Nonprofit Myths...a multi-part series!

I recently sat down with some outstanding fundraising & nonprofit management colleagues (who also happen to be kind and wonderful people and good friends) to discuss an upcoming presentation we’ll be giving to a group of local business and community leaders. Very quickly, as it often does when in the company of kindred spirits and trusted colleagues, our conversation turned to the common frustrations we have with the various myths and misunderstandings we encounter as nonprofit professionals. We have each tried to counteract these as much as we can in our respective spheres, and I applaud the work that Stacey, Andy, and Clay do to fight the good fight for our sector through their endeavors: the Nonprofit Everything podcast, Annual Fund Lab blog, Valor CSR, Professionals in Philanthropy. Stacey and Clay are on Twitter too, dispensing oodles of fundraising wisdom!

As the four of us chatted, we collectively created a list of more than a dozen irritating, harmful, and downright absurd myths and misconceptions that we encounter frequently in our work. Often, these questions are posed by folks who aren’t intimately familiar with the nonprofit/public sector, or who haven’t been in/around the work long enough to understand some of these challenges. Many who ask these questions genuinely don’t know the reasons why these issues are irritants to those of us who spend our entire lives in this work, and they mean no harm or disrespect—it’s often simply a lack of exposure.

So, over the next several weeks, I’ll be tackling the issues on our collective list, starting with myth number one: Nonprofits need goods/services or time & talent from board members, volunteers, and the broad community more than anything.

I’ll start with the aspects of this myth that are accurate: Many nonprofit organizations lack deep capacity in certain operational and/or other specialized professional services areas…this is true. Nonprofits recruit board members that have specialized skill sets, professional connections, and access points that they would otherwise not have access to, due to limited or restricted funding, and lean operations. Many nonprofit organizations seek to place individuals on their boards and committees that have the ability to bring goods and services to the table (donated, at-cost, or discounted) for the benefit of the organization. Likewise, nonprofit organizations may seek the involvement and professional skills from people in various fields to supplement their operations or other functions: for example, many nonprofits seek to have attorneys serving on their boards, to have the option of accessing or obtaining legal advice should that be needed.

Here’s where this issue becomes an irritant for nonprofits: Those that are tapped for board, committee or volunteer service with an organization often see that as the only contribution they can or should make, or that the goods/services they are donating are all that the organization may need. The hard truth: For nonprofit organizations, the best thing to receive as a donation is cash. Dollars. Unrestricted funding. Moolah. Bucks. Money. While it is valuable, necessary, and even vital for many organizations to receive donated goods/services, the almighty dollar is the highest value donation, and the unrestricted dollar is the gold star ultimate donation.

It’s easier for many board members who are volunteering their time and are likely not fundraisers by profession to ask for goods/services to be donated. It’s easier not to have to make a direct ask for financial donations. However, that does a disservice to nonprofit organizations that are almost always in need of additional financial support. As a volunteer, how can you counteract this? ASK the organization their needs. Ask them to prioritize their requests. There are need to have’s, and nice to have’s, and “oh god, now we have this thing we have to deal with” on the nonprofit side. Make sure you are assessing whether your gift of goods/services is truly beneficial for the organization, and whether it creates additional burden for an organization to administer, manage, or otherwise address. Also, give cash whenever you can :)

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Hey nonprofit pros...get a hobby! Musings on how Weightlifting has saved my sanity.

Today marks 10 days out before I compete in my first national-level Olympic Weightlifting competition (cue the Macaulay Culkin Home Alone face). I'm a bit terrified, but I'm also excited, and I feel as prepared as I could be for this event. I started weightlifting just about a year and a half ago, and going from not knowing the movements at all to competing at the American Open within that timeframe is--insane.

The short version of my journey to becoming an athlete is: 3 years ago I switched to a Ketogenic lifestyle & lost a bunch of weight, 2 years ago I decided to start strength training to continue to improve my health, 6 months in I saw the folks in my gym having lots of fun doing Oly & decided to give it a whirl--I got addicted immediately, competed in local meets held by my gym, and a couple of months ago I decided to give the AO a shot, since it'll be held in Las Vegas and I just barely squeaked out a qualifying total to enter the meet.

Weightlifting has become a surprisingly necessary outlet for me in the very short time I've been doing it. The reasons I love it are plentiful: It takes thousands upon thousands of repetitions and long, long, LONG periods of training to improve significantly in both technique and strength, I'm constantly battling myself mentally & physically, as well as battling gravity & physics (fun!), my only competition is myself, and it demands utter focus and concentration (lifting literally drives out all other thought--turning my brain off is one of the best outcomes of training for me). It also doesn't hurt that the gym I train at is filled with wonderful, supportive, kind, funny, smart, wickedly cool people with whom it is a pleasure to spend many hours a week training. 

For me, weightlifting provides some essential self-care: it allows me to set goals for myself and then put the work in towards achieving them, it forces all of the noise and frustration of the day out of my head each time I train, it consistently reminds me that perfection is unattainable but I should strive for improvement, it teaches me to work through small problems like minor twinges and address bigger ones like injuries, and it helps me prove to myself again and again that I possess more grit and determination than I ever realized before. 

I have other self-care practices that facilitate balance, growth, and sanity in my life, but I have never been an athlete--by any stretch of the imagination--before finding weightlifting. This sport has helped me to grow personally, and it has also provided an outlet for me overall--I can channel my energy and frustration in ways I couldn't before. 

My point is: find yourself a hobby. It's cliche, but it's true. I firmly believe that we each need to find the activities or practices that allow us to keep going in the face of difficult circumstances and challenges, manage our stress, and help us to keep showing up to do the important work we do. There's a mindset in the nonprofit sector that self-care is self-indulgent, or that the importance of the work we're doing should outweigh our own needs, which is damaging and untrue. It's a lesson I've learned the hard way many times throughout my career: I need to be actively doing things for myself in all areas of my life to help avoid burnout, bolster my resources, and recommit to the work I deeply believe in. Find your thing! Do your thing! 

Lifting baby weight in my first local meet :)  Image © Crystal Kreutz 2017, Stronger Than Yesterday, https://www.strongerthanyesterday.com/

Lifting baby weight in my first local meet :)

Image © Crystal Kreutz 2017, Stronger Than Yesterday, https://www.strongerthanyesterday.com/

The Scarf Store

I've been a nonprofit/public sector professional for my entire career, beginning 16 years ago in college as an unpaid intern at a non-public school for children with ADD/ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Over the years, I've worked in direct service in a variety of functions, on fundraising teams, as a development shop of one, in nonprofit senior management, for public and quasi-governmental agencies, as a consultant, as a university professor & instructor, and as a speaker. I have seen and experienced a lot throughout my career, much of it fascinating, inspiring, and uplifting, but also frustrating, challenging, and agonizing. As I have moved through each phase of my career, my motivation and passion has grown and changed. I'm now solidly and confidently mid-career, at a phase where I know enough to be dangerous; but I also recognize that there's far more that I have yet to discover. A side effect of growing out of Impostor Syndrome & caring less about what others think as you grow into experience and wisdom *(ahem, aka aging) is that illusions tend to fall away also. Long gone are my Pollyanna days where I believed everyone always acted from pure intentions and wanted the best for our organizations, our clients, and our communities. These realizations have been difficult at times, but they have also been instructive and powerful.

Facing mediocrity head-on is it's own unique challenge that comes with a huge energy drain. On occasions when I feel particularly flattened by the realities and disappointments of my sector, I find myself dreaming of an escape to an easier path, one with less complexity and lower stakes. Enter, the concept of The Scarf Store. One day, while discussing our annoyance at some inane leadership decision or bureaucratic nightmare with my girl tribe, I hit my limit of exasperation, and proclaimed "That's it! This is insanity! I'm quitting all of this! I'm just going to open....a....scarf store, or something!" (Now: caveat that I fully understand that running a small business is no joke, and this wouldn't be a realistic escape from the frustrations of Interacting With Other Humans, but, the fantasy of a simpler life is appealing.) The concept of Scarf Store has now become shorthand among some of my friends--a recognition that at times, this work is so intricate, infused with power dynamics, and frustratingly layered with divergent motivations that it can feel like no forward progress can be made. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and mentally escape for a minute. #nonprofitselfcare

The Scarf Store will not ever likely be a reality, at least not in my world. I'm too committed to the field, to advancing progress and justice in any small way that I can. This work is difficult, infuriating, heartbreaking, inspiring, joyful, transformative, crazy, and weird. I love it. 

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The Value of Professional Convenings

I'll be attending the Emerging Practitioners In Philanthropy (EPIP) conference this week, an event I've been involved with planning since February, which I'm thrilled to be a part of! It's not often that I find myself excited to head to a conference, but in the last year I've come across a few conferences, meetings, and continuing education opportunities that are super appealing to me. I've attended many a conference, meeting, convening, workshop, seminar, and PD session on everything from fundraising to program implementation throughout my nonprofit/public service career, and, let's face it--not all of them are amazing. So, I have some thoughts on how to make the most of PD opportunities for yourself, your long-range career plans, and your organizations. 

  1. Research your conference ahead of time. It's the internet age...there's no excuse to not spend a few minutes googling the presenting organization, speakers, topics, or even the sponsors. Get a sense of what types of sessions will be offered, what you might get out of it, and whom you may be able to connect with as a result of attending. Register early & get the best rates, and book travel early as well. 
  2. Set some goals for yourself. Are there specific content- or subject-specific areas you wish to delve into? Are there specific experts you'd like to meet? Are you looking to network? Are you seeking to improve skills or increase your knowledge? Evaluating these things can help you decide whether a specific conference or event will be worth the expense. 
  3. Speaking of expenses...know your budget (whether your organization will be sending you out of PD funds, or you'll be attending on your own dime). 
  4. Get creative. Those of us familiar with the shoestring reality of many nonprofit organizations have come across some ingenious solutions to limited resources. Explore lodging options outside of the recommended hotel, look at ways to rideshare to/from the event location, etc. 

There's a lot of value in attending professional convenings beyond the simplistic "hear some great speakers, learn a few new things, network until you run out of business cards" model. As I'm a mid-career professional, I'm finding I have lots more to learn from convenings that are slightly outside my wheelhouse of expertise (not that I have anything against fundraising-specific PD opportunities...I've been to a LOT of them and gotten a lot out of them over the years!) In addition to the EPIP conference, I'll also be attending Upswell in Los Angeles in mid-November, which is shaping up to be a truly memorable and new type of nonprofit conference experience. 

On that note, I'll leave below a few links of great advice that already exists out there (see thought #1 above!) on attending conferences and making the most of your experience: 

A Conference Junkie's Guide to Attending (and Enjoying) Conferences

Tips from introverts for introverts on how to survive a conference

How to Survive Attending a Big Conference

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Grant Professionals are matchmakers

Grant professionals occupy an interesting place in the nonprofit ecosystem. In an ideal world, the grant professional in any organization is responsible for the full spectrum of activities involved in a complete grant lifecycle, which range from deeply understanding the work and programs of the organization; identifying and researching prospective funding sources; developing relationships with funders; preparing, submitting and monitoring grant proposals; managing compliance for existing grants; maintaining grant records; collaborating with colleagues on organization and program development, fundraising, and other institution-wide activities; and much more.

 The grant professional in any organization should be a go-between, understanding their own organization and translating its’ needs to match those of prospective funding sources, ensuring that the mission, vision, and goals of the funder are met through investments of general and program support of their organization. The grant professional needs to thoroughly understand their organization’s mission and programs, opportunities for expansion and innovation, plus the ‘wish list’ of needs for future program and organizational development. Likewise, the grant professional needs to research, understand, and filter potential funding prospects with a similar focus. Grant professionals are constantly seeking the perfect match between their organizations and the current and prospective funders that are eager to effect change in the world through their investments.

Grant matchmaking requires several things to be most effective: the time and ability to thoroughly research prospective funders, commitment to extensively understanding your organization’s services and programs, the ability to effectively communicate internally with colleagues from various disciplines to obtain the information you need, the ability to communicate externally with current & prospective funders to tell effective stories and convey critical information, the discipline to synthesize a large volume of information, the ability to manage confidential information with discretion, a high level of sophistication in communication (in all forms), willingness and ability to build relationships with funders over time, and the skills of strategic planning, critical analysis, tactful communication, and high-volume multitasking.

Grant writing and management is a skilled, professional craft. An ability to write well is a prerequisite for becoming a grant professional, but it is only one component of the role. All of the areas of responsibility for grants professionals require a commitment of time and significant expertise to be done well. A specialized, skilled grants professional is a vitally important team member, one that many organizations mistakenly conflate with general resource development work or one of many duties assigned to an ED, top leader, or volunteer. Grants work is time- and effort-intensive, and producing high-quality, competitive grant applications and growing relationships with grant funders demands investment by organizations.

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