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.”

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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.

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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

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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…

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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:

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  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.

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Thoughts

Donors and Pets

I was recently talking with a nonprofit board about the importance of continuously and consistently engaging with donors. “Because it’s a good thing to do” wasn’t cutting it, so I attempted a metaphor.

There are steps in the donor cycle — identification, cultivation, solicitation AND stewardship. It’s not solely about asking for money. Not that asking isn’t important, though it’s not where you generally spend most of your time. And it most certainly shouldn’t be the only time your donors hear from you. You go to an ATM when you need cash, not your supporters.

But where were we? The metaphor, right.

For anyone with pets, one thing you do with some frequency is take them to the vet. Sometimes for illness, others for a routine checkup. Either way, most people probably travel to the vet in a car, and for some, it’s the only time little FooFoo goes in the car. So when little FooFoo sees the car, little FooFoo knows what’s up.

Dog

Other people take their pets for car rides all the time. To the store, to the park, to pet play dates, etc. In those instances, when little FooFoo sees the car, it may just not be a wholly traumatic experience. In this metaphor, here are the players:

  • Little FooFoo: Your donor
  • The Car Ride: Your engagement with the donor
  • The Vet: The once-a-year solicitation

This seemed to resonate with the group. And it’s not meant to be silly, it’s reality-based. Long gone are the days when one touchpoint a year is adequate with your supporters. In a time when information is available in a flash — and over one million nonprofits are vying for the same dollars — your people need to hear from you. You need to take them in the car with you all the time (or at least often), and not just to the vet.

You’re doing a new program in-line with some of your donors’ interests? Shoot them a note! You just voted on a great new board member who will help really boost some aspect of your work? Let your donors know! You reached some sort of epic programmatic or financial milestone? Tout it!

There is such a thing as over-communicating, though we’re in the field of feel, and our donors are engaged for reasons of personal significance. More often than not, I’ve found if people don’t want to hear from you, they’ll tell you — either directly or by unsubscribing to your mailing lists. We have such opportunities to be stewards of our organizations’ missions, and in doing so, can be really great stewards of our donors.

So let’s do ourselves a favor; let’s take little FooFoo all over the damn place. The more familiar with the car ride, the less stressful, and you may just clean up less pee along the way — and isn’t that the goal?

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Thoughts

Getting it Done > Your Title

I’ve mused on the idea of “getting it done.” Go with me now please on another journey: worry about getting it done… not your title.

SillyWalks

Friends, Romans, countrymen… in the grand scheme of things, your title is insignificant. As nonprofiteers, the identifier on our business cards should be infinitely less important than the work we do — unless you are the Minister and your business is Silly Walks — though nevertheless, often the opposite is true.

For me, this idea became obvious just about three years ago. At that point, I had spent over a decade building up my experience and titles — coordinator to manager to program director to director — and then, shifting careers, overnight I again became a manager. Only then did it really begin to gel for me: my work was simply more important than what followed my name in my e-mail signature. [Note: this was around the same time I realized I was not seasoned]

Look, I won’t begrudge anyone for being proud of their accomplishments. If you’ve put in the time and energy, and have ascended to a certain position which carries a certain title, I’ll be your biggest cheerleader. #CelebrateSuccess, or whatever. But your title isn’t the whole of your job, so #chill with the self-aggrandizement. “Leadership” titles are important, as they identify achievements, tenure and hierarchy. Though at the end of the day, they really don’t mean much — if there are 1,400 Assistant Directors of Silly Walks at an organization, what does that even mean?

Another way to look at this is considering personal aspirations. By this, I suggest, the trajectory of one’s career shouldn’t necessarily be tied to ascending titles. I’ve taken a particular path which came with marginal title bumps, though now (as an associate director) in many ways I’m having a far more meaningful experience than I ever did with “higher” titles.

If it’s not clear, this is something that really bugs me. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even ask new acquaintances about their work or titles. At the end of the day, I believe titles say more about what people think about themselves rather than anything else. Instead, I prefer icebreakers like “[So and so], what’s your passion?” I like how this throws people off, and gets them a little off their high horse.

So next time this idea of titles presents itself as a potential topic of discussion, just remember:

NoBody

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