Piracy is Our Only Option

It had been years since the Super Colossal Foundation — originally founded in 1842 by some long-dead rich guy who made his money on whale oil or guns or slaves or something equally conflicting to philanthropy — made a grant to Sarah’s plucky nonprofit organization. She remembered the last time she won a grant from the Foundation…. it had just announced that their Executive Director of 20 years was retiring. She was a woman with a big personality and an even bigger heart, and she had a hand in buttressing literally hundreds of nonprofit organizations through strategic partnerships and investments in people. In the months that followed, the Foundation conducted a national search for a new Executive Director, interviewing everyone from titans in the corporate world to MacArthur Fellow Changemakers with resumes a mile long. The curious survivor of the battle royale for the ED job was a mousy aficionado for all things numerical and a propensity for hiding in corners and plotting.

In the subsequent years following her rise to power, she would close the Foundation’s coffers to even the neediest and most impactful of community programs, all under the trumped-up guise of wanting to “Change the way The Super Colossal Foundation does business; liberate its funding from the confines of business-as-usual; and secure new partners to innovate, and drive measurable and specific social change for a new generation.” An esoteric way of saying, “Get away kid, you bother me.” As a result of her steely drive for the de rigueur, dozens of long-standing nonprofit organizations with a legacy of helping thousands of people with a hand up, were forced to unceremoniously shutter their programs—some closed for good.

Sarah and Jon saw no other choice. It was 2 a.m.. They were in a white van parked outside the Foundation’s office.

Jon packed his REI rucksack with great care, meticulously inventorying each item as if he was marooned on a desert island and forced to ration coconuts, a sleeve of saltine crackers and some trendy bottled pink water until rescue. Sarah, on the other hand, was a bit more mercurial because it was her plan after all, and because she had nothing left to lose. Her nonprofit organization was days away from shuttering its doors.

“Do you have the crampons? We might need those. I think they are on the third floor, and Patrick has issues with heights,” said Jon as he tucked the Black Diamond Non-Dry rope into his bag. “Why is he here anyway? Do we really need four people?”

“Patrick is our CFO, and he has just as much to lose as any of us–besides, he’s the only one in the office with duct tape,” said Sarah as she casually scrolled through the inbox on her iPhone.

“So, why don’t we just borrow his duct tape?” said Jon.

“Because…” Sarah said as she scrolled through the latest garden shoe offer from Zulily, “he’s a nonprofit finance guy… they put their name on everything so nobody can steal it.”

“Right. I forgot. Why did you also bring Ayesha, the pacifist social worker? The worst thing she’s ever done is post a Mean Girl comment about some frenemy on Facebook,” said Jon as he fiddled with the hand-taser to make sure the batteries were fresh.

“Jon, Ayesha is going to lose her bleeding-heart job like the rest of us if we don’t steal this money. She is committed and is prepared. In the past 2 days, she’s seen Wonder Woman 15 times, and she can now do 20 pushups. Remember, Jon, I let you talk me out of Cassie. I wanted five for this job, like the Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Convinced the taser was now working properly, Jon replied, “While I love playing Rocket to your Gamora, there is no way in holy hell I was going to agree to bringing Cassie. The last thing we need is a fucking trust-fund kid, right out of college with a Liberal Arts degree in Communications, who’s use to getting everything she wants from Mommy and Daddy, lecturing us every thirty seconds on the correct way to hogtie a person so that they can’t wriggle free.”

“First the hands, then the elbows, then the feet,” said Sarah.

“I’m mentally texting you an angry emoji right now,” said Jon, holding his hand up to Sarah in emotional self-defense. Looking at his watch, he slung the rucksack over his shoulder and says, “It’s time. We gotta go.”

They hopped out of the nondescript white van and walk down the darkened street to the Foundation’s Brownstone, where Patrick and Ayesha were skulking about trying to avoid the dim light of the street lamp. There was a palpable nervousness about the duo as Jon and Sarah approached. “Did you bring the duct tape,” said Jon, still obsessing about the details.

“No,” said Patrick. “It’s got my name on it. I don’t want to get caught. Why didn’t you just buy some?”

Livid, and hands beginning to flail about like an inflatable road-side air dancer, Jon exclaimed “What the fuck! That’s the only reason you’re here Patrick… to bring the duct tape! Besides, how can we buy some? You sign our checks. You know we can’t afford duct tape on our salaries.”

“Jon, please, don’t get angry with Patrick,” Ayesha offered with a measured tone and easy voice. “You know this is hard on us both. I for one am having reservations about this whole affair. I mean, robbery? Is that what’s become of us? Is that what an enlightened society devolves into? How does THIS solve the problem? All theft does is perpetuate the same system that engendered our current situation. Can’t we just talk to them or perhaps apply to another foundation?”

“Ayesha, please. This IS big picture planning and execution,” said Sarah. “For millennia, the rich have horded their resources and artificially kept everyone else down–not the lazy, or the stupid, or the illegals as they’ll have us believe. Everyone. And you know what happens? Every few centuries, the masses rise up and take back their society. Remember the American and French Revolutions? How about Robin Hood? Bane in Gotham City?”

“Um, Bane tried to blow up Gotham with a nuke,” whispered Jon as he leaned into Sarah.

“Sorry. It was hard to hear what Bane was saying through that mask. Anyway, this is our time! This is our moment! THIS is what resistance looks like now. Not for ourselves, but for the tens of thousands of people we help every day. The single mothers who poverty criminalized after they left an abusive relationship. The dying children with preexisting conditions that can’t get health care coverage. The hardworking Americans who are tormented, abused, and battered, just because of the color of their skin. It’s for everyone out there that’s sick and tired of turning the other cheek and letting the rich fuckers yank our chains whenever they want–like King Joffrey dementedly toying with an injured bird. To quote Edward Ferrars in Sense in Sensibility, ‘Piracy is our only option.’ Now, Jon, hand them the crampons and let’s start scaling the facade so we can break into the Foundation’s damn safe.”

“Um, Sarah, I thought you brought the crampons. Remember. I asked you,” said Jon.

“Would duct tape work?” said Patrick.

“I still think we should talk to the Foundation,” said Ayesha.

“Arrggghhhh. It’s a good thing my brother taught me how to hand-scale a building when he wasn’t fighting ninjas in Hell’s Kitchen.” Sarah grabbed Jon’s rucksack and scampered up to the third-floor window left open in some staffer’s absent-mindedness. It was only a matter of seconds before she attached the Black Diamond rope to a stationary object inside the Foundation office and cast it down to her comrades in crime. Ayesha was the first to scale, mumbling the entire time about the non-sustainability of the rope being employed and how much energy the Foundation was wasting leaving their window open with the air conditioner running. Patrick climbed hesitatingly, only to stop and restart when his calculator slipped out of his pocket. Jon caught the calculator and pocketed it because he was sure it also bared Patrick’s name for safe keeping.

When the team was safely inside the Foundation office, Sarah pointed and quietly offered, “There… on the wall… behind the surrealist painting of Hedge Fund billionaire Steve Cohen… that’s where they keep the safe.”

“Are you sure that’s Steve Cohen?” said Patrick. “It looks more like John Candy from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

Ignoring the comment, Sarah barked, “Ayesha, give me the blow torch. Ayesha?! What… what are you doing?”

“Look! The person who works at this desk has a picture of a puppy AND a kitten on her desk. Aw. How cute,” says Ayesha.

“So, no blowtorch?” stammers Sarah.

“What?” says Ayesha.

“I’m not sure a blowtorch is a cost-effective tool for us to employ… we are on a budget after all,” offered Patrick, still staring at the Steve Cohen/John Candy painting.

Sarah angrily pulled a swivel chair to her position to take a seat. She fumbled through the rucksack with the fury of a caged wolverine suddenly unfettered after being subjected for years to reruns of Keeping up with the Kardashians.

“Sarah, what are you looking for?” offered Jon in a genuinely helpful demeanor.

“The taser,” says Sarah.

“That’s not going to cut through the safe, Sarah,” says Jon.

“It’s not for the safe, Jon. Not. For. The. Safe.”

– Jon & Sarah


Worst. Fundraising. Ideas. Ever.

It’s a little known fact – probably because everyone and their Aunt Tilly thinks that they can “do” fundraising – that, in fact, this stuff is hard. It is certainly not splitting the atom hard, or performing brain surgery hard, or being Trump’s Communication’s Director hard. Fundraising is, however, specialized, requiring training, expertise, resources and ongoing support.

Yet, everyone (even Aunt Tilly… she’s a real pain in the ass by the way), feels free to suggest an amazing pearl of wisdom that will surely make all the difference to our bottom-line.

We hear your sigh already. And Jon just beat his head on the keyboard. F78dt fd7qx wte p9fd. That was his forehead typing.

Before you go all Pearl Jam Jeremy on someone for a ridiculous nugget of half-ass wisdom, we share this with you, our tired, weary and under-appreciated nonprofit warrior friends… Our top five list of EPIC SHIT-SHOW FUNDRAISING IDEAS!

Number 5: The Bake Sale for Major Donors

Now, we’re all for yummy delicious baked goods. Sarah prefers the more traditional variety, while Jon dabbles in the Vegan and Gluten-Free aisle (cough, garbage). There is a time and a place for bake sale fundraisers. PTAs, Soccer Clubs, and Dance teams all across the country corner the market on these sales. It’s not, nor should it ever be considered as the primary fundraising vehicle to get $10,000 Major Donors to give. Jon, however, was once ordered to engage, energize, and create synergistic impact with a group of one hundred $10,000 and up Major Donors by inviting them to the office for a bake sale. All goods baked by the staff. This was offered by a new volunteer, fresh on the job for 40 minutes. Clearly, nothing says “Leveraging Impact” like giving a millionaire ten times over a badly glazed cupcake with a powdery-sugar heart on top and XOXOXO scrawled along the bottom. “Oh, thanks, it’s just what I always wanted to eat in my Aston Martin.” Serious donors, major donors, invest in ideas and impact. They invest in change–not muffins, carafe coffee and polite conversation.

Number 4: B-Gats (West Coast) or G-Sors (East Coast) 

Sarah affectionately calls this, “The JLo Factor,” having once served at a Bronx-based organization. Some volunteer, board member, Executive Director, somewhere, has ordered you (we know), once more unto the breach dear friends, to call Bill Gates or George Soros or {insert name of world-dominatingly wealthy individual with zero prior contact to your organization} for no other reason than: a) they have money, and b) they are famous. “You should get Adele to be our honoree. She drove through our town for 15 minutes last summer. Call her. Call her! She’ll sing for us all!” “Oh, why don’t you ask Mark Zuckerberg to fund our education program? He’s big on that!” “Hey, let’s ask Hedge Fund Billionaire Ray Dalio from Bridgewater to underwrite our First Night in Westport event because… well… what could be more important?” Hrrmm. Wait. I’m pretty sure you can Google that one to see we’re not lying.

For the uninitiated, here’s why cold stalking celebrity money is no better than, well, stalking: 1) There are 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States. We actually don’t know any fundraisers that haven’t been asked to solicit Bill Gates. So how many letters do you think that adds up to each year – 10,000, 50,000, 100,000? Our guess is to aim higher. Bill Gates isn’t reading these letters. The letter should really be addressed to, “Dear Gates Foundation Staffer that never worked in a nonprofit, but has a few doctorates, can actually split an atom, and helped solve world peace within some change-maker social entrepreneur, MacArthur Fellows retreat.” Bill isn’t going to fund your charity. He’s not… no… shhh… stop. He’s not. 2) Your cause is important to you. It’s not important to everyone. You’re still fighting that basic fact? OK – Consider this: How likely are you to give to a charity that’s fighting the stigma associated with tattoos; or the one that gives prom dresses to poor teenage girls; or the one that gives cows to third-world villages? Everyone has something they’re interested in… hell, Sarah just called her mom to locate her prom dress from 1991, but she got really uppity about people’s ink choices (apparently Sarah chose the more removable option of piercings). Basically, don’t confuse your love of your own charity for a universal endorsement — even if the chosen celeb has identified the cause, they have not identified YOUR charity.

Number 3: An empty Fishbowl at an Annual Gala…

…For major donors to leave their business cards in case they were interested in naming opportunities… Sarah is still shaking her head, as she recalls the conversation that had to be had, with the basic soul who offered such advice (and spent a few minutes in defense of such logic). You may not have been charged to leave a fishbowl out at an annual gala, but we’re guessing you’ve endured something similar in concept and design. Sarah is willing to bet the life of Betsy Devos that no one, in the history of naming opportunities has ever, once, successfully employed the fishbowl tactic. If they have, don’t worry–we may be wrong–but our public education system will be that much safer. Similar to cookies and carafe coffee, serious donors don’t engage in raffle and trade show tactics, particularly when it comes to their family name.

Number 2: All you have to do is create a fun event and they will come

If Sarah and Jon had a bitcoin for every time they were told to create the bestest, funnest, most excitingest event ever with nary a thought to budget or engaging a cadre of passionate people to organize or attend it, they’d have enough bitcoins to buy everything on the Dark Web (Jon has been eyeing that Cold-War era Russian sub).

A drone air-race may be fun. A Single Malt Scotch sampling event on a private yacht may be fun. A lingerie and pajama party featuring Victoria’s Secret models may be fun. However, if you’re given a budget of $500 and your volunteer and donor base is retired, in their 80s and dedicated to fighting alcohol abuse, sexism, and decreasing air-traffic injury, then your creative idea is just plain dumb.

The father of Modern Management, Peter Drucker, once said, “People think ideas move mountains… they are wrong… bulldozers move mountains.”

It’s not about how “creative” the event is. It’s about building (hence the need for bulldozers) from the ground up something that is strategically designed to engage people you otherwise might not be able to engage, so that you have the opportunity to cultivate them. That means carefully honing and cleaving the event to the interests of your volunteers and donors, with a realistic budget and expectations, so that said volunteers are willing to work to make it a success by inviting their friends to get involved and become donors. That’s the key, because no matter how fun or “creative” an event is, if you don’t have a group of passionate people proselytizing from the highest mountain top, ain’t nobody gonna come. Need proof why? When was the last time you went solo to a drone air-race event? Thought so.

And the #1 Worst. Idea. Ever. Anybody can do fundraising!

Do you tell your doctor, “Anybody can perform a kidney transplant!” Do you tell your attorney, “Anybody can draft a legal document that holds up under scrutiny in court!” Do you tell your hair stylist, “I can cut my own hair!” I bet not. Why? You respect those professions and the skills they possess.

Development, and by extension, fundraising, is a highly specialized field, that is asked to perform a dozen highly specialized tasks with nary a box of paperclips to help us. Your next-door-neighbor who was a realtor for two years is not qualified to lead a Development effort. Your niece who just graduated from a fancy private college with a degree in communications and a minor in dead languages, is not qualified to lead a Development effort. And, yet, because development is difficult, because it takes time, because it’s a team effort, boards and senior leadership often lean into what they believe will be the ‘big sell’ hire. The experienced professional is less appealing than the local real estate broker with all the “community ties,” or the former business executive that “understands how to run a business” or your niece with the “family connections” and youthful eagerness. In time, for sure, any one person can grow into a new role and excel. We all start somewhere. The issue of respect is no small factor. In fact, in our not-so little community, we like to play under/over with the how long that former real-estate broker/finance-exec/communications major actually makes it in their newly anointed chief fundraising role–turns out, not much longer than the average nonprofit professional. To our knowledge, no survey exists to back up the data for our “Is-Sarah-or-Jon-buying-this-week” bet, but we’re guessing you’ve witnessed and experienced similar trends.

Implicit in the notion that “Not everyone can do this shit,” is the tiny little detail that it costs money to make money. If that fundamental truth were not the case, then why even hire and pay development professionals in the first place? Just prop up a cardboard cut-out next to an empty plastic water bottle and a sign that says, “Hey fuckers, give now!”

It’s really very simple: better people can do better things, and more people, can do more things. You spend time trying to find a “good” plumber, right? You know a quarterback doesn’t play against the opposing team all by his lonesome, right? Hell, why does Harvard raise hundreds of millions of dollars every year? Do they all run around waving their scarlet and gold Gryffindor wands and “Poof” a unicorn leads them to a pot of gold? No. They have hundreds of Development staffers; they hire the best, and they pay them very well to attract and retain that talent. Yes, of course, somewhere along the way you’re going to misfire and hire a hack who’d rather play Angry Birds all day, but social psychologist Douglas McGregor’s famous Theory X vs. Theory Y primer posits that there are truly very few Theory X employees out there — i.e., most of us know what we’re doing, are self-motivating, dedicated, and can get the job done.

We don’t want to bake cookies for one-percenters. We don’t want to write a sad “look at me!” letter to Bill Gates’ McArthur Genius Fellow who is only funding global solutions-by-straws this week. We don’t want to put out fish bowls to source donors for a building that will provide desperately needed healthcare to impoverished families. We don’t want to design lavish parties with a budget of $500 and donors that have modest desires and just want to see their funds put to good use. We just would like some modest recognition that this shit is hard and maybe we know what we’re doing.

Trust us. Just a little. You won’t regret it.

– Jon & Sarah





It’s Okay to Leave

There have been several posts, articles, and a semaphore or two in recent months on the subject of Development professional tenure insomuch as… there is none. All purport to have a unique spin on the celebrated, if not infamous, study entitled “UnderDeveloped” by CompassPoint from several years ago. You know the study. It’s the one that says Development types only stay 16 months on average in their jobs; that the vast majority of us are unhappy and don’t even want to be in this profession; and that, 80% of the organizations we work for have Board of Directors that “aren’t committed to fundraising” at even the most basic level (think social anxiety disorder).

It ain’t all duckies and bunnies, amirite?

Most of the recent posts have been good-intentioned, to be sure, and are coming from a place of trying to help our fellow fundraising brethren weather the storms that circle this industry. But a few of them that I’ll leave unnamed for fear of being trolled by Russian hackers (we know what they can do after all), sail dangerously close to the shallow waters of victim-blaming. As in, “us Development types need to endure whatever and stay longer than 16 months at a job for the sake of our careers and the industry as a whole.” I half expected their title to read “Hey, snowflake, suck it up.”

I’ve had four Director-level jobs (or higher) in my career. At two of them, my tenure was a combined 15 years. For the other two… well… not so much. Let’s just say they were closer to the 16-month average.

Curious right? Clearly, if I can last 15 years at two jobs, I’m the kind of professional that can establish roots, build relationships, and generally look to the long-term. So, why didn’t I “suck it up” at the other two for the sake of my career?

Because at one of them, the Executive Director was verbally, emotionally, and intellectually abusive on a regular basis. She was the kind of person who thought calling people a half dozens times each day while they were on vacation and screaming at them “SHUT UP IDIOT, AND GET IT DONE!” was an appropriate form of motivation.

At the other… The Board Chair ordered me to commit an act of fraud. Nuff’ said.

Robert California on The Office said during the Season 7 finale that, “The fallacy is that it is up to the steamroller to decide… it is up to the object whether it will be flattened or not.” The two jobs that I just mentioned are the kind of people and places that will flatten you if you let them. They’re not the kind of places you “suck it up” for the sake of your career… they’re the kind of places you run from, kicking and screaming, with a banker’s box nestled under your arm brimming over with your assorted inspirational posters and desk toys including that limited edition Wolverine figurine.

Before you quote me the story of Frodo from the Lord of the Rings, and the notion that I should have fought back because even the smallest of us can make a difference, remember that he had a magic sword and a fellowship of mighty warriors by his side including a wizard. A WIZARD, for fuck’s sake! All I had, and I’m sure, all that many of you have in the nonprofit world, is a desktop computer running Windows Vista, a half empty box of paperclips scrounged from the recycle bin, and a couple of volunteers that like to stuff envelopes. Not a wizard in sight. Telling us to to stay and cleave to some misguided, turn-the-other cheek philosophy, is just a form of Stockholm syndrome in an effort to “Humanize” the people and places that if we really take a full and honest accounting of the situation, are not quite human.

After all, is it really human to threaten to fire someone asking to leave at 4pm so that they can go to the hospital to be with an immediate family member that was dying? Not a second cousin, once-removed. An immediate family member.

Is it really human to order someone to misappropriate tens of thousands of dollars in restricted funding earmarked for a program for dying children so that you can “kick-back” business to your cronies who you like to ponce around with?

And even if these people are human, and deserve a second (or 42nd) chance for that matter, what of our humanity? What about those of us that cut through this world like Captain America and do the right thing time and time again. Is not our humanity also paramount? Why must we shrink like violets and “suck it up?”

The author Marianne Williamson once wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you NOT to be?”

So, my dear fellow nonprofit warriors, do not for one second let the abusive Asshats, the lying thieves, and the victim-blamers make you doubt yourself. Don’t ever let them tell you that something wrong is something right. YOU are powerful, beyond measure. YOU are the ones trying to save the world.

It is not incumbent upon you to “suck it up” and fix the 16-month tenure problem of our profession. It’s incumbent upon THEM to stop being Asshats, trust in our abilities, invest in our growth, put their big-boy and girl pants on and embrace a culture of philanthropy, and generally hold these Jerkwads accountable for their “less than humane” actions.

Because when push comes to shove, there is no script or formula that says the only way you can save the world is by staying at this particular job in this particular corner of the universe.

That’s the thing about the world… it always needs saving… because there will always be people in it like my former Executive Director and Board Chair.

So, if you need to leave… leave… and don’t look back.

And as you drive away, blast Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”  I did.

– Jon