Monday, June 22, 2009

Nonprofit Karma

What is it about nonprofit work that keeps me coming back? It’s something that I have to ask myself periodically. Usually when I’m overworked and tired, discouraged, or low on cash. And I have to admit, I’ve suffered from all of these lately.

But working for a nonprofit organization (NPO) has its own kind of Karma, and it tends to come around quicker than other things that go around. Huh? What I mean is that the Karmic cycle is much quicker and far more frequent in the nonprofit world.

I wish I could say, that no good deed goes unnoticed, but that wouldn’t be true. What I can say though is that things have a way of happening, not by magic but by design, one could even say intelligent design, because everything we do is thought over and planned out, hopefully with great rigor. Often, things work brilliantly, but not without challenge, and perhaps that’s what keeps me coming back: the challenge. And working for a NPO is a hellava challenge. It's not for the weak of spirit or mind.

Like problem solving? Then this is the job for you! This is creative thinking at its best. Sometimes solving the problems is simple. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time of course, but that leaves out a lot of detail. Working in this field forces you to think strategically, and in steps, at all times, in every task. How does this break down? How can I make this easier, more efficient, more effective and fun all at the same time? We think like this all the time, and although it can be exhausting, it is in fact fun to push your mind and intellect to its limit. Some people do triathlons, I work in nonprofit. It’s that kind of limit pushing.

I was reminded of a lot of this on Saturday while attending the Craigslist Foundation Nonprofit Boot Camp. I attended what I think was the first such events in 2006. It was an interesting concept. Around 1500 like-minded individuals came together to learn how to do what they do much better. This year, the event was on the campus of UC Berkeley. I noticed a bit of a change in the constituency. Although beginners are still one of the largest contingents at the camp, there were a lot more veterans, such as myself attending too. The workshops were both helpful and validating as they reinforced and honed practices I use on a regular basis, and I learned a few new ones as well. Plus, I love the swag. I finally picked up the letter opener I've been looking for, got a mouse pad from PayPal, and the ever essential computer screen sweeper, plus a tote bag and t-shirt of course.

It's nice to be reminded why we do what we do from so many different perspectives. So here are some of the highlights from my notes.

From Arianna Huffington of

“If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.”

“Volunteering should just be something we’s like a muscle, the more we use it the stronger it gets.”

“It’s not about how much we give but what kind of need we resolve.”
From Kay Sprinkle Grace, nonprofit funding consultant,

“Who ever introduced the term whatever into our vernacular was preparing us for very interesting times.”

It’s not your organization that matters, it’s your mission.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be what you’ve always been.”

In nonprofit, we either ease human suffering or advance human potential.

Grow leadership at every level.

People give because your organization meets needs, not because you have needs.


From Shirley Sagawa & Deb Jospin, Authors of The Charismatic Organization

Put the right people in the right job and nurture them. Share power responsibility and build a strong community because people want to make a difference and want to belong to a community.

Have a vision and mission that can be articulated and repeated with passion.

Have Data Driven Decision Making…know what your trying to achieve by expressing clear outcomes, setting measurable goals, creating a roadmap and showing results.

Create Can Do Culture: be vibrant, positive and inclusive

Create compelling communication. Tell good stories, and encourage everyone in your organization to tell their stories as well. People do this work for a reason. Letting people know that reason is a good way to get them to support you.



This is a new website designed as an extra curricular project by engineers at Google. The website is open source and offers a customizable search engine for volunteer opportunities, and is usable in a number of popular platforms as a wigit such as facebook, twitter, cell phone aps, etc. For more information, go to their website . Or to see an example of it’s use go to .

Monday, June 15, 2009

Howler Monkies should be sedated

Oh the hazards of the 10AM ferry. In exchange for a nominal amount of extra sleep, I endure tables filled with teens playing cards, loud out-of-state vacationing talkers and sticky, howling children. Children who buy all the good donuts as soon as they get on board, whine about having to go to the bathroom, and narrate everything around them.

“Look! He has a hat!”
“Yes, dear. What color is the hat?”
“Blue! He has a blue hat!”

Lovely. On good days, the parents realize that it’s a two-deck boat, and they take the child upstairs. On bad days, the child is indulged, ceaselessly, so much that you want to shout out.

“Didn’t you learn anything about the effects of unrealistic expectations from the last meltdown of Britney Spears?”

Apparently not. Instead these parents allow their children’s outrageous behavior to escalate while everyone else on board suffers and considers using their cell phone to take video to send to the Super Nanny.

One of the benefits of being the mother of children is the justification I feel when casting annoyed, dirty looks, devoid of empathy or understanding toward parents who lack the courtesy of drugging their children if they can’t be controlled, before stepping onto a boat or a plane. I’m serious. When my kids were of howling age we use to fly a lot between SFO and St. Louis. I was a young mother with two boys. And, as I would board the plane, I could see terror in the face of every business traveler in coach, each of them making pacts with the devil or god so we wouldn’t sit near them. We would worked our way down the isle scanning for our seats, and I’d joke along the way, “Hi! It’s us, you’re worst nightmare!”

Once we sat, usually to the disdain of those sitting closest, I’d say, “Don’t worry. They’re drugged.” This line never quite got the reaction I was going for on the St. Louis side. Usually it was a look of astonished alarm. I mean it wasn’t like I was giving them Quaaludes…just a proper dose of Benadryl. It’s a trick I learned from a pharmacist when I was in the Army. I call it being considerate.

Sadly this wisdom is lost on some. I’ve tried to suggest the sedative method whenever I encounter a parent whose child screeches like a howler monkey, but they always look at me like I’m some sort of monster. So, I decided to just keep my suggestions to myself and cast dirty looks instead.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Made up

My commute has become routine. I have commuting friends with whom I regularly sit on the ferry, the snack bar attendant knows I take my coffee black, and I've learned where the dead zones are along the route if I happen to be on my cell phone.

Today's commute was typical. I got my coffee, found my friend, and set out to get some work done after we exchanged pleasantries. But as I pulled out a notebook, legal pad and fountain pen, I noticed a young woman sitting across the isle from me, going through what I imagined is her typical commute. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and looked not much different than I do when I go out to run errands on the weekend. She sat sipping soda through a straw, a common practice on the ferry to avoid motion sickness.

As I turned to my notebook she produced a cosmetic bag from her backpack and proceeded to engage in a multi-step process of applying makeup. Liquid foundation was heavily applied to conceal a few blemishes, followed by a lighter tone of concealer for the area under the eyes and around the nose. Next came a fine powder and a dash of shaded color on the cheeks and eyelids.

I was enraptured by this ritual despite being deep in thought over the outline I was working on. Every few minutes I glanced her direction to check on her progress. After the powder out came the eyebrow pencil that was used to accentuate and better define her already nicely shaped eyebrows. A twist-up eyeliner followed to trace the the lower lid of what looked like hazel green eyes. I watched her, in glances, carefully follow the contour of her eye with one hand while holding a mirror with the other, all the while employing precision that rivaled that of a nuclear engineer.

After a few dabs from a sponge and another brushing of powder came the lipstick, a shade of summer peach that inspired thoughts of English gardens or Spanish courtyards. The lips were lined with yet another pencil to establish a boundary for the color, and with a quick blot, she (and I) realized that we had arrived to our destination.

I've always found the morning and the rituals which we subscribe to be very interesting. It's a gray area of a time between who we were in our dreams, who we are when we wake up and who we become as we prepare for our day. At some point the true self emerges...the question is when? At what point are we just made up?