Don’t get rid of that 3-legged chair, it’s my baby!
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.
“Hey Vu,” said an ED buddy two years ago, “I have a few pens that we’re getting rid of. Do you want to swing by to see if you want them?” Pens, I thought, I lose one a day, and it’s not like those things expire, so why not? That was how we ended up with three gallon-sized Ziploc bags, each filled with over 200 pens. I was ecstatic. Think of all the events we do, all the signing-in! We would never run out of pens again!
Another nonprofit moved, leaving behind literally over a thousand coloring pencils and markers in two boxes. We could save them for our summer program, said a staff, so we took them and shoved them into the supply cabinet. A bank went out of business. Word spread of filing cabinets, good ones with slight dents and scratches. We borrowed a pickup truck and moved them, slightly bruised afterward but overjoyed at our bounty.
One chair was so unstable that only staff were allowed to sit in it, and only after going through a quick orientation on safe sitting.
Soon, chairs started appearing, mismatched, multicolored chairs from other agencies or from Craigslist. One was so unstable that only staff were allowed to sit in it, and only after going through a quick orientation on safe sitting.
Before the New Year, the VFA staff decided to do a purge. It had gotten unbearable: the endless dusty binders, the hundreds of books that no one ever read, the random chairs floating ghostlike around the office. The supply cabinet had become a scary vortex from which nothing returned. We left it alone in the corner, afraid its doors would break open and a lethal shower of pens and sharpened pencils would engulf an unfortunate intern.
The staff and I showed up early on a weekend, excited. But the amount of junk we had accumulated was breathtaking. I could not bear to get rid of anything. Overwhelmed, we called in Jennifer, one of the board members. She arrived, was horrified, and after some vague threats about my annual performance review, started sorting. Four hours later, the office looked like a tornado zone. “Why…how…do you have so much stuff?” said Jennifer, pulling out a box full of playing cards and dice, which we thought three years ago would be good manipulatives for teaching math.
The sorting brought back memories, which might be why it’s so hard to toss things. Each of these things harkens back to a time in VFA’s leaner years, when we couldn’t afford books for our after-school program, or markers for our kids. A working stapler or hole puncher was a luxury to be treasured. We looked on this crap fondly. Plus, it’s still the lean years! We must continue to prepare for the winter.
With Jennifer’s help/coercion we started tossing things. It took a three whole days, and there is still stuff to get rid of. We moved some of it outside the office and put up a “Free” sign. We posted on Craigslist. We made runs to Goodwill. Within hours, things started disappearing. It felt good, as if a burden had started lifting. There was still stuff, though, in a big pile. I stared at it for a while, feeling bad that such potentially useful items might go to waste. I called up an ED friend. “Hey,” I said, “we have a thousand coloring pencils we’re tossing. You think you can use them in your after-school program?”
Vu Le is the Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), an SVP Investee. His column, “Staff, Retreat!” documents the fun of nonprofit work.