Human Resources

At the end of church last Sunday, my 6-year-old handed me the bulletin insert on which he and his 2-year -old brother TC FoundationCroppedhad been drawing and said “Dad, if we can’t have sports careers, Teddy and I are going to run a school called the TC Foundation.”  Their logo is already designed; it’s T for Teddy, C for Charlie, by the way.  He later elaborated his plan, saying that that the school would be preK to 12 and that it would be a “different color skin school; so if you have different color skin, you can go to this school.”

After the post from our intern, Laura Rentler, earlier this month about choosing the nonprofit sector for her career, it makes me think about how people wind up in the nonprofit sector.

Laura’s aspiration and Charlie’s school-founding plan have some things in common:

1. They come from a place in the heart.  As the nonprofit sector has moved from leisure/charity for the wealthy to a  professional and credentialed domain over the last several decades, one important focus has been helping nonprofits act in a business-like manner.  That goal would make a not-bad elevator speech for the Bayer Center, in fact.  At its root, though, most people who find their way into nonprofits get here through a passion.  Generally, that passion gets expressed as making a difference in people’s lives.

2. They are Plan Bs.  Laura told her mother she wanted to be an accountant before the nonprofit notion arose unexpectedly.  Charlie is only planning to open his school if he and his brother “can’t have sports careers”.  Based on his hitting ability and his brother’s strong, accurate arm, the TC Foundation might have to wait until they retire from baseball (oops, is this my work blog or my proud father blog?).  In my experience, nonprofit careers have appeared in a surprising fashion as an option.  Sadly, I recall the cluelessness of the college career counselor who responded to my now-wife’s statement that she wanted to work in nonprofits with the ga-ga question “and do you need to get paid?”  Despite the advent of nonprofit management masters programs and the undergraduate certificate programs like Laura is earning, most of the entry points into nonprofit work come via a zig zag path.  For me, the nonprofit IT consultant gig followed ill-fitting goals in the advertising industry and as a literature professor and a masters degree in public policy.

3. They are clear visions. The way Laura describes it, it sounds like a switch flipped for her.  Charlie’s notion came right out of thin air but got specific quickly.  It seems like one need not set out to do nonprofit work to end up focused and driven to make a difference.

A key difference is that Laura is actually wrestling with the question of how she will be dependably paid to work in a job that feeds her passion.  Charlie hasn’t figured out that he needs to worry about that.  Maybe he’ll turn his attention to that when he hangs up his spikes and starts looking at a building to renovate for his school.


I have decided.  I want a Fail Whale of my very own.

When Twitter experiences an outage, users see the following image and an error message “Too many tweets! Please wait a moment and try again.”

Instead of making excuses or blaming others, Twitter accepts its failures gracefully and with a sense of humor.  Hence, my idea of having my own personal Fail Whale.  I love this image – the birds representing support and someone kindly lifting up the whale after his failure.  The whale looks relieved, doesn’t he?

Too often, we are so rigid with ourselves and so afraid of failing that we never try anything new.  The “what if’s” start eating at us and before you know it, we’re sticking to things that are safe and familiar.

Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody” and one of the keynote speakers at NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference in April, addressed our (as in nonprofits) fear of failure in his speech.  Some quotes from that keynote:

  • “We spend more time figuring out whether something is a good idea than we would have just trying it.”
  • “Fail informatively – Fail like crazy.”

I recall him saying that it’s better to have five good ideas then one great idea…and even better to have 20 okay ideas than one great idea or five good ideas.  That we nonprofits tend to over-analyze and over-plan instead of just jumping in and giving new ideas a try.  Sound familiar?

Why do we spend so much time in the analysis and planning phase?  I think it’s because it puts off the implementation phase…the phase where you actually have to do something rather than just thinking about doing something.  See, when you are simply thinking about doing something, that’s failure-free.  (If you daydream about failing, please call me and I’ll Google a therapist in your area.  That’s just not normal.)  It’s when we take action that the possibility of failing becomes a reality.

This is not to say that failing should go unnoticed or unaddressed.  We just need to be less harsh with ourselves when we fail.

Ever beaten yourself up about anything?  I have…loads and loads of times, for days and days, even.  Sample mental self-talk:  “You are such an idiot.  Why did you do that?  Why did you say that?  Why didn’t you say this?  People are going to think you’re a total moron.”  And so on and so forth.  What we should be doing instead is dealing with ourselves in a nurturing manner.  Accept the failure, glean the lessons from it, and move on:  “Yes, I made a mistake.  Yes, I see where I could do or say that differently next time.”  Put up your Fail Whale and keep at it.

Watch the entire Clay Shirky keynote here:

soy milkWhen I realized that my daughter was lactose intolerant, I looked into buying a soy milk maker.  But thebeer-mugy’re almost $200…  But, our neighbor has one. We brew our own beer, which is a something she doesn’t make, nor does she want to invest in the equipment.  So we built an exchange. 

 So every monday evening, we exchange a bottle of beer for a quart of soy milk.  Everyone says that she’s getting the better end of this deal, but I need the soy milk!  I’ve always liked the sweet soy milk that you buy at the store, but I wasn’t fond of the unsweetened variety.  But now, my husband and I often look forward to the warm, fresh soy milk to make hot chocolate. (OK, it’s still sweet, but fresh soy milk is good!)

Nonprofits have been good at coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems for a long time. Several nonprofits went in together to share an HR staff member–something none of them could afford by themselves.  POWER, Bethlehem Haven and the Center for Victims of Violent Crime created this joint position to handle the increasingly difficult HR issues that arise.

After I pick up my soy milk, (this time on a Monday morning) I’m headed for my volunteer shift at the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library–a cooperative started over 34 years ago for families to have a safe place to play with developmentally appropriate toys for children ages 6 and under.  It is open six days a week and has no paid staff.  Because of its proximity to Oakland, there is an incredibly internationally diverse group of families who frequent the “Library”.  Long term friendships are developed between parents.  Babysitting leads are shared, playdates are arranged, parenting advice is easily discussed.  It is one of the unsung gems in Pittsburgh.  It is a major parental stress reliever.  But it is an incredibly creative solution to a lack of funding for staff–and a way to make all families invest because it is THEIR center.

Let’s keep thinking creatively.  Now my neighbor and I are considering bees & chickens… honey and eggs.  Yummmm.

There are many ideas coming out of the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh–I’d love to hear some more stories!

In the mid-90s, when I was still doing my undergraduate work, my Research class professor told us “at any given time, you have three resources available to you:  time, money, or energy.  When you are working on a project, you have to figure out what you have the most of and use it to your advantage.”

Those words have stuck with me all these years and I still try to live by them.  Some days it’s not all that easy, especially as of late.  I have days that I begin with the best of intentions and my goals for the day all planned out.  A barrage of emails and phone calls later, my day has derailed, I haven’t gotten to half the things I planned and I’m feeling like a exhausted failure.  Raise your cyberhand if you know what I’m talking about.

I know everyone’s tired of hearing about the “economic downturn,” but it’s a reality and the effects in our sector are starting to become more apparent by the day.  Eliminate the “money” piece of the equation above.  That leaves us time and energy.

Time?  Who’s got that to spare right now?  We’re laying off workers, taking on new projects like crazy, and more people need our help than ever before.  Eliminate “time” from the equation as well.

That leaves us energy.  If energy is our resource, we have to be careful to protect it.  I’m talking about prevention of employee burnout here.  Nonprofit leaders, busy as they are, must take a moment to evaluate their staff and consider who’s a potential candidate for burnout (including themselves!).  Employees must equally take the responsibility for themselves and take action against burnout.  Once it’s happened, it’s too late.  Burnout is like the metaphorical snowball rolling downhill – it gets bigger the longer it goes.

To that end, in hopes of helping all of us who are struggling to be idealists in this particular time and place in history, here are some resources about burnout that includes symptoms, factors, and tips for prevention: (source of photo above)

Have a question or something to add to this post? Leave a comment, and you’ll be entered to win a 1 GB USB drive. One winner per week through the end of May.

In recent months, it has been rather disheartening to hear about layoffs of friends and colleagues from within our local nonprofit sphere. Since the downturn, I think everyone expected this type of thing, though it doesn’t make it easier.

I have been through several organizational layoffs in my life – four, to be exact – and I tend to be almost more traumatized when I’m a “layoff survivor.” When you are on the receiving end of a layoff (twice in my case), you have clear-cut tasks ahead of you: update your resume, search for a job, apply for unemployment comp, tighten the family budget, etc.  When you are a layoff survivor, you feel like you should be happy or relieved that you still have a job, but it’s never quite that simple.

When you have narrowly avoided a layoff, the emotions are complex.  Relief that you still have a job.  Guilt that you still have a job and co-workers don’t.  Sadness about friends no longer at the office.  Anxiety about job performance and how it related to the layoffs.  Fear that you might be cut if there is another round.  Worry about what you will do if you lose your job.  (“I wonder if I’d enjoy living in a teepee without electricity…?”)

After layoffs, those left behind tend to play it safe and avoid taking risks – as if management is sitting on high waiting for employees to really screw up so they can choose their next layoff targets.  (That’s generally not true, but it feels true when you are going though the experience.)  You can also experience physical illness as the immune system starts to break down from prolonged stress.

In addition, I’ve found that it’s not only a direct co-worker layoff that can stress you out (though that is the worst) – our local nonprofit sector is such a small, tightly-knit place that anytime a friend or colleague loses his or her job, you can experience layoff survivor symptoms (albeit likely to a lesser degree).

With our growing workload and the increasing need for our programming, nonprofits can ill-afford employee paralysis and tense atmospheres in our workplaces.  In order to get our country and economy back on track, we need people in high performance mode – not fearful and lying low, tense and irritable, and unhappy but putting on a good show. 

The nonprofit sector is not exempt from this.  We are direly needed at this critical time in history and we need to be fully present and functioning.  That means, among other things, managing the effects of layoff survivor syndrome.

Here are some good articles for additional information:

wakemeupwhenSource:  Lolnptech Blog