Farts & Poops

Yep, we went there.

And… now that we’ve shamelessly gotten your attention, we’ll explain. After all, if you’ve worked in the nonprofit world, you’re nonplussed by scatological references. You’ve endured the real-world version from Executive Directors with social-anxiety disorders, do-nothing volunteers with a penchant for telling you how to adjust the table napkins “just so,” and donors demanding a photo-op and face-time with your Board Chair for a $500 grant.

No, you know all about Farts and Poops.

While rude-humor is often the bailiwick of Hollywood movies, it’s also the intellectual pinnacle of 10-year-olds the world over. Hell, there’s a YouTube video out there purported to be “actual footage” of a tween Alien asking a frightened human to pull his finger, so it might even be a Universal truth for all we know. We’ll keep looking and let you know, because after all, the truth is out there.

Anyway, 10-year-olds are not exactly the hallmark of our species. As Beverly Goldberg says, they can be delightful angel babies–especially Sarah’s. They’re adorable, truly, but we all know they’ve just started on this thing called life. Heck, a big deal for them, as The Flobots said, is to “ride my bike with no handlebars.” They’ve got a long way to go before they can split the atom, or even remember to wash their hands before dinner.

So, the last place you’d expect to find a reference extolling the intellectual prowess of a 10-year-old is in a Grant Workshop held by the de rigueur Foundation of the moment. But that’s exactly where Jon and Sarah found it – being bandied about like its sugared-up namesake when Nanna comes to visit.

“Before submitting your grant narrative to our grant review committee, give it to a 10-year-old to read over to make sure they understand it… because if they don’t, we won’t.”

Now to be sure, it’s time-honored advice when writing or crafting any message in general, to make it palatable to the greatest common denominator (i.e., dumb it down). The most profound communicators of all time have engendered a sense of connectedness to their audience by speaking in a parlance that was familiar.

This is different. Preparing a grant is not the same as standing on a podium and extolling a virtuous message to a crowd of ten thousand earnestly yearning for someone to make something great again. A foundation is supposed to be our partner in the trenches, learning the field and fighting the good fight. The best institutional partners are the ones that take the time to learn about the field and have the knowledge and experience to readily assess the grants and the organizations they are or aren’t funding. Further, when said foundation presents a set of guidelines for the LOI that is more complex than the instructions on building a nuclear device, yet can’t be bothered to Google basic industry terms like IEP, HIPAA, or ALICE, then there’s a problem in the process. And, for the record, it doesn’t matter if the award is $1,000 or 100,000. Grantmaking should not be whittled down to a bucket of roses and 100 desperate nonprofits, eager to do whatever it takes for the love of the trendy new local foundation.

And if it’s not the techno-jargon that causes the greatest offense, but rather our use of words like protean, plethora, or Sisyphean, still, are you really sure you want to stand in front of a room of 100 nonprofit professionals, many of whom are quite accomplished grant-writers and skilled fundraisers, and tell them how to write? It’s quite possible, that most of these folks can not only write an excellent narrative, but can also run your foundation.

This brings us back to a common theme in this blog. PHILANTHROPY IS NOT A TRANSACTION. It’s not a check box, multiple choice, T or F solution, or typically anything that can be tracked on a spreadsheet or metrics designed by Goldman Sachs. Philanthropy is a heartfelt investment in making the world a better place that requires knowledge, practice and a realistic understanding of what it takes to run the average nonprofit — large or small.

Taking a cue from our local foundation, here’s how you completely fuck it up: Create a LOI that requires 40 questions, 20 pages of written content; max word count at 200 word/question; and require sensitive financial information that is often not even required for the average grant. Step two, if a 10-year old can read your LOI and you get the royal welcome, the nonprofit enters into a Roman Colosseum-style battle of the nonprofits! In an exciting evening of live desperation porn, amongst your fellow community nonprofits, you get 5 minutes to present to the foundation just how sad the world would be without your services. The winner gets the big pot!

Circling back to the transaction and removing humanity from the equation…The disassociation created by some foundations is the first step toward embracing an “It’s not my problem” philosophy. Indeed, it is all our problem, even if you have the money to temporarily satiate the needs of a few this year. Dying children, poverty, abused puppies, end-of-life-care, hunger, whatever, it all affects us because they are all intertwined, inextricably. Just like we all drive the same roads and rely on the same governmental services to keep us safe (i.e., police, fire, military, etc.). We are all impacted, either personally or some member of our family, by these programs. I’m not suggesting that every nonprofit program is equal. The best run programs with the greatest impact should get more funding. Recognize, however, that with funding comes responsibility: learn the field and talk to your constituents, not just other funders, and treat those that you fund with an equal amount of respect and deference.

We’re in a funny industry. Not funny “Ha Ha” as Joe Pesci said, but peculiar. We panegyrize ourselves for being tolerant, welcoming, embracing, yet everyday we’re forced to endure the outrageous slings and arrows of classism, elitism, and a few other “isms” all in the name of the almighty dollar. Why? Because saving the world is hard and it costs money? Not astronaut on the moon money, although we have been known to fix a leaky O2 tank with duct tape and rubber bands on more than one occasion. We beg, plead, and otherwise prostrate ourselves – some Major Gift Officers would call it prostitute ourselves – and are made to jump through ridiculous, unimportant, and inefficient hopes for what… so that our patrons can feel good about themselves while maintaining a healthy dispassionate distance from the rabble covered in farts and poops? “Shhh, don’t make the funder feel intellectually inferior because you dared to use words with multiple syllables.”

So, here’s the wake-up call that every ten-year-old learns eventually – albeit some sooner than others. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU! It’s not about your grant workshop attended by the desperate masses. It’s not about your 20-page, 40-question, Letter of Intent. It’s not about your status as an up and coming Foundation.

It’s about the programs you’re trying to invest in, elevate, and buttress. It’s about the lives you’re trying to change. That’s why you, and everyone else creates a foundation in the first place. Right? It’s certainly not for a tax break — you really want to help people, right?

Reading a grant may be hard, but really, is it as hard as attending to a dying child in a hospital room; ladling soup into a styrofoam cup late at night so a homeless person can eat their first meal this week; or trying to calm an autistic child having a meltdown in the middle of a classroom?

If the prose and the jargon that we use are a tad too much, ask yourself how you’d react to a grant proposal submitted, double-spaced in 48pt sans-serif font, featuring a one-syllable, four letter word that begins with “F” followed by the word “Off.”

Not well, right?

Then don’t tell us to dumb down our applications to make it “easier for you to understand” because “Fuck Off” is what we’re hearing when you say that.

The world is a dark and scary place, and you need to know about every alleyway, tunnel, dead-end and burnt-out building. Because, as Tyrese said on The Walking Dead, how else can you really know “What’s happening and what’s going on.” Remaining willfully ignorant of a world you profess to want to help, just keeps you in the perpetual state of a 10-year-old riffing about farts and poops.

The nonprofit world is hard enough that we don’t need more 10-year-olds… what we need is for you to grow up.

– Jon


Bad Pony

Photo courtesy of Farewell Debut.

It was nearly a decade since I’d last seen Laura. We’d only met once, when she gave me a tour of the youth center she worked at. We instantly bonded as two fellow Development Directors, swapping battle stories and the inevitable peaks and lows of fundraising for scrappy organizations that were beloved by their communities and, well, us. I didn’t know all the details, but I knew her parting from the organization was painful and sudden.

I was now the chief fundraiser for the center and was desperate for any hint of historical knowledge, since Laura was the last true professional fundraiser in the role, replaced by a scattering of transient, warm bodies that unsuccessfully pushed papers for 8 years. In those years, relationships iced over, funding ended, and the world of fundraising in NYC changed dramatically during the cooling. I also wanted to meet up with Laura, because I generally don’t fair too well in cultivating fundraising friends. The NY Metro area tends to mold its ilk into well-polished pods of professionals that don’t break form often. Last we met, Laura had a penchant for blue hair, 1970s punk and big necklaces. I wanted to find a friendly warrior — I figured we could at least commiserate on our battle scars post-2008 recession, post-Bloomberg and the golden age of our profession, when the word “sustainability” seemed reasonable.

It wasn’t the warmest reception. We met in a dark, cavernous restaurant on the lower west side that had airs of reclaimed wood, warehouse and vaguely asian finishings. I threw out a large hug the moment we met, while she stood her ground and gave a light embrace that belied the solid fighter that I knew stood before me.

Our meeting progressed only slightly better. We didn’t bond like I had hoped. We didn’t trade war stories like Wonder Woman and Athena, warrior goddesses that conquered and brought justice to all. We shared stories with caution, because our stories didn’t have heroic endings. I don’t think Laura quite trusted my intent, as I was now representing a place that caused her pain. I have too many nonprofit stories without heroic endings, but I draw power in what I can rewrite and re-envision for the future. This wasn’t a power lunch, however, and it felt more like two bad ponies hunched over overpriced salads lacking in basic sustenance. Ponies once beloved by their organizations, by their leaders, but now relegated to the outer pasture, broken, joyless and fairly irascible.

Development Directors – the Wonder Women, Michonne’s, and Burka Avenger’s of the field – embrace the cause, the organization, the donors, board, the program staff… hell… we even cozy up to the financial directors, accountants, maintenance… anyone that makes it all happen every day. Our faith and love runs deep. We obsessively devour all information that feeds into the state of the cause: the donors, trends, markets, politics… it all matters. We become enveloped by the cause, both intellectually and emotionally. We are not, however, perfect. For example, most mortal women aren’t the 21st c. reboot of Wonder Woman where apparently nothing can kill her.

Personally, I am a ninja grant-writer and strategist, but major gifts is sometimes my kryptonite. I’ve refined my donor relations and execution over the years, but my bad pony story came about nearly two decades earlier at the start of my career. I built an enviable fundraising program from the ground up, leveraged heavily on grants, a successful annual event and appeal and a growing communications platform. The Executive Director wanted more–she wanted a Development Director that could take that success and quickly turn it into a major gifts program with barely the time, planning, training or resources needed to build this new program. She wanted a pony that could do more, and she grew increasingly frustrated by the seeming limits of my talents. I grew increasingly frustrated by the limits of her talents, but I wasn’t the one with the power. It was her call to put the bad pony in a corner.

One of the most painful, shell-shock moments in my career was the day she pulled me aside, alone in a workshop room, and expressed her dissatisfaction in my work and my “bad attitude.” She tapped her watch to show that my time was limited. The message was clear: ‘shape up girl, or get out.’ When I walked back in the office the next day I resolved to do 3 things: 1) I would be the happiest fucking employee she had ever seen; 2) I would make things ‘right’ in whatever combination of tasks or goals she deemed suitable; and 3) I would leave. It wasn’t a heroic departure, but I met my goals, and I was gone in six months.

I still love that organization. It still brings me joy. I still love the people that I worked alongside for so many years. There are many narratives to my time at the organization, and the days leading up to when I left, but that day, at the restaurant with Laura, I was back to being the bad pony. There was something in the timing of our meeting, and the manner in which I was coming to her that brought it all back. Laura shared her story–not all of it, but enough. I shared mine. We didn’t draw strength from one another. We didn’t bond. We should have–it should have been a fantastic reunion. We should have ordered steak or definitely something with more protein. I can blame the pretentious hipster garbage that dangled all around us; I can blame the sad salads, but mostly I blame the profession.

The nonprofit field is drenched in stats, surveys, opinions, and every quantifiable indicator that development directors are miserable. The best study to date, Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing the Nonprofit Field, is now buried in a deep google search. Underdeveloped found that most Development Directors are deeply unhappy, last less than 2 years in their jobs and can readily tick off at least 20 reasons why they feel fairly defeated and otherwise abused. There are about 50 blog posts that could spin off on how & why this has come to be, but not a lot of consultants, executive directors, board members or senior leaders really understand (or talk about) what it’s like to be the chief fundraiser.

I’m not quite sure if you can, or should, cross a superhero with a beloved pony – it’s weird, but I know what it feels like to be both. Mostly, I don’t know what it feels like to be a fallen superhero. I just know what it feels like to be a bad pony. So I’m going to keep re-writing this narrative, because no one else is writing the handbook for getting out of the pasture. I hope that someday Laura and I have lunch again, but this time we’ll order steak and Manhattans. Our stories will be about heroes and fighters and warriors–it will be about us.

– Sarah


The Latte


The Soy Chai Latte was warming, welcoming, like a favorite blanket that’s been tucked away all summer finally getting use on a crisp fall evening. It was a celebratory treat during what felt like a year without anything to celebrate. If we all wear two faces – our private, personal side, and our work side — truth be told, both of his faces were swollen and sullen. That’s what a year of 70+ hour work weeks coupled with the loss of multiple family members and chronic health issues — no doubt exacerbated by an unsustainable work schedule – did to a person. That, and of course, the constant, unrelenting abuse at the hands of a superior in name only. Someone overcompensating for a general lack of knowledge about her job and the nonprofit industry as a whole, with a piercing tongue and a propensity for threats both overt and slight.

But this morning was different. There was a jump in his step that belied the fact that he didn’t get home until 3am. Gala was over, and it was a huge success.

It wasn’t a triumph just because many of the four hundred guests in attendance said so throughout the event. Nor was it the myriad logistics that flowed seamlessly, effortlessly. No, those were things that only Development people notice but go unattended by the masses unless something goes wrong — and nothing went wrong.  Nor was it the speakers, each and every one adhering to the carefully crafted, strategic message he drafted for them, even the volunteer auctioneer sorely lacking in both personality and a propensity for memorizing lines. And it wasn’t the video that he spent days storyboarding, filming, and editing for the sole purpose of engendering enthusiasm long since dormant – although the room did rise in solidarity to applaud.

He wasn’t fool enough to celebrate those little details as a success. He knew the only thing that mattered to his Executive Director was profit. She had transitioned to the nonprofit world — not by her own choosing of course — after a career on Wall Street. In that area, at least, he now had currency in her eyes. After all, a 60% increase in net revenue is rarefied air. Especially when the budget only called for 9%. At long last he had reason to swagger, something to deflect his Executive Director’s abuse and prove that his fundraising ideas weren’t “stupid,” and that in fact, he wasn’t an “idiot” or a “liar” or a “third grader.” And moreover, that donations don’t just “come in” without someone at the wheel. It takes strategic planning, hard work, passionate messaging, and continued cultivation to build meaningful relationships with contributors. That’s why sponsorships, journal ads, attendees and auction purchases were all up… dramatically.

He allowed himself the Latte as a treat for a job well done, a year in the making.

He didn’t realize that it was to become a bracing draught against a new and tenacious onslaught.

As he stepped off the elevator and walked down the dark hallway toward his office, the first thing he noticed was that her light was on. It was curious, not because it was the morning after Gala and everyone, surely, was going to come in late. Rather, it was curious because he was always the first one in, while she was allergic to starting her day prior to 10am. Still, he was determined to ride his “runner’s high” from the night before. He fancied himself the Flash, and that today, of all days, he could speed by her office without nary a trace but a blur of light.

Instead, he chose to pop his head in through her doorway and offer his customary “Morning” as he continued down the hallway. It was a personal fuck-you he cultivated during the year as if to say, “It’s certainly not ‘good’ to see you” and “I’m not stopping to chat.”

“Jon, get in here!”

Stopping dead in his tracks, he turned with the precision of an automaton, and said, “I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me. NOW!”

“Is something wrong?”

Although her eyes remained fixed on her desk, he knew her entire soul, if she possessed one, was targeting him for some surgical vivisection.

“Yes there’s something wrong. What the hell was that last night? That was a disaster. It was the single worst event I’ve ever been to. Your entire department is a waste of money. You should be ashamed to call yourself whatever the hell it is you call yourself. ”

Immediately on the defensive, and questioning the size of the Latte and the choice of beverage entirely, all Jon could do was respond with incredulity, “You’re kidding right? What disaster? That was the most successful Gala this organization has ever had. It raised…”

In typical fashion, she cut him off mid-sentence, ignored his response, and pressed her point with the pressure of a vise, or an alligator’s maw.

“Ben said he couldn’t get a bottle of red at the end of the night. Stephen, who was sitting at my table, had to wait 5 minutes — FIVE WHOLE MINUTES — to get a steak that was actually edible and not raw. There was a light that kept flickering in the back of the ballroom that distracted me when I was giving my speech. And only half the room gave during the Fund-a-Need. Why didn’t more people contribute? Every single person should have made a donation. Every. One. Those things are all your fault Jon. Yours. What are you stupid? How could you let this happen? It’s like you just don’t care. Like you don’t even want to be here.”

The celebration, the swagger, the reasons for confidence slipped away just as quickly as the foam on his Latte.

He debated retorting each and every point… Ben’s a drunk with two DWIs, do we really need to give him more alcohol right before he gets in his car… Stephen’s a millionaire and hasn’t even paid for his fuckin’ ticket and I’m supposed to care about his steak… What are you a cat, easily distracted by a flashlight 100′ away… Maybe if you let me hire a professional auctioneer with a personality instead of your next door neighbor with a social anxiety disorder, more people might have felt compelled to contribute… oh, and only half the room contributed because they were fucking couples you mathematically-challenged Asshat.

Instead, he led with the only defense he was allowed as a twenty-year Development professional, inculcated to please and to take the blame for everything.

“I’m sorry. But. But. The revenue is up 60% from last year. Isn’t that what you wanted? Isn’t that all that matters?”

“You should have raised it 70% Jon. There will be consequences for this. You know what I mean right? YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. And you can forget taking off this Friday. That’s out. You’ve got to find more money. Now shut up, and get it done.”

As he skulked back to his office, he stopped by the kitchen and texted his wife that he was sorry, but that he wasn’t going to be able to go to her friend’s beach house this weekend as they planned.

Then, he dumped the rest of the Latte down the drain.

– Jon