Gifts from the Board Chair

Dear Rita in HR: I am the executive director of a smallish non-profit (250K annual budget). My salary is low compared to other executive directors, but I believe in the organization's mission and I have great working conditions. However, the board chair seems to feel badly that the organization cannot afford to pay me more and sometimes gives me large financial gifts from his own pocket. When this first happened I thought it was an isolated incident, but I was just tipped off by a mutual friend that he is planning to give me another large gift soon. I feel extremely uncomfortable about this. He prides himself on being generous and would be very hurt if I refused it. Help!

Dear Help: I agree that it is inappropriate for the Board Chair to give you money...

Avocados are Back -- Hi!

I don't know about you, but it's been a long time since we had some Blue Guacamole. Susan Sanow and I have had a lovely sabbatical and we're also very happy to be back. Break open that bag of chips and a couple of beers for us, too?  :)  This issue:

  • A Tiger Escaped Today . . . and I'm on the Zoo Board: First Person Nonprofit
  • Everything We've Been Taught About Major Gifts is Wrong by Jan Masaoka
  • Why Don't Foundations Build Capacity in Fundraising? by Aaron Dorman
  • Ask Rita: Can We Fire Someone for What They Said in Personal Email? by Pamela Fyfe
  • Nine Nonprofit Trends that Need to Die by Vu Le

 You might notice our new look, too. The changes are minor but they allow Blue Avocado to look better on those electronic devices that didn't exist when we started in 2008. And please: let us know what you're up to! -- Jan Masaoka

A Tiger Escaped Today . . . and I'm on the Zoo Board

It made international headlines: tiger attacks three visitors and kills one after escaping her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo. What was it like to be on the Zoo board at that time? We are grateful to our friend for sharing his First Person Nonprofit experience and what he learned about boards:

How did you first hear about the attack?

It was Christmas night. It happened about 5:00 pm on Christmas Day. I was at home and it came across in an email about 5:30. Everyone started exchanging messages. My first reaction was sadness, deep sadness . . .

Everything We've Been Taught About Major Gifts is Wrong

Of course, by "everything" for purposes of this article I mean "three big things." But conventional wisdom can lead us astray when devising effective fundraising strategies. Like leprechauns, these mythical truisms can mislead us into thinking we should be chasing pots of gold that will always remain out of reach:

Myth #1: People have been acculturated to resist asking people for donations. Training them in "doing the ask" and inspiring them about goals are good ways to overcome this resistance.

Actually, only a few people are very resistant to asking strangers . . .

Why Don't Foundations Build Capacity in Fundraising?

Foundations often encourage nonprofits -- especially grassroots organizations -- to develop non-foundation income streams as part of sustainability. So then why do so few of our grantmakers invest in building the capacity of those groups to raise independent money? Aaron Dorfman of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy takes on this mystery:


Said a major grantmaker: "The most significant regret I have in looking over my 15 years as a leader of two big philanthropies is that, while we thought a lot about sustainability at the Open Society Foundations and at the Atlantic Philanthropies, we rarely made grants to strengthen organizations' fundraising." -- Gara LaMarche . . .

Outdated Job Description May be Getting Us in Trouble

Dear Rita: Help! I'm the executive director of a nonprofit with 35 employees. Recently, one of our employees said he can't drive anymore due to vision problems. It's his job to drive to different client sites to provide training . . . we serve a rural community without much public transit. I looked at his job description -- which is outdated -- and it says nothing about driving! I can't believe it isn't listed there, but it's clearly part of his job and necessary to reach our clients. I know the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that employees must be able to do the essential functions of the job, but we never put driving into his job description. Now what do we do? Signed, Wish I Had a Time Machine

Dear Wish I Had a Time Machine: This sounds like a frustrating learning opportunity. Like you, many employers would often do things differently if they could go back in time, since managing employee disabilities is a huge area of risk, yet rarely clear-cut.

First let's talk about what you can do so that in the future you won't have a thorny situation in front of us as you do now. Then we'll talk about what to do given the old job description in place . . .

Can We Fire Someone for What They Said in Personal Email?

Dear Rita in HR: We recently discovered that an employee is shopping online at work and is signed on to social media sites such as Facebook for about 3 hours per day. We don't know if she merely views it for a moment and then leaves it open or if she is actually posting and reading for those 3 hours. We also don't know if she is doing this exclusively during her lunch and break time, which combined would account for about 1 hour/day. In addition, she left her Gmail account open and we were able to read some of the mail she sent to a friend about the fact that she hates her supervisor.  We would like to fire her for these infractions. Are we are solid legal ground here?
-- Don’t Know Much about the eWorkplace


Dear Don't Know: You've got a complicated situation here. . .

Nine Nonprofit Trends that Need to Die

Vu Le of the Rainier Valley Corps, calls out some of the most annoying nonprofit trends. We would add the use of word clouds (see left).


1. Ignite-style presentations AKA "presentation by karaoke"


"Ignite" involves a five-minute Powerpoint presentation with 20 slides, where the slides advance themselves every 15 seconds. It cuts off long-winded people, and it's kind of fun to see how speakers match up their speech with the slides. When done right, and used mostly for humorous and easy-to-understand stuff, it can be great.


But I've seen it too often used for novelty's sake to explain difficult nonprofit concepts or missions, in which case it becomes "presentation by karaoke," underestimates . . .

Mediocrity Starts with ME (humor)

After being in this sector for over a decade, I can say that nonprofit professionals are some of the most awesome people on earth. We are smart, talented, dedicated, passionate, caring, humble, witty, cool, and hilarious. Also, we are really good-looking and are great dressers. Let's see someone from the corporate sector rock that $6.99 button-down shirt from Ross, Dress for Less (originally $13.99).

But we are burning out, you guys. Our natural good looks are obscured by stress-induced wrinkles, grey hair, and maybe one eye that twitches uncontrollably during staff meetings. The work never stops; our organizations are understaffed, and people's lives depend on our actions and decisions. We work in the evenings, on the weekends, and skip vacations. And when we're on vacation, we check our emails because we know if we ignore them they will start multiplying like hipsters.

It is a brutal cycle that leads to many of us leaving the sector to make jewelry that is then sold at farmers' markets. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy, despite the fact that the world needs more necklaces made out of beach glass and . . .