Seize that Man!

0d6db1869c3722cdef228785bb64b55aThere’s a scene in Season 1 of HBO’s Games of Thrones – or for the ultra-cool types that actually read all 42,000 pages associated with A Song of Fire and Ice, it’s in Book 1 – where Catelyn Stark (nee Tully), surreptitiously travelling with only one guard, confronts Tyrion Lannister, the primary suspect behind her son’s attempted assassination. The setting is a Pub, frequented by soldiers from different Houses along the Riverlands. Knowing she won’t get the chance to capture Tyrion again, but also knowing she’s at a tactical disadvantage, she stands up and calls very public attention to who she is and what the various allegiances are to her House (Tully) and her husband’s (Stark). One by one the soldiers, who really only wanted a moment to enjoy in peace their flagon of ale, acknowledge her calls for fealty, and of course, her accusation against the suspected assassin. It’s only then that she flips the switch to full-on Badass mode and drops the hammer on Tyrion, “Seize that Man!”

It’s one of my favorite scenes in the book, and if you’re a nonprofit warrior like me, it should be yours as well because it completely encapsulates our archetype. How often have we stood in front of a group of people (or even just one) and passionately argued our vision for changing the world — outgunned, alone, afraid, and without nary a resource to support us. And how badass is it when they heed our call for help and respond by giving their time, money and occasionally, their swords to a most worthy cause.

In a way, Catelyn Stark was the first fundraiser. I just hope her outcome at the Red Wedding is not what awaits all nonprofit warriors.

Friends stepping up selflessly, compassionately, are what the nonprofit world is built upon — people actually listening to the whys and hows of it all. Not Apps on your phone. Not Text to Give campaigns. Not 30-second elevator speeches because a 31 second speech is much too long to listen to another living, breathing human being fighting to change the world.

Donors used to care about old-fashioned, honest to goodness, laugh at your jokes, ask how your daughter is doing in college, give-and-take relationship building. I can’t tell you how many major (and minor) gifts I secured around a cup of coffee (or at, umm, at a Martini tasting) spending time with people getting to know them. There was an authenticity in both our approaches. I was truly energized by their vision and desire to change the world through charity X, Y or Z, and they genuinely wanted to connect – to an organization, to the staff, and to the clients being served.

That mutual connection between us and our donors is what made Development a great profession. After all, we weren’t selling widgets to line some fat-cat’s pocket. We were selling a better world, and in doing so, we all felt good about ourselves.

But during the past half dozen years, donors have become increasingly “too busy” to take a call, let alone meet, let alone connect. Sure, there’s an element of self-preservation to it all. “If I take your request for a meeting than surely every one of your sycophantic ilk will crawl out of the wood-work to ask for my money, maybe even steal my soul or whatever it is you people do.” There’s a skepticism… an incredulity to both our profession and the industry as a whole.  I get it.  After all, Cancer hasn’t gone away. One in four children is still living in poverty. One third of our teens still drop out of high school. One in four college-age women still report being sexually assaulted. The world is a dark scary place and it sure doesn’t seem to be getting any better despite our best efforts.

A fundraising rock-star once told me, “The only problems left in this world are the big ones.” Fuck-yeah, so saddle up and help me make this world a better place. Isn’t that the whole point to living? Making the world a better place?  Wanting to live in a better place? For ourselves, our children, our pet children, our Chia Pets, whatever?

Or has it truly become a NIMBY, get off my lawn you rotten kids, it’s all-about-me, YOLO world?

Personally, I subscribe to something Jodie Foster said in the movie Contact, based upon Carl Sagan’s book of the same name. Her character was royally screwed out of going to space by Tom Skerritt’s character (who I’m glad to see survived that brush with the Alien). He says something to the effect of, “I wish the world was the kind of place that rewarded your optimism and honesty.” To which she says in probably the second best imitation of a Badass behind the aforementioned Catelyn Stark, “Funny, but I always thought the world was what we make it.”

So is this it? Our brave new world that eschews relationships for a button click, closes its doors to new friends, views everything with skepticism and incredulity, and generally doesn’t return phone calls? Or, when push comes to shove, are there still people out there that believe as Jodie Foster did, as I do… that the world is what we make it and thus are willing to take a few minutes to help Catelyn Stark get justice?

Unfortunately, the last time I stood up in the middle of a Pub and implored my fellow patrons to join me in meting out justice, everyone remained fixed on their flagons pretending not to hear me.

And then someone threw me out.

– Jon

The Wind

wind-9666213fb1b332345db26b73e535270bWe hate wind. Anything above 40 MPH, and we’re filled with anxiety every time a house moves and you can hear the trees shake. There is nothing like being in your home when a tree comes down. It’s just never the same. Wind has become an evil omen: the stranger in ‘Something Wicked this Way Comes,’ filling the town with a sense that something is not quite right.

The nonprofit ceiling is located slightly north of where your experience meets your intuition. We’ve been around long enough to understand boards, executive directors, presidents, development directors, donors, program staff and all of the many key ingredients that make a nonprofit business. We had high hopes in the early run of the 21st century. Funding was at an all-time high and the field was just beginning to professionalize. There was hope that nonprofits finally had the staffing and resources to save Gotham, Central City, snuggly wolves… whatever the cause… there was hope. And then came the wind.

It seemed refreshing at first.

Anyone that has lived through the damage wrought by Mother Nature can relate to that primal fear of the wind. But the worst part is that we didn’t fear the wind at one point in our lives. We started out with a joie de vivre. We are invincible after all. We are Captain America or Aquaman (hey, he was cool… he was the King of Atlantis after all). We ride our bike with no helmets. We eat PopRocks with a can of coke. But, as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.”

For us, the nonprofit world changed in 2008.

It went from being a fearless, collaborative call to action to change the world, to an injured and scared animal, recoiling from the kindly old couple that stops their Prius on the side of the road to help. We have no fight left for our respective missions, because the nonprofit industry, by design, has become the enemy. We are under siege when there is a call for “Disruption.” We are defeated when we are tasked with “Sustainability.” We are spurned when we are dismissed as unfundable “Overheard.”

The wind changed and the for-profit world moved in. They liked us at first, but they didn’t quite trust us. We didn’t look, sound or feel like a business. They reasoned they could do better, be more efficient, measure accountability, and make the field bend to the collective will of the for-profit construct.

There is one universal truth that existed before 2008, but became magnified thereafter when charitable giving fell precipitously by 20% and investment funds that fueled nonprofit endowments fell twice that amount. People got scared. The for-profits said they could help. The nonprofit truth changed from mission to Money.

Of course, two veteran nonprofit warriors like us, trained by the best sellswords in Braavos, aren’t turned off by the accountability component of Money, or more specifically, having to raise it.

But that’s not what changed.

This industry used to be based upon relationships with contributors, staff and the community. Nonprofits were always about Impact, until the word turned into an NC-17 version of itself: a deranged, intractable concept that is fiercely wielded to measure the value of everything from a child stepping onto a stage to perform his/her poetry to the value of primary healthcare for a homeless family. Impact is no longer defined by the community that creates it. Today, nonprofits and their decision makers, afraid of what followed the wind of 2008, make decisions based solely on Money. How to find it? How to keep it? How to spend it? How to hold people accountable for it? How many people are benefiting from it? How can I give you the least amount of money to make the most Impact? And that ladies and gentleman, is called a Transaction.  You know… a card swipe paradigm. Do you have a deep, meaningful relationship with your Credit Card? Your Square Reader?

It is also an external marker that no longer relies on the community for value. The community no longer has a voice. Impact, sustainability, overheard, accountability… these are all terms that involve outputs for external sources. Our nonprofits are no longer our own. We exist when we can be counted, measured, defined, and otherwise expressed on a spreadsheet.

There is no soul in a transaction or a measurement. You don’t have to believe in God, Yahweh, Allah, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to understand what a soul is. And no, we’re not talking about the James Brown version, although that’s close. Soul is a sunrise on a clear morning with the waves rolling in 4′-5′ and glassy, and you’re the first surfer in the lineup. Soul is paddling on both sides of the boat so we all go forward instead of in a circle. Soul is running along a country road at 5am as downy snow falls gently, silently. We all have our own version. We also know that a mission, like a soul, is not a transaction.

It is in this new reality that we, two veteran nonprofit warriors, looked at the battlefield and realized that The Battle of Thermopylae is upon us, and there wasn’t an army of 300 at our sides. As we called upon our fellow warriors to join us, we realized that although many felt as we do, they were just too scared to stand before the sacred cows of the nonprofit world and scream, “This is Sparta!” Relax. We’re not trying to enlist you. We’re happy to rush once more into the breach. We make a great fire team. We just figured someone, maybe at least 6 people, would be mildly interested in the stories, fabrications and otherwise dark and sometimes playful musings of two fundraisers still waiting for their mission without an army.

– Sarah and Jon


Nonprofits, We are Finished

I stayed longer than I wanted. I’m still here. I burned the toast. It was my fault. You said you couldn’t live without me. I stayed. You said you loved me, and you really didn’t mean to hurt me. I stayed.

I reason that no one else will love me. You are all that I know. I spent a lot of money on a fancy degree for you to love me more. I dress appropriately when we are together. I say all the right things, until I don’t. And then I am forsaken.

Nonprofits, We are Finished.

You are broken. It’s not me. I burned the toast, because the toaster has been broken for nearly 10 years. You actually can live without me, because I hardly ever use the skills you say you need. You don’t love me. You love the version of me that is only desirable or functional when given the tools and resources to be that superwoman. You don’t give me those tools. I cannot be your superwoman.

You are still all that I know. And I have a lot to discuss.

You’d better sit down.

– Sarah