You’re one of the good ones

In Season 2 of the Netfilx series, “Marvel’s Daredevil,” we’re introduced to Frank Castle, played by Walking Dead fan-favorite actor, Jon Bernthal. You remember him. He’s the sociopath prone to sleeping with his best friend’s wife and furtively trying to kill him so he can have her all to himself. Oh yea, all against the backdrop of the apocalypse. I guess you could also describe him as someone with priority issues.

Anyway, Castle becomes, to those of us over-grown geeks with a propensity for reading comic books under our covers and playing Dungeons & Dragons back in the day (hey, don’t judge), The Punisher… a vigilante hell-bent on single-handedly taking out all the assorted criminal scum populating the dark and scary places of New York City. As someone who’s lived in New York City, there are quite a few of those places, so it’s safe to assume The Punisher was a busy guy. He does so utilizing a particular one-man-army set of skills that Liam Neeson would be envious of. His world view and propensity for badassness, has made him and his logo — an elongated skull on a black backdrop – a symbol for some of our finest U.S. Navy Seals.

To be sure, The Punisher is not the kind of guy you want to have tea and crumpets with, or sip a prosecco while touring an art gallery. He kills bad-guys in some of the most brutal ways imaginable, which belies his traumatic backstory – losing his wife and two children to criminal violence. In the TV show, he repeats the phrase “One Batch. Two Batch. Penny and Dime,” supposedly his daughter’s favorite book when she was little, before he murders his quarry as a reminder why he became a vigilante in the first place.

Although clearly a less violent analogy – well, I have seen a couple of Major Gift officers a razor’s edge away from going postal after spending months courting a donor only to be told they don’t have any money – many of us in the nonprofit world treasure some “thing” as a reminder why we started doing this work in the first place and that keeps us grounded. They’re sort of like the totems that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character used in “Inception” to keep him focused on the real world instead of getting lost within a dream… within a dream… within a dream… within a dream. Yes, there were four dreams. Come on. Keep up people. It wasn’t that hard to follow.

Maybe it’s a portrait made by the children in your after-school program adorning your office wall. Or a picture of some of the cats and dogs that you helped find a forever home. Or a handmade flyer for the lemonade stand you built when you were 11 to raise money for your friend who was very ill. Or a thank you note written by a domestic violence survivor you helped find her voice again.

I for one have a miniature Captain America on my desk because, like our Star-Spangled friend said to Stanley Tucci’s character in “The First Avenger,” “I don’t like bullies.”

These things help us remain focused on the now, on what really matters, to us, and to a world that sometimes seems more interested in money, fame, and all things shallow and vapid. To be sure, us nonprofit types are rare. Like Ghost Orchid rare. Like Yeti sighting rare. Like Kanye West smiling rare. I bet you still get a warm and fuzzy when you meet someone at a cocktail party that actually understands what you do for a living. After all, nobody aspires to this. When you were young, did you tell your grandparents you wanted to grow up and work for a nonprofit? Yea. Didn’t think so. You told them you wanted to be cool.

And even if you did harbor some childhood fancy for this life, I’m sure it’s because no one had the intestinal fortitude to pull you aside and shatter your tiny little dreams with a truth bomb. “Um, little Suzy, if you grow up and work for a nonprofit here’s what to expect… every day you will be constantly depressed and always feel like you’re merely stemming the tide of an all-encompassing darkness that’s literally just over the next wave. You’ll chafe up against sorrow and despair time and again, and measure your successes in small doses… in fractions even. Oh yea, and you’ll make very little money in the process while all your friends are getting bonuses at their jobs. Toodles.”

That’s heartbreaking when you stop and think about it. And there’s no way not to let it affect you. I haven’t slept well for a decade and my nightmares usually involve me not being able to save someone… ermm… from zombies. Hmm, maybe it’s not about the nonprofit world, but the fact that I keep watching The Walking Dead before going to sleep. Anyway…

In the wake of this soul-crushing knowledge about what the heck we do for a living, somehow, we all ended up here, trying to save the world. Why?

Are we just masochists, or as I posit to you, are we real life superheroes (well, both wear capes and masks, so it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes)?

And that’s the thing my fellow nonprofit warriors. Whether it’s the Punisher, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, or Aquaman (Hey Sarah Murdock, that one was for you) we are the modern-day equivalent of our childhood caped-crusaders. And just as they kept us safe from the scary things under our bed, or outside our bedroom door, they’ve transformed us into superheroes trying to save the world.

So, display that totem proudly on your office wall, desk, or computer desktop. And every time you stare at it, remember just who you are…

You’re one of the good ones.

– Jon

The Scarecrow


It was only a 20’ x 20’ earthen plot, but it was the closest thing to “nature” many of the South Bronx children had ever seen. The school garden featured rows of assorted vegetable plants awaiting harvest and a make-shift chicken wire fence. Looming in the center of the plot was a scarecrow, adorned with hand-me-down clothes brought in by the children and their teachers, and lovingly stuffed with pages from used textbooks. While no one could remember the last time they saw a crow in the South Bronx, you could assume the scarecrow was to ward off the legions of pigeons that circled and marched along the garden periphery. Arms spread wide in a Jesus Christ pose, the scarecrow made an imposing figure… especially at 5am.

She wasn’t accustomed to such an early start, frequently joking to her friends about her passion for power sleep. She had a mission: it was six straight weeks since the Executive Director past away suddenly from a heart attack in his office — most likely caused by the stress of being accused by the Board of Directors, without proof, of embezzling money from the school’s failed capital campaign. She thought about quitting after the grim news and sordid details had settled, but she wanted to impress the Board. She was focused on the old-money Chairperson who barely uttered two words to her during her admittedly short-lived tenure. She reasoned that if she could clean up the mess that was left behind, and get the school back on track, she might be fast-tracked for the Executive Director position. Her efforts were working and nearly all of the campaign donors expressed a verbal commitment to maintain their support of the school. However, not a single Board member reaffirmed their pledge, let alone acknowledge the work she was doing or extend their gratitude for her efforts. It was as if they expected her to do it all by herself, and in the process, absolve them of their own responsibilities for a failed capital campaign they were charged with leading and for a school that was, quite literally, falling apart.

She didn’t mind the work… she just hadn’t factored in the extent of the mess, or the lack of assistance she would get from the Board in the aftermath.

She parked in the back lot, behind the dilapidated cinderblock school building with several layers of peeling paint, just to the side of the garden plot. The Administrative building, what was once an old storehouse for who knows what in the 20’s and 30’s, lay just beyond. She was not looking forward to her walk. It wasn’t the neighborhood, although the occasional gunshot would echo through the streets at random hours of the day. Nor was it the finger she saw in the gutter the first day she decided to walk to the Bodega for lunch — it was brown bags ever since. No, she felt safe behind the 10’ high chain-link fence topped with razor wire.

The school and the neighborhood wasn’t the problem. It was the juxtaposition of a scarecrow in the middle of a concrete jungle at 5am that left her uneasy.

She knew it was irrational. Scarecrows weren’t uncommon to her, after all, having grown up in Newton, Iowa. They were utilitarian, as were most of the things in her life. And their usage in countless horror motifs didn’t implant a subconscious fear in her mind. No. She was far too level-headed to be afraid of a scarecrow. Snakes, however, were a different matter.

Yet, she was still uneasy because yesterday morning, the scarecrow moved.

It was imperceptible at first. After all, a cell-phone lamp doesn’t portend to be a jail house spotlight. And at 5am, in a dark parking lot, and in a hyper state of vigilance, one only perceives flashes of things. A Coke can glistening by a curb. A plastic bag caught in a slight updraft. A very long tail scurrying under a dumpster. She thought she saw the fleeting movement of an arm. She stopped and stared for what felt like an hour before she mustered up the courage and self-denial to convince herself it was a shadow and continue to her office.

Today that unease made her more focused. In lieu of a cell-phone lamp, she carried the Tactical Flashlight her father gave her when she went away to college. It was part of a kit of “things a girl should keep in her car.” In the other hand, instead of her customary double espresso, she carried a small ball peen hammer primarily designed for breaking windshields should a car become submerged — another item from the car survival kit.

Each step through the parking lot was measured. Each turn of her head was methodical. Each breath was slow. Her focus was always on the Scarecrow.

When she got within 10’ of the oversized rag-a-muffin doll, she stopped and stared with the countenance of someone unafraid, or someone determined to convince themselves they were unafraid. “I see you,” she said, partly to the Scarecrow, and partly to her subconscious. “I’m going to keep walking to my office now. You know I’m not afraid of you, right? You know I can do this on my own, right?”

Of course, there was no reply from the Scarecrow, just a muted inner voice echoing affirmation.

She adjusted her oversized leather tote brimming with the trappings of a professional life, steadied the hammer, and turned the flashlight away from the Scarecrow and towards her intended quarry — the administrative building and her office. In just a handful of steps, which were more like leaps, she made her way to the entry, entered the security code, and used her key to enter the building. In less than a minute she lit up the building like the Vegas strip, grabbed a reasonable facsimile of an espresso from the Keurig in the kitchen, and settled into her office to start her day. A dozen emails and a second expresso later, the sun began to rise and with it, a clearer vantage point from her window of the garden plot and her morning nemesis.

She took a moment to look at him and think about her fear. Of course, in the cold light of day, she knew the scarecrow hadn’t moved, just as she knew she really wasn’t afraid of him. She admitted her real fear. She was afraid of the loneliness of her professional course at the school, the weight of what lay ahead, the lack of appreciation for her efforts, and of course, her own biting realization that she would never make a difference — not in this job, not at the school, and not in the lives of the children she quickly grew to love. Because, one person, alone, at 5am, can’t save the world.

She shook her head in quiet acceptance, finished off the second espresso, and started an email to the Board Chair:

“This is to inform you that I am officially giving my two-weeks notice. I strongly encourage you and the Board of Directors to take a long, hard strategic look at your investment in this school and the children it serves. No one can save the world on their own… not one Executive Director, not one Development Director. The school needs you, its foremost leaders, to invest the time and due diligence afforded with your position. The children need you to take ownership of fixing this school and reenergizing the capital campaign because they deserve better than falling down cinder blocks and peeling paint.

P.S. You may also want to consider turning the scarecrow to face north, away from the Administrative building.”

– Jon