No Wimpy Kid Diary Here

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 25th, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Instead of the traditional school essay of “things I did on my summer vacation,” I’m sharing some of the ­things that are driving me out the door to pack my suitcase and head north to my tranquil lake retreat.

I love it when people say to me, as they work to refute the point I have just made, “Well, on the boards I have served, ….”  The problem with that statement is that while the author of the comment may have served on five or 10 or even 30 boards in her lifetime, I’ve worked with hundreds and share confidences with those who have worked with hundreds of others.  In other words, my data base (this should not be one word) is much, much larger than theirs—and when it comes to data on which you build knowledge, size absolutely does matter.  In addition to the size of the data pool on which you are drawing conclusions, the content of that pool also matters.  For example, we cannot blithely transfer our conclusions made only from experience with medium-sized, social services organizations that serve a suburban clientele to a grass roots urban youth education  program.  There are key differentiators there that influence what happens, how it happens, and what the results are.

While I appreciate the knowledge and insight that we all acquire through experience, it is imperative that we also recognize the limitations of just our own experiences.  And while I love a good discussion, and even, perhaps, a good debate from time to time, why invite an expert into your deliberations only to counter everything s/he says from a perspective of just one?

As readers of this blog know, I grew up in Washington, DC; back then, I was keenly interested in politics, even toyed, albeit briefly, with the idea of going into politics.  I have become so deeply disgusted by politics today that I will not be voting in this fall’s presidential election.  (Even in the campaign year where my sisters and I made a tidy sum selling “NOBODY” bumper stickers, I still voted).  Not this year.  When I was growing up in DC, folks crossed the aisle all of the time; they cooperated and worked together because they understood that their job was to do what was best for the whole of the country.  Now, folks in congress only want to do what is in the best interest of themselves.

Today, I feel like I am watching the transformation of Congress play out in the nonprofit sector.  No one cares anymore about truly helping and improving lives, about how best to use limited resources to serve our communities, just about themselves.  Funders who preach not reinventing the wheel, become the providers of their grantees’ services.   Nonprofits who claim to be “all about the client” don’t partner with the organizations down the street or two blocks over that does a much better job with financial literacy classes or domestic violence counseling than they do because it would mean giving up something and, therefore in their mind, power.  They don’t merge with the organization across town because no one wants to lose their turf, compromise, be selfless for the good of the whole.  Nonprofits don’t value and respect the contributions of its very own sector, looking first to for-profit organizations to provide the help and services they need when strong nonprofit organizations are equally available and more often better equipped, if for no other reason than they must walk the very same walk as their clients.

Was customer service always a one-way concern?  Was it always just the service provider who had to worry about attending to the client, with no expectation that there would be basic politesse in response?    This takes on very different shapes.  First, it comes in the form of sending emails—real, substantive emails, more often than not sent in response to something the recipient had asked for—that seem to go into black holes.  Not the spam folder to be found at some point, but the deeper  hole of the recipient’s “this isn’t important to me right now even though I told you it was urgent” email folder.   It doesn’t even go into the “I can’t respond to this right now with substance but let me at least say thanks and I’ll be in touch when I catch my breath” folder.  Nope; it goes into the “ignore until it is convenient for me to respond and then I expect you to jump” folder.

Recently, I was surprised to learn from a new business acquaintance that a dear colleague of mine hadn’t responded to his email or voice mail requests to meet for the first time.  Totally unlike this colleague, I immediately feared something dreadful had happened to him, and I emailed to inquire.  I got an immediate response (thank goodness), saying that because his business has been going gangbusters, he has been forced to do some serious triage on the emails and phone calls he gets, and clients—not networkers, what-can-you-do-for me folks—and that means some serious inquiries simply never get addressed.  (To clarify, we’re not talking spam here, we’re talking about professionals reaching out to other professionals).

Boy, do I get that and only wish I could get there.  But I do believe in paying it forward, and I have a soft spot for those who really want to learn more about the sector, those want to understand it so they can come work in it, those who want to grow up with the sector.  I’m getting better at politely saying talk to this person instead of me.  And I’m getting much better with sussing out those who just want me to help them but who have no intention of helping me or The Center, in return.  But I still can’t just ignore them.  I have to at least say something like I don’t think what you provide will be of interest to our clients.

As I reread what I’ve just written, I realize I better get on the road quickly!

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.