On Doing “Good” Things

Girl in Feathered Hat by George Eastman House on Flickr
Girl in Feathered Hat by George Eastman House on Flickr

I would like to state for the record that doing what I think is right is not about my soapbox or my ego or some kind of beautiful self-sacrifice.  It is about my own self-interest.

Allow me to explain:

  1. I believe that my own security is jeopardized when others are in a state of desperation.
  2. I want to be part of a world wider than my own socioeconomic status.
  3. I would rather be defined as a person than as a worker; better to be a citizen than a consumer.
  4. Life is too short to spend your days working against what you really want.

So I can’t stand it when people who hear I work for a nonprofit call me noble.  I’m in it for myself too.

Bridesmaids and Best Practices

I’ve been extremely distracted with personal things for the past week plus, and one of those distractions was being a bridesmaid in a good friend’s wedding.

The Story

Several of us visited the site of the wedding a few weeks ago.  It’s a gorgeous outdoor site about 45 minutes from the Twin Cities.  We talked about the general plan for the audience and the general direction of the procession.  We talked about meeting in a different place and processing from an unexpected direction.  We had the rehearsal in the Twin Cities the day before the wedding.  We weren’t at the actual site because of the commute.  We talked about spacing and order and meeting times all of those good rehearsal things.

Bridesmaids, 1949 by JIGGS on Flickr
Bridesmaids, 1949 by JIGGS IMAGES on Flickr

The day of the wedding, we were dealing with unexpected and unexperienced things.  We were putting up a few decorations, enlisting the help of friends who had arrived early, and navigating effective communication with important people we didn’t really know, such as the parents of the bride and groom. There were nerves and deadlines and uncomfortable shoes – it was just totally different to be there than it was to plan it.

While in the thick of this reality, I completely lost any sense of those plans we had made weeks ago and even the day before.  I remembered most of them, but they somehow didn’t seem relevant anymore.  Everything around me was totally different than it was when we had made those plans, so my instinct was to improvise.

Looking back on that instinct is frustrating.  I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, but I felt compelled to go against it and start from scratch .  It’s kind of ridiculous.

The Point

The point of this is that I see parallels in nonprofits.  Most of us have a great idea of what the best practices are, from communication to filing to education.  We have a plan.  But then we come to deadlines or audits or budget cuts and there is a definite instinct to toss the plans out and start from scratch.

How can we not only share best practices, but do so in a way that acknowledges that they’ll feel way different in the midst of actual reality?

Has anyone else noticed this instinct?

Investing Time in the Process

Sometimes we still think like the small program we were just a few years ago.

Our program has seen exponential growth in the past few years.  We have accomplished amazing things.  Our trajectory is to double again in two years, which is both daunting and exciting.  One way to smooth this is to focus on processes: you need them, you need to be able to share / replicate them easily, and they need to be as streamlined as possible.  In other words, you should take the time to write them down.

I think we could have been much more efficient even just in these past couple of months by simply writing down everything we taught a temp how to do, or even having our temps keep up the lists.  It would have taken slightly longer to do the first time, but would have left us with an easy-to-replicate process.  Simple time-investment.  Instead, with every new temp and new employee, we’ve had to reinvent the wheel, racking our brains to figure out what to teach them when and how.  It’s a waste of time.  It happens because we go into it in a one-time mentality when it’s really a piece of a pattern that will repeat.

I’m really not a person who’s all about standardizing and formalizing, but when you have a big program, it’s the only effective way to do it.

How do you go about transitioning your thinking from small-scale to large-scale?  What are best practices for understanding what should be a process and creating and using said process?

Thinking Small and the Role of Nonprofits

Thanks to Michele at the Bamboo Project for a great post that got me thinking more and more about thinking small.

I’ve just been having some thoughts about organization growth.  If a nonprofit is not growing, it is considered to be stagnant.  If it’s shrinking, it’s failing.  A growing organization can serve a growing number of people.  Moreover, the bigger the organization is, the more funding it has coming in, making it more stable.  Bigger is therefore always better.  So I’m led to believe.

Tanker and Tug, photo by ccgd on Flickr
Tanker and Tug, photo by ccgd on Flickr

It’s just that with any big operation, be it a government’s military, a University, or an organization, it turns into a complex machine.  The inputs get farther and farther separated from the outputs as workers specialize; the grants and funding aspect in particular takes on a life of its own, and it builds up some serious momentum and stability to keep on going.

To my eye, there are a few major weaknesses in this plan.  The first is that a large operation is much more difficult to change quickly.  The second is that the specialized workers easily lose sight of the big picture.  The third is that more funders have more influence over what the organization does and how.

Maybe I’m a control freak.  Maybe I’m young and foolishly impatient.  Maybe I’m using a poor metaphor when I state that I would rather captain a skiff than a tanker.  I know a tanker holds more people, but that’s another thing, and maybe the crux of it for me when I think about it: you notice if someone falls out of the skiff.

Two-Year Nonprofit Anniversary

Today I’m celebrating my second anniversary of working a real job in a nonprofit!

Balloons, Photo by Ric e Ette
Balloons, Photo by Ric e Ette

Here are the top 5 things about my experience that surprised me:

  1. How easy it would be to put in ludicrously long hours.
  2. That relatively little changed as a result of my ludicrously long hours.
  3. How readily colleagues accepted and relied on my “technology” prowess.
  4. That I would be part of such a close-knit team.
  5. That I would be so frustrated by so many things.

Based on those surprises, here is some unsolicited advice I have for people getting started:

  1. You need to watch out for yourself when it comes to work load, hours, vacation, etc.  Yes, we work for the benefit of others, but it is still okay to advocate for yourself.  You cannot help others effectively if you are burned out.  If you do not draw the line, you will burn out.  The line can be drawn reasonably, tactfully, and respectfully.
  2. Organizations and work flows change slowly.  New systems take time to design well and additional time to implement and reinforce.  They are worth this investment.  Pursue change, but understand that it’s not just a quick sprint down the lane, and pace yourself accordingly.
  3. I advise you to be careful about what you take on.  If there isn’t room for it in your work plan, there isn’t room for it on your list of responsibilities or in your schedule.  That being said, also understand that sometimes, things just need to get done.  It’s a tough balance.  Be in good communication with your supervisor, and see advice item #1.
  4. Value your team.  Be sure to tell your team that you value them and tell them why.  Mean it, or don’t say anything.  Harness the power of gossip for good – tell other people how awesome your team is and why.
  5. Nonprofits are noble and support causes etc. etc., but they’re jobs, organizations, offices, etc. like every other place of work.  They are not immune to annoyances, challenges, surprises, and other such typical work-related frustrations.  Communication, the major challenge of all organizations, is not magically solved in nonprofit land.  Work through it, and see advice item #2.  It is worth being patient and persistent.

What do you have to say to nonprofit newbies?  Do nonprofit newbies have any questions to ask?

Regarding Minnesota: Beyond the Spoon and Cherry

Spoon and Cherry Sculpture, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.  Photo by jpellgen.
Spoon and Cherry Sculpture, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo by jpellgen.

The NY Times 36 Hours article series visited Minnesota’s Twin Cities August 17th.

I’m not sure how many non-Minnesota readers I have out there, but I wanted to take a moment to supplement this article about the stuff there is to do in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  I would just like to clarify that it’s not just giant cherries and posh night life.

A stereotype about giant cherries is probably a step up from the “hot-dish, snow, you betcha” one, but I think we can do better.  A friend from home (New York) said, “Let’s face it.  It’s all fly-over country.”  Well, no, it’s not that either.  I think what surprises people the most when I tell them about Minnesota is how many people don’t just fly over it.

Sambusa, traditional Somali Ramadan food.  Photo by roboppy.
Sambusa, traditional Somali Ramadan food. Photo by roboppy.

Minnesota has huge populations of immigrants, lately particularly from East Africa, Laos/Thailand, and increasingly Burma.  It doesn’t really fit the generic stereotype of what Minnesota is like.  People I talk to from back home tend to be shocked that immigrants from such warm places would go to the desolate Midwestern tundra.  What they don’t know is that Minnesota provides tons of support for immigrants and refugees, in part through state policies and programs, and in part through the extensive nonprofit sector we’ve got going here.

The presence of all of these people from all different places means that Minnesota, especially the Twin Cities metro, is a truly vibrant, diverse place.  We might have lost out on these newest members of our community if we didn’t rise to the occasion and give them a hand.  I feel like nonprofits, by enabling people to stay here and get on their feet, have helped shape our fantastic cities in a profound way.  Very cool, very cool.

If you must fly over Minnesota, I suggest at least stopping by for some sambusa.

Harnessing Habits

The other day I happened to read two pieces that both touched upon habits.

The first was an article called Warning – Habits May Be Good For You from the NY Times.

  • a branch of successful marketing creates consumer habits, i.e. using Febreze.
  • some people think this is wrong, creepy, etc.
  • a nonprofit partnered with one such marketing company to promote the habitual use of soap in parts of West Africa, which saves a lot of little kids from dying.

Then I read a post called The Meaning of Life from the Positivity Blog.

  • we don’t have to go through life playing out the same old tired, automatic habits.
  • we can choose how to react, and therein lies our freedom.
  • it suggests working toward synergy and also doing what you love.

It was fascinating to read them on the same day because they’re so close to contradicting each other.  I think, though, that they both point to the idea that habits are powerful and can to some extent be controlled.

My takeaway is a whole bunch of questions to ask myself that I’ll also share with you:

  • Are you aware of your habits?  Habits of mind, relation to your environment, treatment of others, technology usage, verbal tendencies, etc.?
  • Is your organization aware of its habits, its automatic actions?
  • How are said habits serving you?  Your organization?  What would you change if you could?
  • How can we make positive change in personal or organizational habits?
  • How can we move beyond writing more policies and procedures to actually change our everyday experience?  Is this a logical place for Social Media to step in?