Dani Robbins

A New Day Dawns

In Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Non Profit Boards, nonprofit executives on November 25, 2020 at 9:53 am

Four very long years ago I wrote the article Just Don’t after Trump was elected. Since then, those of us who work for and believe in justice have endured four very long years.

Four years of hate, pettiness and meanness.

Four years of seeing our stature in the world reduced, and our friendships with dictators and autocrats increased.

Four years of the dismantling of sacred institutions and the embracing of white supremacy and misogyny.

Four years of demeaning women, minimizing rape victims, and ignoring gender imbalance, other than to exploit it.

Four (more, more encouraged and also more often denied) years of racial and ethnic injustice. Four years of minimizing our fears and embracing those from whom our fears are born.

Four years of the abject denial that there’s a price being paid by the children of those that were brought here against their will and a debt owed.

Four year of turning our backs on immigrants and refugees, despite the fact that almost all of us are the children of immigrants and refugees.

Four years of embracing the idea that experience doesn’t matter, that science isn’t real, and that news is fake, even when you saw it unfolding yourself.

Four years that allowed a pandemic to rage in the final year with no federal response, no compassion and certainly no plan.

Four years of screaming into the wilderness and feeling as if we might lose our democracy, our hope, and maybe even our minds.

Today, a new day dawns.

We have joined together to elect a president who sees us, and a vice president who looks different than any vice president who has come before her. (I cried as I wrote that.)

Together, they are building a cabinet that looks like us, to represent us.

We now can turn our energies to supporting them. We won’t agree with everything they do, and that’s okay. We don’t always agree among ourselves. This is a pluralistic society and if we do our jobs right, it always will be.

We now have the opportunity to focus our energies to move forward the missions we serve, the values we believe and the justice we desire.

Thank you to my brothers and sisters across this country who have used their voice, their bodies and their money to stand up to bullies and to stand against hatred; to stand up for what we believe.

I salute you. I see you. I am grateful for you. Thank you.

Are Your Organization’s Stories Dishonoring the Families You Serve?

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, nonprofit executives, Organizational Development on August 16, 2020 at 1:12 pm

This article, by Dani Robbins, was originally published on Blue Avocado.

Please indulge me the time to paint a picture of the backdrop against which many of us work but don’t often acknowledge. I will then use that backdrop to illustrate the challenge of discussing work that is funded by one group (donors), executed by another group (staff), on behalf of a third group (families) and how that discussion has the potential to harm the people it is intended to help.

We have a problem in this country with the idea of a class system. We like to pretend we don’t have such a system, except for when we want to describe groups, especially groups served by agencies that work for justice. We have a philanthropic class that supports agencies that serve families in lower socioeconomic income groups, or other marginalized groups typically characterized as some version of disadvantaged, living below the poverty level, poor, minority, minoritized, or _____ (insert your favorite pejorative adjective here).

Our boards and our leaders often don’t look like or have the same experiences as the people our agencies serve. The American philanthropic sector is one where, as Burton and Barnes so eloquently put it in “Shifting Philanthropy from Charity to Justice,” “often well-intentioned people make decisions for communities they do not come from, may not understand, rarely interact with, and almost never set foot in.”

Let me layer on top of that troubling foundation two theories, and even though you’ve heard of these, you may not be aware they are actual theories, taught in schools and reinforced… everywhere. I’m speaking of the Bootstrap Theory and the Theory of the Deserving Poor and the Undeserving Poor.

The bootstrap theory is baked into our country’s history. It is the foundation of the American Dream: Anyone from anywhere can come to America and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to make a better life.

Is it true that the bootstrap theory is real for many families? Yes! Do I hear some of you yelling at your screens that your grandparents did just that? I hear you and I believe they did. Mine did too. Yet the American Dream is inextricably interwoven with its less appreciated counterpart: privilege. Unfortunately, this term is often taken out of context and inaccurately understood as meaning “freedom from struggle.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every family has struggled, and most people work hard. The distinction of privilege is the breaks you get or don’t get along the way because of things that have nothing to do with you, your dreams, or your abilities, and have everything to do with what other people see and perceive about you. The distinction is the obstacles placed or removed from your path and the chances and choices other people will give you or take away based on things they believe about you that have nothing to do with you at all.

Let’s layer on top of that of this country’s acceptance of the sharp delineation between the “undeserving” poor and the “deserving” poor. That delineation is the basis for much of our public policy. It’s what underlies the decision regarding whether the homeless veteran with a history of addiction and crime gets housing or whether the family who just got evicted because of medical bills does. It’s why we have a shelter and transitional housing system instead of a robust and available permanent housing system. It is less expensive to create affordable housing than a three-layer system of shelters, transitional housing, and affordable housing, each layer staffed by paid staff working to move people into permanent housing.

Why don’t we just start with permanent housing? I submit we’re unwilling to defend housing for the long-term homeless addicted veteran over the newly evicted family, even as the Coalition for the Homeless notes, “numerous research studies have consistently confirmed that long-term housing assistance not only successfully reduces homelessness—it is also less expensive than shelter and other institutional care.”

Lest you think that’s all the delineation between the deserving and underserving poor entails, it’s also the idea of creating an extensive (and expensive) bureaucracy to make sure that the poor don’t take advantage of a system ostensibly designed to help them, even though this overladen structure costs multiples more than it would to fund what the people actually need, which we’re still funding in part but with fewer resources and much less dignity. Most services for those in need are set up on the assumption that people cheat. To combat that assumption, we have entire bureaucracies dedicated to make people prove they need assistance. We insist people prostrate themselves to defend their needs and jump through arbitrary hoops to get assistance. I submit a subset of the population will find a way to take advantage of any system that is created. That doesn’t mean we need to build systems that alienate the many to protect against the few. We could, and I believe should, set up systems to mitigate cheating while affirming dignity.

“Deserving” and “undeserving” is about blame. (Cue the bootstrap theory.) The policies that follow in the wake of these two theories set up the families we serve to receive pity but not empathy. Help but not respect. Services but not dignity.

Are there groups who are more deserving and groups who are less? Should that determine who gets services and who doesn’t? Does it impact who gets that house and who doesn’t? As I tell my classes, it always comes down to “What’s the goal?” and “Who decides?”

These two ways of framing the world also set agencies up to tell unflattering stories about the deficits of our families—or worse, exploitive ones to pull at the heartstrings of donors, to make them feel good about their magnanimity while illustrating that donors and recipients are not the same. There are people you can help, but they’re obviously not your people. They’re fundamentally different. There’s them, and there’s us. Us who have worked hard, who deserve where we landed and can now give back to those who… well… didn’t.

It’s an inaccurate story.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating to make a point, I received a letter recently from an organization saying that the children they serve “have no role models in the house.” Does that honor the dignity of their families? Is it even true? It doesn’t, and it’s not.

This letter is not an anomaly: I receive lots of similar letters from a variety of service providers. I might have even written some of them before I understood and could articulate the difference between honoring the families we serve, and not. I bet you have too. Nor is this attitude limited to donor outreach. Many years ago, I received a call from a woman who wanted to bring her kids down to my organization so they could see how “other people” live. I said no. Now you may think I missed an opportunity to engage someone, and you would be right. But I didn’t miss a teachable moment to share that a trip to another community is not a trip to the zoo. (Those might have been the words I used; I’d figured it out by then.)

Taking your kids to see how “other people” (read: not us) live sends a message both to your kids and to the people living in that community. Saying that kids “don’t have good role models” is disrespectful. Many families are doing the best they can for their kids and would be appalled if they saw that letter or met someone who was only there to see how “other people” live.

If you wouldn’t want your families to see what you allow in an appeal letter or what you’d say to a visitor or allow the visitor to do—and that should be one of your lenses—then don’t say it, and don’t do it. Moreover, the chances of such a letter alienating some of your donors (me, for one) is high. We all know that disengaged donors are not going to call us to explain; they’re just going to stop supporting us. After receiving the letter about “role models,” I did call.

If you who are in leadership positions are of a different faith, gender, or race than the majority of the families your agency serves—or if you are joining our sector from the business or government sector—I implore you to tread carefully. We ought never to be perceived as exploiting the people our organizations exist to serve. It’s disrespectful to them; it’s destructive to our agencies.

I invite you to read “How Can Nonprofits Move from Exploitative Storytelling to Justice-Oriented Storytelling?” by Dr. Debra Jenkins. We cannot, we should not—and please join me in saying—we will not exploit our families to engage our donors. It’s not acceptable. It’s not reasonable. It’s not necessary. It complicates our ability as social justice and nonprofit leaders to honor the people in our community and their lives. It is critically important that the messaging you use does not reinforce either the bootstrap theory or the theory of the deserving and the undeserving poor.

Finally, I will share that I worry that our focus on donors sometimes comes at the expense of our families. That’s not the intent, but it may be the result. Our agencies do not exist to serve donors. We should embrace our donors and invite them to partner with us to make our communities better, but we can never forget that nonprofits exist to improve our communities. The mission and those we serve must always be our primary focus.

Those of us who work for social justice can never contribute to the narrative that there are the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. We cannot reinforce the bootstrap theory. We can talk with our donors about the difference between theory and reality and about how to build on the assets our communities already have. We can hold those assets up as being worthy and deserving. To do anything less is unjust. We must tell stories that honor the dignity of our families and embrace our donors, as we work together toward creating a more equitable and just world for all.

What’s your experience with deficit or asset based story telling? What would you add, or delete? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

What Nonprofits can do NOW

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, nonprofit executives, Organizational Development, Uncategorized on March 29, 2020 at 5:49 pm

The job of a nonprofit executive is to ensure their agency will open tomorrow, or if it shouldn’t, to shut it down.

The list of things we don’t know and information we don’t have is long:

·         How long will this last?

·         How big of an economic hit will it be?

·         What will happen to the people we serve?

·         How can I protect my team and my agency?

·         How many of our donors will be impacted?

·         Will our foundations loosen the restrictions?

·         Will I get the Federal loan?

·         Will I have to lay off staff?

·         Will I get laid off myself?

·         Will I have to shut down this program that I love and have spent no small part of my life cultivating?

Then there’s the much more personal and terrifying:

·         Will I get sick?

·         Will someone I love?

·         How can I pay the mortgage without a job?

·         How can I protect my family?

We are all scared and varying degrees of angry, anxious, grateful, bored and terrified and, sometimes, how we feel changes by the minute.

Moreover, for those of us who have spent our lives in the field, sitting at home doing nothing makes us feel helpless. 

We are not helpless.  We are trained professionals.  Let’s get to work!

We are at an unprecedented point in leadership. Every decision we make will determine what happens tomorrow, even as we are aware that we are all making those decisions with limited information while standing on constantly shifting sand.

Many agencies are looking at cuts. “Leaders should start developing models and anticipate what levels of revenue drops may occur … even “as substantial variances are likely based upon the type of” organizations, relationship with state legislature, and historical financial models.” (The Great Recession Was Bad…)

Where to start? As always, you start with your values, your mission and your commitment to intentional aligned leadership.

I recommend the Board of Directors:

  • Set the priorities for 2020 and 2021
  • Determine the level of saving that needs to be realized
  • Approve the cessation of services that will no longer be offered
  • Determine how long you will continue to pay staff
    • for work that can’t billed
    • for services that can’t be offered
    • who may not be able to work
  • Set severance levels

The CEO:

  • Review your policies including sick time, family leave, and severance
  • Review your insurance, including short and long term disability
  • Make recommendations to the Board for policy revision, as necessary
  • Reach out to every funder and ask for special circumstances
  • Review and apply for forgivable loans
  • Plan out interim leadership for every critical role, including yours
  • Cheerlead
  • Sell the story

The finance team:

  • Clarify the staff that can do billable work (identified as work that will still generate revenue)
  • Identify staff that might have to be furloughed based on work that is unable to be done
  • Assess income that is unable to be realized

The development department:

  • get clarity around if the money that they’ve projected for this year is actually going to come in
  • Clarify if any money that has been pledged is available for operating or if it is restricted to other expenses
  • Consider asking if any and all restricted gifts can be used for operating
  • Consider asking all capital donors if you can use their gifts for general operating this year, as possible
  • Prepare an emergency funding campaign that clearly tells the story and the need for additional support
  • Prepare on-going communication with donors

Once the above is completed, I recommend:

The Board approve a staged step down, as necessary:

  1. easy expense reductions that can happen now
  2. reductions in the next round based on the priorities and the savings needed
  3. Worst case cuts to keep the organization solvent

Other points of note:

  • Pay cuts require a Board vote, even “voluntary” ones. 
  • The CEO should not forgo their own paycheck or lend money to the agency. You can, of course, donate back a portion of your paycheck. If you do, make sure it is your choice, aligned with your family’s circumstances, and follows your donor acknowledgement procedures. Three More Things to Stop Doing
  • If necessarily, individual Board members can lend money to the agency, with an appropriate paper trail.  If you do, I recommend paying yourself back not be your first order of business once the smoke clears.

That’s my list for today. Hopefully, you won’t need it. If you do, I wanted to get a framework out there in case it’s helpful. If you have a framework you’ve developed that you can share, please do. We will get through this, together. We will persevere!

As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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