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