Other Communities We're In:

SVP International

Nonprofits: We must break out of the Scrappiness Cycle

Posted by

This post was originally posted on Vu’s blog, Nonprofit with Balls.

Next week my organization is having its annual dinner, which means that right about now everyone is busy and on edge. Occasionally we share our anxiety-induced nightmares with one another as a form of stress relief:

“There I was, sitting at my table next to the Mayor and Benjamin Franklin. Suddenly James [one of our MCs] comes on stage, and he was holding a giant raw fish as a prop for one of his jokes. And I thought ‘No! You can’t handle raw fish on stage, since you’ll be shaking hands with everyone! We’ll get blamed for an outbreak of salmonella!’ I tried screaming, but no sound would come out. We were doomed. Doomed…”

The dinner has been consuming all our waking, and apparently non-waking, thoughts. Last month, a donor sent in a gift basket for the staff for the Lunar New Year. It contained high-quality chocolates and cookies and was wrapped up all nicely. We quickly sent a thank-you note. At the next staff meeting I took out the basket and started to open it. A hush fell on the meeting room.

“What are you doing?” a staff asked, shocked.

“I’m opening it,” I said, “it’s for us.”

“Wait!” said the group, “it’s too nice! We should use it as a raffle item at the dinner!”

These last few months have made me realize that we nonprofits are constantly in the Scrappiness Cycle. We are always scrimping, trying to find the best deals, trying to get stuff discounted or preferably free. We scour Craigslist looking for usable furniture, and we pounce on businesses that are moving or closing, hoping to score a kick-ass filing cabinet (with a lock!). It has become a mindset that is ingrained in all of us. It is our donors’ money! We must save! We must be responsible!

We totally should. But I think we have gone too far. Scrappiness and frugality are great skills that everyone should have. But like sake bombs, they should be taken in moderation. It would be better for our organizations, our clients, and our own sanity to actually be a little LESS scrappy.

gift-basket-300x300First, there is the time and opportunity Cost: In our quest to save a few bucks, we miss out on more productive opportunities. To save about $2,000 to furnish our previous office with 8 work stations from IKEA, for example, a staff and I rented a Uhaul, drove to a business that was moving, and brought home 8 wooden desks or so. For free! They were heavy and the project took us a whole day to move, several days to assemble, and another day to get rid of the desks once we found something better and equally as scrappy.

This time that we spent moving and assembling furniture could have been spent connecting with donors, writing grants, or otherwise doing something that could have brought our organization money. Worse, while assembling a desk, a piece fell and scraped my shin, leaving a painful bruise that lasted literally months. If I weren’t so nice and hadn’t initiated the project, I could have sued the organization.

Second, scrappiness prevents us from thinking beyond the short-term. When we are scrappy, we tend to skimp on necessary resources like the right people and the right tools, which means we can’t be as effective, which means we have to be even scrappier to survive, perpetuating a vicious cycle that keeps us from moving forward and leads to really crappy office chairs from Craigslist. How many boards are so fixated on how much is spent on office supply or other expenses, instead of focusing on the long-term growth and awesomeness of their organization? I was facilitating a retreat a few weeks ago for the board of another nonprofit. This was clearly a dedicated, passionate working group of people. But they were stuck in the present, and with almost no staff, they were reaching burn-out. Running completely on volunteers is very scrappy, but it is difficult to sustain.

Third, and most importantly, we nonprofits really need to get out of this Martyr Mentality. It seems we nonprofit staff take an unspoken vow of poverty when we enter our profession. It has been beaten into us over hundreds of years, and like smoking or checking emails in bed it is a very difficult habit to break. But we have to. This mentality is ineffective; it drives talented people to burning out and to leaving the field, and it negatively shapes the perceptions of people who are not in the field, preventing good ones from even thinking of entering.

We need to believe that we are not bad people for wanting nice things like a decent work space (See “Nonprofit office space: We deserve better!“). I’m not talking extravagant things; this is not a carte blanche to say that we should skip out on due diligence and go crazy buying caviar and use fancy French terms like “carte blanche.” But buy a metal filing cabinet with locks. Take the team out once a while for lunch. Hire the necessarily staff. On occasion this may seem risky, considering how unstable our funds are and how society expects martyrdom. But society cannot expect us nonprofits to continue to hunker down, be scrappy, avoid risks, and hope to thrive. But it will if we ourselves keep believing and perpetuating this cycle.

The Scrappiness Cycle doesn’t work in the long run. And we and our community deserve better.

So. Back to the gift basket. “Our annual dinner is coming up,” I said, “and this basket would make a nice raffle item, ’tis true…

“But no, it’s for us,” I continued, finding momentum in my speech, “We work hard. We deserve something for ourselves once a while. We’ll find other stuff to raffle off. Plus, it’s not nice to the person who gave this to us if we give it away. We’d be disrespecting their wishes. No, it is our DUTY to eat these treats!”

“Eat these treats! EAT THESE TREATS!” the staff chanted in unison.

All right, they didn’t do that. They still looked at me like I was crazy. But they reluctantly accepted, and I tore open the cellophane…

What the…

Dammit! There was nothing vegan for me!

We wasted a nice pre-wrapped basket for NOTHING!

Vu Le is the Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), an SVP Investee. His column, Point of Vu, documents the fun of nonprofit work. Vu also publishes regularly on his own blog, Nonprofit with Balls. He can be reached at vu.le@vfaseattle.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *