Nonprofit Apocalypse Camp – Designated Leader: Foundations

In keeping with our end-of-the-world theme, from time to time, Sarah and Jon will share with you, their esteemed readers, their experiences traversing the vast apocalyptic wasteland in search of a safe haven devoid of shambling hordes of zombies, alien invaders, or other assorted tropes (which are really just thinly veiled substitutes for what’s actually killing the nonprofit world).  This is our first installment… 


Female_With_Clipboard_Silhouette_590x300Jon and Sarah arrived at the camp close to nightfall with their band of battered nonprofit survivalists in tow. They found the camp by following the RFP instructions posted alongside the train tracks they had been clandestinely pursuing for several weeks. They were looking for sanctuary, and this, they concluded in earnest, might be the place. Eventually they discovered the entrance, slightly obscured by a vast line of emaciated survivors patiently waiting by a 30′ high steel gate. Despite the growing crowds and increasing desperation of each passing day, there was only one gatekeeper on sentry duty. Hair pulled back, she wore a black pin-stripe pantsuit with 3-inch heels — a curious fashion choice for the apocalypse. In lieu of a katana or an AR-47, she wielded something far more deadly… a clipboard and a Sharpie. The sun set, rose and began its daily descent again, without one person being allowed into the camp.

By the time their group made it to the gate, Jon stepped forward and said in his most cordial demeanor, “Good evening. My associate Sarah and I represent a plucky and intrepid group of survivors… might we have five minutes of your…”

“Do you have an LOI?” interrupted the black pantsuit, whose voice, it turned out, was as sharp as the pin-stripes of her pantsuit. Close up, they could see that she wore a fading Avery 5385 name tag that read,“Ferme.” Clearly apocryphal, but also perhaps, prescient.

“A Letter of Intent? But… it’s the end of the… we don’t have… a pen… or water, food… anything!” stammered Sarah.

“The RFP clearly states that an LOI is needed before you can gain entry to our steel-gated, armed encampment. It has to be submitted on a one-page, single spaced letter with 12 point font or similar sized script. In less than 2,000 characters, you are expected to provide a mission statement for your group or person, a history of how you got here, what makes your group unique, the top five camps that previously supported your survival, three goals and objectives that will result from your participation in our camp, the methodology used to track those goals and objectives, the long-term benefits your group can provide our camp, a description of what you want from our camp, how you will recognize and acknowledge the generosity of our camp, and a basic list of resources you believe you need to survive for one year only, keeping in mind that we don’t provide overhead. If you are allowed in, you have to re-apply every year and prove that your participation will be sustainable.”

“I’ll show you my fuckin’ LOI,” mumbled Jon as he slowly thumbed the falchion slung across his back. Sarah grabbed at his arm, shot him a hard look, and moved quickly to de-escalate the situation like she had done countless times before.

“Um, Ferme, or Ms. Ferme… Jon and I are hardened nonprofit survivalists. We probably have submitted a thousand LOIs in our careers – we’ve secured millions in grants and private support. And my brother, Matt, used to be a nonprofit lawyer and fought ninjas and crime lords in Hell’s Kitchen. Our group is made up of people you need. We’ve got engineers, farmers, musicians, nurses, teachers, hell, we’ve even got a legal services attorney and a social worker. Our group can support your camp in every way possible to keep people housed, fed, happy, healthy, educated, and alive. Please… it’s the apocalypse… we don’t have paper or anything to write with… if you just talk with us… give us five minutes… I know you will see the value in what we can provide to this camp. Please!”

The pantsuit sighed, rolled her eyes, and dismissed Sarah as she had done thousands of others before. With a vague boredom she yelled, “Next” and thought to herself, “Still not one goddamn transformative disrupter in the bunch.”

– Sarah & Jon


The Reckoning – Part 2

_8445270A Jimmy Choo work pump makes a precise, surgical tap when it hits a wide-plank, pine wood floor. A $700 pair of shoes announces its wearer with authority, so she knew when the Executive Director walked into the turn-of-the-century farmhouse turned non-profit office space.

It had been a prolonged absence with the holidays, but the mechanical taps signaled a primal change in the inhabitants’ dynamics. Four minutes later her inbox lit up: “I want to meet with you and the rest of your team in my office in 10 minutes.” She slowly breathed in until her chest fully expanded and her body lifted, exhaling at 20 counts. At count 19 she cursed her prudent choice of herbal tea over whiskey that filled her Klean Canteen. The situation needed more than air, affirmations and pacifism. 

The gang of three entered the Executive Director’s office. The coldness and dark were ever present in the farmhouse, partially because the ED set the century-old heating system to 60 degrees and duct-taped select switches to the “off position.” The ED was ever-present in calculating the minutia associated with cost-savings and income-generation. 

The gang settled around the pockmarked, donated conference table. They noticed a solitary appeal letter. A lone orphan leaning against an overturned glass. The envelope was muddied, slightly torn. It was the abandoned, abused child in a late night television appeal. She thought she heard Sarah McLachlan singing in the distance. The letter was addressed to a relatively low-level donor that typically made an annual gift that belied her wealth. The Development Director knew it didn’t matter how the letter came back from the dead. She thought of the toddler Gage, in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, who was lovingly resurrected from the dead by his despondent father, only to return to his family like a deranged ninja and kill his mother. She wondered how deep a papercut could tear through skin.

The ED spoke. “THIS! This..LETTER..was handed to me at my country club’s holiday party. This was sent to MY friend. A friend who is very generous and is an important donor! I am mortified. I want to know what happened. Who killed the annual appeal?!!”

The Development Director’s eyes drifted away from the seething, raging war that was bound to take at least an hour, if not more, to negotiate. She considered her options.

The ED slid into the job a few years ago after a long career in take-overs and acquisitions. The organization suffered from the same humdrum issues as most nonprofits, especially post-Recession, so the board chose their Jimmy Choo armored knight mostly because she looked exactly like them. A bottom-line, grind-to-the-bone corporate sorceress that apparently could spin gold at the drop of a piercing web of pressure point demands. There was not much gold to be found during these years, yet the organization could be described as a Dr. Seuss nightmare of Thneed-making, resource-ravaging excess. The staff had been chopped down, laid bare and continually plundered for more programs, more events, more of anything that squeezed-out even a modicum of income regardless of mission-fit.

“Sarah. SARAH!” She throws up her hands either to feign incredulity or to telegraph a forthcoming slap. “Do you have anything at all to contribute here? This is YOUR team and this is a BIG screw up. Can you even tell that we upgraded to the matte satin finish? NO! I want to know…who killed these letters?”

Sarah finally looked up. She sat back, deeper into the chair and felt extremely calm. She always thought that liberation would come from a job well done, from raising more money, exceeding expectations and inspiring the love of donors, board and executive staff. Her passion was always committed to the mission, but she mistakenly thought that there would come a day when she could finally have the staffing, resources and support needed to seamlessly execute a successful fundraising program and not hand-stuff a thousand envelopes a few days before Christmas because the Appeal had became a caricature of itself. Sarah would be liberated, at peace with her career and fulfilled by the work.

At that moment, Sarah realized that liberation was not normalizing the oppressor. Liberation was being on the outside and normalizing resistance. Sarah grabbed the envelope, shoved it in her back pocket and turned to the ED: “Yeah…it’s a pity. I guess we’ll never know.”

She walked out of the turn-of-the-century farmhouse turned non-profit office space and never returned.

– Sarah and Jon

The Day the Annual Appeal Died – Part 1

ranbootsIt’s only a small crime, she considered, as the rain beat each letter into the cold clay of the playground. Was it rain, or the torrent of tears that created the soggy, malleable pile? She couldn’t tell. Months of abuse took it’s toll. Not a hardcore Lifetime movie abuse–that would be too easy to spot. She was a warrior troubled by methodical, intellectual abuse. The perp? A superior by rank, entitled by birth, deeper in pocket-book, admired by the Board and able to slowly devalue her contributions, her value over just a few months.

If she acted quickly… if she saved each pearly white envelope with a first class stamp from it’s murky fate, this day would have been different. She didn’t. She waited and watched each and every letter slip deeper into the dark, muddy abyss. Just three hours earlier, 20 school children played make-believe, pushing sticks and rocks into this new grave. It was ready for bodies.

She wanted the appeal to die. She wanted each and every match-mail letter, envelope, reply card and handwritten note, to feel the pain of her creation. A life she spent six weeks creating, gestating, birthing, only to have it corrupted daily by the aforementioned perp. Each word was obsessively perverted until its meaning no longer resembled it’s original intent. There was no longer a direct ‘ask.’ The intent was softened and generalized until it resembled her superior’s lack of interest in the tough work that needed a leader. A leader that wasn’t afraid to raise more money, turn hearts, inspire the masses… change the state of things. She wanted the control she was never given. She wanted those letters to reflect her voice, her words. 20 years of experience, knowledge and all that was taken away, one…edit…at…a…time.

Of course, she never would have dropped the corrugated plastic tray of envelopes in the freezing rain if the process had been on schedule. The third-generation mom and pop mail house, trusted by nonprofits great and small, would have readily handled everything. But the edits and delays no longer allowed for that option. She was forced to hand stuff all 3,567 envelopes, late at night, tucking away a small part of her soul with every seal for a love that no longer resembled her heart. She wondered if part of her heart would also die in the soupy pile bloodied with dirt.

Slowly, she collected the bastard product of her creativity, brushing the muck off of every letter. “I killed it,” she said. “I sullied every whorey letter.” She didn’t see it as filicide. It was an act of love. She brought her dead children to the post office. She mailed every one.

It was time for redemption.

– Sarah and Jon

The Wind

wind-9666213fb1b332345db26b73e535270bWe hate wind. Anything above 40 MPH, and we’re filled with anxiety every time a house moves and you can hear the trees shake. There is nothing like being in your home when a tree comes down. It’s just never the same. Wind has become an evil omen: the stranger in ‘Something Wicked this Way Comes,’ filling the town with a sense that something is not quite right.

The nonprofit ceiling is located slightly north of where your experience meets your intuition. We’ve been around long enough to understand boards, executive directors, presidents, development directors, donors, program staff and all of the many key ingredients that make a nonprofit business. We had high hopes in the early run of the 21st century. Funding was at an all-time high and the field was just beginning to professionalize. There was hope that nonprofits finally had the staffing and resources to save Gotham, Central City, snuggly wolves… whatever the cause… there was hope. And then came the wind.

It seemed refreshing at first.

Anyone that has lived through the damage wrought by Mother Nature can relate to that primal fear of the wind. But the worst part is that we didn’t fear the wind at one point in our lives. We started out with a joie de vivre. We are invincible after all. We are Captain America or Aquaman (hey, he was cool… he was the King of Atlantis after all). We ride our bike with no helmets. We eat PopRocks with a can of coke. But, as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.”

For us, the nonprofit world changed in 2008.

It went from being a fearless, collaborative call to action to change the world, to an injured and scared animal, recoiling from the kindly old couple that stops their Prius on the side of the road to help. We have no fight left for our respective missions, because the nonprofit industry, by design, has become the enemy. We are under siege when there is a call for “Disruption.” We are defeated when we are tasked with “Sustainability.” We are spurned when we are dismissed as unfundable “Overheard.”

The wind changed and the for-profit world moved in. They liked us at first, but they didn’t quite trust us. We didn’t look, sound or feel like a business. They reasoned they could do better, be more efficient, measure accountability, and make the field bend to the collective will of the for-profit construct.

There is one universal truth that existed before 2008, but became magnified thereafter when charitable giving fell precipitously by 20% and investment funds that fueled nonprofit endowments fell twice that amount. People got scared. The for-profits said they could help. The nonprofit truth changed from mission to Money.

Of course, two veteran nonprofit warriors like us, trained by the best sellswords in Braavos, aren’t turned off by the accountability component of Money, or more specifically, having to raise it.

But that’s not what changed.

This industry used to be based upon relationships with contributors, staff and the community. Nonprofits were always about Impact, until the word turned into an NC-17 version of itself: a deranged, intractable concept that is fiercely wielded to measure the value of everything from a child stepping onto a stage to perform his/her poetry to the value of primary healthcare for a homeless family. Impact is no longer defined by the community that creates it. Today, nonprofits and their decision makers, afraid of what followed the wind of 2008, make decisions based solely on Money. How to find it? How to keep it? How to spend it? How to hold people accountable for it? How many people are benefiting from it? How can I give you the least amount of money to make the most Impact? And that ladies and gentleman, is called a Transaction.  You know… a card swipe paradigm. Do you have a deep, meaningful relationship with your Credit Card? Your Square Reader?

It is also an external marker that no longer relies on the community for value. The community no longer has a voice. Impact, sustainability, overheard, accountability… these are all terms that involve outputs for external sources. Our nonprofits are no longer our own. We exist when we can be counted, measured, defined, and otherwise expressed on a spreadsheet.

There is no soul in a transaction or a measurement. You don’t have to believe in God, Yahweh, Allah, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to understand what a soul is. And no, we’re not talking about the James Brown version, although that’s close. Soul is a sunrise on a clear morning with the waves rolling in 4′-5′ and glassy, and you’re the first surfer in the lineup. Soul is paddling on both sides of the boat so we all go forward instead of in a circle. Soul is running along a country road at 5am as downy snow falls gently, silently. We all have our own version. We also know that a mission, like a soul, is not a transaction.

It is in this new reality that we, two veteran nonprofit warriors, looked at the battlefield and realized that The Battle of Thermopylae is upon us, and there wasn’t an army of 300 at our sides. As we called upon our fellow warriors to join us, we realized that although many felt as we do, they were just too scared to stand before the sacred cows of the nonprofit world and scream, “This is Sparta!” Relax. We’re not trying to enlist you. We’re happy to rush once more into the breach. We make a great fire team. We just figured someone, maybe at least 6 people, would be mildly interested in the stories, fabrications and otherwise dark and sometimes playful musings of two fundraisers still waiting for their mission without an army.

– Sarah and Jon


Nonprofits, We are Finished

I stayed longer than I wanted. I’m still here. I burned the toast. It was my fault. You said you couldn’t live without me. I stayed. You said you loved me, and you really didn’t mean to hurt me. I stayed.

I reason that no one else will love me. You are all that I know. I spent a lot of money on a fancy degree for you to love me more. I dress appropriately when we are together. I say all the right things, until I don’t. And then I am forsaken.

Nonprofits, We are Finished.

You are broken. It’s not me. I burned the toast, because the toaster has been broken for nearly 10 years. You actually can live without me, because I hardly ever use the skills you say you need. You don’t love me. You love the version of me that is only desirable or functional when given the tools and resources to be that superwoman. You don’t give me those tools. I cannot be your superwoman.

You are still all that I know. And I have a lot to discuss.

You’d better sit down.

– Sarah