Point of Vu
Vu Le chronicles the life of a nonprofit executive director – the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.
We endure a lot of meetings in the nonprofit world, and most of the time, we tend to be unaware of how much the layout of the room can affect the dynamics between the participants, as well as the outcomes of the meeting. As an expert meeting-goer, Vu Le shares seven basic meeting formations and what impact they relay.
Welcome to the 2nd episode of 'Ask a Nonprofit Director!' As we all know, EDs are excellent problem solvers - that’s why we're paid so well. Hence, 'Ask a Nonprofit Director' is the premiere syndicated advice column on life issues from the perspective of an Executive Director.
The darkness has abated, the ordeal is over. The Vietnamese Friendship Association annual dinner went off without a hitch! Still, there are some lessons that can be learned to help pull off next year's event with even more pinache.
As nonprofits, we live and breathe grant applications. We all know the grantmaking process. Rejections are a normal part of nonprofit life and generally can be taken with a grain of salt or some mimosas. But, sometimes, in the course of one application, we do get a surprise (and not a good one at that).
My little son arrived on Tuesday, after 13 hours of hard labor that were almost as difficult as some grant application processes. We’re naming him Viet William Prinzing Le. We got lots of good suggestions for names, but the auctioning off the baby’s naming rights mentioned earlier…well, that was actually an April Fool’s joke... !
Supporting VFA's annual dinner this coming April 20th can provide you with a chance to become immortalized. Faced with the need for more funds and the difficulty in naming his baby, Executive Director, Vu Le and his wife will be auctioning off the naming rights to their son - certain restrictions apply, of course.
This week, I was asked to speak on a panel to a bunch of social work students on working with refugee and immigrant clients. Panels are like the lunch buffet of information sharing. It is a group of people with knowledge of a certain topic, asked to speak together with the hope that at least one of them will say something interesting. It is a great idea for our attention-deficient culture, but it is often poorly executed, oftentimes due to the panelists themselves.
As a soon-to-be father and an ED planning an annual event, both of which will be occurring roughly around the same time, a "terrified" Vu Le is asking which event could be deemed scarier. An objective analysis on several dimensions is required to determine the answer.
When we think of the word "retreat", the image of isolation and introspection comes into mind. Often, when we go on a retreat, we expect to contemplate and plan on how we can better use our skills and resources for those who need them. But maybe, instead of going on a retreat to work with colleagues for the betterment of our community, the more appropriate approach would be a different kind of retreat - one where we join with people from our community and work alongside them to find solutions that can help overcome the challenges we face.
In the nonprofit world, writing a grant can be a challenging experience. At times, the experience can even become excruciating and horrifying. Vu Le, our talented nonprofit storyteller, relates his experience with a recent, infamous grant.
In the course of our nonprofit work, we often have to go to a lot of blind meetings. It's just like a regular blind date only these "dates" are work-related. And just like those awkward meetings single people dread, we all need some tips to help make going to one a little bit easier.
“Who,” I would say in a low voice that would reverberate through the restaurant, “who would make the program happen then? Elves?! UNICORNS?!!!” In Vu Le's latest blog post, he shares some of his not-so-sweet experiences in navigating the complex maze of nonprofit restrictions.
Today’s post explores how we can use feng shui, which means “wind water,” to optimize the energy in our work space, not just so that we feel good while at work, but also so that our space attracts funding for our organizations. Now, I do not claim to be a feng shui expert, so keep that in mind while you read the tips below. If it makes you feel better, I did do some light Googling during commercials of Iron Chef while writing this post.
The term “cultural competency” has been thrown around a lot. For instance: “We must be more culturally competent in our outreach efforts in order to synergistically shift the paradigm for collective impact.” And also: “Stop being so culturally incompetent! In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director a mango lemonade while he naps!”
Our part-time Development Director, Rachel, is psychic. Her gift is uncanny. She accurately predicted, for example, that we would not be getting this major grant that we had applied to. Now she has been freaked out because she senses an earthquake is going to happen, a big one that will cause bridges to collapse. So she asked the Red Cross to come to a VFA staff meeting a deliver a short training on earthquake preparedness.
In a sector that often makes us feel frustrated and facing numerous challenges, there are quite a lot of blessings that we might find ourselves overlooking from time to time. But with Thanksgiving around the corner, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on all the things we should be grateful for, from little things like being thankful for family and friends to big things like engaging in meaningful work.
Like other nonprofit leaders, every morning I wake up and immediately have to make an important decision: Should I play a round of Scramble with Friends on my phone, or sleep in for 15 more minutes? But after that, I have to decide what to wear for the rest of the day. Now, this does not sound like a very big decision, but I have learned in the last several years that how we dress in this field is critical to the work, determining how we and thus our organizations are perceived.
Vu shares VFA's Halloween program, their organization's bid to increase their community's civic engagement, and how language can still be a barrier for their members to speak out for social change. All in a day's work.
As a field, we have a lot of meetings. And we totally suck at scheduling them. I am proposing a set of rules that we all in the field follow which I hope will make us more efficient and lessen our chances of getting punched in the pancreas.
In a month, on November 2nd, we’ll be having World Dance Party, a giant multicultural dance party and potluck. It’s free and usually draws over 200 people of all ages and backgrounds. Of all the projects VFA takes on, this one is unique. There is no fundraising, no programming. No one will present on cultural competency. There will be no surveys or focus groups. No one will be asked to put dots on a flip chart. People will eat and dance. That’s it.
The amount of paper we use as a sector is pretty embarrassing. We print out everything, and for certain occasions, such as monthly board meetings, entire forests are destroyed in terms of agenda, minutes, budget reports, draft grant proposals, strategic plans, baby pictures, recipe cards, etc. Sometimes I see those emails that say “Please think about the environment before printing out this email.” Emails, however, are about the only things we do not print out. We must stop the madness!
In the past few years, the concept of Collective Impact has covered lots of ground, with great results. Concerted efforts can kick some serious butts and do it more sustainably too. However, like taking naps at work, Collective Impact should be done strategically and sometimes not at all.
After several months, I was able to meet with Ted, Luke's multi-millionnaire friend. It had taken a while to arrange this meeting, and the coordination was done through Ted’s assistant, leaving me to conjure up the image of Ted as an elusive genius, like Batman inside his Bat Cave devising plans and building awesome gadgets to combat injustice.
Executive Directors are problem solvers. That's why we get paid the big bucks. But why keep it to just nonprofit problems? We would make great advice columnists!
I think there are several reasons for EDs to take long vacations. First, it is a stressful job, and we need time to recharge and de-agify. Second, it is good to put some distance in order to get a clearer perspective on work. And third, it’s a good test for staff in working together to solve problems, and a good leadership experience for whomever is in charge while we’re gone. Still, it is not as simple as most people think.
In this field, we receive bad news from funders and donors as often as people get eaten by zombies on the Walking Dead, which is pretty often (by the way, if you are running into a trailer to escape a zombie attack, it is a good idea to close the door behind you. Jimmy, you exquisite fool!).
My sister turned 21. It was an emotional day. You get a number of those moments in your life where you realize that time is finite. Getting your first grey hair. Your mother stopping to catch her breath on a walk. Seeing your baby sister, whom you taught to ride a tiny bike, become of drinking age. But absolutely worst of all is being mistaken for your father at your sister’s 21st birthday dinner at a Mexican restaurant by her friend who is a waitress there.
Our annual dinner is finally over, and I have been able to sleep without nightmares for the first time in weeks. The two days before this event found us in the conference room, tired, shabby, and tense. We were there until midnight those days. I came back at 10pm after a late meeting to find the team eating spaghetti, rearranging post-its symbolizing tables and tackling other issues as they arose. They always arose. We were preparing for battle.
As the director of a small nonprofit, I live in a constant state of fear, one that is thankfully broken by occasional moments of terror. Recently these moments of terror come in the form of asking people to give money to VFA, since our annual dinner is coming up next week.
Last month, 13 Executive Directors got together, and the topic of ED-to-ED interaction came up. So, in a mostly sober state, we hammered out a list of common Executive Director etiquette, aka "EDiquette.” Here they are, in no particular order...
Two weeks ago I had lunch with Luke, whom you may recall from “Being a Nonprofit with Balls.” Luke had come to VFA a couple of months ago asking us to rally 15 to 20 community members for a focus group. I had just woken up from my daily ED power nap and was kind of groggy and in no mood to be accommodating, so we got into a fistfight.
For the past eight months or so, VFA has been hatching one of our baby turtles, the annual event. I am not an event planner. In fact, I and other Executive Directors find the process of planning a special event so horribly painful that the Department of Homeland Security should consider using it as an interrogation method: “So, you refuse to talk, huh? Well, let’s see how defiant you are after serving six months on an annual dinner planning committee!”
About once a quarter, the VFA staff conducts what we call a “Staff 360,” a time dedicated for team members to give each other feedback in 8-minute one-on-one meetings. It’s like speed dating, but instead of talking about how much you love Modern Family, you give and receive constructive feedback that will help improve team dynamics and, more importantly, prevent people from hogging the entire bag of Tim’s Cascade jalapeno-flavored potato chips.
I always get excited about site visits. We write these grants telling people about how cool our programs are, but to have funders actually come down and visit is affirming. And terrifying. It’s a weird contradiction, like it’s your birthday—yay!—but you’re also getting a colonoscopy.
“I don’t BS,” I said, staring him in the eye, “if you want real community engagement, help change the traditional way of doing things.” Was I out of line? The VFA staff work ridiculous hours managing programs and several other projects. I’ve never worked with a more dedicated team. Is it unreasonable for me to feel protective and to get annoyed with people who seem think we are selfish when we refuse to “collaborate”?
Like most executive directors, I come home exhausted from hours of telling staff what to do and taking credit for their work. To de-stress, I’ve started watching ridiculous amounts of television. And I started noticing something. There are plenty of shows about lawyers, doctors, detectives, cooks, servants, zombies, etc., most of them featuring attractive actors who spend endless episodes in frivolous romantic triangles with one another (except the zombies).
It is the season of Tet, a time when most of us put aside our busy schedules and wonder, “What the heck is Tet?” It is, of course, the Vietnamese new year, a celebration filled with joy and renewal and forgiveness and family and drinking and gambling and visiting the ancestors’ graves and drinking and then more joy and renewal followed by more drinking and then some gambling. Usually in that order.
As a small nonprofit, we don’t take anything for granted. Funding for supplies and furniture is hard to come by, so when there’s free stuff, we usually take it. We, like other similar agencies, are like a nonprofit squirrel, hoarding supplies for the programming winter.
I was too young to appreciate all that my parents had gone through after the War, when our family lost everything, and Mom had to peddle 120 pounds of rice on her bicycle every morning to sell at a black market 10 miles away, coming home late in the evening, her face stung by the cold mountain air. Dad collected pine sap in the forests, carrying heavy buckets at either end of a shoulder pole.