Wake Up!

Ah the 80’s. For those of us who lived through those heady times, whether as a child or a teen, we had the prescience to know even back then that it was devoid of significance and profundity. How could it possess anything lofty when the hallmark of stylistic achievement consisted of leg warmers, big hair, and Z Cavariccis. Thankfully, I avoided those faux pas opting to model my style after John Cusack’s “Lloyd Dobler.” Well, truth be told, I was sporting a long trench coat, sweats, and sneaks two years prior to “Say Anything.” And although no longer a nascent effort, my law suit against him back in the day would have given rise to everyone referring to that look as the “Jon Conyers.” Whatever.

My choice in movies back then — if “Say Anything” wasn’t enough foreshadowing – was more off the beaten track and certainly less populist than the testosterone-filled action fare of Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Indeed, as a kid that grew up poor in an affordable housing apartment building, surrounded by hard-core drugs, violence, and overt racism, my tastes always bent more toward social justice.

The auteur of the day that spoke to me was Spike Lee. Most everyone extols the virtue of “Do the Right Thing,” and as a former pizza-delivery guy myself, I have a soft spot for “Mookie.” But for my money, Spike’s often overlooked tale, “School Daze,” was far more powerful. For those that haven’t seen it (and I’m sure that’s 99% of you), it touches upon issues of racism within the African-American community and the conflict between those championing social change and those seeking to maintain social order… all set neatly against the backdrop of fraternity life at a traditionally Black college. Oh yeah, and did I mention it was a musical? Anyway…

The movie featured Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne, and within five minutes, I was drawn to his character “Dap,” because like him, I was a somewhat woke, politically conscious student prone to rallying, protesting, and generally shining a light on various injustices. I know, many of you back in the day would have been like, “Snooze-fest!” I get it. I was definitely a mythical creature of sorts. But truthfully, I only understood 20% of what the masses did, and I only gave a shit about 20% of that. At most every opportunity, I zigged when everyone else zagged, in a Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” sort of way. It’s been lonely, for sure, but it’s also been a common, comforting companion throughout my life, as has my quest to find an army of 300 to stand by my side — a thought echoed in one of my first blog posts with Sarah Murdock, “The Wind.”

Unlike the masses, I always found purpose in everything… every moment… every action. Indeed, when you grow up actively dodging bullets and muggers and junkies (oh my), you tend to hone your focus on securing the lowest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – i.e., Food, Safety, and Security. You learn to scratch, and claw, and defend everything like a fortress, not just for yourself, but for those you care about. And while violence and other assorted darkness was the nom de plume of my childhood and teen years, I usually found a way to defeat the evil-doers bent on causing me harm with a combination of witty banter, sarcasm and satire, with a dash of a Flash thrown in.

But not always.

That singular perspective on what truly matters has been with me my entire life. It’s what causes me to give short shrift to people seemingly devastated by the prospect of missing a Modern Art Meetup because their Mercedes was in the shop, when I and most of the people I grew up with had to work two jobs just to afford bus fare. It makes me groan when someone complains about a perceived micro-aggression towards their choice in tattoo locations, when I still have scars and unhealed bone breaks from actual aggressions. And I most definitely have little patience for people working through their “mommy and daddy didn’t buy me a pony” issues when I had to take care of a disabled mother after my father died of cancer when I was 18.

I get that not everyone had my singular perspective on life, the universe, and everything. That not everyone had to worry about Food, Safety, and Security as per Maslow’s Hierarchy dictates. But like “Dap’s” character in “School Daze,” I’m incredulous to the willful, self-inflicted blindness that people instill upon themselves when they see those alternative perspectives.

I’m enraged that just a couple of weeks after the worst mass-shooting in this country’s history, there’s just as much outrage over McDonald’s shortage of “Rick & Morty’s Szechuan Sauce” as there is about gun control.

I’m disgusted that more people seem to be interested in the sordid details of the torrent of sexual assaults perpetrated by white male celebrities and politicians, rather than changing the culture that enables those same men in power to put their hands and dicks anywhere they want with nary a thought to the apparently little known concept of “consent.”

And I’m saddened that 40% of this country would rather watch a football game and tweet #STFU, than take 30 seconds to understand why people are kneeling in the first place.

I get that we all need a moment of down time to distract us, recharge us, and offer a modicum of respite. But’s there’s a fine line for fuck’s sake between enjoying an adult beverage with friends after a hard day’s work trying to save the world, and sticking fingers in our ears whilst chanting, “Not Listening… La La La La La.”

I made a decision… back when I was dodging bullets on street corners and fists in darkened hallways… back when I had to shuttle my mother back and forth to medical appointments… back when I had to apportion a 20-pack of KFC nuggets as my lunch for the week. I decided that nothing was going to deter me from getting out of the hell hole I grow up in. And nothing was going to stop me from helping others to get out of their hell hole, however they define it.

That’s why I started working in the nonprofit world all those years ago.  And that’s why I’ve been looking for an army of 300 to join me.

Unfortunately, I’m still looking.

So if you’re sitting on your ass right now, fretting about some social injustice du jour but choose to engage solely in a slacktivist button-click kind of way…

If you’re affected by something on a fundamental level, but decide instead to distract yourself with a funny cat video time and time again…

If details of some news-feed horror show bring up some personal post-traumatic stress from your past, but you willfully choose to pour yourself another drink instead of saddling up and putting your big boy and girl pants on to affect change…

Then I offer you the last scene in the movie “School Daze” where – in response to a particularly disgusting example of sexual manipulation and assault and a furtive effort to maintain male-dominated social order– Laurence Fishburne’s “Dap” walks around campus ringing a bell at daybreak repeating the same phrase over and over again…

“Wake up!”

– Jon

The Bourbon and The Text

She poured herself a bourbon on the rocks and eased back into her Restoration Hardware leather couch, leaving space for her cat, Queenie, to join her when she was ready. The couch, and her cat for that matter, fit the rest of the modern decor of her Williamsbridge loft apartment with aplomb. The couch was the one thing bougie and mass-produced she owned. That, and her iPhone of course. At least the bourbon was small batch, hand-crafted at one of the distilleries nestled along the Hudson River. She couldn’t remember which one, but the pourer doing the tasting was a Brooklyn transplant and assured her, as a Sherpa would a kindred spirit, the burn was subtle, almost velvety. He was right.

It had been more than a week since she spent time with either of her two amber-colored friends – Queenie and the bourbon — just as it had been more than a week since she sat on her couch. And while she saw weeks like any other, a treadmill to conquer one workout at a time, this one was exhausting beyond measure, especially for someone who found herself more at ease during life’s quiet moments, away from crowds and being on public display.

There was the strategic planning meeting, hosted by a local foundation more interested in using their resources to teach people to fish even though their boat hold was brimming over with the day’s catch and thousands were starving onshore.

There was the cultivation event hosted by one of her donors, a former corporate wizard still much beloved in the community and possessing as many contacts as rabbits in his hat even though he was recently “downsized” and anointed her nonprofit as his most recent toy to play with.

There was the rooftop fundraising cocktail party thrown by the local junior league wannabees benefiting her nonprofit, although most of them couldn’t get the name of her organization right.

There was the Gala for the century’s old partner agency her nonprofit worked closely with in the community, and her Board members furtively envied.

And there was the private donor dinner meeting out on Long Island that didn’t get her back to her apartment, her bourbon, and her couch, until very late.

Easy social grace and temperament did not come naturally to her, having grown up on a farm in upstate New York. But as a Program Director who also happened to be her nonprofit’s highest ranking staffer after the Executive Director left for greener pastures, she could hardly say no to any of these forays. Not just because she was one of the final candidates for the actual ED job. But rather, because it was strongly hinted at by a couple of her board members that she attend.

Even though she’d rather spend every waking minute with the children and families being served by her organization, she told her herself, going to these meetings and events and engaging the outside community was a win for those she served. And even if she wasn’t totally at ease in that world, she would do it in a heartbeat, because all she cared about was helping them. Indeed, other than a handful of short-lived relationships and Queenie, it had been all she cared about since graduating college some ten years earlier.

It had been just as long since anyone gave a damn about her organization or for that matter, those it served… since well before the Recession when it was “trendy” to give to grassroots programs that helped the most financially disenfranchised in New York City. But in the wake of the financial maelstrom, the begging for help grew louder and louder above the din, until the City’s elite pushed back, closed their windows, locked their doors, and only ventured out to throw a few coppers to the more established and entrenched nonprofits. A paternalistic world-view on full parade.

Perhaps the staff at the established and entrenched nonprofits were better trained and equipped to skulk past the barred gates to find their quarries. Or, perhaps they were just better positioned by the virtue of their size to withstand a few body blows. But that’s not what she told herself. She believed it was all about passion… passion for the mission… for those the organization served… and by those leading it, especially the members of the Board of Directors.

She believed that’s why grassroots organizations like hers were suffering… a lack of passion for making a difference in the world.

And for those being helped in the first place.

She said as much, during her interview for the ED position, to the search committee made up of a handful of otherwise absentee Board members — three corporate wizards and two old-money philanthropists, all with New York City roots snaking back more than a century. All major donors to the organization for years, that gave not because of a passion for the mission but rather as a form of absolution for not being involved. She wasn’t accusatory, of course, but she didn’t shy away from speaking her mind in an effort to clearly articulate a vision for the organization under her steady hand. Search committees like vision. And passion.

Her former corporate wizard donor who was still much beloved in the community agreed with her assessment that search committees liked those qualities, during a recent lunch when she confided in him that she was applying for the ED position. But he disagreed wholeheartedly with the notion that it was all about passion.

“Your nonprofit isn’t floundering because of past ineptitude or rudderless leadership, but rather because it was systemically held back from impact because of the faucet drip of money coming in from a community unaware of its purpose. Your organization needs to generate broad-based community engagement, and that’s only going to happen if someone gets out there and meets people,” he told her.

She took his comments with a grain of salt, ultimately rejecting his advice because after all, he was recently unemployed and had a hard time understanding the nonprofit world or even what her organization did. But more specifically, she rejected his opinion, because he looked and sounded exactly like the board members doing the hiring in the first place… the same ones lacking in passion for the mission and the children and families she helped every day. “How could he know what he’s talking about… he’s part of the problem… people who get involved because of reasons of status or networking and not because they bleed for the cause.”

Even though she felt like an outsider having grown-up in a world utterly unlike that which the members of the search committee knew as their reality, she was convinced that her passion for helping just one more child and family would be enough to convince them that she was the right person for the ED job. Because, it was all about passion.

As she sat on her couch sipping the bourbon slowly, she scrolled through the day’s emails on her phone, responding to each with the diligence of a first-time lover. As she threw back the last amber drop, a text came in from her former corporate wizard donor still much beloved in the community. Even if she didn’t agree with his vision for the organization, she had meant to thank him for hosting the cultivation event and for introducing her to dozens of his friends from the community.

Although she knew him as a gregarious fellow accustomed to witty banter, his text was anything but.

“I’m sorry. I know you wanted this.”

Confused, she quickly shot back a response.

“For what? Wanted what?”


She waited what seemed like an eternity before the new email light pinged on her work account. She opened it, and read the first few lines.

“We regret to inform you that after careful deliberation, the search committee decided to make an outside hire for the Executive Director position. We ultimately chose someone who more closely meshes with the Board of Directors and aligns with their vision… someone who can lead a comprehensive effort to engage the community and is comfortable going out and meeting people… a former corporate wizard much beloved in the community with extensive contacts and has worked here for years…”

His text finally made sense.

She stopped reading the email, put down her phone and got up to pour herself another bourbon. When she eased back onto the couch, her cat finally joined her, just as the first tear fell.

– Jon

The Raffle

He always thought the smell of fresh cut grass was something sad; as if loss and hope were not feelings, but corporeal things that you could touch. His aversion came from the fact that he grew up walled-in by a world of concrete and steel, with nary a shade of green to be found. It was also the incongruity of life in the inner-city that suggested to him that the smell of grass on a 150-year old country club was an altogether different beast. To him, it had no life or joy. It was a perfect creature sprawling for acres on end, ringed by wildness on all sides but never truly existing. It was just… there.

He felt much the same way – just there – on that summery morning, stuffing 100 goodie bags for the golfers’ about to enter his nonprofit’s latest fundraising event. It was a task that should have been completed days earlier by volunteers, but his boss – who was nowhere to be found with the shotgun start just minutes away – didn’t procure the various accoutrement until the day before, leaving him with a late night marathon of pick-ups. He had gotten used to the last minute heroics, and of course, her histrionics, and assumed that she would swoop in – as she usually did — just as the manual labor was being completed, wearing a dress too short and perfume much too strong for someone her age. He reasoned that he didn’t need her for this task anyway, just as he didn’t need her to secure the sponsors, or the raffle items, or the journal ads. He also reasoned that no one would care about her lack of attentiveness, as his nonprofit, long suffering under ineffectual leadership and board governance, was just weeks away from announcing their merger with a much larger, and much more efficient organization. But mostly, he reasoned that because of that merger, he wouldn’t have a job much longer anyway.

That’s why he started interviewing as soon as he heard the rumors. And that’s why he was just… there.

True to form, his boss Helen arrived with minutes to spare in a whirlwind of Chanel No. 5. She made quick work of saying hello to the gathered VIPs before the air horn signaled the start of the outing. With the diaspora of golf carts underway, she walked towards the flotsam and jetsam of goodie bags and gifts, and offered, “You got this, right?” And just like that, she was gone again.

The checklist ran through his head. He knew he had five hours until lunch. Clean up registration. Unload prizes from the truck. Load up registration leftovers into the truck. Set up the Raffle display. Oversee the set-up for lunch. Oh, and find Sal, the event chair, who no doubt was teeing off on the first hole with his foursome at that very moment. He didn’t need Helen for any of it.

Sal owned several companies including a carting business and a construction firm, but the appellation he used to describe himself most frequently was Board of Trustee at the local community bank. His outward affinity for the role, and the enthusiasm with which he shared it with new friends, suggested a furtive overcompensation for a myriad of past sins. But no one dared pry because Sal brokered no questions and suffered no fools. He was a singular force of nature and the momentum behind the golf outing. With the exception of a handful of long-time donors, every foursome and every sponsor were Sal’s business contacts, and all of them enthusiastically signed up at the mere mention of his name on the phone.

As the hours ticked by, he removed each and every item from his to-do list, with nary a sign of his boss. Just as he tweaked the placement of the last table with the help of the club’s staff, the first golfer came in from the course. He was followed, within minutes, by Sal, who came right over and asked for the raffle tickets.

Sal argued, weeks earlier, that since most of the golfers were his friends, who better than him to walk around the room and sell raffle tickets and ultimately announce who the winners were when he gave his welcome speech to the gathered guests. Helen agreed without hesitation because any other alternative meant work for her. So she instructed him to find Sal before the lunch started and hand off the raffle tickets, as well as the starter cash necessary to give change and a small tote to carry everything in.

As the rest of the golfers gathered in the banquet room, Sal snaked his way through the crowd like an evangelist offering absolution. He was a sight to behold. There was no frivolity. No ebullience. Just the task… Walk up to friend, ask for money, pocket cash, give raffle ticket, walk up to next friend. Within half an hour, and timed perfectly with the opening of the buffet, Sal had completed his task and walked up to him and handed over the tote of cash. “There’s close to Twenty thousand in there… not a bad haul… we did good kid.” Indeed. With the foursomes and sponsorships, this easily put them over the $100,000 mark for the event… something the outing had never achieved before.

He saw Helen, martini in hand, swoop into the room and was about to signal her to come over to share in the success when Sal said, “Count out ten thousand will ya.” Confused, but complicit, he started to count the bills as Sal reached into his back pocket and produced a check and a pen. When he finished the tally, Sal handed him the check, neatly made out to his nonprofit in the amount of $10,000, and said, “Now give me the ten grand.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me. Give me the cash. You’re making change for me. What’s the problem?”

“None. I, uh, just didn’t hear what you said. Here you go, Sal.”

“Good. Now kid. Remember to send me a receipt for the check I just gave you. Oh, and just so you know, I’m gonna’ announce my friend Jimmy as the winner of the Corvette for a weekend. It don’t matter whose name you pull out of the raffle bowl and hand to me. Got it?” And with that, Sal turned and walked away. But his exodus was short-lived, as he quickly spun around and said with a gaze meant to imply so much more than just the words about to be echoed, “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this.”

The words just hung there, like a career criminal on the gallows pole… an image that suddenly, and violently came to his mind.

When Sal was out of easy view, he motioned for Helen to come over and with a fearlessness that only comes from not caring, explained everything that just happened.

“Okay,” Helen said.

“That’s it? Okay? How can you say that? We have to do something about it?”

“I am. I’m going to send him a receipt for his check, and look the other way when he announces the raffle winners.”

“Helen, what? You can’t…”

“Sal has single-handedly raised more than $100,000 for our charity. I don’t care what he does with a raffle prize or with his taxes. And you shouldn’t either. Understand me?”

And with that order, she flitted back to the room, to refresh her martini and say hello to anyone she missed earlier.

Rebuked thoroughly, and with his job completed for the moment, he stepped outside to look at the Country Club grass once more. His perspective changed. It was no longer just there. It suddenly came alive for him. It wasn’t ringed by wilderness, but actively working against it. And its perfection belied its constant efforts, both furtive and overt, to keep it in check… to keep it firmly ensconced in its place.

He took a few steps further down the patio and away from the banquet room and the “no cell phone” signs that were posted everywhere, and found an alcove of sorts out of sight of the guests. He reached for his phone and played the voicemail message he received early in the day from the headhunter… And he was relieved that he no longer had to be… there.

– Jon

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


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

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




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