Throwback Draft: Off on the Left Foot

Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr
Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr

[I have a collection of unpublished drafts in this blog, and I thought I’d publish some from time to time in a Throwback Draft series.]

I wrote this piece more than five years ago, as I was transitioning from being in nonprofits to being in ESL. I’d like to keep the timeframe vague because it will help protect the identity of the kind  people and beneficial orgs in the specific example I describe.

I turned out to be happy teaching the class I describe in this article, and I have been happy with my current part-time contingent role at multiple sites through multiple community colleges over the years.

That said, looking back at this post more than five years later, it still resonates with me. I’m happy teaching and assistant teaching, but what’s going on around my classroom is still significant. The nonprofit I wrote about here has shut down. Academics is considered to be having an ” adjunct crisis.” I think a lot of us have a sense of doing ever more with ever less. Our students are not benefiting from this trend, and I’m not sure who is.

***

The beginning of this new teaching gig has been a string of annoyances and errors so far.

I’m blogging about them because I feel like they exemplify what’s wrong with running low-efficiency operations hog-tied by arbitrary funding rules and changes.

Background: I will be working through a community college to teach ESL at a small nonprofit.  I have met everybody involved and there are no slackers, no morons, and no mean-spirited trolls; there are just good people trying to run a good program.

The Comedy of Errors

  1. Disrespectful scheduling: I requested morning classes through the college.  They were all listed as 9AM – 12PM.  I was scheduled as the teacher for one of them at “Nonprofit A.”  Then the college moved my class one hour earlier.  I found out via a mass email of the changed schedule.  There was no acknowledgement that I did not sign up for an 8AM class, nor were there offers of flexibility or explanation.  There were, however, enough obvious errors on the schedule that I had to email the office to confirm that the change was not a typo.
  2. Slow Information: Teachers were going to receive materials at a meeting over a month before classes started.  This meeting was then moved to be two weeks before classes started.  So much for planning ahead.
  3. Inefficient, Ineffective Meetings: Said last-minute meeting was so generic that the teachers still did not know what to plan.  It had to be followed up with other small-group meetings the week before classes started.
  4. Chase Grant or Prep Teachers?: Said small-group meeting was derailed because the leader of the meeting unexpectedly had to deal with changes to our grant (which begins Monday) that morning and so was unable to be prepared for us.
  5. Logistical Detail Disaster: Remember how they pushed my class one hour earlier?  Nobody thought about building access.  The regular teacher who has a key is currently hospitalized.  And the Nonprofit A staff who have keys to the building don’t normally come in until 9AM.  The director is graciously coming in at 8AM to let us in.  Yes, that’s zero set-up time for my first class.  And a potential security issue in the future if the only people in the open building are small teachers in their classrooms.
  6. Technological Ineptitude: When I called Nonprofit A to see if I could come in today to at least drop off some materials, their voicemail message was the generic one that comes with the phone, confirming the telephone number but making no mention that I had reached Nonprofit A.  An internet search to confirm the phone number and find their hours of operation showed that they don’t have a website.  Seriously?

My Conclusion: We Have Low Overhead

What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)
What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)

I see too few people trying to do too much in too few hours.  I see good things done poorly.

This is why it might actually drive me crazy one day when I hear that people interested in donating money are quite strongly opposed to said money going to overhead.  This mentality implies the belief that somehow their money will magically help “the people who need it” more if the organizations trying desperately to serve them are as starved for resources, infrastructure, and staff hours as possible.

I strongly suspect that the reason we’re locked out of the building until class time is because budgets are too tight to have extra keys available and a safe place to store them.

I’m quite sure that there was no special meeting for teachers new to the college because there wasn’t the staff time available to run an orientation.  I’m also positive that the office staff would have loved to send out an error-free schedule that was backed by lots of one-to-one talks with the teachers to be sure there was clarity and harmony in the department.  The way things actually went just smacks of a scarcity of staff hours.

I’m sure that Nonprofit A would love to have a web presence, but I’m also sure they don’t want a crappy website that nobody has time to update anyway.

And nobody wants to be unprepared for a meeting, especially one you’re leading.  But when your bread and butter grant changes under you four days before it starts, you kind of have to drop everything and respond.  We’re so starved for funding that we have to sacrifice the very quality the funders are trying to encourage in order to just survive.  They intend to underwrite excellent programming, but unreliability undermines it.

But what can we do?

Thus, My Conundrum

Everywhere I look in my work with nonprofits, I see broken systems and a dearth of the power necessary to fix them.

I see a great many people who are working hard and doing their best in good faith that it’s enough.  If we just pour enough of ourselves into the effort, it will be enough, right?  I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, but even I have seen more than one nonprofit worker get stressed out to the point of serious physical illness.

But I see little change.  I no longer have the faith that just showing up as I am and doing my best is enough.

And I ask myself what my role in it all should be.

Advertisements

Paying Nonprofit Executive Directors

Blue Avocado, a fantastic nonprofit e-newsletter, published a great article about salaries of nonprofit executive directors earlier this week.

One of the commenters to this Blue Avocado article (he/she was anonymous so I can’t link to his/her blog) made several points I agreed with and several I didn’t.  I figured I would post the text of my reply comment in my own blog, adding the line breaks and bold fonts I would’ve loved to put in the original posting.

I respect your frustration, especially in a time of tight budgets and program cuts. I also completely agree that comparing salaries without taking cost of living into account is absurd. Thanks for making that point.

I disagree with your comparison of execs who accept adequate (or even generous) compensation to execs who “care;” it implies that well-paid execs do not care. This mutually exclusive relationship is not accurate. Even the most devoted execs can have medical expenses, family expenses, student loans, and other reasons to require competitive compensation.

I also disagree that it’s automatically stupid to have a six-figure-earning exec because there is so much need right now.
1) There’s always need, even in economic booms. Infrastructure is always necessary for meeting needs effectively and efficiently. An exec is part of infrastructure.
2) I agree that income disparity is horrible. People are taking home huge yearly salaries while nonprofits have to cut programs and close their doors. My question is this: why would we target nonprofit execs to give up their professional compensation but be perfectly happy to let other (mostly better-paid) execs take it all home? Why are we only Robin Hood within nonprofits and not across sectors?

-Emily

For full context, please check out the article as well as the comments (especially the one I replied to).

A Note on My Current Class

This Fall, I’m teaching Level One Multilevel for 12 hours per week (Monday through Thursday mornings, three hours each day).  This means that most of my students are “Level 1.”

“Level 1”
Every level, Level 1 being no exception, includes a range of student abilities.  Some students at this level cannot easily understand the question, “Where are you from?” while some can have a conversation with me about their morning exercise routine.  Some are great at reading while others have trouble reading in their first language, let alone English.  Some students have been immersed in American culture for five or more years while others arrived a week ago.

It’s also typical for a given student to have higher skills in some modalities than in others (for example, one student I had back in St. Paul couldn’t understand a word I said but absolutely schooled a Level 2 reading test).

“Multilevel”
The “multilevel” distinction is an interesting one.  Basically, my class includes all of the Level 1 students, as well as the Level 2 and 3 students who aren’t able to make it to class at least 9 hours per week.

Mine is also the class where new students are sent to fill out forms and await their placement tests.  That’s why I had 17 students on Wednesday – many of them were just temporarily in my class until we could ascertain their level and schedule and place them in a class for real.

What I Think Of This
This set-up does add some chaos to my classroom, but I think it limits chaos on the whole.  First, it lets us keep our 12-hour classes for folks who can come for about 12 hours without just sending the others away.  Second, it makes sense to send new registrants by default to the lowest class because it’s better to risk them being bored than intimidated.

We were all hoping I’d have a volunteer aid to help with new students and with computer-based learning for the students from Level 2 and Level 3.  However, I don’t seem to have one.  One of the office staff does come by once or twice a week to test new students and help with paperwork, and that’s huge.

A few more thoughts on this:

  • This class, with solo teaching multilevel and being a demi-coordinator too, is really going to take my planning to the next level.
  • A paid classroom aid would make more sense to me than a volunteer.  Such a position would be a small expense compared to its impact on quality.
  • I could probably try to recruit a volunteer classroom aid from the college.

Donors are Against Nonprofit Overhead? Why?


Wishing Well by scott-tanis on Flickr
Wishing Well by scott-tanis on Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about overhead in nonprofits.  All credit to Dan Pallotta at Harvard Business Review for getting me to really consider it.

It seems like the magic ticket for getting donors large and small to trust their money to your cause is to promise low overhead.

Even Seth Godin, a thinker and writer I respect and enjoy, asked for donations to a cause he believed in and touted “zero overhead.”  I bet that this was a deal-maker for many donors – all their money could go directly to building a well instead of disappearing into the underworld of overhead.

Is overhead in nonprofit and charity work really so horrible?  Do donors prefer to not have knock-out accounting professionals running nonprofit finances?  Do they wake up in cold sweats after nightmares of their money going toward rent for an organization that could dig more wells after Seth and his crew of one-time donors move on?

Unlikely. “Overhead” probably just sounds like wasted money. It’s easy to not realize what “administrative costs” actually are until you stop and think about them: accounting, an office manager, internet access, rent, and electricity.

Are these unreasonable ways for an organization to spend money? Does having these roles and services increase or decrease output? What about quality of output? What about capacity for continued output?

Maybe we can think about the purpose of nonprofit overhead before determining that it’s not worthy of our $50 one-time donation.

I’m Back, With a New Focus

"nikon em bokeh" by dsevilla on Flickr
"nikon em bokeh" by dsevilla on Flickr

I think I’m ready to pick up the blog again!

My focus has changed since I last posted.  I thought about starting a new blog, but I think that the underlying theme of what I’ve been thinking and doing has remained the same.

What Has Changed:

  • I moved across the country and am now a proud resident of Maryland.
  • I will be teaching ESL part-time through a community college at a nonprofit starting Monday, 7/12.

What I Plan to Write About:

  • My experiences teaching.
  • Whether or not to stay in nonprofits.
  • What professional development I should pursue.
  • What’s next?

Looking forward to blogging again!

Creating Change (By Our Powers Combined)

Thanks to Ben at Island94.org for getting me to read Dan Pallotta at Harvard Business.

Memory Fragments by lovefibre on Flickr
Memory Fragments by lovefibre on Flickr

Pallotta argues here that since our problems (i.e. hunger) are massive and systemic, the only way for nonprofits to stand a chance of winning against them is to consolidate efforts into one unified effort to eradicate the problem within a stated time frame.  He advocates setting an audacious, specific goal and restructuring our sector around it so that it’s not about the little nonprofit’s mission, but about all of us reaching the goal.  Only this larger vision will shift us away from the “fragmentation and redundancy” we’re currently facing.

I see what he means.

However, I’m coming from a bias against his argument because I don’t like or trust large organizations.  I wrote about it here about a year ago.  To me, they turn humans into numbers and the momentum they build up for the sake of efficiency is actually slow to change with the times.  That being said, when a billion people are starving in a world with plenty of food, maybe it’s ok to focus on efficiency at the expense of personability and adaptability.

Ok, so let’s say Pallotta convinced me that bigger is better and that the process of consolidating wouldn’t completely derail our work for decades.  I still have a couple major questions about how this would play out, and I’m actually quite interested in the answers.

1) How would the consolidated nonprofit system relate to current systems?

Would we be creating a giant system for the sake of efficiency to clean up after the other system? That does not seem efficient to me.

Or will this second giant system fundamentally change the first one?  How will that not turn into a political mire?  And what if it does succeed?  How could something that big phase itself out or radically change itself to pursue a different goal?  Are there any precedents for that actually happening?

2) How is this different?

How would this plan produce an organization whose impact is different from the United Nations and the World Health Organization – benevolent organizations that provide some leadership to their fragmented membership?

What about the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – organizations that arguably crippled many countries’ development when they tried to make large-scale change for the better?

And from a national standpoint, how would it differ from the USA’s failed War on Drugs?

I’m not convinced from this one article that Pallotta has hit upon The Answer, but it was a great read that’s provided a ton of food for thought.

What Do You Care About?

This is part four of a series called The Disgruntled Donor.  I’ll be addressing four questions I wish nonprofit fundraising campaigns would ask me as a potential donor.  Here’s a link to the series intro.

White Check Mark on Blue by Kylemac on Flickr
White Check Mark on Blue by Kylemac on Flickr

I wish that fundraisers would ask me what I care about. I’m not looking to write them essays, but perhaps a few well-chosen check boxes could help them (and me) see if there’s any likelihood of my being a donor.  I further wish they would act upon this knowledge by either telling me how their organization is something I care about or by removing me from their list of people to pester frequently.

At this point in my life I’m most interested in supporting small, local initiatives that are focused on sustained improvement in quality of life.  Check, check and check.  Done.  Was that so difficult?

I realize I run the risk of sounding petulant and self-centered when I ask organizations working hard to assuage the world’s problems to focus on me.

My response is that I’m not raking in the dough in an unrelated endeavor and then carefully considering how I can philanthropically skim off and donate 3% of my accrued annual interest to reach as many less-advantaged people as possible.  That’s just not how I do things.

I believe in small projects that treat people like people, and as such I work for one and try to donate to a couple of others.  And if you’re not obviously that kind of project, you’re wasting my time and your money by half-heartedly flinging large mailings at me as a potential donor.

Please, actually engage or leave me alone.