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?

Can you see your organization with a jet?

I found myself with some extra time and a cool breeze and paged through the NY Times to see what I could see.

The business section includes an article, “On the Road – Boss in the Corporate Jet is Likely to Be a Woman.”

When I finished the article, I didn’t know quite what to focus on first.  Here’s what came to mind, in no particular order:

  • Shoddy statistics made for a misleading title and overall weak article.
  • It’s sad to me that women with money and power are anomalies to be reported on, though of course I’m glad to see successful women featured.
  • I’d like to know what the author’s basis was for generalizing male motivation for private jets (ego, status) and women’s (buying time, avoiding problems). He doesn’t say
  • Reading this while commercial flights are getting worse for the rest of us who don’t have $130,000 (or $375,000+) for a plane was a little hard to swallow, though of course I’m very happy that women are better represented in the “haves” category.
  • Oh yeah, what about all those people who can’t afford a coach-class commercial flight to whine about?

And that leads me to my nonprofit-related thoughts and questions:

  • What would I do with $130,000?  What would my organization?  Who could we serve, and how?
  • Does it make sense for a charitable organization or foundation to have a private jet?  At what point does the cost of elaborate organization cause a poor return on investment and defeat its own purpose?
  • Where does nonprofit reporting live in our major newspapers?  Where should it?  Business?  Education?  Health?  Our strength, that we address all of those categories, can be a weakness because we’re hard to feature as one entity.

What do you think?

After Fancy College, Jobs in Service?

The NY Times published an interesting article about a push to encourage graduates of top colleges and universities to work in service positions (including National Service such as AmeriCorps and Teach for America) instead of investment banks.

Some points that gave me hope and food for thought:

  1. The highest-ranked colleges and professors are at least paying lip service to the idea that the purpose of their fancy education is not necessarily to create more investment bankers or consultants.
  2. Some colleges are putting money and scholarships behind this lip service, some even paying student loans for grads who go into service.
  3. It’s easy for Jr.s and Sr.s to apply for lucrative positions – the systems are in place.  Let’s put them in place for service positions as well.
  4. Obama supports National Service(!) and people have noticed (!!)

At a recent presentation by Jason Lum, he expressly encouraged the service-oriented audience to pursue scholarships to further their education so that they could afford to continue to serve their communities.  Nobody had ever specifically pointed that out that challenge of a public service position: it’s nearly impossible to pay for the credentials that are required.

This article gives me hope because it talks about barriers to service being addressed right now – awareness, prestige, access, and debt.  Fantastic news!  How can we keep up the momentum?

Attitude and Hypothesis

Hot Air BalloonsToday’s Positivity Blog post points out that your attitude can absolutely change your experience of reality.  The author uses the example of a hot air balloon ride: passengers on the very same balloon ride will have very different experiences if one spends the whole time worrying about crashing and the other doesn’t.  Your reality is all about your attitude.

I didn’t see “bad attitude” vs. “good attitude” so much as “he thinks the balloon is going to crash and kill him” and “he does not think he is about to die.”

My question: are your “attitude” and your “educated guess about what the future will be like” the same thing?  I’ll spare you my chain of philosophical reasoning, but I’m thinking that in day-to-day life they’re very similar and that in extreme situations they diverge.  In any case, I think it’s hard to argue that your perception of what future is likely is entirely unrelated to your attitude.

I see a big opportunity here for management to help their employees have a positive attitude by providing evidence and assurance (two separate things!) that their future will be positive.  I’m sure this is easier said than done.  One idea: use the strategic plan (I know you have one!) to directly and intentionally show employees how they will continue to be supported, recognized, and provided with growth opportunities.

What messages are your employees receiving about the future?  What kind of a message is no message?  Are you inadvertantly working against your employees’ efforts to channel Polyanna?  How can you support your employees’ attitudes with evidence that the balloon won’t be hit by a meteor?

Old Advice

The tortoise and the hare.  I’m definitely guilty of being the hare, trying to sprint through a long race and coming out worse off than the plodders.

Slowing down in order to with the race wasn’t on my mind back when I was ruminating upon time investment in April.  It seems like a sound strategy though.  A little insurance that I’ll still be going strong in 10 years rather than selling out, because ultimately that’s how to make a bigger difference.

Tonight I was home by 6pm.  I reached a natural stopping point at work and decided to leave rather than starting something else.  It was great!  I chatted with my mother, blogged, made some blog notes for tomorrow, threw in some laundry, and am now going to relax over a simple yet delicious supper and read Guns Germs and Steel.

I would love to hear how other people find time to slow down.  If you’re a sprinting hare, how’s it going for you, and what motivates you?

EDIT: Ok, I’ll write another quick post I meant to write earlier today, and then I’ll go relax.  Seriously!  I’m going now!

Acceptance vs. Control

I attended a Work/Life Balance training today.  Lots of interesting food for thought.  One of the points the presenter made was about finding a balance between accepting and controlling your workload.  

Facets discussed:

  • We all work with people, which means our day-to-day workload is going to shift:
    • email volume is largely out of our control;
    • meetings, phone calls, and personnel mini-crises happen;
  • It’s not realistic to check off everything from our daily, or even weekly check-lists;
  • Two unhealthy tendencies:
    1. perfectionism;
    2. multi-tasking.
  • Suggested Solutions:
    • Prioritize;
    • Organize;
    • Breathe, take a break;
    • Analyze how you’re spending your time so you can determine how to be more efficient.
My questions:
  • At what point do employees need to take some control?
  • At what point do employers need to address workload situations?
  • What happens when items both “important” and “urgent” get passed to next week’s to-do? 
    • What happens when this becomes a pattern rather than an anomaly?
  • Yes, perfectionism is unrealistic.  Where is a reasonable line of standards of excellence?
  • How can a person or organization reign in demands without damaging relationships?  

Nonprofit Competition

I just happened upon this Compensation Force blog post about benefits trends in the nonprofit sector in general.  I appreciate the blogger’s call to nonprofits to recruit talent!  Just because we’re willing to work for less money in order to not sell our souls doesn’t mean we’re not quality employees.  

She alluded to competition for this talent between nonprofits and for-profits, and more interestingly (and less directly) to competition among nonprofits themselves.  In my experience in nonprofits (granted, pretty limited to just a couple of years in Minnesota), it’s been intentionally non-competitive.  This is interesting because great employees definitely jump from organization to organization.  I’ve seen it a lot already.  We even sometimes joke about which organizations act as feeders for others.  

This leads me to re-think my perceptions of nonprofit competition.  It is there even if we’re unwilling to call it “competition.”  Yes, it has to do with salary, and yes, benefits too.  But I know there are other factors.  What are they?  What do nonprofits do to win the competition they stubbornly maintain is not there?