Happy ThanksgivingWhat does Thanksgiving mean to you?

For many, it means food, family, fun (hopefully) and some time to get away from work and relax.  Not everyone is so fortunate, however, and it is good for us to take a moment or two and reflect upon our blessings, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem.

Here are the things I am thankful for this year:

  1. I am gainfully employed. I work in the building that houses the local job center and I see so many people in the lobby and elevator visiting that office.  I’ve chatted with several of them in passing and some are so sincerely wanting work and are at their wit’s end – it makes me sad.  On days at work when I want to pull my hair out, I remind myself that I am lucky to have a job and to just “get over it.”
  2. My parents. For some reason, practically every electronic device, appliance, and automobile I own has decided to go on the fritz in the past year in a big way.  I despise myself when I have to borrow from my mom and dad, but they are more than happy to lend it and I feel fortunate that they’ve got my back.  I know it’s not always going to be that way.
  3. Smartphones. I recently broke down and bought a Google Droid.  I am continually amazed by how much convenience is afforded in one small device that fits in the palm of your hand.  Ten years ago, I complained to a friend that I wanted a single device to replace my music player, my camera, and my PDA.  Apparently I wasn’t the only person who felt that way and I’m glad the tech giants were listening.
  4. Holiday music. I listen to holiday tunes starting in July, but they become very prevalent around this time of year (which means more variety and listening options).  My favorites are the oldies – Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Andy Williams, etc.  When I was very young, I had a record player and adored my Perry Como and Andy Williams Christmas albums.  Hearing those songs is like a time machine to the days when life was simple, and my brother and I woke our parents up at 5 am because we couldn’t wait to get started opening our presents.  Holiday music = nostalgia = good feelings.
  5. Online shopping. I used to do the Black Friday insanity – camping out at my store of choice at 3 a.m. to get the “good stuff” before it was gone.  Those days are over for me.  I do all my shopping online, where the deals are just as good if not better than in the stores.  Once again, hooray for technology.
  6. The nonprofit sector. I know that there are many days when we feel like we are beating our heads against a wall.  When I think about how many lives our sector touches and the work that we collectively accomplish, however, I can’t help but feel grateful that nonprofits do exist.  I cannot imagine leading a life driven solely by making money and I am grateful that I can work in a place that has meaning and a mission.
  7. President Obama. People are starting to complain that he isn’t effecting change fast enough.  Give the man a break already.  He’s taken the leadership mantle under the worst possible conditions – do we really want him making snap decisions?  I like that he looks before he leaps and that he recognizes that problems that have been years in the making cannot be fixed overnight.
  8. Our soldiers. I frequently disagree with the decisions made by our government in sending troops overseas, but I appreciate the men and women who go forth willingly and do service for our country.  We owe them our respect and gratitude.
  9. Windows 7. It’s about time you got it right, Microsoft.  Thank you for finally making a decent OS that is stable, attractive and intuitive.
  10. Social networking. I love that I can talk to people with whom I went to high school so many years ago again.  I love that I can play a game with someone in Thailand or Norway.  We may not have figured out all the ways in which social networking can be leveraged, but I’m enjoying it as we do.

What are you thankful for this year?  🙂


My paternal grandma passed away this past Sunday.  I went looking for her obituary online this morning and could only find a one-liner in The Daily News.  No listing in the Trib or the Post-Gazette at all.

Now this may be the fault of the funeral home, but I think my grandmother rates more than a one-line note in the local paper.  Patrick Swayze, god rest his soul, got an entire article and he’s not even from this area.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about She-Roes, women who are admirable, courageous, and strong.  I’d like to tell you a bit about my grandma, who is one of my She-Roes.

My grandma, born in 1919, was the daughter of Irish immigrants who spoke English as a second language.  She became pregnant at an early age and was, to hear family members tell it, basically party to a shotgun wedding.  This would have been in the midst of the 1930’s, while America was coping with the Great Depression.  Not an ideal time to start a family.

She proceeded to have 14 kids over the next 25 years, each pregnancy around 2 years apart.  One was a set of twins that were miscarried (or stillborn – not sure on my memory for that one), so she raised 12 kids total.  Obviously birth control wasn’t a common thing back then, and in Irish farming families, the more kids you had, the more free labor you had available to you.  My grandparents weren’t farmers – I’m simply pointing out that it was not unheard of to have that many kids.  If she were attempting this today, she would have probably been given a reality TV show.

As if having 12 children weren’t enough to bear, she had married a man with some anger management issues.  Back then, spousal abuse wasn’t discussed, unskilled women and mothers didn’t leave their husbands, and people didn’t have the wonderful nonprofit resources available like we do today.  From what I understand, she dealt with regular physical and mental abuse from my grandfather until he got heart disease and died in the early 1970s.

Who knows what my grandma might have done in this life if she hadn’t been in these circumstances?  Her entire life, to me, seems to be a series of unfortunate events with no real choices to be had.  What I admire about her is, I’ve never heard her complain or whine about her life.  Until she got dementia around 10 years ago and more recently, cancer, she seemed to be happy enough.  I remember that she used to love to go shopping and to church – loved trinkets, knickknacks, and small things like that.  She was not difficult to please in the least – she was grateful for the smallest item or kindness.

She was also tough, in her own way…a survivor and a fighter.  When she got cancer a year or so ago, she must have gone into the hospital three or four times for internal bleeding and other issues.  Each time, the family was called in and told that she was ready to go.  Each time, until this last, she bounced back and was released.  I recall one time, about a year ago, she was in the hospital and looked white as a sheet when I visited her – I thought for sure that was it.  Two days later, my dad called me to say he had to stop her from pulling the IV out of her arms, and that she was ready to go home.

She died this past Sunday at age 90.  I can only hope that, in my own life, I will have half the courage and strength that she had.  When I think about the way her life went, it makes me incredibly grateful for my own adversities (which seem minor compared to hers) and thankful that we have such a variety of nonprofits that educate people about birth control, provide abuse shelters, send single moms to college, and otherwise help people today who have it like my grandma did.

Rest in peace, grandma…you’ve earned it.

My grand-dog, the only Corgi named after a hiphop artist, Busta Outon!
My grand-dog, the only Corgi named after a hiphop artist, Busta Outon!

Everywhere you look, someone is offering advice about how to fundraise in tough times…stay close to your donors…ask for many small gifts…re-create a lay-away plan for contributions…don’t ask for capital…don’t ask for new…be afraid, be very afraid!  I ponder the question of effective fundraising techniques frequently myself.  The Bayer Center has always raised 50% of its operating budget and the current economic times have hit us where we live…

I love many things in life and one of them is Pembroke Welsh Corgis.  The AKC breed standard to describe a proper Corgi personality is “Bold yet kindly”…an intriguing set of characteristics for any living creature.  This  combination produces absolutely wonderful dogs – three of whom are in my immediate family.
So as I ponder how we or one of my clients should frame their case for support in these trying times, I find myself thinking about the BOLD YET KINDLY injunction…For times like these call for organizations to retain their optimism, their aspirations for a better world, their intention to change and improve people’s lives – BE BOLD, yet they also call for a measured, evidence-based, tempered approach in their fundraising techniques, strategies that are appreciative of the times – YET KINDLY or better perhaps, WISE…
Corgis have other qualities that are characteristic of good fundraisers.  They are persistent and tenacious when they believe something valuable (a peanut butter filled Kong is particularly desireable…) is in the offering.  They are charming and interested in all kinds of people, believing them to be worthy of their regard.  Their world is joy-filled and full of possibility.
I think these are qualities that draw people to organizations and motivate a spirit of generosity and connection.  So may we all be BOLD YET WISE in our on-going work of securing the necessary resources for our organizations…may we all love life like a corgi and love our people with many kisses and an unbounding enthusiasm for new adventures, believing the world is waiting for us and ready to play.
I’d love to hear where you find your inspiration and courage to keep working even when the world around you says NO…so fundraise like a Corgi and may  you each be very successful!

Congrats to Gavin from Western PA Conservancy, the latest winner of our blog comments contest and of a 1 GB USB drive.  This is the last week of our contest, so get your comments in before June 1!

Sometimes I stay up later than I should at night, Googling things that worry me and thinking about the various wrongs in the world.  I have been an activist in various capacities since my high school days, but as I age I find myself becoming more acutely aware of issues, concerns, and problems plaguing our planet, its people and animals.  At times, I feel overwhelmed with the amount of work that needs to be done for things to improve.  I wonder if we are all simply beating our head against the walls.

I was in one of these contemplative (pessimistic) moods on the evening before I started to draft this blog post.  At one point, a lyric from an older U2 song entered my brain:  “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.”  That sent my thought train down a different track.  I think this mentality – small, personal change – is probably the key to improving life on our planet and would be more effective than anything all the collective nonprofits in the world could possibly accomplish.  Suspend reality for a moment and imagine if every single person on this planet took personal responsibility for action, justice, and change in all arenas.  Imagine a world where everyone made an effort to make the world a better place in small ways, rather than leave it to the nonprofit sector to fix things.

Then I started making a mental list of small things we could all try to do to make the world a better place.  Here’s my top 9.  (I tried to get to 10 and ran out of steam.  As previously mentioned, this was drafted late at night.)

  1. Vote. Voting is one of our privileges and responsibilities as US citizens.  Always remember that there are many people in the world who are not given this simple right and that we should be grateful that we are able to choose.  Educate yourself as a voter, learn about the candidates and their platforms – don’t just vote for the people with the most prominent roadside campaign signs.  The League of Women Voters is a great advocacy organization to get you started in the right direction – http://www.lwv.org/.
  2. Volunteer. Nonprofits need volunteers now, more than ever.  If you have an interest, a talent, or a skill to share, chances are there is a nonprofit out there that can use you.  There are many ways to volunteer.  Check out http://www.volunteermatch.org for volunteer opportunities in your neighborhood.
  3. Recycle. Even if you only recycle on a limited basis, perhaps only office paper or only cans, it’s better to recycle those items than not at all.  Every little bit that doesn’t go into a landfill counts.  Keep in mind that re-using and re-purposing items you own counts towards the greater good as well as recycling.  Give things to a friend, a church, or a thrift store.  Have a yard or garage sale.  Find a creative new use for an old item.  For information on recycling centers near you and information on how to recycle, visit http://earth911.com/.
  4. Go vegetarian and buy cruelty-free products. I’m a recent vegetarian thanks to PETA’s Vegetarian Starter Kit, available at http://www.goveg.com/ORDER.ASP.  The cruelty of factory farming is a reality for thousands of animals in our country and we may not be able to save them all, but we can cease contributing to the problem by going meatless or buying from family farms.  If you absolutely do not want to give up meat, at least find a local, non-factory farm source at which you can get it cruelty-free.  A great site for this is www.buylocalpa.org, which lists fresh, local, and organic food sources and restaurants.
  5. Support small and local business. Yes, Wal-Mart and other big-box stores are convenient because they are often one-stop shopping.  I sometimes shop at those types of stores too, but I’m finding more and more that I can frequently get the same products from local grocers and other vendors for nearly the same price.  In addition, frequenting a small, local business is like the bar on the 80s TV series Cheers –where everybody knows your name.  Supporting local business is good for our regional economy because it keeps the money here instead of sending it to the home office of a corporation in another state.  A bunch more reasons can be found here:  http://www.newrules.org/retail/why-support-locally-owned-businesses.
  6. Reduce your carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is a measurement of your activities and how they relate to the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  You can calculate a carbon footprint to gauge how environmentally-friendly you, your household, or your business is.  (You want to see lower numbers here.)  A side benefit of lowering your carbon output is that it also saves money!  Calculate your carbon footprint and learn more here:  http://www.carbonfootprint.com/.
  7. Smile more. This may sound simple-minded, but think about it.  It costs you nothing to do this and help brighten the day for those around you.  There are a myriad of other benefits as well:  http://thinksimplenow.com/happiness/the-art-of-smiling/.
  8. Take care of your piece of the planet. Keep your home in good repair, pick up trash blown or thrown into your yard, and keep your office or workspace neat and attractive (as possible).  Basically, just try to leave things in better shape than you find them.  There are tons of resources online available to you:  http://www.doityourself.com/, http://www.diynetwork.com/, http://www.onlineorganizing.com/, etc.
  9. Buy less “stuff.” We are a consumption-oriented society.  It’s no wonder; with all the choices we have available to us in the stores and online.  Owning “stuff,” however, takes up your time, space, and psychic energy.  All the things we own require a degree of maintenance and the more things we own, the higher the collective maintenance will be.  Don’t buy into the gotta-have-the-latest-thing mentality. There’s a reason that companies spend billions annually on advertising – don’t fall for it.  Buy “stuff” when you actually need “stuff.”  Learn more: http://www.sustainablestyle.org/blog/2006/10/sustainable-lifestyles-a-z-buy-less.

******  I know there will people reading this post that will say “but that’s unrealistic – we can’t expect people to act this way.”  I never claimed to be a realist here.  (They call us “idealists” for a reason.)  If we don’t dream big and expect change, it’s definitely not going to happen. ******

For each item on this list, there are dozens, probably hundreds, of nonprofits out there already attempting to address the issue.  As much as the nonprofit sector is my bread and butter too, we cannot continue to rely solely upon charitable organizations for change.  We have to take steps as individuals.

Everyone knows and loves the Margaret Mead quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  I like this one as well:  “I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.”

What could you be doing to make the world a better place?  Don’t just think about it…start doing it, even if it’s a small thing.  Paraphrasing author Terry Goodkind:  be the pebble thrown into the pond – the small object (you) that eventually causes great ripples (changes) in the pond (our world).

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.

Since the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected and the devolutionary efforts to move the care of people off the government’s To Do list and on to those of community nonprofits, the explosion of new nonprofits began. Wise heads have been sure that there are TOO MANY NONPROFITS! And it is true that the number of NPOs has more than tripled in that time…I keep a work journal and have pages of notes from Austin, Texas where in 1986, the primary funders of human services declared the above and tried to force mergers. Most of the energy generated from that activity was put into covert resistance. Mergers aren’t easy…especially not in an industry where passion and identity rule.

This reductive sentiment roils through the sector periodically and we have learned much about what is effective and what is not in merger and consolidation. In Pittsburgh, we have some mergers that have truly worked. They’ve worked for the people served (more and better!). They’ve worked for the staff of the organizations (better benefits, better IT, more career advancement). They’ve worked to better build community. Wesley Spectrum is a role model for productive merging. Here at the Bayer Center, we believe the community benefited from our merger with the Executive Service Corps. ESC volunteers brought expertise and experience that BCNM staff lacked. We can now help with HR, facility, and legal challenges.

If a true fit of mission and culture can be found, many nonprofits would benefit from being a little bigger. But finding the right partner is not an effort of desperation or at least, not solely…

However, in the latest Utne Reader (if you don’t know the Utne, I encourage you to check it out…it’s the Reader Digest for Progressives), I found the hairs on the back of my neck going up when I read Bob Eggers’ casual statement of his belief that over the next year, 25% of NPOs would disappear – and that we would have a “more dynamic and robust” sector if that happened. It is not the first time I have read such statements since the economy tanked.

It must be nice to sit where the gods sit and make such sweeping judgments! Who should go, Bob? I fear some we will really miss. Will it be a more robust, survival of the fittest culture or will the culture be robbed of the very things that are most important for healthy nonprofits? Nonprofits are not meant to be bad businesses, but engines of advocacy for those they serve, think tanks for social solutions and providers of loving, knowledgeable care. Those factors say robust and dynamic to me…and fragile. These qualities are difficult to fund in good times and likely to get lost in the drive for survival. I’d like to hear from you about how we can avert this potential loss of talent, skill and heart.