Featured Articles

The rich deliciousness of Blue Avocado . . . in-depth stories that give you the inside scoop.

Alcoholics Anonymous vs. Best Practices

This article about Alcoholics Anonymous is not about how they help alcoholics, but reviews their unusual management and organizational practices, which fly in the face of much conventional wisdom about what good nonprofit management looks like. As part of our Blue Avocado philosophy of challenging assumptions, let this article stimulate your thinking about your own assumptions.

What U.S. nonprofit do you know that has more than one million members, more than 55,000 local chapters, elects its leaders, and does no advertising or fundraising?

Answer: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

AA may be the largest and least visible nonprofit organization serving your community. Within just a few miles of Silicon Valley where this writer lives, there are 115 meetings per week. In Humboldt County -- a rural area of California with a population of only 130,000 -- there are 174 weekly meetings! And these numbers are replicated across the globe.

AA's twelve-step philosophy and meeting structures are well known to much of the public. This article touches briefly on some of the lesser-known organizational aspects of . . .

Top Ten Questions from Jobseekers . . . Answered!

Search consultant and volunteer leader Sally Carlson does executive-level searches for both nonprofit and for-profit companies. Sally is known for her straight shooting style: no fluff, no coddling. We asked her to tell us something different about how to find a nonprofit job right now:

Question #1: Are there any jobs out there for someone with my background?

Sally: As a search consultant, I speak to a lot of people looking for jobs; this is one of the most common questions from people seeking both for-profit jobs and nonprofit jobs. The answer is: Yes. And there are people currently in them.

So in this economic environment, your opportunity will be based on . . .

A Nonprofit Dashboard and Signal Light for Boards

(If you have trouble seeing the graphics in this article, you can download a PDF free here.)

The dashboard in a car gives an instant update on many important factors: speed, gas left in the tank, engine temperature, whether the air conditioner is on. If your dashboard isn't working, it's unnerving and upsetting. But at the same time, when it IS working, you glance at it from time to time but you don't look at it constantly.

A nonprofit dashboard is similar: it gives important information to decision makers such as executives and boards in a quick-read way. But a dashboard has limitations: it doesn't tell you if you're taking the right road to Chicago, or more importantly, whether you should be going to Chicago at all!

The idea of making data -- especially financial data -- easily readable for board members is not a new one. Building on that basic idea, we've added two critical features:

Six of Our Board Members are in Prison

Do you have a hard time getting board members to meetings? Justice Now, a California organization working in women's prison issues, has ten board members, of whom six are imprisoned. There is much to learn from them about involving board members in strategic decision-making, about board member mentoring of staff, and about how board members can raise money from their peers in unexpected circumstances. In this issue Board Treasurer Misty Rojo and Co-Founder/Executive Director Cynthia Chandler talk with Blue Avocado.

Blue Avocado: Misty, I understand that you were released three months ago after nearly ten years in prison, and you've been on the board for six years. How did you get involved with Justice Now?

Misty: When I was just starting my time in prison, I had some health problems. I met two women who were fellow inmates who were founding members . . .

Alligators in the Boardroom and Urban Legends About Nonprofits

An influential but under-the-radar form of popular culture is the urban legend. Like the mythic alligators in the New York sewers or the man who woke up in an ice-filled bathtub without a kidney, nonprofits are the victims of urban myths and legends. Common assumptions -- just by being passed along through so many people -- gain a measure of credibility just by their frequent telling and longevity. This Board Cafe article may be useful for your fellow board members, your neighbors, and others.

Urban Myth #1: Nonprofits can't make a profit. Truth: In fact, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines do not say that nonprofits can't have profits, but they do clearly state that any profits can't be simply distributed to board members (as corporate profits are to shareholders). The IRS requires surpluses ("profits") to be reinvested in the organization's work. Such cash reserves -- built through . . .

Nonprofits Portrayed in Popular Culture

Thanks to dozens of Blue Avocado readers who sent in examples of nonprofits in popular culture, here's a look at the mostly-fake world of nonprofits on the big and small screens.

Queen Latifah in "Life Support" is a refreshing exception to how nonprofits are typically portrayed in popular culture. As Ana in this 2007 film, she works her butt off at Life Support, an AIDS education nonprofit, but neglects her family and endangers her own health (sound just a little familiar?). Through Ana, we catch glimpses of what we know community nonprofits to be: fiercely committed,under-staffed, and essential life support to their clients and the community writ large.

In contrast, nonprofits are more usually invisible, stereoptyped, or off-camera employers of minor characters. For example, in "The West Wing," Mary Louise Parker played the director of a women's rights group deeply enmeshed in policy work. Several "Curb Your Enthusiasm" characters interact with NRDC, a nonprofit where producer Larry David's ex-wife is active in real life. References to the real-life Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center as well as to the fictional California Arts Center pop up in "The L Word."

Nonprofit issues . . . but not nonprofits

But mostly what we learn about nonprofits in popular culture -- and not just in mainstream culture -- is wrong twice over. First, while the issues that nonprofits . . .

Low-Wage Workers and Nonprofits 6.1.09

Our Opening article this issue focuses on an often-overlooked, critical part of the nonprofit workforce: low-wage workers. We also have two great articles on another neglected part of the workforce, volunteers: Our First Person Nonprofit story comes from a frustrated, would-be volunteer, and Susan Ellis contributes a provocative Board Cafe column on the board's responsibilities for volunteers. And don't miss our signature Take a 3-Minute Vacation Right Now. We also want to thank new donors . . . like public radio, we depend on you! (See "Join and support Blue Avocado in right column to donate.) Now, on to our lead article for this issue: Low-Wage Workers and Nonprofits.

Let's look at two uncomfortable facts:

1. Many, many jobs in the nonprofit sector are low-wage jobs: child care workers, intake workers, database clerks, nonprofit housing custodians, door-to-door canvassers, elder care workers, support staff in the arts, home health care aides . . . in short, a very large proportion of jobs in human services, in advocacy, in education, in the arts, and in health care.

2. While raising salaries would be, by far, the best way to support these important staff, doing so isn't possible for most nonprofits: certainly not in the short term, and often impossible for the long term given business models and funding constraints.

And, perhaps most uncomfortable of all for nonprofit leaders, the discussion about salaries and job retention has focused on the people at the top of organizations: the executive staff and program . . .

Survival Strategies for the Arts

John Killacky, artist and arts funder, not only knows that we need the arts now more than ever, but gives us ten survival strategies for arts organizations and one for audience members -- and reminds us that all of us are audience members.

The arts are where hope lives. And right now, as the very tenets of civil society are being re-written, and as health and human service needs rise, there is legitimate concern about whether the arts will survive, how the arts can thrive.

The arts, like every other nonprofit sub-sector, are being challenged by significant contribution losses from government, corporations, foundations, and private donors. Box office and gallery admissions are also eroding as discretionary dollars evaporate. Almost everyone agrees funding problems will become more acute in the upcoming three to five years. Adaptability is replacing growth as a barometer of success. There's no question to me but that the arts organizations that have dynamic, interactive, authentic relationships with their constituents, audiences, and neighbors are the ones that will come out of this maelstrom stronger. Here are ten . . .

Fundraising Confessions of a Former Camp Fire Girl

Carrie Avery is both a foundation president and a volunteer fundraiser. In this First Person Nonprofit article she looks at fundraising from both angles:

Growing up in Southern California, I loved being a Camp Fire Girl: the beach camping trips, my uniform with its red neckerchief, earning beads by doing science experiments and helping elderly people . . . it was all good. Every year our group leader told us that if we wanted to continue to enjoy these privileges, we needed to do something for the Camp Fire Girls: sell candy. So each spring, I would trundle around the neighborhood pulling my brother's red wagon behind me, peddling Mint Sticks (yum) and Fruit Jellies (kind of gross).

Like Camp Fire Girls on a spring day, many board members can think of many things they would rather do than . . .

Pages