Dani Robbins

Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

The Words We Choose

In Advocacy, Leadership on January 19, 2015 at 7:17 pm

One Easter many years ago as I was training my replacement, we were walking through the building and a child asked me my favorite part of Easter. I replied I didn’t celebrate Easter. The new exec, shocked, asked me why I didn’t just say the eggs. I replied “that wasn’t the point.” It also wasn’t the truth. We need to teach our children that not everybody believes what they believe. It’s one small way that we can each contribute to building a pluralistic society.

I’m reading Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel. I’ve only just begun and I already know that if you work in youth development, or in an agency that serves multiple faiths or races or people with diverse thoughts, it’s a must read. In it, he quotes to W.E.B. Du Bois as saying “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Mr. Patel believes the “question of the 21st century will be shaped by the question of the faith line.”

I am a member of a minority faith. Most of my adult life I have been the only Jew in the room, being expected to serve as the sole representative of my faith to people who know nothing about it. I am not alone. My experience is shared by most people who identify as a member of a minority group. I cannot explain the decisions of Israel or of a Jewish leader any more than an African American man or woman can explain the actions of President Obama or any other African American leader or non leader for that matter.

Some of us “pass” in a larger world that assumes we’re something we’re not; some of us don’t, because of our skin or our features gives us away. Some of us choose to out ourselves, which to some degree is what I’m doing today in this intellectual pursuit I am undertaking trying to figure out how it all connects. How we can look at all the levels of our society and build some bridges between so that we can all understand that one decision in one place has a pebble effect and creates implications in places we’d never expect?

I’ll be the first to tell you it takes a certain amount of courage to out yourself. It’s scary to stand up and say I’m different; I don’t believe what you believe. In fact, I’m a bit scared to publish this piece. Yet I know if we want to affect change, courage is required.

Studies again and again have proven that kids that are engaged in an after school program, extracurricular activity or sports are less likely to get involved in dangerous behaviors like drugs, crime or premature sexual activity, to build bombs in the basement or move to the Middle East and become a jihadist. Those are each varying levels of terrifying with varying levels of impact on the larger society, and they have all happened and continue to happen.

And yet, with that as a backdrop, the small development in which I live is having a debate – and a vote in February – on if our holiday party, as the association board has elected to call it, should instead be called a Christmas Party.

The intersection of religion, race and academic studies operate at the macro level in a society. The party is at the micro level. Both answer the quintessential question of who gets included and who does not. Who’s us and who’s other? Who’s the majority and who’s the minority? Who’s in and who’s out?

The answers have the power to determine who joins a team and who joins a gang.

All of those questions and their answers roll up into the larger question of how can we protect our own children and our community’s children? How can we keep them safe? How can we raise them to be self reliant, self sustaining, healthy, happy and contributing members of our society?

There are a million ways kids – especially kids who belong to minority races or minority religions or who for whatever reason are perceived as “other” – get excluded.

If the goal is belonging and community – and we’re people, so at some level that’s always the goal – there’s another million ways to save a kid. The first step is to create somewhere for them to belong.

We, as a society, have to decide how and to what degree we can engage all kids, and especially those who are more likely to be excluded, to become productive and engaged.

While we are deciding that, some members of my community are advocating excluding those who don’t celebrate the holidays they themselves celebrate. Now the truth is, no matter what we call it, it’s going to have a Christmas theme. There’s going to be a tree and sleigh rides and a Santa. There isn’t going to be any reference to Chanukah, or Kwanza or any other religious or community holiday. So to some extent, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck, even if you call it by its broader name of bird.

Yet, there is a small amount of kindness in calling it bird, or in this case holiday. It says “we know that many, maybe be even most, but not all, of our community celebrates our holiday yet some celebrate their own holiday. Our goal is fellowship. Join us.”

Join us. Maybe we’ll save a kid. Maybe we’ll save ourselves.

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What if 2015 is the Year of Excellence?

In Leadership, Organizational Development, Resource Development on January 6, 2015 at 12:59 pm

People always ask me about my values. When you talk about values as often as I do, you’d better have thought about your own. My company’s values are responsive, accurate, reflective of best practices, honest and flexible. My personal and professional values are honesty, integrity, respect, and professionalism. I believe they align. If you’ve been reading for a while -and if you have, thank you! – then you know I think it’s critical that a leader’s values align with their organization’s values.

My friend and colleague Maureen Metcalf’s work on Integrative Leadership recommends that each of us list out our values and then drill down to the one that is most center to our being. For me, that is excellence. It encompasses all my other values and also gives me something to work toward every day in all that I do.

I’m quite confident that I am not alone in that. My fellow nonprofit leaders do the same thing, within their own set of values. Still, I always wonder if the values of our leaders and in their organizations are reflected enough in our work in the field.

Too often things are allowed that make no sense. Things that are baffling, or silly, or dangerous or too expensive to justify, yet there they are anyway.

What if we stopped doing that?

Slate published a fascinating and quite disturbing article a few years back called Can the Cans: Why Food Drives Are Terrible Idea. As I’m sure you’ve gathered from the title, it’s about why food drives are expensive for the food banks they support, ineffective for the families they serve and not the best use of anyone’s time or resources. Yet, food drives happen all the time in communities across the country.

Here’s a quote that pretty much says it all: “Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that food providers can get what they need for “pennies on the dollar.” She estimates that they pay about 10 cents a pound for food that would cost you $2 per pound retail. You’d be doing dramatically more good, in basic dollars and cents terms, by eating that tuna yourself and forking over a check for half the price of a single can of Chicken of the Sea.”

Let’s do some math. Assuming the article is right, food providers pay 5% of whatever it costs you to purchase food that will later be donated to a food provider. That same food cost you 20 times what it would cost them to buy. They (food providers) then have to have someone accept the food, sort it, check it against recall lists and expiration dates, stack it and disseminate it. Your cost plus their staff and volunteer time, and the opportunity cost of what else could be being done, equals a lot of money! Food providers could better spend that money.

What if we stopped doing that? What if we as a field said “we are so grateful for your interest in our agency: would you consider donating a different way?” Or what if we accepted the food donation and educated the donor about the cost vs. benefit and also the economies of scale?

Please don’t get me wrong. I want all of the people who have food drives to continue to work to support their favorite food providers. I just want them to support them in a way that adds to the agency’s feeling of abundance, rather than contributes to their scarcity. Every drive reminds people that there are those who are hungry in our midst. We cannot lose that. We can be smarter about how and what we donate, and how our agencies disseminate information and accept donations.

Just because something is right for a donor, doesn’t make it right for an organization. We have all turned down gifts. Many agencies have (or should have) gift acceptance policies that list what they accept and also what they do not accept. Broken TV? No. Stained clothing? No. Property that has had hazardous materials stored on it? No. Donation from someone or some entity we – for whatever reason – don’t want associated with our agency? No.

We say no to gifts all the time. We can find – and most of us have- a way to retain a donor and redirect a gift. What if this was the year we started doing just that?

We also do or allow a lot of other things as a field that make no sense. As mentioned in Raising Our Collective Standards “There are a small amount of great agencies out there doing great work. More often there are agencies that are great at one thing, and mediocre at others. So perhaps the program is strong but the board is weak. Or the grant writing is strong, but the books are un-auditable. Or the executive is well trained but the staff is not. It happens all the time in every community, yet we all know that when any non profit anywhere does something unethical, illegal or inappropriate we are all painted with that same brush.”

I am quite tired of that brush. I want 2015 to be the year we get a new brush, new expectations and new plans to get to excellent.

What if we:

  • helped, trained or allowed our boards to fulfill their governance responsibilities?
  • allowed our teams to fulfill the boundaries of their role and gave them the resources to do so?
  • stopped allowing mediocre programming and dangerous policies?
  • made decisions on what was best rather than what was safe or easy?

What if we figured out the least effective process, program or person in each of our agencies and put together a plan to address it?

What if we held our selves, our teams and our partners accountable? What if we demanded excellence? What if we embraced the theory of abundance? What if we upheld our values and insisted others uphold theirs? What could we accomplish then?

What would you address or change about our field? Do you agree that canned food drives are ineffective? 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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