Zombie Philanthropy

In the season 4 finale of Z Nation (Spoiler Alert), the show’s intrepid world-saving survivalists set off to find the now zombified POTUS. Discouraged, they learn that they have arrived too late. POTUS has been replaced, about 60 times over, in a diminishing succession of predecessors that have also met a variety of post-apocalyptic deaths. The now reigning POTUS was previously secretary of some instantly forgettable department. The good news is that it’s a woman (finally?). The bad news is that she’s helping stage a massive “reset,” which may or may not mean burning the world alive or releasing a flesh eating disease—the season conclusion was confusing…

We are halfway through a second really bad year with our own POTUS, and, no, Jon and I aren’t making an analogy that a mostly half-dead zombie government is highly more effective and less scary than our existing government. The tea leaves aren’t stirring up a good blend, however, and nonprofit leaders and hungry consultants know that most streams of government funding are closing up shop and headed toward a private sector near YOU! Have you hugged a foundation program officer today? Of course you haven’t…no one has…they’d cut us.

Here’s the analogy that every good nonprofit soldier, Z-Nation Lt. Roberta Warren survivor hero, is suffering through these days…and it’s only getting harder. Z-Nation was a country felled by tragedy and hard times. It’s leadership had no real plan of succession – just an endless domino game that lacked any sort of tactical maneuvering, battle plan or defense strategy. In the end, their leaders relied on the back-up to the back-up plan: blowing shit up. Philanthropy—despite being led by highly intelligent and capable leaders across all fields—is increasingly defined by narrowing perspectives and a constipated range of giving. Philanthropy is, for our times, about as deft and vibrant as the zombie government that Lt. Warren and her team ultimately had to kill off in a secret bunker in Virginia. For the record, this blog is also not condoning killing off philanthropists in Virginia…that would make our job so much harder. We just want philanthropy to be a little less dead.

Let’s look at one important trend in this Zombie Philanthropy. At the beginning of the year the Chronicle of Philanthropy gave a breakdown of various sector-based categories that its top 50 philanthropists spent $14.7 billion in giving.

The top tier of gifts was spent accordingly: 1) $9B Foundations; 2) $1.8B Colleges/Universities; 3) $790M Hospitals and Medical Centers; and 4) 361M Donor Advised Funds (DAF).

As any fundraiser knows, #1 and #4 are largely the same, except the chances of getting into a DAF is about as good as getting a McArthur Genius Award. It exists. A pinprick in the universe of nonprofit professionals gets awarded a McArthur in a lifetime. Chances are, for both a McArthur and a DAF, you will neither know how to apply, what to apply for, or who to send your application to. For monies parked in a DAF, or family/public foundation, most stick to the max yearlypayout of a measly 5%; every year we see a more limited pool of interest based causes with increasingly stricter ways of spending money (it’s OK for the donor to get a livable salary, just not you); a limping-along grantmaking process; and foundation officers that are genetically bred to ward off solicitous development officers and ensure an iron gate policy tougher to access than a decent health plan.

Basically, with foundations and DAFS at this point, we have a kind of ouroboros philanthropy – a snake eating its own tail. I guess the good news is that it’s not a zombie. The bad news is that it’s billions of tax-free dollars sitting stagnant, year after year, decade after decade, waiting…for…the…next…grant…cycle…

The next massive movement of philanthropic spending is colleges and universities. Let’s assess how this is working out for most families today, since we know, on average, that those dollars are typically poured into buildings, pet donor projects and research. Is college affordable yet? How are those student loans doing? Are we breaking the racial, cultural and economic divide between whodoes and does not attain higher education? The resounding answer is no. Philanthropy is reflective of the families that provide the gifts, not of the public need. The money pours in and petrifies, or, perhaps, crystalizes, assuring our economic, racial and cultural class barriers will remain for decades to come.

And finally, Hospitals and Medical Centers – Have you visited your local or remote city today? If so, you probably have thought…WTF…when did they build THAT? Bright, shiny new medical centers are the focal point of most small and large cities today, promising compassionate care, community response and cutting-edge technology. Philanthropists, companies and foundations seem to swoon over the chance to pour money into these centers and their coveted love letters are the outcomes models proffered by the chief medical teams. I’m sure those private correspondences and long-term promises are grand in scheme. Quick question: How’s healthcare going for the average family…you know, insurance wise…paying for all this compassionate care, cutting-edge technology. It’s still not good, right? In fact, we know the devastating reality of healthcare today. These facilities might as well be beautiful tombs. Private philanthropy means nothing if the average family can’t pay for the doctors, nurses and technology inside that massive building that probably used to be a block of affordable housing units for 100 families.

We’d probably be in a better position to fight today’s breed of zombie philanthropy if a DAF could actually automate its lifeless endowment, shuffle-drag it’s millions north of Broadway and sink its teeth into us. It’s so much easier when you have the teeth marks and blood to prove that a zombie is really just a zombie, and not Fidelity Investment’s latest and greatest fund to help “poor children.” Personally, I’m waiting for the back-up plan to the back-up plan. I’m curious what a philanthropic re-set will look like. We’re certainly not headed for a government sector takeover anytime soon—hopefully the next course of action isn’t of the flesh-eating variety. Either way, we know one thing, nothing is moving anywhere anytime quickly.

Wake Up!

Ah the 80’s. For those of us who lived through those heady times, whether as a child or a teen, we had the prescience to know even back then that it was devoid of significance and profundity. How could it possess anything lofty when the hallmark of stylistic achievement consisted of leg warmers, big hair, and Z Cavariccis. Thankfully, I avoided those faux pas opting to model my style after John Cusack’s “Lloyd Dobler.” Well, truth be told, I was sporting a long trench coat, sweats, and sneaks two years prior to “Say Anything.” And although no longer a nascent effort, my law suit against him back in the day would have given rise to everyone referring to that look as the “Jon Conyers.” Whatever.

My choice in movies back then — if “Say Anything” wasn’t enough foreshadowing – was more off the beaten track and certainly less populist than the testosterone-filled action fare of Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Indeed, as a kid that grew up poor in an affordable housing apartment building, surrounded by hard-core drugs, violence, and overt racism, my tastes always bent more toward social justice.

The auteur of the day that spoke to me was Spike Lee. Most everyone extols the virtue of “Do the Right Thing,” and as a former pizza-delivery guy myself, I have a soft spot for “Mookie.” But for my money, Spike’s often overlooked tale, “School Daze,” was far more powerful. For those that haven’t seen it (and I’m sure that’s 99% of you), it touches upon issues of racism within the African-American community and the conflict between those championing social change and those seeking to maintain social order… all set neatly against the backdrop of fraternity life at a traditionally Black college. Oh yeah, and did I mention it was a musical? Anyway…

The movie featured Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne, and within five minutes, I was drawn to his character “Dap,” because like him, I was a somewhat woke, politically conscious student prone to rallying, protesting, and generally shining a light on various injustices. I know, many of you back in the day would have been like, “Snooze-fest!” I get it. I was definitely a mythical creature of sorts. But truthfully, I only understood 20% of what the masses did, and I only gave a shit about 20% of that. At most every opportunity, I zigged when everyone else zagged, in a Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” sort of way. It’s been lonely, for sure, but it’s also been a common, comforting companion throughout my life, as has my quest to find an army of 300 to stand by my side — a thought echoed in one of my first blog posts with Sarah Murdock, “The Wind.”

Unlike the masses, I always found purpose in everything… every moment… every action. Indeed, when you grow up actively dodging bullets and muggers and junkies (oh my), you tend to hone your focus on securing the lowest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – i.e., Food, Safety, and Security. You learn to scratch, and claw, and defend everything like a fortress, not just for yourself, but for those you care about. And while violence and other assorted darkness was the nom de plume of my childhood and teen years, I usually found a way to defeat the evil-doers bent on causing me harm with a combination of witty banter, sarcasm and satire, with a dash of a Flash thrown in.

But not always.

That singular perspective on what truly matters has been with me my entire life. It’s what causes me to give short shrift to people seemingly devastated by the prospect of missing a Modern Art Meetup because their Mercedes was in the shop, when I and most of the people I grew up with had to work two jobs just to afford bus fare. It makes me groan when someone complains about a perceived micro-aggression towards their choice in tattoo locations, when I still have scars and unhealed bone breaks from actual aggressions. And I most definitely have little patience for people working through their “mommy and daddy didn’t buy me a pony” issues when I had to take care of a disabled mother after my father died of cancer when I was 18.

I get that not everyone had my singular perspective on life, the universe, and everything. That not everyone had to worry about Food, Safety, and Security as per Maslow’s Hierarchy dictates. But like “Dap’s” character in “School Daze,” I’m incredulous to the willful, self-inflicted blindness that people instill upon themselves when they see those alternative perspectives.

I’m enraged that just a couple of weeks after the worst mass-shooting in this country’s history, there’s just as much outrage over McDonald’s shortage of “Rick & Morty’s Szechuan Sauce” as there is about gun control.

I’m disgusted that more people seem to be interested in the sordid details of the torrent of sexual assaults perpetrated by white male celebrities and politicians, rather than changing the culture that enables those same men in power to put their hands and dicks anywhere they want with nary a thought to the apparently little known concept of “consent.”

And I’m saddened that 40% of this country would rather watch a football game and tweet #STFU, than take 30 seconds to understand why people are kneeling in the first place.

I get that we all need a moment of down time to distract us, recharge us, and offer a modicum of respite. But’s there’s a fine line for fuck’s sake between enjoying an adult beverage with friends after a hard day’s work trying to save the world, and sticking fingers in our ears whilst chanting, “Not Listening… La La La La La.”

I made a decision… back when I was dodging bullets on street corners and fists in darkened hallways… back when I had to shuttle my mother back and forth to medical appointments… back when I had to apportion a 20-pack of KFC nuggets as my lunch for the week. I decided that nothing was going to deter me from getting out of the hell hole I grow up in. And nothing was going to stop me from helping others to get out of their hell hole, however they define it.

That’s why I started working in the nonprofit world all those years ago.  And that’s why I’ve been looking for an army of 300 to join me.

Unfortunately, I’m still looking.

So if you’re sitting on your ass right now, fretting about some social injustice du jour but choose to engage solely in a slacktivist button-click kind of way…

If you’re affected by something on a fundamental level, but decide instead to distract yourself with a funny cat video time and time again…

If details of some news-feed horror show bring up some personal post-traumatic stress from your past, but you willfully choose to pour yourself another drink instead of saddling up and putting your big boy and girl pants on to affect change…

Then I offer you the last scene in the movie “School Daze” where – in response to a particularly disgusting example of sexual manipulation and assault and a furtive effort to maintain male-dominated social order– Laurence Fishburne’s “Dap” walks around campus ringing a bell at daybreak repeating the same phrase over and over again…

“Wake up!”

– Jon

The Bourbon and The Text

She poured herself a bourbon on the rocks and eased back into her Restoration Hardware leather couch, leaving space for her cat, Queenie, to join her when she was ready. The couch, and her cat for that matter, fit the rest of the modern decor of her Williamsbridge loft apartment with aplomb. The couch was the one thing bougie and mass-produced she owned. That, and her iPhone of course. At least the bourbon was small batch, hand-crafted at one of the distilleries nestled along the Hudson River. She couldn’t remember which one, but the pourer doing the tasting was a Brooklyn transplant and assured her, as a Sherpa would a kindred spirit, the burn was subtle, almost velvety. He was right.

It had been more than a week since she spent time with either of her two amber-colored friends – Queenie and the bourbon — just as it had been more than a week since she sat on her couch. And while she saw weeks like any other, a treadmill to conquer one workout at a time, this one was exhausting beyond measure, especially for someone who found herself more at ease during life’s quiet moments, away from crowds and being on public display.

There was the strategic planning meeting, hosted by a local foundation more interested in using their resources to teach people to fish even though their boat hold was brimming over with the day’s catch and thousands were starving onshore.

There was the cultivation event hosted by one of her donors, a former corporate wizard still much beloved in the community and possessing as many contacts as rabbits in his hat even though he was recently “downsized” and anointed her nonprofit as his most recent toy to play with.

There was the rooftop fundraising cocktail party thrown by the local junior league wannabees benefiting her nonprofit, although most of them couldn’t get the name of her organization right.

There was the Gala for the century’s old partner agency her nonprofit worked closely with in the community, and her Board members furtively envied.

And there was the private donor dinner meeting out on Long Island that didn’t get her back to her apartment, her bourbon, and her couch, until very late.

Easy social grace and temperament did not come naturally to her, having grown up on a farm in upstate New York. But as a Program Director who also happened to be her nonprofit’s highest ranking staffer after the Executive Director left for greener pastures, she could hardly say no to any of these forays. Not just because she was one of the final candidates for the actual ED job. But rather, because it was strongly hinted at by a couple of her board members that she attend.

Even though she’d rather spend every waking minute with the children and families being served by her organization, she told her herself, going to these meetings and events and engaging the outside community was a win for those she served. And even if she wasn’t totally at ease in that world, she would do it in a heartbeat, because all she cared about was helping them. Indeed, other than a handful of short-lived relationships and Queenie, it had been all she cared about since graduating college some ten years earlier.

It had been just as long since anyone gave a damn about her organization or for that matter, those it served… since well before the Recession when it was “trendy” to give to grassroots programs that helped the most financially disenfranchised in New York City. But in the wake of the financial maelstrom, the begging for help grew louder and louder above the din, until the City’s elite pushed back, closed their windows, locked their doors, and only ventured out to throw a few coppers to the more established and entrenched nonprofits. A paternalistic world-view on full parade.

Perhaps the staff at the established and entrenched nonprofits were better trained and equipped to skulk past the barred gates to find their quarries. Or, perhaps they were just better positioned by the virtue of their size to withstand a few body blows. But that’s not what she told herself. She believed it was all about passion… passion for the mission… for those the organization served… and by those leading it, especially the members of the Board of Directors.

She believed that’s why grassroots organizations like hers were suffering… a lack of passion for making a difference in the world.

And for those being helped in the first place.

She said as much, during her interview for the ED position, to the search committee made up of a handful of otherwise absentee Board members — three corporate wizards and two old-money philanthropists, all with New York City roots snaking back more than a century. All major donors to the organization for years, that gave not because of a passion for the mission but rather as a form of absolution for not being involved. She wasn’t accusatory, of course, but she didn’t shy away from speaking her mind in an effort to clearly articulate a vision for the organization under her steady hand. Search committees like vision. And passion.

Her former corporate wizard donor who was still much beloved in the community agreed with her assessment that search committees liked those qualities, during a recent lunch when she confided in him that she was applying for the ED position. But he disagreed wholeheartedly with the notion that it was all about passion.

“Your nonprofit isn’t floundering because of past ineptitude or rudderless leadership, but rather because it was systemically held back from impact because of the faucet drip of money coming in from a community unaware of its purpose. Your organization needs to generate broad-based community engagement, and that’s only going to happen if someone gets out there and meets people,” he told her.

She took his comments with a grain of salt, ultimately rejecting his advice because after all, he was recently unemployed and had a hard time understanding the nonprofit world or even what her organization did. But more specifically, she rejected his opinion, because he looked and sounded exactly like the board members doing the hiring in the first place… the same ones lacking in passion for the mission and the children and families she helped every day. “How could he know what he’s talking about… he’s part of the problem… people who get involved because of reasons of status or networking and not because they bleed for the cause.”

Even though she felt like an outsider having grown-up in a world utterly unlike that which the members of the search committee knew as their reality, she was convinced that her passion for helping just one more child and family would be enough to convince them that she was the right person for the ED job. Because, it was all about passion.

As she sat on her couch sipping the bourbon slowly, she scrolled through the day’s emails on her phone, responding to each with the diligence of a first-time lover. As she threw back the last amber drop, a text came in from her former corporate wizard donor still much beloved in the community. Even if she didn’t agree with his vision for the organization, she had meant to thank him for hosting the cultivation event and for introducing her to dozens of his friends from the community.

Although she knew him as a gregarious fellow accustomed to witty banter, his text was anything but.

“I’m sorry. I know you wanted this.”

Confused, she quickly shot back a response.

“For what? Wanted what?”


She waited what seemed like an eternity before the new email light pinged on her work account. She opened it, and read the first few lines.

“We regret to inform you that after careful deliberation, the search committee decided to make an outside hire for the Executive Director position. We ultimately chose someone who more closely meshes with the Board of Directors and aligns with their vision… someone who can lead a comprehensive effort to engage the community and is comfortable going out and meeting people… a former corporate wizard much beloved in the community with extensive contacts and has worked here for years…”

His text finally made sense.

She stopped reading the email, put down her phone and got up to pour herself another bourbon. When she eased back onto the couch, her cat finally joined her, just as the first tear fell.

– Jon

False Prophets, Metrics & the Lonely Nonprofit Soldiering On

Wes Moore, the New Executive Director of the Robin Hood Foundation, may be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to that organization or to philanthropy in New York City in a long time. I recently had an opportunity to meet him, and I left wanting to give him a hug or a cape, mostly both. He’s a refreshing, impassioned voice of change in an otherwise highly structured, restrained field of professionals that align true to their corporate playbook. I have a furtive desire that Wes may be one of the great heroes our industry so desperately needs right now, however, this post isn’t about Wes, not quite… but there’s more to the Robin Hood story…

Two weeks ago I arrived home from a double hitter wedding/funeral weekend with a migraine, hangover, overtired children and a newly arrived gala invitation to a friend’s youth-based organization. My friend is a former colleague that I hold in high esteem—he’s a twice-over executive director, with a fancy degree and all the smarts, empathy, grit and hard work that ranks him with the best of the best. Certainly the migraine and sadness didn’t help my interpretation of the gala invitation: I turned it over and over and became more and more angry. It was not an invitation to an event for his organization, but for 12 in total. More importantly, it was a signal of our times.

The tough thing about raising money today is explaining why money is money, because it seems like few donors with the actual capacity to give out real money want to do so. In New York City, there is a deep supply of former wall street or tech professionals that gave up their for-profit careers to sidle on over to the nonprofit world to show us how its done because “we’re so poorly trained/equipped for modern business.” The real damage, however, is their small-batch hipster hell of “support structure” organizations, projects and RFPs that don’t provide money but require at least 1-2 years of fruitless labor on the part of the nonprofit to work through some byzantine MIT throwaway modeling practice that is proffered by millennials with voice fry.

The invitation I held that day was structured along a similar concept. I didn’t have to look at the host organization’s staff roster to know that this gala-not-a-gala was being led by a former hedge fund-wall street professional with a staff roster chock full of similar marketing/business folks. I, of course, did check and it is. I was given a pitch to support a gala, to support my friend’s agency (and 11 other nonprofits), as part of a yearlong program where the Mother Hen agency trains this group to raise money.

Here’s the way I see this playing out: Mother Hen gets to claim the mission of all nonprofits it serves; claim the metrics of the money each organization raises and the lives each organization touches; benefit from the outreach of each nonprofit’s marketing efforts; maintain ultimate control over the gala, honorees, location, theme, messaging, etc.; and, most likely, recoup the greatest economic benefit from this gala and yearlong “training program.” Mother Hen, after all, can claim the BIG, sexy project, which ultimately will attract the largest short and long-term donors.

Within the larger city context, Mother Hen has also created yet another “middle-man” approach that is hardly new and barely needed. We can start with the established players that have been doing this much longer and, let’s face it, with greater impact: United Way, New York Community Trust, Impact NYC, even (oh, yeah!) Robin Hood Foundation. You know what activity would have been helpful for a group of hedge fund-wall street/marketing professionals: volunteer at any of these 12 nonprofits; donate to their cause; serve on their board. No, they had to create their OWN middle-man entity because, well, you know some folks “don’t play well with others.”

But the duplicative (or do I really mean to say duplicitous) nature of Mother Hen’s mission a-go-go is not the worst part. Rather, it is that Mother Hen is acting like a school-yard bully calling out a big capacity weakness of the other 12 nonprofit players. The organizations are, in fact, literal poster children—their names are splashed up in big print for all to see: “Look who can’t fundraise or market their work! Don’t worry – Mother Hen is here to save them FOR THE YOUTH! Ah… grassroots orgs… aren’t they so cute?”

I’m confident that another vital strain to this terrible story is one that Vu Le of Nonprofit AF has identified, deconstructed and nailed quite perfectly over time. Vu discusses funders inherent distrust of grassroots, community-based, and POC-led organizations, which characterizes the type of organizations targeted by the Mother Hens of our field. These groups and their leaders are routinely infantilized under a common misperception that they lack capacity and that their small or mid-sized budget must be due, in part, to a lack of business savvy and basic skills. The real investments are going to the established players of the nonprofit field, often led by a white male/female demographic. If you haven’t checked out Vu’s writing on this topic, do it now. He’s one of the most important voices coming out of our field today.

OK, so if we’re going back to capes, voices, heroes and leaders (start with Vu)… let’s also discuss Wes, Robin Hood and Metrics with a capital M. I may be off about Wes, but I’m not wrong that we desperately need strong voices. I also know that these voices can’t come from the business-as-usual crowd. Robin Hood, Mother Hen, and every other private, public and corporate foundation with a lifeblood being pumped from either Wall Street or tech is first and foremost all about the Metrics.

Metrics can be an extremely powerful advocacy tool. Wes discussed the causal connection between metrics, government action and city-wide policy decisions. He believes Robin Hood has the ability to help influence this kind of systemic change in New York City and beyond. It has never been harder for a middle class or impoverished family to live in New York City or get out of poverty. These families desperately need systematic support on the City level, on a policy level, and they will certainly need the kind of money that only a foundation like Robin Hood and other NYC titans have coffered for so long.

I am concerned, however, that Metrics-with-a-capital-M bulldoze the equally serious, everyday work led by some of NYC’s toughest, smartest and most capable nonprofit leaders. You know, the ones that Mother Hen needs to teach and capitalize on their funding and Metrics. There is great work that Metrics can help prove, identify and highlight, but not all.

For instance, my organization struggles to capture the outcomes of families who live in domestic violence safe houses. These families leave our clinic and virtually disappear – the city government routinely jostles them around from shelter to shelter with little to no tracking systems and the families themselves exist in such chaos that phones, lives, situations change with hardly an ability to track one path to the next. And, yet, we provide dental, medical and mental health care – the same services received by nearly all upper-middle to upper class families. None of these families would ever consider needing a metric value to prove the worth of any of their personal healthcare services.

Nearly 100% of our foundation and government donors require metric proof of the worth of these services. We rarely fit into most foundation RFPs: our work is not considered systemically impactful, meaningfully replicable, or technologically sophisticated. On a large-scale metric, it is impossible to track these outcomes. Yet we know on an intrinsic level the value of basic healthcare services to these families. And I’m sure the executive who made a $500,000 contribution to Robin Hood’s last gala can tell you a thing or two about the worth of his mental health professional. His wife probably didn’t miss her son’s last dental visit… but that’s none of my business…

There are many competing and distinct worlds in New York City philanthropy—there are the donors, the organizations, government, corporations, communities, the constituents, the bricks-and-mortar city itself. The more we evolve, it seems, the greater we grow apart. In the focused lens between philanthropists and the organizations they support, we’ve never been more at two ends. Instead of creating monuments to our own egos, and further adding to the unrealistic growth rate of the nonprofit sector, we need to collaborate and consolidate. I’m sure that’s the sales pitch that was given to my friend: “Look, 12 grassroots orgs coming together, working together, benefiting together.” But behind it all is not an altruistic desire to see all ships rise with the high tide… it’s a furtive sacrifice to one’s ego.

We’re not here for metrics, false prophets or to be lonely soldiers bracing against the impossible, desperate poverty battles that so many New Yorkers face every day. We’re here to work together. Jon and I are waiting for the real conversations to begin and the real heroes to step forward. Someone wake us when they show up.

– Sarah







Nonprofit Pet League

The Richardson Family promised their youngest a pet. It was a family affair, and a charitable one. Their first stop was to their private wealth adviser, Henry, at Infidelity.

Mr. R: Henry, it’s time we enrich our son with a charitable endeavor. Our family has a long history of supporting the cultural community in our town, and we want to pass the mantle of our good fortune and generous spirit. Everyday my wife and I are besieged by scores of nonprofits demanding that we give them our money. Just yesterday, I had to scrape 15 NYPIRG millennials off my door and firehose 20 more hurricane rescue groups out of my back lawn. There’s not enough paper towels in this world to throw at them anymore. I’m exhausted.

Henry the Adviser: Mr. R, I hear this story daily. It is deeply painful to have so many men of wealth and power enfeebled by the wretched demands of the increasing volumes of the needy. This is exactly why my company, Infidelity, now holds the largesse of charitable fortunes in the United States. We consider ourselves your gatekeeper, a noble swordsman to beat back the rabble and protector of all that’s worth saving in this world. Mrs. R, please, tell me your thoughts and hopes for instilling your son with the noble spirit of philanthropy.

Mrs. R leans forward. She lifts her sharply pointed fingers into an animated dance of continuous movement, helping to deflect her frozen facial features, made lifeless and indiscernible under the Botox and surgery.

Mrs. R: “Heeeennnrry,” she purrs.…. “Are you working out? What was the question?”

Henry is befuddled. He focuses.

Henry the Adviser: Mr. R, I have the perfect charitable endeavor for your son to cut his “charitable teeth.” It’s called the Nonprofit Pet League. It’s a great starter charity – small, locally-focused, grassroots. You don’t have to make a sizeable contribution, because, as you and I know, the smaller groups are all untested and hungry for any scraps you give them.

In fact, just last week I granted an indigenous advocacy group 3 boxes of twine. Highly scrappy they are – they used the twine to create rope beds for homeless children with twigs and leaves for the mattress and then the executive staff hung themselves with the leftovers. No overhead anymore. It worked out beautifully.

As you know, Mr. R, here at Infidelity, we reserve the largesse of our client’s fortunes for the more reputable, esteemed organizations that can crystallize your legacy for years to come. Places like Yale, your Alma Mater, and the city Museum of Great Importance, of course.

For today, however, let’s focus on Junior R. I’d give you the address, but really you just need to follow Main Street until you reach the edge of town. As soon as you start to hear wailing and people looking disheveled, follow the sound until you hit the site of the former Community Health Center, now shuttered and used mainly to house out-of-work healthcare providers and the remaining nonprofit riff-raff that never got real jobs.

Mr. R: Henry, I knew I could count on you. This sounds grand.

Mr. R, Junior R and Mrs. R arrive at the Nonprofit Pet League. Mrs. R immediately breaks her 6-inch heels on the cracked sidewalk, while Junior R secures his evening plans with a yacht to the Bahamas, 6 friends, 3 cases of Moet and 3 escorts. He’s 16 of course.

The door creaks open and they are immediately besieged by a former docent from The Museum of Lesser Importance.

Docent: Welcome to the Nonprofit Pet League! I am Farida and will serve as your host and guide. Here at the Nonprofit Pet League, we believe in matching your passion for charitable good with the perfect nonprofit pet.

Mr. R: Farida, let’s start with your health care providers. I hear we can get a fantastic Hispanic Medical Assistant that is about to be deported thanks to DACA. A temporary commitment might be best.

Docent: Sorry, Mr. R, Julio went out for a sandwich with his pregnant wife last night, and 6 ICE agents tackled him as he was helping her across the street. We haven’t heard from him since.

Mr. R: What does his wife do?

Docent: Andrea’s a whip-smart fundraising generalist that has served a diverse roster of organizations in this county, raising their bottom line in record time and helping expand services across the board.

Mrs. R: (Frowning) Sounds like she’s not house trained. I’m worried about our Afghan… rug, not maid.

Mr. R: Hrmpf… this customer service is questionable. I expect more. Don’t you know who we are? Infidelity just endowed you with $200, 20 jars of peanut butter, 40 loaves of nearly expired Whole Foods brand Kale Cakes, 16 rolls of twine and eight 2 x 4’s.

Docent: I’m sorry, Mr. R, if you’ll excuse me. I have to go make use of that twine.

Junior R: Mummy. Daddy? I’m bored. Can I throw pennies at the homeless? I think our driver has some in his cupholder.

– Sarah







Wizards of Philanthropy

Desperate for ideas on how to raise more money for their plucky little nonprofits, Jon and Sarah attend a fundraising conference, and its keynote speaker time (not to be confused with the equally motivating, yet catchier “Hammer Time”).

600 frisée salads are clinked down gently among each conference goer. Jon nudges Sarah to stay awake, as her blood level dropped precipitously low during the last session, “Direct Mail is fun, Yo!”

He resorts to texting, knowing that she has a reactionary trigger to random texts given the likelihood that her feral children have finally bested their sitter, tied her up with electrical tape, and gone off on some Goonie-like adventure for pirate gold in their suburban backyard.

Jon texts: Sarah, if u don’t wake up, we’ll miss the backstage rush for the Wizards of Philanthropy to sign our canvas giveaway totes from Massive Bank. I mean… who doesn’t want yet another free Massive Bank tote bag?

Jon texts: Also, I need someone to stage an elaborate distraction when I pull out my flask for our coffee.

(Jon flags a hurried frisée server to inquire about the timing of coffee.)

(Sarah wakes with a start, knocks over her water, and clutches the buzzing phone.)

Sarah texts: I haven’t seen Wizards this white since I mistakenly attended that Christian rock concert back in ’89. Woof… they may be from Resurrection Band, guessing by their age… A self-professed academic and a striving “Hey-I’m-hip-and-talk-real-talk-fresh” that hasn’t punched a time clock in a nonprofit for 30 years. Sooo… 60 years of mansplaining awaits us… Why did you wake me up? WTF?!

(Sarah looks at the remains of her frisée and wishes she had a better lunch.)

Sarah texts: Why does a pep talk for our sector’s “Wizards” make me feel so…

Jon texts: Lonely? Self-Loathing? Isolated? Exhausted? Defeated? Necrotic? Narcoleptic?

(Jon looks at his empty water glass and coffee mug, while gently fingering his pocket flask. He wonders in what order he should caffeinate, hydrate and inebriate.)

Sarah texts: All that… yes… hell, we have no shortage of middle-aged white guy keynote combos that haven’t worked in the nonprofit sector for decades. And every 20 minutes they get trotted out, dusted off and elevated like some King of the TED Talk.

Jon texts: IDK… the dude in the wizard hat is about to take the stage. Says he’s a social media sorcerer. He’s even got a white beard and a Gandalf staff.

(Jon gets distracted by the self-proclaimed Media Wizard gesticulating wildly–albeit awkwardly through his billowy blue-starred robe — beside a staid PowerPoint of bulleted “Do’s” and “Dont’s” including #putitintheparkinglot, #sustainabilityiseverything, & #taggingislife.)

Sarah texts: Anyone can be anything in their parent’s basement. And the staff isn’t real Jon. I looks like an over-sized saltless pretzel.

(Easily susceptible to suggestion after eating a mealy frisée salad with brownish dressing that was more mauve than brown, Jon starts to think of pretzels, longingly, lovingly.)

Jon texts: BTW, why was the salad dressing mauve? Effing mauve. I lament my life choices that have led me to know what mauve even looks like, as well as ochre and fuchsia. I also know what gingham is, and damask, and decoupage… why?

Sarah texts: It separates you from the wing-eating, strip-club going, tailgating at a football game, Stop-Kneeling-and-STFU, misogynistic, misanthropic, basic bros of today. Wear that fucking gingham with pride, man!

Jon texts: Speaking of which, I think the Wizard was at Charlottesville… I saw several Tiki torches in the backseat of his car when he pulled up this morning. What do you think his perspective is on growing an audience for grassroots, POC-led orgs focused on social activism as an antidote for community unrest?

Sarah texts: IDK, Jon… what’s whiter than a Wizard mascot who probably sports the sticker “My Other Car is a Broom” on his Tesla. That knowledge/life experience ain’t in this wizard’s hat.

Jon texts: Time to get serious. Coffee shot each time the Wizard says Disruption, YOLO, or Paradigm. You down?

Sarah texts: What, um, yeah, sure. Do U know if Danny Trejo is coming to the Arrow or the Flash? Sorry, distracted by clickbait…

Jon texts: Umm, it’s The Flash. But Trejo can do anything. He’s sort of like Meryl Streep that way.

Sarah texts: Ah! I hope they wrote him in as the Dusk to Dawn Vampire. DC needs a bit more walking undead. Speaking of… is the Wizard really going to saw that life-size Mark Zuckerberg cutout in half?

Jon texts: Why else would he have a Sawzall? It’s certainly not to cut these grape tomatoes. I mean, FFS, why is it always grape tomatoes in these frisée salads? Would it kill someone to throw in a Sungold or a Cherry?

(Jon lines up the leftover grape tomatoes as if they are facing his own personal miniature firing squad.)

Sarah texts: Ooooh, YOLO!!! HE SAID YOLO!!! Coffee shot.

Jon texts: Yea, well, we should have saw that one coming. I mean, haven’t we all wanted to Sawzall Zuckerberg at one point or another?

Sarah texts: Didn’t Trejo chop-up Zuckerberg in “Machete?” Or was it “Machete Kills?”

Jon texts: Neither. But I’m sure if they ever make the sequel “Machete Kills Again… in Space” they’ll work that in.

– Jon & Sarah







I Want My $2

Moving in the New York Metro area requires, at some point, a no good, very bad, terrible experience with movers. Who hasn’t been extorted by a mover at some point, right? My Worst Experience with a Mover did, however, reconfirm a basic belief that the nonprofit sector is more resilient than most, and certainly tougher than a guy with a fleet of 6 trucks who boasts of 1,700 moves.

Two weeks ago my husband and I moved within our town—throw a stone, or our possessions, and you could probably reach point A to B. A friend recommended a moving company run by Joe, who showed up the morning of the move grumbling and twisted up in his man-with-a-truck emotions. Joe felt he underbid the job. He wasn’t haggled. We took the price he gave and booked the job. Joe was given clear instruction, including a walk-through of our house and dimensions of our storage area. My husband works in engineering and construction in NYC. He knows a thing or two about what is needed for any one man-with-a-truck project. This was a basic job. We have a house of stuff. This is our stuff. Move it. Joe wasn’t having it – he decided that his mistake in underbidding was our mistake.

By 6 PM, the job still wasn’t finished and the day grew grim. Joe locked his truck, our possessions inside, and demanded that he be paid in full before the job was finished or else he’d drive away with our possessions. The moment of tension escalated because the crew hadn’t finished collecting everything from the house, but Joe deemed the job done. He reasoned that extortion was the next best step. My husband is one of the most thoughtful and reasonable people I know, but he doesn’t play well with bullies. He’s adept at negotiating with NYC’s toughest crew: developers, contractors, construction workers…men with much larger trucks and a few of which are much more facile with extortion.

There was a moment, upon witnessing my husband’s hellfire fury of expletives and damnations, that I considered how I would spend the better part of that evening hiding a body in our new backyard. I tried to remember exactly which chemical white powder Snoop used in The Wire to quickly decompose bodies in the empty buildings. I also considered the best “we’re not bad people” gift I would have to bestow upon our neighbors, whose children most likely overheard the negotiations. Cookies seemed wholesome enough, but wine might be more realistic for the situation…or an assorted gift basket of rum, vodka, gin and whiskey.

By 6:30, Joe had his check and my husband sent me a link to the Better Business Bureau. At some point, he realized that my ability to flame Joe via social media channels was more prudent than living out the rest of his days at Rikers. He may have also looked around and realized that he had no idea where we packed our shovel.

At 6:45, I was posted outside the van to direct the crew for the remaining 2 hours. Everyone was quiet and moved quickly and I thought about the amount that caused Joe to spend a day dissolving in animosity, bad decision making and ultimately to abandon part of the job: $2,500.

$2,500 is not an insignificant amount in fundraising. For some organizations it’s a major gift, and for most nonprofits it’s a signal of potentially greater wealth if cultivated and accessed correctly. Moreover, if, let’s say, an organization is expecting $4,000 (going by Joe’s calculations), but only receives $2,500, the work still gets done.

Setting aside the more complicated grant-based negotiations of a lesser gift, a straight GOS gift, particularly at this level, does not alter the critical, daily work of the average mid-size nonprofit organization. Where I work, if we don’t secure X grant, or Y gift, our clinic stays open. Homeless mothers and children still receive medical services. Our providers don’t quit. I, fundraiser, don’t quit. In fact, I may spend an entire YEAR cultivating a donor or company only to receive $2,500, and I don’t quit the relationship because I was perhaps expecting more. I’ve spent several years on some relationships with $0 as the count-up, knowing that I could receive tenfold and more (of $2,500) with a little patience, friendship and considerate courting.

And THIS is the daily work of nonprofits. We do more with less and sometimes nothing. As a fundraiser, I experience the joy of securing exactly what is needed and more about 30% of the time. The rest is a tough, grinding slog of difficult donor expectations, limited resources, smallish gifts and the faint promise of something more.

In the communities and cities impacted by Irma and Harvey, there will be nonprofits that won’t receive enough funding to do the necessary work of sheltering, feeding, providing medical care and basic necessities, cleaning, rebuilding, and more. I am confident that those nonprofits won’t quit. They will work long hours; they will be exhausted; they will sacrifice time with their own families to help another; they won’t be paid; they will give their own personal money; they will make sure the job gets done; they will feel like the job is too big, the need is too huge and their contribution is too little. In many ways it will be, because those communities will need a coordinated effort with government support. Trump only hired the Director of FEMA in June, and his 2018 budget plan includes $667M in cuts to help cities and states prepare for these disasters.

One thing I’m pretty sure of, government ain’t helping anytime soon and not in any sort of substantive capacity that is needed.

I am proud to work in an industry that doesn’t quit, but, frankly, I’m also exhausted, watching us continually do more with less. And despite my meandering sidebar/headliner personal story, it was that moment, in my driveway, in the final quiet moments of our move that I wasn’t calm. I was white hot mad. I was angry that, for Joe, his indignity came from one bad bid and he was hell-bent on getting his take. For me, underbidding and doing the job is my everyday. And I put out the best prayer an atheist can to all the nonprofits out there that will spend the coming months and years trying to rebuild Texas and Florida. They will get underbid everyday. And they won’t leave. They won’t quit.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to work through project Q with less and somehow manage to attribute some amount of success to the daily slog. I will also deeply enjoy writing Joe’s Better Business Bureau review.

– Sarah

The Raffle

He always thought the smell of fresh cut grass was something sad; as if loss and hope were not feelings, but corporeal things that you could touch. His aversion came from the fact that he grew up walled-in by a world of concrete and steel, with nary a shade of green to be found. It was also the incongruity of life in the inner-city that suggested to him that the smell of grass on a 150-year old country club was an altogether different beast. To him, it had no life or joy. It was a perfect creature sprawling for acres on end, ringed by wildness on all sides but never truly existing. It was just… there.

He felt much the same way – just there – on that summery morning, stuffing 100 goodie bags for the golfers’ about to enter his nonprofit’s latest fundraising event. It was a task that should have been completed days earlier by volunteers, but his boss – who was nowhere to be found with the shotgun start just minutes away – didn’t procure the various accoutrement until the day before, leaving him with a late night marathon of pick-ups. He had gotten used to the last minute heroics, and of course, her histrionics, and assumed that she would swoop in – as she usually did — just as the manual labor was being completed, wearing a dress too short and perfume much too strong for someone her age. He reasoned that he didn’t need her for this task anyway, just as he didn’t need her to secure the sponsors, or the raffle items, or the journal ads. He also reasoned that no one would care about her lack of attentiveness, as his nonprofit, long suffering under ineffectual leadership and board governance, was just weeks away from announcing their merger with a much larger, and much more efficient organization. But mostly, he reasoned that because of that merger, he wouldn’t have a job much longer anyway.

That’s why he started interviewing as soon as he heard the rumors. And that’s why he was just… there.

True to form, his boss Helen arrived with minutes to spare in a whirlwind of Chanel No. 5. She made quick work of saying hello to the gathered VIPs before the air horn signaled the start of the outing. With the diaspora of golf carts underway, she walked towards the flotsam and jetsam of goodie bags and gifts, and offered, “You got this, right?” And just like that, she was gone again.

The checklist ran through his head. He knew he had five hours until lunch. Clean up registration. Unload prizes from the truck. Load up registration leftovers into the truck. Set up the Raffle display. Oversee the set-up for lunch. Oh, and find Sal, the event chair, who no doubt was teeing off on the first hole with his foursome at that very moment. He didn’t need Helen for any of it.

Sal owned several companies including a carting business and a construction firm, but the appellation he used to describe himself most frequently was Board of Trustee at the local community bank. His outward affinity for the role, and the enthusiasm with which he shared it with new friends, suggested a furtive overcompensation for a myriad of past sins. But no one dared pry because Sal brokered no questions and suffered no fools. He was a singular force of nature and the momentum behind the golf outing. With the exception of a handful of long-time donors, every foursome and every sponsor were Sal’s business contacts, and all of them enthusiastically signed up at the mere mention of his name on the phone.

As the hours ticked by, he removed each and every item from his to-do list, with nary a sign of his boss. Just as he tweaked the placement of the last table with the help of the club’s staff, the first golfer came in from the course. He was followed, within minutes, by Sal, who came right over and asked for the raffle tickets.

Sal argued, weeks earlier, that since most of the golfers were his friends, who better than him to walk around the room and sell raffle tickets and ultimately announce who the winners were when he gave his welcome speech to the gathered guests. Helen agreed without hesitation because any other alternative meant work for her. So she instructed him to find Sal before the lunch started and hand off the raffle tickets, as well as the starter cash necessary to give change and a small tote to carry everything in.

As the rest of the golfers gathered in the banquet room, Sal snaked his way through the crowd like an evangelist offering absolution. He was a sight to behold. There was no frivolity. No ebullience. Just the task… Walk up to friend, ask for money, pocket cash, give raffle ticket, walk up to next friend. Within half an hour, and timed perfectly with the opening of the buffet, Sal had completed his task and walked up to him and handed over the tote of cash. “There’s close to Twenty thousand in there… not a bad haul… we did good kid.” Indeed. With the foursomes and sponsorships, this easily put them over the $100,000 mark for the event… something the outing had never achieved before.

He saw Helen, martini in hand, swoop into the room and was about to signal her to come over to share in the success when Sal said, “Count out ten thousand will ya.” Confused, but complicit, he started to count the bills as Sal reached into his back pocket and produced a check and a pen. When he finished the tally, Sal handed him the check, neatly made out to his nonprofit in the amount of $10,000, and said, “Now give me the ten grand.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me. Give me the cash. You’re making change for me. What’s the problem?”

“None. I, uh, just didn’t hear what you said. Here you go, Sal.”

“Good. Now kid. Remember to send me a receipt for the check I just gave you. Oh, and just so you know, I’m gonna’ announce my friend Jimmy as the winner of the Corvette for a weekend. It don’t matter whose name you pull out of the raffle bowl and hand to me. Got it?” And with that, Sal turned and walked away. But his exodus was short-lived, as he quickly spun around and said with a gaze meant to imply so much more than just the words about to be echoed, “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this.”

The words just hung there, like a career criminal on the gallows pole… an image that suddenly, and violently came to his mind.

When Sal was out of easy view, he motioned for Helen to come over and with a fearlessness that only comes from not caring, explained everything that just happened.

“Okay,” Helen said.

“That’s it? Okay? How can you say that? We have to do something about it?”

“I am. I’m going to send him a receipt for his check, and look the other way when he announces the raffle winners.”

“Helen, what? You can’t…”

“Sal has single-handedly raised more than $100,000 for our charity. I don’t care what he does with a raffle prize or with his taxes. And you shouldn’t either. Understand me?”

And with that order, she flitted back to the room, to refresh her martini and say hello to anyone she missed earlier.

Rebuked thoroughly, and with his job completed for the moment, he stepped outside to look at the Country Club grass once more. His perspective changed. It was no longer just there. It suddenly came alive for him. It wasn’t ringed by wilderness, but actively working against it. And its perfection belied its constant efforts, both furtive and overt, to keep it in check… to keep it firmly ensconced in its place.

He took a few steps further down the patio and away from the banquet room and the “no cell phone” signs that were posted everywhere, and found an alcove of sorts out of sight of the guests. He reached for his phone and played the voicemail message he received early in the day from the headhunter… And he was relieved that he no longer had to be… there.

– Jon

You can’t save everyone

One of the great hallmarks of the nonprofit world is that it is inhabited by a special breed of people… people that for whatever reason, genuinely bleed for others and believe that they can save the world. Indeed, there weren’t too many of those types inhabiting the infamous halls of wall street say circa 2007 or currently haunting the tech-fueled frat houses of companies like Uber. No, the motivators there are, shall we say, a tad bit more selfish, bordering on the manipulative, misanthropic and sociopathic. Do we really doubt the stereotype that some of these bastions of greed would be willing to sacrifice their grandmother on a pyre dedicated to Cthulhu just to make a buck?

That’s one of the things about the nonprofit world that’s refreshing in a ginger ale plucked from the bottom of an ice-filled tub by the “hot mugshot model” guy sort of way. We work with people who get in early and stay late not because they’re trying to impress during year-end bonus time (Bonus? What’s a bonus?) but rather because, by doing so, they can save another life just like Oskar Schindler lamenting that he should have sold his watch to save two more people. Or like Private Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge trying to save just one more life in the midst of a firefight. Or like Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy who goes out of his way to stop a horde of Necrocraft from dive-bombing innocent people fleeing Nova City (Cough, How many people did Superman save again in Man of Steel? Cough).

We wear t-shirts on casual Friday that say, “I’m trying to save the world, what are you doing?” We spend our paycheck on things like backpacks and boxes of crayons for the children we serve because a) their families can’t afford them and b) our nonprofits can’t afford them. Oh yea, and all the while we make a fraction of what those frat boys at Uber make. Sure it sucks watching our friends in the for-profit world get brand spanking new IPads on a random Tuesday because… Team building… when all we have to look forward to is a box of Munchkins leftover from yesterday’s morning meeting… Yay! (We were waving a tiny flag just then). But hey, with the right application of effort, we believe we can save the world, and who cares about IPads or even a paycheck anyway.

Well, this may come as a thunderous revelation to you, our most esteemed fellow nonprofit warriors, but we can’t save the world.

No amount of effort, no steely determination, no recitation of magical phrases like “Wally Wally Foo Foo,” and certainly no rotation of t-shirts with pedantic and pithy phrases will change the fact that we can’t save everyone. Seriously. Just how many people do you think you can fireman carry on your back at any one time? Two? Fifty? Five-hundred thousand? We’re thinking it’s more like one. And if you’re like Jon’s friend Allison who admittedly is “not weak, but rather, not strong,” then that one better be a very small puppy. Oskar Schindler didn’t sell his watch. Private Doss didn’t carry every wounded soldier back. Rocket couldn’t stop every suicide dive-bomber.

And yet, they kept going.

Because there will always be another person to pick up. And to them, you will be their salvation. That should be enough to define ourselves. That should be enough to help us sleep at night. Truly, every life is important. We have to stop defining ourselves by what we haven’t achieved or what we haven’t done, and start defining ourselves by our successes.

Here’s what happens when you constantly define everything according to a YOLO, Win At All Cost, Go Big Or Go Home, Save the World perspective. You breed out failure. And there’s nothing wrong with failure. Firstly, because we’re humans and not Vulcans, we fuck-up sometimes. We forget anniversaries. We leave the toilet seat up. We order the French Fries instead of the salad. We get sick and miss important meetings. We can’t remember the capital of Iowa (Newton?).

And secondly, there is no way to win big without failing at first. You seriously doubt our credibility on that statement? Google every single successful person’s bio and read about how their great failures lead to their great successes. Ask Bill Gates about his first business Traf-O-Data. Steve Jobs failed out of college. Thomas Edison was fired from his first two jobs. J.K. Rowling was a single mom living on welfare when she wrote Harry Potter. Babe Ruth failed to get a hit 65% of the time. Etc. Etc. Ad nauseum.

Success is universally defined by our failures. We appreciate sunrises because we have nighttime to compare it to. We treasure life, because we know the eternal emptiness of death. We love French Fries, because we know what broccoli tastes like.

We have to stop defining success by exclusion and berating ourselves with each failure, for one very simple reason. The world is a dark and scary place, and it’s getting darker every day. We need all the Browncoats we can get to fight the Core Planets… every rebel to help Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar fight the Empire… every solider to stand with King Henry before the breach.

If we can’t find a way to live with our flaws, accept our failures, and forgive ourselves for not saving every single person, the fires of that guilt will consume us and unmake us… and then… who will be left to fireman carry those that need us?

– Jon


Finding Joy as a Recovering Development Director

Kids find joy everywhere–like in puddles. The adult would probably say, “Eeks! Gad! Get out of the puddle next to the monkey cages! You’ll get a diseeeeaaase!” Adults sometimes have to study joy, chart a course of action and commit. Every. Damn. Day.

A few months ago my husband and I had three weeks to get our house ready to sell. Prepping a home for buyers in my hood means creating an aggressively perfect environment that is usually created by 50 of Martha Stewart’s best production and design associates. I was out of my league and did what most obsessive, ill-equipped but over-resourced NY-Metro area suburban moms would do: I studied the solution and became maniacal. I read Marie Kondō’s, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” and claimed her mantra: ‘Throw away anything that doesn’t give you joy.’ One filled dumpster and 30 bags of donated stuff later (and, OK, a storage facility), I came close to the bliss that Marie promises. Hell, I may even be skinnier and smarter and my skin more radiant. I rose to the insanity of the house-selling market, but, more, I learned how to let go. As a recovering development director, I can take Kondō one step further: I can thank all my years as a burdened Development Director, having to own and sweat through every element and nuance of a fundraising program. I can honor the past, thank it for what I’ve learned, and then toss it in the dumpster next to my broken NordicTrack.

I have one main goal in my current position as a fundraiser: launch and develop a new foundation to support its parent nonprofit. It’s exciting, and the possibilities for creating a long-term source of support for this particular institution is huge. I love this job, but I get in my own way. It’s like having a conversation with my writing buddy, Jon. We start in one direction, and 4 minutes later our squirrel brain kicks in and the conversation turns from developing a nascent donor base to Jason Mamoa redeeming my lifelong love of Aquaman. At work, I may start the day researching individuals and setting up the next round of meetings, and then all of a sudden I’m volunteering to write content for the new website because I’m convinced I’m the only one who should handle this burden.

One of our new board members jokes that she’s a recovering lawyer, so I’ve now adopted her brisk bio as a recovering Development Director, because I get it. I’ve been a DD for small organizations several times over, which means I’ve been forced to adopt a variety of roles that no single working professional should own—grantwriter, major gifts officer, party planner, all-round writer of just about every publication, HR negotiator, board liaison, program creator…and that’s just the beginning. To be clear, most Development Directors can’t choose what they own – it’s a forced contract with the position. I read many blogs from nonprofit consultants hell-bent on creating their authoritative identity based on voluminous outpourings of thinly conceived advice columns on exactly this topic: focusing one’s fundraising efforts solely on activities that generate revenue. This advice is correct, but focus takes more than a laundry list of “good” and “bad” activities. It takes a mind shift, a mantra and an ability to secure success based on an understanding of priority and outcome.

There’s plenty of necessary fundraising work that doesn’t bring me joy, but I know it’s essential, like organizing a meeting and making sure the food doesn’t suck. Good food makes people happy, and I want people to be happy at my gatherings. If they leave happy, if they are treated well, they will want to help my organization. Bringing joy means bringing revenue. Does writing content on a new website bring me joy; am I the only one with the golden words to inspire a new gift? Quite simply, no–endless communications writing is a barrier between time spent in direct communication with donors versus time spent writing, editing, rewriting (doesn’t every fundraising office receive at least 15 rounds of edits on any and all external communication?), and sweating out the loss of many weeks when I wasn’t pursuing donors. I am constantly fighting with my squirrel brain that jumps on any activity that appears to solve an immediate challenge to my department.

To be fair, my charge is more than just developing one board. It encompasses all of the individuals and partnerships that will secure revenue and resources for my organization, but my charge is not anything external to this main goal. It’s a struggle to recover. In the midst of my house purging I thought I threw out the one thing I realized I truly loved—a green faux leather jacket. For 3 days, I damned Kondō and her fools gold of relief from my life’s clutter. I considered that I may love a jacket more than my family. Eventually the jacket was found by the plucky daughter of a dear friend, and I returned to the purge.

This week I finally heard from a program officer of a major foundation that we’ve been courting for capital support. Despite my many attempts to get in touch with her since March, it was our July newsletter that caught her attention and she responded. For this particular round, I had to write and publish the newsletter because of a recent departure of our social media manager. I received the program officer’s note, considered what she said triggered the response, and for several seconds I mused, “Maybe I should be writing the newsletter.” In less than a minute, I pushed back the insanity and responded to her message, and I didn’t have to write another newsletter for her to schedule that meeting.

– Sarah