28 July 2011
Let's all take a hint from Talking Heads, and shut the #$%@ up when we have nothing to say.
1) For the purposes of this blog, "inspire" is virtually synonymous with "infuriate."
14 May 2011
Have any members of nonprofit boards really thought through the legal and moral responsibilities involved?
I'm not a lawyer, so I won't attempt to terrify you by providing an authoritative account of the legal responsibilities that are vested in the boards of nonprofit organizations. You can look that stuff up. Read it and weep.
Though not a lawyer, I am something of an armchair ethicist.(1) And the more I think about the ethical demands placed on nonprofit boards, the more clear it seems to me that no one could ever manage to live up to the nominal duties.
Let's consider BoardSource's list of the “Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards:”
- Determine mission and purpose.
- Select the chief executive.
- Support and evaluate the chief executive.
- Ensure effective planning.
- Monitor, and strengthen programs and services.
- Ensure adequate financial resources.
- Protect assets and provide proper financial oversight.
- Build a competent board.
- Ensure legal and ethical integrity.
- Enhance the organization's public standing.
Once I read the more detailed explication, it was clear to me that if anyone really fulfilled these duties, he would not only be unavailable for any other task, but would also be unable to get a good night's sleep.
It's #9 that clinches it for me: “ensure legal and ethical integrity.” How on earth is a board member supposed to be able to do that, when so often he is also mandated to keep his nose out of the day-to-day management of the organization? Reviewing the various job descriptions that are written for board members and chief executive officers, I realize that the division of labor seems designed for failure. The board members seem to have all the solemn responsibility of administering a public trust, and the CEO has most of the opportunities to abuse that trust.
Moreover, I know - and anyone who works on a day to day basis in a nonprofit organization knows this as well - that unless board members stand next to employees all day and watch them, it's difficult to ensure that everyone is really complying with policies set by the board.
In the long run, various kinds of audits and inventories can reveal patterns of ethical or legal violations. Moles and whistleblowers can also document bad behavior. But there's a real disconnect between the ultimate responsibility vested in the board, and its ability to ensure that high ethical and legal standards are met, and it's no wonder that liability insurance for nonprofit boards is a hot topic.
1) Like most nonprofit professionals, I am keenly interested in ethics, seeing it as a tool for constructing elaborate arguments that prove my utter superiority to the rest of humanity. I continually fail, but hope springs eternal.
15 April 2011
"Chugger" is, of course, a portmanteau word that combines "charity" and "mugger."
The way you recruit them is usually to put up signs on college campuses that say "Get Paid to Work for the Environment." (Or some other cause.) Then you hire idealistic young people, give them minimal training, and pay them outrageously low sums. You send them to towns that actually have pedestrians, and there they station themselves, greeting strangers and trying to shame them into making donations. Occasionally this activity is varied with attempts to get the pedestrians to sign petitions.
It would probably be pointless to blame these young students, or the other idealists who gravitate toward these jobs. Most of them need the money pretty badly, and many of them probably think that they are getting valuable experience in activism or community organizing. What they are getting is exploited. What the rest of us are getting is annoyed.
Because they are exploited, I try hard not to growl at or bite these hapless bottom feeders of the fundraising industry when I encounter them. It's also unfair to pick on them because they have to be polite while they're representing their organizations, when I (as a private person walking down the street) am under fewer constraints.
I'm not particularly proud of how I sometimes react when one of them accosts me on the street, but I'd like to make a point here by summarizing one sort of conversation that I've experienced:
Party of the First Part: Got a minute for the environment?(1)
Party of the Second Part: (sigh)
Party of the First Part: We're doing incredibly effective work on an incredibly urgent mission and we'd like you to make a donation and/or sign a petition.
Party of the Second Part: Sorry. I don't donate money or sign petitions on the street, but if you give me some information, I'll think it over.
Party of the First Part: Oh, we don't have any material we can give away.
Party of the Second Part: Wait, what? You're engaging members of the public on the street, and you don't have any informational hand-outs? That can't be right.
Party of the First Part: But it's really easy to donate. Look, I can take your credit card, if you don't have cash.
Party of the Second Part: Sorry, no - I already told you that I don't make donations on the street. But, please! I work in the nonprofit sector, and I know how constituent engagement works. You don't start by pestering people for money. You need to build relationships with them, listen to their concerns, and give them something that will enable them to follow up later.
Party of the First Part: Well, all I have are the materials in this notebook that they gave me. I can't give it away. But if you have a piece of paper, I can write down our web address, and you can make a donation online.
Party of the Second Part: Look, I work for (Name of Organization Withheld)(2). We're doing incredibly effective work on an incredibly important mission.(3) Will you give me some cash right now to support our efforts?
Party of the First Part: No, no, I can't. I'm out here working for the environment(4). I'm supposed to be collecting donations and getting signatures for this petition. I shouldn't be giving money away to other organizations.
Party of the Second Part: Never mind. Have a nice day. Good-bye.
Of course, my efforts here are completely futile. I might be able to get a couple of chuggers off-script, and I might be able to encourage them to think about what advocacy and constituent engagement really entail, but I doubt that I'm succeeding even at that. Moreover, the people whose hearts and minds really need to be changed are the more senior staff members of these nonprofits, the ones who came up with this strategy. I don't need to be picking on impoverished college students who are set loose with a perfunctory briefing, a tin can, a petition, and a mediocre script.
To me, it seems obvious that engaging members of the public at the street level is both a privilege and an opportunity for a nonprofit organization. Firstly, there are so few communities that can even boast of a lively pedestrian culture or some sort of public square where ideas are exchanged. Secondly, if your organization is lucky enough to be get the attention of random strangers in a public place, you ought to think in terms of long term strategy. Hitting people up for money the moment they stop to talk with you may yield some short term donations, but as I've already pointed out, it's not how to build a real relationship. You would do far better to have something to hand out (even it's only a business card), to be asking for input about what passers-by consider to be their deepest concerns, and to have public policy experts on hand to engage in discussions or answer questions.
I don't think that the organizations that send out chuggers are likely to change their ways any time soon. Straining for some kind of consolation, I can only take comfort in the thought that these organizations are not merely employing today's chuggers - they are also manufacturing tomorrow's skeptics and nonprofit curmudgeons. My hypothesis is that a certain percentage of chuggers, if they are intelligent and alert, will independently pick up on the exactly the same points that I am trying to make here. If any of them choose to remain in the nonprofit sector, I hope that they will be just bitter and cynical enough to enjoy my blog, but not so bitter and cynical that they will accept and perpetuate chugging as a necessary evil.
1) Or for human rights, or to elect a political candidate, or for the arts, or to help the word's most photogenic orphans, etc.
2) This being the nonprofit that has the dubious distinction of employing me.
3) Details were provided to the Party of the First Part, but are omitted here to spare the organization the embarrassment of being linked back to me.
4) Or for human rights, etc.
10 April 2011
They have just opened nominations for 2011's awards, raising (in my mind, at least) the question of how many years of public ridicule it will take to make any difference in the degree to which narcissism drives our sector, or in how journalists cover it. Perhaps the organizers and the judges of the Just Awards should ponder the Straight Dope's motto: "Fighting ignorance since 1973. (It's taking longer than we thought.)"
In fact, I think that Blue Avocado and Nonprofit Online News have an uphill battle ahead of them, especially in the department of personality disorders such as narcissism. Of course, I heartily applaud them for undertaking it with humor. In fact, I'd like to encourage this blog's readers to get on board, and propose a few awards of their own.
Here are a few that I'd like to see:
The Effort to Outcome Award, for the organization that does the best job of confusing motion with progress.I'd also like to see some awards for Lifetime Achievement in Denial, in categories such as technology adoption, acknowledement of failure, and addressing class as an issue in hiring practices.
The Mushroom Award, for the nonprofit executive who attains the greatest success in keeping his employees in the dark and feeding them $#!+.
The Sad Sack Award, for the nonprofit professional who is deemed to be the most needy, ineffectual, self-absorbed person in the workplace.
And now, dear readers, I turn to you with an invitation: what sector-wide awards would you like to propose? Please post your ideas as comments.
04 April 2011
I'm entirely in favor of procuring operating revenue for nonprofits, and I have nothing but praise for executive directors who realize that they are the (de facto) chief development officers of their organizations. Likewise, an outstanding director of development is a prodigy who has mastered both the art and the science of raising money. No problem with that.
So this isn't an attack on money or the people who raise it for nonprofits; it's a rant about the idea that fundraising is the most salient characteristic of nonprofits.
Here's a little free association exercise. What follows are two different versions, one for civilians, and one for nonprofit professionals.
Tell me what images the following phrases evoke for you.
For members of the general public:
Salvation Army.For nonprofit professionals:
(Is it bell ringers asking for donations on street corners?)
Doing "charity work."
(Is it donating money and persuading others to donate money?)
(Is it money for nonprofit organizations automatically donated from your paycheck?)
(Is it Bill Gates giving away large sums of money for good causes?)
Muscular Dystrophy Association.
(Is it an apparently interminable fundraising telethon on Labor Day weekend?)
Storytelling.Of course, all of the aforementioned mean so much more than giving money. For example, the word "philanthropy" has a 2,500-year history; the use of the word to connote "making a donation" is relatively recent.(1) As for "engagement," remember when that was the entire point of a nonprofit organization, rather than the latest trick for getting suckers to give you some money?
(Is it a strategy for turning your organization's well-wishers into donors?)
(Is it a strategy for persuading grantmakers to continue giving you money?)
(Is it new strategy for raising money?)
(Is it something you gauge by per capita charitable giving?)
Alexis de Tocqueville.
(Is he the guy you have to mention in after-dinner speeches to make everyone feel like being a dues-paying supporter of a community-based organization connects them with a great, uniquely American tradition?)
If we don't start acting like nonprofit organizations have a mission beyond fundraising, they are all going to go the way of the March of Dimes. Here's my personal, highly subjective, horror-story version: the March of Dimes was so successful at raising money to eradicate a serious evil that it rendered itself obsolete. The organizational response to this existential crisis was not to declare victory, but to look for some other cover story for keeping the staff's jobs intact and continuing to raise money. In other words, the organization became a solution in search of problem, an assembly line in search of a product to manufacture, an academic administration hoping to create a university of which their football team could be proud. The March of Dimes found a worthy cause, a truly unexceptional mission, but to me there is something chilling about this narrative.
I make jokes about not putting Descartes before the horse, but I have very real philosophical objections to allowing organizational activities such as fundraising or web site development to drive the mission of an organization that is supposed to provide a public benefit(2).
What if fundraising was not driving our sector's activities?
I hereby propose yet another thought experiment: What if there were a year-long moratorium on discussing fundraising and grantsmanship throughout the nonprofit sector?
- What stories would make the headlines of the Chronicle of Philanthropy?
- What would the social media pundits of the nonprofit sector tweet about?
- What would all the volunteers on the committees that organize charity galas do with their copious talent and energy?
1) When Jane Eyre asks Edward Rochester whether he is a philanthropist, she's not inquiring whether he's has sent a check to the Community Chest.
2) Special note for the benighted: soliciting input from the community, especially from the community's most vulnerable constituents,(3) should help an organization define its goals and strategies. By the way, this should not merely be a marketing ploy to find out what will most please major donors, or to give those donors a completely spurious impression that they are somehow helping to shape the vision of the organization.
3) Of course, a community's most vulnerable constituents are notoriously unlikely to be major donors. Deal with it. Ask them for input anyway.
30 March 2011
When I think of the people I like, admire, and trust the most in the sector these days, I realize that many of them are no longer on the payroll as employees of nonprofit organizations. They're still around, doing excellent work for nonprofits, but they're consultants and contractors. Instead of bosses, they have clients.
What does this mean? One interpretation is that market forces have made it more efficient for nonprofits to hire consultants.(2) However, if we apply Ockham's razor, we know that the most simple and probable explanation lies in how nonprofits are managed.
Consider the following scenarios:
- You are a really brilliant fundraiser. Like all the best people in your field, you're a prodigy at marketing, communications, event management, data mining, and all-around creativity. Is it any wonder that such a smart person might want to move on periodically to new challenges, even with the best fundraising job at the best nonprofit organization in the world? However, you do not have the ideal job; you are working with a board and an executive director that squelch your best ideas. Wouldn't it be better to be a fundraising consultant, and be able to pick and choose projects, without having to make an all-or-nothing professional commitment to one organization?
- You are stellar technology professional who would like nothing better than to be the CTO of a medium-sized nonprofit, where you would have responsibility for systems administration, database development, and online services. No nonprofit will hire you, partly because the management teams of these organizations don't want to create any more staff positions with benefits, and partly because they don't see information and communication technology as part of their core mission. They'd rather outsource these services, even though this means more downtime and less continuity. If you really want to work with nonprofits, wouldn't it be better to develop a client base in the sector than to take a full-time job working for a business whose mission means nothing to you?
- You have lots of experience, plus an M.B.A. in nonprofit management and a Ph.D. in organizational behavior. An established nonprofit hires you with great fanfare to be its director of human resources and organizational development, because, as they say, they are looking for a "change agent" that will help transform their most valuable asset, the staff, into a team with high morale and unsurpassed effectiveness. Two years pass, and aside from shuffling the usual HR paperwork and holding one training in which you explain Myers-Briggs personality types as a way to help colleagues understand the diversity of work styles, nothing has happened. Every other initiative that you have proposed has been shot down by the combined machinations of the chief operating officer and the director of programs. All that rhetoric about change and effectiveness was just some noise made to impress funders who were reluctant to give money to an organization that seemed to be coasting on the reputation it built in the 19th century. Wouldn't it be better to set up as a consultant, so that you can quickly terminate any clients who seem inclined to use you as window dressing?
- You are a relatively recent graduate from social work school who shows unusual promise. Your ability to advocate for your clients is remarkable, and you always meet or exceed the programmatic goals set by the senior management team of the nonprofit that employs you. However, you are troubled by the way senior management treats the social work team, and by the way that your program seems to be a focus of intra-organizational politics in a struggle that you don't even begin to understand. There's a general atmosphere of muffled hostility, with lots of secret meetings being called and decisions being made, but you only find out about them after the fact when you receive memos about unexplained changes in protocol. Wouldn't it be better to quit, and to find work on a fee-for-service basis, so that you can just concentrate on doing a superlative job as a social worker, without getting entangled in organizational upheavals that you have no power to affect?
Every senior manager in a nonprofit organization who has any pretensions to strategic thinking should be able to see where this is going. If all the innovative, intelligent, high-achieving staff members run shrieking in horror from full-time, long-term employment with nonprofit organizations, then life is going to become pretty damn unpleasant for those who are left behind. Eventually, the senior management will have to chose between hiring superlative free agents as contractors, or hiring nightmarishly ineffectual employees, or hiring no one at all.
Of course, it might not be the worst scenario in the world for all of the nonprofits in the sector to reorganize themselves as highly effective adhocracies, but I'm not very sanguine about this possibility. Unless it's done very carefully, nonprofit organizations that rely entirely on outsourcing all of their most crucial services are going to lose a lot of the long term strategic momentum if all of the organizational memory resides in the brains of contractors. And I'm not at all confident that such a transition would be done very carefully, or very successfully, by most of the nonprofits that attempted it.
The scenario with nightmarishly ineffectual employees seems more likely, and I'd be willing to bet that you can think of a couple of real-life examples without much effort.
However, what really frightens me is the "no one at all" scenario. I know that we're living in times when it's hard to find a job, because I hear it on the news and from nonprofit colleagues who have been laid off. At the same time, I also receive a terrifying number of telephone calls and emails from hiring managers at nonprofit organizations, and the message there is that they've advertised widely but can't find a single feasible candidate for a key position.(3) The résumés pour in, presumably sent by losers, and the jobs remain vacant for obscenely long stretches of time - until the organization has to hire contractors, or rearrange work responsibilities, or find some other way to cope with the realization that they can't attract the right kind of job-seeker.
Senior managers, I'm looking at you.
Are you going to drive every smart, competent, sane, self-respecting person out of the dysfunctional hell that you've made of your organization?
Are you going to wait until the entire nonprofit sector disbands by attrition, before you clean up your act?
If you have any trouble answering these questions, perhaps I can talk you into hiring me as a consultant. If you pay me by the hour, I'd be happy to deliver my assessment of your problem and a few explicit suggestions about what you can do.(4)
1) Considering that I am foul-tempered, judgmental, and passive-aggressive.
2) Not that I understand what this means. When I find someone in the nonprofit sector that does, I try to be nice and respectful. It's an effort, because being nice doesn't come naturally to me, but understanding finance and market forces without assistance is even more unnatural.
3) The reason that they're calling or emailing is that they want me to recommend some candidates. This puts me in a bind. Should I recommend good people for positions in abysmal organizations, in the hope that the competence of the former will help pull the latter out of the abyss, even if it destroys the former's peace of mind? Or should I recommend perfectly awful people for abysmal organizations, in the hope that they all deserve each other, and that it will more efficient to consolidate the misery and incompetence, even if that means increasing the agony for the constituencies that the organization intends to serve? I leave it as an exercise for the student to figure out the correct answer.
4) I guarantee that colorful language will be involved.
21 March 2011
Likewise with sending unsolicited bulk email. Ixnay on the spam, whether or not the sender is a nonprofit organization.
I'm not going to argue that nonprofits that send spam belong in the same circle of Hell as baby rapers.(2) But I do believe that any bulk email newsletters, fundraising pitches, and calls to action sent by nonprofits without the fully informed consent of the recipients is spam, and therefore unethical. Don't do it.
A group of nonprofit professionals is now on a tear about this, and rightly so. Apparently, they are not so much worried about their own personal email in-boxes, as concerned that they are asked to be complicit in unethical behavior, and concerned about the effect of nonprofit spam on the reputation of the entire sector. Good for them. I particularly like their "Meet the Perps" page, in which they list names of nonprofits (and the email service providers) who are spamming them.
Here's the statement from the new "No Nonprofit Spam" blog(3):
"Your mission is noble, and your intentions are honorable. But if you subscribed us to your organization's bulk email list without our permission, then you are sending us spam. That is discourteous, unethical, illegal, and ineffective – so please stop."Amen.
I also like the idea of a Spam Manifesto, so here is mine.
Why your nonprofit organization should not put my email address in your database for bulk messages:
- I really, really believe in freely given and fully informed consent. You need to confirm that I have opted-in before you add me to your email blast. You will have my consent to send me your precious little electronic bulletins, or you will have my eternal enmity.
- I work in the nonprofit sector. This means three things, especially in the case of unsolicited bulk email appeals for money. First, I have a good grasp of what would be worst practices in your job. Spamming falls into that category, and I'm not going to condone it. Second, I'm already working for less money than I could be making in another sector, so you are seriously mistaken if you think that I have a lot of discretionary income that I'm willing to give to people who send me fundraising pitches every hour on the hour. Third, I already have done careful research about the issues that interest me and planned my charitable giving for maximum impact, and am unlikely to send money on impulse in response to random spam.
- I will bitch and moan. That means that I will not only report your nonprofit to Spamhaus and SpamCop, I will also talk trash about you to people who are grantmakers, nonprofit professionals, your current or future donors, and community leaders. If the grant or strategic alliance that you were counting on has fallen through inexplicably, consider the possibility that the word on the street is that your nonprofit is a sleazy operation.
- I'm anonymous. You don't know who I am. That means that I could be anyone or everyone in your contact database, so you really should operate as if all of us are as easily offended as I am.
1) Exception: with porcupines, it's consensual sex or nothing.
2) Unless it's a nonprofit that is sending spam to me.
3) The cadence of this opening sentence rings a bell. I think I've been promoted to the rank of a Literary Influence.
14 March 2011
On reflection, I see this as a teachable moment for those who are shocked and offended. Having devised little lessons and assignments before, I will not hesitate to propose one now.
- Find piece of paper, and write down the phrases "nonprofit curmudgeon" and "anonymous rants."
- Read those phrases to the next ten intelligent nonprofit professionals that you meet, and ask them what they would expect to find in a blog described in those terms.
- Write down what they tell you.
- Review your notes.
- Review the content of this blog.
- Compare the expectations described by intelligent nonprofit professionals with the content of this blog.
12 March 2011
More unsolicited advice: the best predictor of job satisfaction in the nonprofit sector is a boss that you don't hate and despise.
Novice: Master, what is true wisdom?
Master: Exercising good judgement.
Novice: How do I obtain good judgement?
Master: Through experience.
Novice: How do I obtain experience?
Master: By exercising bad judgement.
In other words, you can squeeze some value after the fact from stupid choices, as long as you learn from them and consign them to the past. The big problem in the nonprofit sector is how often people keep making the same stupid mistakes.
Remember that in taking a job, you're exercising the power of choice. Think of landing a job with a boss from hell as a stupid choice, and try to avoid repeating it.
When you look for a job, screen your potential bosses rigorously. The human resources manager and your potential boss(1) should be looking for signs that you're a good fit for the organization, but you should also be looking for signs that the organization (and more specifically, your future supervisor) is a good fit for you. You should be relentlessly search for someone you won't hate and despise after you take the job.
There's no unerring method for picking out a good boss. However, it's a good idea to make use of opportunities, such as the point in the interview where they ask "do you have any questions?" (If you don't have any questions, especially at a second interview, you're probably past any help that I can give you.)
I can suggest some questions to ask prospective supervisors, but before I do, allow me to point out that the questions themselves are secondary. You'll be using the responses to the questions to gauge two things:
- Whether they are forbearing and responsive enough to entertain questions. (If they aren't, it may mean that they lack the time, patience, or openness that will be needed to get you acclimated to a new job.)
- Whether the nonverbal cues that accompany their substantive responses are worrisome or encouraging. (Remember, you're looking for someone who will set you up to succeed.)
- Can you tell me about the best supervisor you've ever had? What made him (or her) the best?
- Can you tell me about the best subordinate you've ever had? What made him (or her) the best?
- Have you ever supervised someone who was not a good fit for the job? How did you handle it?
- Is it easier for a subordinate to get your permission or your forgiveness?
- What are you highest priorities for your subordinates? How important is it to you that they show up on time every day, that they meet long term goals, or that they follow procedures?
- How would you describe your management style?
- Do you find it easy or difficult to explain your expectations for a project before it starts? How do you handle it if you're disappointed with the results?
- May I meet my potential colleagues in the organization?
- May I see the office or workspace that has been allocated for this position?
- A potential supervisor who hates being asked these questions is probably a loser, even if he mouths reasonable and detailed responses.
- A potential supervisor who doesn't know the answer to certain of these questions is either dangerously unreflective or dangerously inarticulate.
- A potential supervisor whose face lights up as he describes a favorite boss or subordinate is probably a keeper.
- A potential supervisor who takes your questions about his highest priorities seriously, without assuming that you are just probing to see what you can get away with, is a keeper.
- A potential supervisor who wants you to learn as much as possible about your working environment and peers before you make a decision is a keeper.
- A potential supervisor who shows interest in these questions but avoids answering them might be a very good person who is operating under constraints, possibly from the human resources staff. If the HR people block you from unscripted contact with your potential boss or colleagues, don't take a job with that organization.(2)
However, if you're really committed finding a job that's right for you, and to implementing your own personal zero tolerance for @$$holes policy, then you need to take some risks in the interview process. You need to gamble that asking certain types of questions, and paying close attention to the verbal and nonverbal feedback that those questions elicit, will serve your long term goal. Your quest is for satisfying work, reporting to people who support and appreciate your efforts, in an organization that is fulfilling a meaningful mission in a beneficial way.
If you follow these suggestions, you will probably decide against going back for another interview with some organizations that look great on paper but would lock you into a reporting structure with an impossible boss. More importantly, I can guarantee that if you follow my advice, you will fail to make the short list for some jobs that would have made you miserable.
And that will be a A Good Thing(tm).
1) In some organizations, the task of reviewing your resume and interviewing you is in the hands of human service professionals rather than your prospective boss. If you can't stand the HR buffoon, it's not necessarily a red flag, since you may never see him (or her) again once you've settled into your job.
2) The reason that the process is tightly scripted could be that the nonprofit under scrutiny for discriminatory hiring practices, or that someone with a lot of power is micro-managing the process from above. You do well to avoid working under either of these conditions.
06 March 2011
Public service is my only goal, and even if it weren't, I can always sympathize with a passive-aggressive impulse. Therefore, I am pleased to present simple instructions for doing this.
- Go to my blog and choose the article that you want to email anonymously.
- Go to the bottom of the article, and click on the icon that looks like an envelope.
- Under Your Name, enter Anonymous Curmudgeon.
- Under Your Email Address, enter email@example.com.
- Under Friend's Email Address, enter the email address of your bête noire. (I'm sorry that I can't change the name of the field to Bête Noire's Email Address - so you'll just have to tough it out, and pretend that, for message transmission purposes, the addressee is your friend.)
- Under Message, add any comments you have. This is optional.
- Under Word Verification, transcribe the word shown in odd-looking letters immediately above.
- Click on Send Email.
I have engineered it so that any replies will be automatically forwarded from the Anonymous Curmudgeon account to my own in-box. The entertainment that I will derive from these responses will more than compensate me for providing this much-needed public service.
05 March 2011
Obviously, I need a little course correction here. In the form of impractical advice.
Therefore, today's lesson for nonprofit professionals will be on how to kill a water cooler conversation at the office. Let us commence.
The most important function of informal dialogue in the workplace is to establish dominance, thus squelching the sort of information exchange, collaboration, peer learning, good feeling, and other factors that can only lead to holding hands and singing "Kumbaya."
Your first assignment is to start with casual conversations in the elevator, the break room, and around the water cooler. Later on, you can graduate to killing conversations in mission-critical meetings, but we will begin with a simple exercise.
Your goal is to respond to conversational gambits with the implied message "I can top that."(1)
Here are some examples.
Co-worker: The stairs are wet, so please be careful. I slipped on them and bruised my knee.Do you see what I mean? If you regard every remark as an opportunity to bring the focus back to yourself and establish that you and yours are ever so much more so(2) than the current topic of conversation, then you will soon find that no one tells you anything.
You: Well, I once slipped on some stairs and broke my leg.
Co-worker: Jane told me about something interesting that happened to her mother when she was in Argentina.
You: Well, my mother went to Antarctica.
Co-worker: It's strange that I'm having trouble learning Haitian Creole, considering I got decent grades in high school French.
You: Well, my school didn't have grades - everything was pass/fail.
1) As Fran Lebowitz so justly remarked, "The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting." If you use this as a guiding principle,you can triple or quadruple the impact of your response with the right tone of voice.
2) Choose your own adjective.
26 February 2011
You have a problem. I like to solve problems. Let's play a problem-solving game. On second thought, let's not.
What's the difference between trouble-shooting the problems of people, and being a "people person?" Well, it means that when people come to me professionally with their challenges, it's just no fun for me when I realize that what they really want is to engage in a conversational game that will not conclude with a resolution of the presenting problem. Of course, I'm a fool to accept an invitation to play this game, but I am striving to get better at recognizing the opening moves and declining to stay at the table.
Perhaps you're not familiar with this conversational game. I will summarize it, omitting the details in order to protect the privacy of the people who annoy me.
Player 1: I have a problem.Now, what fascinates me, in an entirely morbid way, is Player 1's animated facial expression and tone of voice during this exchange. Player 1 is having a wonderful time. Player 1 is getting what he came for. Player 1 is actually winning.
Player 2: I like solving problems. Please tell me about yours, and perhaps I can find a way to fix it.
Player 1: This is my problem.
Player 2: Here's a suggestion.
Player 1: That won't work.
Player 2: Here's another suggestion.
Player 1: That won't work.
Player 2: Here's yet another suggestion.
Player 1: That won't work.
Player 2: Here's still another suggestion.
Player 1: That won't work.
Player 2: How about changing your attitude?
Player 1: That won't work.
Player 2: So you're miserable?
Player 1: Yes.
Player 2: And it's impossible to improve the situation?
Player 1: Yes.
Player 2: Well, I guess everyone needs an interest in life. I congratulate you on finding one.
Yes, Player 1 is winning. The cards in this game are very oddly stacked. If the problem can't be resolved, then Player 1 wins, and gets to stay miserable. If the problem can be resolved, then Player 2 wins - but that can't happen unless Player 1 concedes that the resolution is satisfactory, and that's not going to happen. Player 2 is in a game where his ostensible opponent is also the scorekeeper. Player 2 is a fool to agree to play, and a genius to get out of the game before the second round starts. No matter how many rounds they play, one person is going to be "miserable" but triumphant, and one person is going to be deprived of the fun of solving a problem.
Could it be that it's a win-win situation if Player 2 cuts straight to the chase, and immediately congratulates Player 1 on being miserable? Isn't that what Player 1 wanted in the first place, and won't that strategy allow Player 2 to look elsewhere for a more interesting challenge? Somehow, I think not; Player 1's goal is to keep it going as long as possible.
It's obviously an unfair game, but Player 1 usually plays very fairly in one respect: he's not explicitly asking for actionable advice. It's Player 2 who assumes that practical assistance is the goal, which is why I think he is a fool and why I am teaching myself to decline the role. For all I know, Player 1 comes away from this conversation feeling like it has been a refreshing heart-to-heart chat with a soul who truly sympathizes with a blameless victim.
24 February 2011
I don't have much patience for fools, knaves, or salespeople making cold calls.(1) In addition, I don't especially relish talking on the phone,(2) which makes me a less than ideal candidate to man the switchboard of a nonprofit organization. Fortunately, I am never asked to take that duty, but I do have to make and receive phone calls on the job, and that necessity has done little to sweeten my disposition.
Thus, I am always staggered when colleagues and random strangers compliment me on my "beautiful phone manners," and ask me how I acquired them. The real answer is parental nagging at an early age, but I refuse to discuss childhood traumas or to perpetrate them.
Let us therefore place our hopes in remedial adult education. I have devised a short course on telephone skills for nonprofit professionals, which I present here as a three step process.(3)
- Step 1:Brush up on the concepts you learned in kindergarten, such as turn-taking in conversation, not hitting people, and saying you're sorry.
- Step 2: Make a telephone log, and use it every time you make or receive a phone call. Jot down things that the people at the other end do or say that piss you off, especially people who answer phones all day, such as receptionists. Some examples might be:
- Acting as if an incoming call is an enemy incursion.
- Transferring your call before you've had a chance to finish asking your question.
- Implying that by telephoning during business hours you have interrupted someone's true vocation. (Microscopy? Composing Petrarchan sonnets? Forensic entomology? The mind reels.)
- Brusque or unhelpful initial greetings when you call. (Such as "What the #&*% do you want?")
- Carrying on conversations with people in the room with them, without making it clear that these remarks are not addressed to you.
- Interrupting phone conversations to respond to call waiting, in non-emergency situations.
- Omitting the necessary hypocrisies, such as sincere-sounding commiseration when the information or service that you are requesting can't be provided.
- Failing to inform a caller politely and concisely that this isn't a good time to talk.
- Total strangers addressing you by your given name, while referring to their colleagues by titles.
- Total strangers addressing you as "honey"or "sweetie," or using some other annoying endearment.
- Failing to ask first before putting you on hold.
- Failing to wait for an answer to the question about whether you're willing to be put on hold.
- Answering questions with monologues that don't allow you an opportunity to provide crucial information, such as “That's not what I had in mind – please let me clarify,” or “I think I may have reached the wrong John Smith,” or even “My office is on fire; I'm going to evacuate the building now and call you back later.”
- Acting as if an incoming call is an enemy incursion.
- Step 3: Review the list of behaviors that piss you off, and don't do them to other people when you're on the phone.
1) Yes, I do realize that these are not always mutually exclusive human categories.
2) You'll never convince me that the main point of an iPhone is that it enables you to make and receive phone calls.
3) I gather that recovery from alcoholism is a twelve step process that takes a lifetime. Developing reasonably good telephone skills is a three step process that takes only a few weeks.
22 February 2011
In general, I think that lying is a bad idea, whether your perspective is deontological or teleological. We should all try to minimize the number of deliberate untruths we tell, and if possible limit them to phatic utterances such as "I'm pleased to meet you" and "I wish you all the best."
When it comes to initial conversations with vendors or consultants, I've seen any number of them make extravagant promises in an effort to tell their prospective customers from nonprofit organizations what they want to hear. Haven't these people heard about expectation management?
I'd like to celebrate a noble soul, a consultant, who met with a prospective client last year. He was a nonprofit executive interviewing her on behalf of his organization. They had a formidable wish list. He gave her every opportunity to lie, and she was apologetic but firm. She even went so far as to say, "I'd like to tell you we can do it within the time line you propose, but I can't say that. There's no way to know, until I devote some serious time to going over the details, and getting my hands dirty."
Please note that there is extra merit in not only refusing to lie, but in admitting that you just don't know. Think of Socrates, using that admission as the foundation of a great philosophical tradition!
In this case, the nonprofit executive had ample experience with smarmy consultants and projects that turned into disasters. He was tremendously impressed with this consultant, and with the backing of the chief financial officer allocated funding to pay her to do a very thorough needs assessment. She went over all the details, submitted a report that included an action plan, and was then retained to carry it out.
These days, this nonprofit executive speaks about the consultant as an oracle of wisdom and precise knowledge. At long last, this organization (which has been bamboozled in the past by consultants in her field) has found someone reliable, someone who will speak the truth even if it means confessing ignorance!
Let the record show that her admissions of ignorance would not be nearly so impressive if she didn't also turn out to have great technical skills and a tendency to be correct when she brings herself to make a declarative statement. As for the executive director, perhaps he was not deliberately laying a trap in their initial conversation - but he was smart enough to scrutinize more than her resume, to recognize her integrity, and to value it.
You, dear reader, have not asked for suggestions about how to conduct your professional life, but I find that I have a surplus of sagacity to share. If you're not in the mood to have gratuitous wisdom inflicted on you today, then skip this and go to Chat Roulette, Time Kill Central, or some other more entertaining web site.
But if you're curious about what I think every first-time nonprofit professional should learn but isn't taught, then read on.
These are guidelines for preserving your self-respect and building a reputation as a good colleague. Most of if then aren't about the nonprofit sector at all; they're about behaving well, recognizing where the boundaries lie, finding ways to make a useful contribution, and taking good care of yourself.
I hereby offer these suggestions in the humble spirit of homage to whoever first uttered the immortal words, "Take my advice - I'm not using it!"
- If you have just graduated from school and are now in your first full-time job in the nonprofit sector, you probably have well-developed, even compleat, ideas about the nature of Truth, Virtue, Beauty, and Justice. Unless you are specifically invited to give a lecture, don't treat your workplace as a podium for expounding those ideas. Your coworkers may have already come to the same conclusions about these eternal topics, or come to very different conclusions. They also have work to do. Don't cultivate a reputation as a smug, pedantic, garrulous bore. And don't set yourself up to be teased at your retirement party about opinions that you declared to be axiomatic when you were 22 years old.
- Learn to distinguish between warm collegial relationships and lifelong friendships. Sometimes they overlap, but don't undervalue the former or insist on making them serve the purpose of the latter.
- Develop interests and friendships far outside the workplace.
- If you have a foul disposition like mine, find a way to vent your spleen that is not harmful to yourself or others. Such as an anonymous blog. (Well, duh.)
- Express respect and appreciation whenever you can. The people around you like hearing details about why their work is praiseworthy. However, some compliments are patronizing ("I think it's so brave of you to try to live a normal life even though you're paraplegic") or too personal ("You have beautiful eyes; are those contact lenses?").
- Learn to distinguish between problems and drama in the workplace. Don't create drama, and don't add to other people's drama.
- If you enjoy drama for its own sake, join an amateur theater group. But keep it out of the workplace. (Of course, if you're employed by a nonprofit performing arts organization, you may need to adjust this advice to suit your circumstances.)
- Identify problems that you can solve, and that are legitimately your business to solve. Don't waste energy on the others. (Special note to card-carrying adults: if a child is being abused, it is your ethical obligation to speak up, even if that's not in your job description. However, much of what you will see in the workplace will be adults making choices and living with the consequences thereof. Let them.)
- When your organization's stakeholders ask you for something, they don't need to hear a closely reasoned argument about why it's not your responsibility. They want their needs met. Find them someone who can do it. If you fail to help them or to refer them to the right person, a brief apology rather than an elaborate defense is in order. They are people with needs, not your sworn enemies.
- If your nonprofit workplace is a small office, this means that you'll be spending many consecutive hours and days at a time in close proximity with people who are not there primarily because they love your company. Don't crowd them. I mean this in the most literal physical sense - e.g., don't loom over them, don't block traffic in the corridors, don't use up more than your share of amenities. But also tone it down in terms of sounds, sights, and smells - you may think it's charming to hum or whistle all day, to give office mates the opportunity to watch you grope your significant other when she visits, or to wear a lot of cologne. Meanwhile, your coworkers may be feeling like hostages to your allegedly dazzling personal style, and leading lives of quiet desperation.
- You already know that it's a terrible idea to date your boss or your subordinate. But dating anyone in your workplace is a potential disaster, because both the infatuation and the break-up stages are so disruptive to your coworkers. If the two of you were already married to each other when you were hired, then you are tolerated or even cherished under a marital grandfather clause. However, if you split up, it will be even more disruptive than the break up of a casual dating relationship, so I suggest that you and your spouse just learn to put up with each other.
- In professional settings, be modest about both your good fortune and your bad fortune. There's always someone who is suffering more or suffering less than you are.
- Avoid arguing with other people about their feelings and experiences; by the time you hear about them, these things are already a done deal. Of course, if you find a colleague who also thinks that this is an amusing pastime, by all means get together and do this after work. Consenting adults are entitled to their pointless hobbies, but should not inflict them on fellow workers who have not signed up for it. Come to think of it, this principle applies to many workplace conversations, and not just to the futile activity of trying to convince people that what they felt and experienced should be superseded by what you think they should have felt and experienced.
- Hold the highest possible ethical standards for yourself, but don't expect everyone to share them or live up to them. Those who share your principles will not always live up to them, and those who live up to their principles will not always share yours.
- Never assume that people have crucial information, if it hasn't been explicitly disclosed to them. It's always possible that they don't know that you hate the sound of chewing gum being snapped. While you're seething with rage, make a decision to find a way tell them diplomatically, or to resign yourself to silence and acceptance. By the way, this principle applies to more than gum snapping. If something falls under the category of "the way we do things around here" or "the things that are unacceptable here," and you haven't explained them to the person who is out of line, then don't blame him for not knowing.
- Sentences that start with "Why do you always...?" and "Why don't you ever...?" are accusations, not questions. If you use them in the workplace, you're not setting up that conversation for success.
- Operate on the assumption that everyone is reading what you post to Twitter, Facebook, and your blog. This includes your current and future bosses. If you don't want them to know what you're thinking, doing, and saying - then don't post it publicly with your real name attached to it.
- Actively promote the careers of colleagues who are sane, productive, smart, and considerate. It's the right thing to do in itself, but it's also self-interested. If we all do this, we could end up working in a sector where power is in the hands of good people.
- Make a strategic plan, but resign yourself to the inevitable emergence of completely unanticipated factors.
- Be punctual for meetings. If you can't be punctual, a brief and straightforward apology is appropriate. You've already inconvenienced someone by being late; don't take up more time. This is not an opportunity to boast about how busy and important you are.
- Accept the fact that you have to make the best judgement call that you can, with the options, information, and abilities that you have at the moment of decision. Moreover, even the best possible choice may cause pain and regret. That's not just a fact of working life; that's the human condition.
- Act as if you've been deputized (by God, your executive director, or Emily Post - your choice) to help other people feel welcomed by your organization. Greet people, make eye contact, provide introductions if it's appropriate, ask them if they need anything. Do it in a quiet, low-key manner - but do it. Even if they end up despising your organization, they'll probably remember you favorably.
- Recognize that many people project their family dynamics into the workplace, and refrain from doing it. Always remember that your boss is not your parent, and your colleagues are not your rival siblings. And if someone starts behaving irrationally toward you, consider the possibility that he doesn't even know you're there. Perhaps he's re-fighting a conflict with his mother - one that occurred 30 years ago.
- I recognize that many of my rants have two underlying messages: stop whining, and learn to deal with it. However, there are definite limits to stoicism. If you're being bullied or exploited in the workplace, quit.
20 February 2011
This one comes from the grapevine.(1)
I gather that this was overheard at an event for nonprofit professionals:
Party of the First Part: "What do you think of that web developer, (Name Withheld)? Our nonprofit needs a content management system for the web site, and he says that Drupal is the solution."Or maybe it was Wordpress. Or Plone. Or Joomla. Or Sharepoint. Or Raiser's Edge. Whatever.
Party of the Second Part: "He's great at Drupal development, but you'd better do your homework about all the options before you hire him. If I told (Name Withheld) that my problem was a broken leg, he'd tell me that Drupal was the solution."
It so happens that software applications tend to attract zealots. It's usually but isn't always open source content management systems that have this effect on otherwise reasonable people. There's a lot of this zealotry going around in the nonprofit technology field.
I've seen this sort of situation play out a number of times, so even if I don't know (Name Withheld), I can make a few guesses. He's enthusiastic, articulate, and public-spirited. His technical experience and skills are solid. He's probably willing to take this project on at a reduced fee (or free of charge) because he believes in the nonprofit's mission. But there's a major problem here: he's a true believer. In Drupal. Or in Sharepoint. Whatever.
This means that (Name Withheld) is going to have a hard time handling any cognitive dissonance that may emerge from the needs assessment process. He won't be able to hear any indication that his development platform is not the best choice for the nonprofit. This in turn almost guarantees that he will not listen to input from organization, and that's a disastrous flaw in a web developer.
While I'm making guesses, and extrapolating a great deal from very little evidence, I'm going presume that the Party of the First Part did not meet (Name Withheld) through a rigorous process of reviewing great web sites belonging to comparable nonprofits, and asking her counterparts in those organizations who developed their web sites. Nor did she educate herself about the relative strengths and weaknesses of various content management systems. Nor did she draw up a rank-ordered list of priorities for how the web site needs to support the organization's operations. No. It's more likely that she already knows (Name Withheld) socially, or that she met him in a professional setting, and they got into a conversation about web sites. He offered to make all of her worries about the web site go away with a platform that has all of the features she needs, and assured her that he would manage everything.
It will probably all end in tears.
Nonprofit executives with very little technical knowledge are highly susceptible to fallacious thinking and fear-driven decisions about their web sites. What the Party of the First Part wants to hear is that the solution will enable her to set it and forget it - in other words, that there's an ideal tool that can be installed, and that she won't have to participate in the distasteful development process, and that once it's implemented she won't have to think about it anymore. (Name Withheld) seems to be offering that, because he honestly thinks Drupal is just that good, and if she just hires him, the pain and anxiety will all be over.
In fact, it's probably just started.
I know, because I've watched a number of web developers like (Name Withheld) operate in the nonprofit sector. Oh, my! If you could only hear the stories they can tell! It's always about the client organization that seemed so promising, but mysteriously turned out to be unworthy of the Sacred CMS platform! Those Parties of the First Part start out so grateful and relieved when (Name Withheld) shows up to rescue them - but before you know it (Name Withheld) discovers the real truth, which is that the clients are demanding, impatient, unresponsive to requests for information, unable to articulate their apparently very specific but unspoken expectations, uninterested in the inner beauty of the Sacred CMS, and petulant because it doesn't have all the features they need. (Name Withheld) will be all injured innocence, and, oddly enough, the Party of the First Part will feel the same way.
Do you know where my empathy really lies? It's with the Party of the Second Part, a Cassandra of the nonprofit sector. She is faithfully fulfilling her duty to warn, even in the face of the Party of the First Part's willful disregard.(2)
When you meet the Party of the Second Part at one of those gatherings, please buy her a drink, and give her my regards.(3)
1) I love receiving stories from people who read this blog. Keep them coming, please.
2) Or perhaps I should say "invincible ignorance." It's difficult to be reasonable when you're terrified, and that's how many nonprofit executives feel when they step out of their areas of expertise.
3) You might learn something.
19 February 2011
I suppose that I am the living embodiment of the principle that a glib tongue and a willingness to point out where other people have gone wrong will garner anyone a reputation as a mentor, even in the absence of more essential traits, such as a wisdom, patience, and kindliness.
But where was I? Oh, yes. Sorry about that digression.
A large number of these young people are imbued with a desire to change the world for the better, or at least fight a rearguard action on behalf of decency. I applaud that. However, I have a hard time containing myself when they confide that they are planning to found a new nonprofit in the near future in order to realize their visions.
My advice? Don't do it!
1) You're not qualified. I've already explained why a pure heart and a just cause are not in themselves sufficient; you need more on your resume.
2) You may see starting up a new organization as an opportunity to live out your vision of a better world, but it probably won't be. For almost every founder of a nonprofit, the early years are all about
- Finding money to operate.
- Checking Craiglist to see if anyone is giving away office chairs.
- Submitting forms to various governmental agencies.
- Flattering idiots whose help you need.
- Doing without the services of crucial staff members because your can't afford them.
- Supervising volunteers who are a bad match for the task but are available, often because they are justifiably unemployed.
- Being snubbed by executive directors from organizations that are already engaged in the serving the needs that you hope to serve.
- Doing janitorial work. (I know of one executive director of a now defunct start up whose first task each morning was the scrub the doorway of the human waste left there in the night by homeless people. She was remarkably plucky about doing it, which is a good thing, because there wasn't anyone else that she could ask to take charge of it. "Cleaning excrement off the steps" literally had to take precedence over "transforming the community" on her to-do list every day.)
Do you know who I blame for the persistent delusion that founding a nonprofit is a good option for an idealistic young person? Of course, I'm always looking for a chance to excoriate someone, even though in this case, it's a dubious undertaking, since this delusion is more of an expense of spirit (though perhaps not a waste of shame) than an evil. Still, I'm inclined to blame established nonprofit executives for failing to create career ladders for talented young visionaries who want to work in our sector. Think about it. If these young people were having a good experiences in searching for jobs - or in working for nonprofits that offered them encouragement, professional development, and real opportunities to make a difference - would they be asking me for advice?
18 February 2011
Here are some examples of @$$hole behavior described by the book:
1. Personal insultsI encourage you to ask yourself, "am I working in a toxic environment?" and, if so, "who is the @$$hole creating it?" If you can't figure out which of your co-workers it is, then maybe it's you.
2. Invading one's personal territory
3. Uninvited personal contact
4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal
5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems
6. Withering email flames
7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
8. Public shaming or status degradation rituals
9. Rude interruptions
10. Two-faced attacks
11. Dirty looks
12. Treating people as if they are invisible
In my workplace, maybe it's me. The latter possibility is what makes me fear the consequences of persuading people to implement a "zero tolerance for @$$holes policy", but fiat justitia ruat caelum is ever my motto.
In the nonprofit sector, I often see sweet, hardworking, productive, intelligent people suffering under the supervision of bosses who probably fit into the @$$hole category. They keep trying to raise their games to please such bosses, as if being sweeter, more hardworking, more productive, etc., will somehow change the status quo. It usually won't. These sweet but misguided people are often so dedicated to the nonprofit's mission that they keep hanging on and trying harder, believing that it's worth it to endure hellish working conditions in the hope of making a difference.
The author of "The No @$$holes Rule" is all about "building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn't," but in so many nonprofit organizations, it's the better part of valour to quit and move on, rather than try to change or adapt to a setting where
- Your boss is never satisfied with your work.
- You do not receive the pay, job title, and recognition that you deserve.
- You and your colleagues are pitted against each other.
- You feel humiliated on a regular basis.
- You are expected to lie in order to maintain the management's party line about your organization's policies, operations, or success rates.
- Crucial decisions about your work are made without your input or even your knowledge.