Waking up the Brain Cells

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 5th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

1 comment


Today is your day.

You can learn what is right

And be off and away!

 You have brains in your head.

Yet dumb stuff you say.

You can do yourself harm

You can steer yourself

Any direction you choose.

But you might crash and burn 

If your mouth leads your brain.


The stupid things smart people say!

 Thank you, Dr. Seuss and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

One of the things some professors do as a semester draws near its end, and they are immersed in grading papers and exams, is to share “would you believe” stories gleaned from those very same papers and exams.  One classic answer to the essay question of why the population increased so much in 19th century Britain: “People were having sex more.”

Students who say stupid things turn into adults who say stupid things; it simply stands to reason.  But in a situation that isn’t fraught with the stress of an exam, why don’t people at least listen to what they say, evaluate it, and then retract their stupidities?  Especially when these are generally smart people saying dumb things.  The end of the semester is coming, and I’m reviewing the amazingly stupid things real life people, holding respectable positions in the nonprofit sector, have said to us.  Honestly, none of the following is made up.

Interviewing for the director of development position, the executive director told the candidate:  “We don’t really need a development department.  You know lots of rich people, right?”

A newly appointed executive director was asked the size of her organization’s budget.  Rather tentatively, she responded, “By budget do you mean the number of people we serve?”  Come on, board!  What questions are you asking your executive director candidates?  Clearly, you cannot assume certain things; you must question, dig and know the minimum capabilities of your candidates.  But that, of course, presumes that you know what to ask!

An executive director sent us the following question through our website:  “One of our board members is a very important executive – can he send his assistant to board meetings instead?”  Sure, if you want a puppet board!  I cannot help but wonder what this organization thinks the role of a board is.  Does this executive director actually want a board that is a partner in moving the organization forward or a board in name only?  If the latter, why waste anyone’s time with real meetings; have a five minute phone call and call it a meeting!  Clearly, this board and executive director do not understand the roles and responsibilities of a nonprofit board, how the board is supposed to operate and how a board is supposed to work with—and not for—an executive director.

This statement, regardless of what it is that isn’t being revealed, cracks me up, and then dumbfounds me:  “If we just don’t tell the funder and everything will be fine!”  Really?  Do people actually think the best policy is to lie and hide things from a funder?  While, yes, dumb things can come out of funders’ mouths (stay tuned) just like the rest of us, they are not routinely dumb people.  They can figure out when two plus two isn’t adding up to four.  Plus, have you heard of this thing called integrity?  It is important to be straightforward and honest with funders, to tell them what is really going on.  And if things aren’t going according to plan and promise, the response isn’t to cover up, engage in subterfuge, but to explain what really happened, why you think it happened and what you propose to do going forward to try and do better going.  Funders get this; they just don’t take kindly, and rightly so, to lies.

There are right ways and wrong ways to handle transitions; this is not definitely in the latter camp!  “We need a board member to volunteer to be the acting director when we fire the director.  Who here doesn’t have a job?”  Way to increase the chances of a successful transition and future for the organization.  Why bother to worry about needed skills and ability when you can just get a warm body to fill the most important paid position on an organization chart. Just don’t scratch your head and wonder why did things go wrong when the organization starts to crumble.  It’s because you chose any body rather than the right person.

Perhaps one of my all time favorites, which we hear, in some version, far too often, is this plea from an executive director:  “I want to hire one of your consultants to come down here and tell my board it needs to adopt the strategic plan I wrote.”  What don’t you understand a) about strategic planning and b) the role of the board?  Apparently, quite a lot!  Maybe we should come to the organization and tell the board to fire you!

As noted above, funders, too, can say stupid things.  A client seeking a grant to support the development of a marketing plan is told by a funder, “Just get a strategic plan done.”  While there is absolutely a relationship between a strategic and a marketing plan, they are absolutely not interchangeable.  Nor are strategic and business plans, which is another good one:  Grantee:  “We need support to do a business plan.”  Funder:  “I’ll give you a grant to do a strategic plan.”  This may be more naïve than ignorant, but it counts in my book.

From the board president to a very excited, soon to be stunned, executive director of an organization that is anything but flush with money when she tells them about a very prominent, multi-millionaire and his wife want to come out and see their program:  That’s great, but the board wants to meet to decide what we’re doing about a major donor program first, so tell him we’ll call him in a few months.”

That’s right up there with the board members who don’t want to tell the donor who is giving the organization money to buy the building in which the organization currently resides that the building is no longer for sale.  “Let’s tell him after he has given us the gift.   We don’t want to scare him off. ”  Yup, it is absolutely a best practice to string donors along, make them dance to your music and set forth false pretenses.  It is the way to win donors and influence repeat giving!

I left so many great lines on the cutting room floor, but I simply couldn’t include them all.  Maybe I’ll do a reprise in the future.  We all need a good laugh every day, not just now and again.  So, please, add the stupidities you’ve heard and keep us all laughing.

As Dr. Seuss said:  “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.”




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