at best you’re a lackluster manager who people tolerate so they can make fun of you to their peers at happy hour. [Note: You are also not seasoned.]
  • Um: This is more of a public speaking matter, but it has to go. In my view, our field is the field with heart, and when we talk about our work, we want to do so intelligibly, and with warmth and passion. Inserting “um” every seven words makes us sound immature, uninteresting and unprepared. Slow down, have a Coke, give your brain a moment to prepare the right words, then proceed.
  • Nonprofit Rate: Call it a charity rate, a discount or any number of things — either way, it’s nonprofit speak for “cheap.” It’s one thing to have a budget, but if you can afford to pay for something, please don’t request it for free. Statements like that are what give our industry an unnecessarily bad name.
  • Let’s Revisit This Later: What exactly is wrong with visiting this right now? Apart from the fact we have too many dang meetings that could have been e-mails, there’s no time like the present to discuss the thing we’re already discussing. So can we please save future time for future things, and have the darn conversation right now about which awful shade of yellow the gala invitation will be?

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.