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5 Questions to Ask Before Helping a Non-Profit

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank

People are good at heart, but when we reach out to help others, in addition to helping them, we must carefully discern how and when to help other people.

Most people may be good at heart, but a few who work with a few nonprofits are not. That fact marked my life in ways I wish it had not; one of my family members who raised funds for a charity stole those funds and went to jail because of it. As a result, people who thought they were helping poor children were swindled, as was the charity involved.

With that personal experience, I am extremely careful with nonprofit fundraisers and donations. I only support causes and organizations I fully agree with, that I believe are being good stewards of the time, talents, and treasure they are given.

Sometimes, a charity’s fundraiser may become a popular fad, and others jump on the bandwagon without first asking these questions.

Please, please ask these questions before helping any charitable organization:

  1. What does the organization believe? Do their mission and vision statements, as well as foundational beliefs, agree with your own? Often, this is not an issue. But what if the organization you are supporting works in ways that are directly opposed to your core beliefs? The good news is there are enough charities out there that you can find others for the same cause whose core beliefs more closely reflect your own.
  2. Who manages the money and how? Determine what percentage of the funds generate go into administrative costs and also how much goes into direct services. How frugal are they? Charity Navigator and other sources can help you determine this.
  3. Where does their line item spending go? How much goes into direct services in your local area? Be sure to evaluate this one on a yearly basis with national organizations – some great causes streamline by cutting services to area communities. Does the organization have accounting and audit reviews in place to ensure money is properly spent and documented?
  4. How do they manage their fundraisers? This again goes into the accounting. Fundraisers must be carefully managed from a financial standpoint because they offer the greatest temptation to that small group of volunteers who have sticky fingers.
  5. What are the organization’s short term and long term goals? Have they developed short and long term plans so that when you donate to help them, you have a good feeling that the charity will still be here in 1, 5, or 10 years?

Most of us want to help those in need. I think that’s a basic human response to suffering. It feels good to know we did something to help solve someone else’s problem.

However, don’t just jump on the fundraiser bandwagon because everyone else is helping a worthy cause. Make your help deliberate and intentional, so that you know the help  you give is used in the most effective way possible. That will feel even better.

Taking the Trail

The Biever Bunch could beat Duck Dynasty for real life adventures and entertainment.

We’ve taken up more trail walking in my post cardiac life. Today, as a getaway during my daughter’s college spring break, we tried a new trail. When we planned our hike, we hadn’t anticipated a storm front would come in today, the temperatures would drop, and the wind would be fierce.

To take the trail or not to take it? We’re tough. A little wind wouldn’t stop us. The trail we took ended up being 4 1/2 miles. We didn’t know until the first mile was over that it was a more challenging trail than I have ever done. I’m afraid of heights, and going up or down steep surfaces makes me nervous. Combine with that that it rained early this morning, so the trail was just a little slick.

If you take a trail with teen-aged siblings, they just might spend part of the journey showing who can walk faster in tough terrain.

If you take a trail with your teen-aged son, he’s going to try different experiments to make the day more interesting. What did he discover?

  • If you fart while walking on a trail, how far ahead can you be of everyone else and make sure they can still smell it? (20 feet)
  • If you race down the trail and swing yourself on a small tree, what could possibly happen? (Your mom could walk under that tree 10 feet behind you and get hit in the head by a baby branch that falls off of it.)
  • If you stand on a bridge and ask your mother for a password, will she give it? (No.) Will she recognize you’re quoting lines from Monty Python? (No)
  • If you race ahead of your parents and sister and hide yourself behind a fallen tree, burying yourself in leaves, will you surprise them? (Not if they saw you first.)
  • If you race ahead and go to the edge of a mountain bluff and tell your mom the trail ahead has you take steps down the mountain, will she believe you? (No.)
  • If you race ahead and tell your mom a sign says the trail has ended, will she believe you or read the sign herself? (She reads it.)
  • If you race too close to a precipice, what will happen? (Your mother will scream and cuss at you to get away from the edge before you give her a heart attack.)

All of those antics made it easier as I stressed heading up and down the hills.  The most common thing my kids and husband said to me?

“You can do it mom.”

At times as we worked our way up and down the trail, they took turns helping me and encouraging me as we walked across rocks at a stream. We did okay. I don’t know why I bothered to blow-dry my hair because the wind blew it every direction.

The trail wasn’t always easy, and I had to stop and rest. My new watch can monitor my heart rate, and I watched it carefully. I had nitro pills in one back pocket and a bottle of water. At times as we rested, I realized how lucky I am.

Fifteen months ago, I had a heart attack and had a stent placed in an artery blockage. Seven months ago, I had hernia surgery.

But here I am, with my family, tackling the toughest trail of my life on a cold, windy day. My biggest complaint?

The lack of bathrooms. If trail makers want middle-aged women to walk them, they would make sure there is access to bathrooms. I threatened my family that if we didn’t finish soon I was going to station them on different sides of the trail so I could go behind a bush. That didn’t happen.

I choose to think it’s a coincidence that my kids then began singing Rawhide in unison.

The older I get, the more I think I have in common with Clark Griswold.

We have choices in life. If we want to take a trail, some obstacles may present themselves. But if we persevere, and if we work together, we can make it through the tough trails. And we just might have some fun along the way.

A Problem With Recycling Refrigerators

Sometimes the best ideas have unintended consequences. This one deals with the cooling of food.

Old refrigerators used coolant fluids that are more environmentally hazardous than what new refrigerators use. This leads to a problem of what to do with an old refrigerator. Energy companies across the United States are working together to help with this problem through programs where they pick  up the old refrigerators, dismantle them, and give the consumer a rebate ranging from $30 to $50.

It sounds great on paper. The hazardous fluids are disposed of more safely. The consumer gets a newer refrigerator that is more energy efficient and doesn’t have to hassle disposal of a large appliance. The rebate check just sweetens the pot.

The problem and unintended consequence?

We now have a shortage of used refrigerators and freezers. Used appliance stores used to have a large quantity of old appliances. No more.

People who could not afford a new refrigerator could buy a used one and still have a method of keeping food cold.

Now, in our quest to save the planet, we have some people who no longer have a means to keep food cold in their own homes.

The recycling of old refrigerators is a great idea. But if an old refrigerator is still working, does it make sense to dismantle it and destroy it when it could help a family who has no other means of keeping food cold? Is there some way we could let someone use the old one until it is truly broken and then dismantle it?

Another solution would be to fund charities to have more money to help those who can’t afford to buy new refrigerators. Or to find ways to lower the prices on refrigerators.

What other solutions do you suggest so we can dispose of appliances responsibly but still help people have a means for cooling food?

7 Steps to Keeping a Passion for Excellence and Creativity When Others Don’t

How do you pursue excellence and creativity when you’re in the middle of an organization more interested in avoiding conflict and maintaining the status quo?

The status quo is a safe place for some organizations to be. The passion for excellence doesn’t always translate into making improvements when there is an institutional mindset of “we’ve always done it this way – why change?” For a lifetime, I have at times encountered resistance to new ideas and an attitude of continuous improvement.

If you find yourself wanting to try new things when those around you don’t, here are ways to keep your creative edge.

  1. Keep thinking and creating. Find an outlet – or several outlets – that give you a chance to express yourself. I think one of the reasons I began to write was frustration; in my own little corner, in my own little blog, I could think – and write – whatever I wanted to say.
  2. Go for your big vision. When you have a big vision, try for it. Maybe everything won’t work the way you intended. But still try it. One of my visions years ago was to found a 4-H Tech Club. We had no blueprint. My vision was a 4-H club where kids could experience and learn about new technology and develop their own skills to use it. I didn’t want a robotics club like some areas had, though we do some robotics activities. Had a “light bulb” club been created in the time of Edison, it would have been rendered irrelevant. We are in a technological revolution, and I wanted to help kids make the most of new opportunities. The kids in the club have surprised me for years, and we’ve gone in directions I never anticipated. Last year, the Indiana 4-H Foundation selected our club as 1 of 4 to present in a statewide science showcase.
  3. Make small changes where you can. Sometimes small changes can lead to bigger ones. Over 10 years ago, I startled a nonprofit I was president of when I announced that our spring fundraiser had to make money or we wouldn’t do it. It had lost money the year before. We made small, but significant changes, and it became a money maker.
  4. Work through the resistance. People will resist your ideas. They will complain to each other about you and your ideas. Some may try to sabotage them. Keep going. As you find ways to work through their resistance, you will improve the final product. More importantly, you will develop skills in working with difficult people and tough circumstances. Those skills will help you become a better creator. Better to work with people who will tell you no than to work with yes people who never question your ideas.
  5. Don’t fall into the anger trap. It would be easy for me to wonder sometimes if there is a sexism element to some resistance of change. Yes, I have at times encountered some who like working with strong women so long as they toe the party line and don’t bring truly independent thought to the table. Don’t go there. Don’t waste your energy on anger because it isn’t productive. Work very hard not to take things personally because the only thing it will do is sap your creativity.
  6. Broaden your network. Find ways to meet new people and encounter new organizations. You will discover new ways to work with new people. And if you’re truly unappreciated, you just might meet someone who introduces you to a new organization where you and your ideas will be valued.
  7. Leave when it’s no longer fun. So long as struggles to do something creative still gives you pleasure, keep going. When it stops being fun, even if you feel duty bound to stay, develop an exit strategy and follow it. Without passion, it’s harder to wade through the swamp of problems to get to the dry promised land on the other side.  I struggled with the leaving part. But I have learned when the time comes to remove something no longer pleasant from your life plate, if you remove it, you’ll then make room for something that might be better.

I found my niche. I found a place where strong women are valued, as are their ideas – even the totally unconventional ones. But all the skills I developed struggling in places resistant to change can help me now make bigger things happen.

And having been in worlds that didn’t understand that excellence and creativity are good things, being in one now makes me appreciate it all the more.

The Power of “We Think You Can”

“I think I can,” said the little engine that could.

There should be a companion book called, “We think you can.” And it should be read by upper management of every business that wants to keep and nurture creativity in their staff.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I found a company that for over a year has said, “We think you can” during my recovery from my heart attack. Not only did they say, “We think you can,” but they offered me opportunities I never imagined.

I had worked with marketing and then part-time in the offices of Goebel Realty in the year before my heart attack. When I got sick, their regional director came to the cardiac ICU unit to see me that night and then took my then 16 year old son home during a rainstorm. She promised us she would make sure there was no flooding or water damage and then told our son on the way home if there was, she would handle it and they wouldn’t tell us while I was in ICU. There was no damage.

When I was released to return back to work, Goebel welcomed me back in a limited capacity. I went to cardiac rehab three afternoons a week for two months, and they worked my schedule completely around my rehab schedule. As I got better, they gave me opportunities to increase what I was doing, asking me at every step, “Are you comfortable with this? We don’t want to stress you on the job.”

My husband observed that in the 25 years he has known me, I’m happier in this job, with this company than he’s seen me. He was the first to tell me, “They recognize your talent and appreciate you.”

They continued to work with me during the year during a subsequent hospitalization and then a surgery, at each step encouraging and welcoming me as I was able. In November, I signed on half-time and in December, I went to full-time employment. I’ve now been part of their team full-time for 6 weeks.

It’s taken me that long to realize how lucky I am to work for a company that says “We think you can.” They have not pushed me to do more than I was able, but they have nurtured my strengths and encouraged my creativity.

For a lifetime, I’ve worked with a variety of companies and nonprofits, both on paid staff and as a volunteer. I’m a creative who doesn’t see the world from a normal perspective. My husband’s favorite joke is the scariest 4 words ever are when I say, “I have this vision.” What he means is that my visions normally mean lots of work for him.

For a lifetime, with most organizations, I’ve encountered resistance to change and different ideas. I thought that was part of the deal – either that my ideas were bad or that change was so painful they preferred the status quo to the challenge of change.  Common responses I heard were:

  • We’ve always done it this way.
  • It’s too hard to change.
  • Why can’t you leave things the way they were?
  • No response – as in being ignored.
  • Or this past year – since you got sick, we decided you should take a break and we’ll make all the decisions now.

So for a lifetime, to have a creative outlet where others could neither stop nor discourage me, I wrote and cooked. I still write and cook.

But now that has completely changed. When I come up with new ideas, they get listened to. Questions are asked, and I answer them. The question I’ll probably be asked is, “If we do this, how will we make sure it works?”

I know my creative ideas can be exhausting to those who hear them and implement them. As I joked this week about bringing too many ideas to the table, I was told,

“We love your ideas. Keep them coming.”

I’ve found my niche. I still cook. And I’ll still write. But for now, my creative energies are focused on working for the company that told me, “We think you can.”

And with that chant, just like the little engine that could, I know I’ll chug to the top of the mountain and work my hardest to build their company.

Putting People in a Box Fails

Smart leaders will make use of personality assessments but will keep them in perspective.

Imagine that we assess the personality of each team member and put each person in a pre-designated box. We appropriately label that box, put it on the shelf, and tailor our responses to the person based on that label. In the end we just have a bunch of boxes with different labels.

It becomes easy to then think of people according to those labels and forget their humanity and vulnerability.

Great leaders recognize that and don’t just mentally place people in boxes. What are the characteristics they exhibit that work effectively?

  • They personally recognize the worth of their team players and work to tell and show them that they matter.
  • They answer questions when asked.
  • They spot the potential of their team players and nurture their strengths.
  • They help the players on their team discover unknown strengths, hidden talents, and encourage them to use them.
  • As they inspire their team players, they clear paths for their creativity instead of blocking the path for future growth.
  • They are loyal to their team members. Their team members know their leader has their back. Whatever loyalty is reflected from the top to the bottom of a team is reciprocated in the other direction.

Often, the most effective things to say are “Thank you” and “You are valued.”  In The Help, Aibileen was onto something when she told Mae Mobley, “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.”

Instead of putting people into individual boxes, the wise leader takes the team to a room of boxes, asks how those boxes can meet the needs of the task at hand, and pulls the best from each team member to build something great.  The wise leader is secure enough to encourage greatness in individual team players, willing to let those players shine in spotlight while the leader celebrates in the background.

People outside of boxes will create something better than people kept inside them every single time.

Management Lessons I’ve Learned from My Teen-aged Son

My son is more than the eternal optimist. He will look at a glass that’s 1/4 full and tell me, “It’s just enough, and we’ll  be fine.”

I think he came by it naturally. When he was three years old, speech therapists said it would take at least 5-6 years for him to work through intensive speech therapy to speak clearly. I worked with him, but he worked with me every single day, without complaint, on his assigned exercises and completed his therapy in 2 years instead.

I think that experience taught him that if we approach things with a positive attitude and chunk at our problems a single step at a time, we can master goals and make incredible things happen.

When he organizes something, he doesn’t deal in drama, gossip, or negativity. With his humor, he’s able to keep the group focused on having fun while they reach their goals.

Last summer, when he was assistant manager of a fair food booth during a week of record high heat and record low attendance with decreased sales, he gave a report on end of week sales, “We had a good week. We met our sales goals three of six days, and everyone did a great job.” Not only did he leave out what could have been a depressing report, but he left out his own efforts to make those goals, including volunteering over 60 hours in 6 days to boost those profits – or his carrying a tub full of water bottles to a hot auction so people could give donations to the water, hoping to increase their sales.

This summer, I’ve watched him begin to organize that food booth – last year’s Jr. Leaders elected him treasurer so he would manage it this year. I tried to offer suggestions to him to fill his volunteer spots. His answer?

“We’ll be just fine. I’ve got it handled.” The booth he manages is entirely run by teenagers, and they will succeed or fail on the merit of their own efforts.

I tried to offer him suggestions on how to schedule shift chairs. He stopped me, saying, “All of our shift chairs are awesome. They can handle anything.”

As I think about his comments, I see a lesson we could all learn: he believes in those shift chairs and the volunteers. They know it.

When managers believe in the skills of their team and begin with a positive attitude, they are more likely to inspire success.

Never underestimate the power of a positive attitude. If we see success in others, we’re more likely to help them see it in themselves and make it happen.

It’s amazing what a 17 year old can teach his mother.

Job Application Questions

It’s not your parents’ job market any more. I’m amazed at some of the questions on job applications now. However, if they are being asked, they must be issues. Here are some of the recent ones I’ve seen:

  1. In the past 6 months, have you ever gotten into a fist fight with your coworkers at work?
  2. Sometimes, it’s ok for an employee to take a little money from the register. Agree or disagree?
  3. If you see a coworker is upset with a piece of equipment and he kicks it so that glass shatters, what do you do?
  4. Are lies ok to tell at work?
  5. I always let my bad moods influence my work. Agree or disagree?
  6. I believe it’s ok to use illegal drugs on the job as long as they don’t impact my performance. Agree or disagree?
  7. You hear two coworkers gossiping about an affair with a supervisor. What do you do?
  8. If you and your coworker are having an argument, what do you do? Talk to a supervisor, ignore the coworker, confront your coworker, or talk to other coworkers about the problem.
  9. It’s ok to take small items from your office if you feel underpaid. Agree or disagree?
  10. Suppose a new policy is started and you don’t like it? Do your job, do your job but tell your supervisor you don’t like it, or ignore the new policy?

Have you seen similar questions? If so, share them.

Exfoliation and New Growth

This morning, I told someone that my taking better care of my skin is a reminder each morning to take better care of myself – body, mind, and soul.

There are benefits of exfoliation. When you remove dead skin, it gives room for the newer, healthier skin to glow. Then, when you apply moisturizer, the new skin is able to absorb the moisturizer better.

There are things in our life that we only enjoy for a season. If we fail to exfoliate our lives, the dead layers can accrue so high we have no space for new life and new growth.

When we cling too long to that which gives no life, we don’t have a free hand available to reach for the stars.

New wine needs to go into new wineskins.

Are you ready for the next great opportunity which lies in your path?

How Non-Profits Can Succeed With a Little Help from Business

“The point of a fundraiser is to make money. If we don’t, it’s a social occasion. Since this is a fundraiser, we’re reorganizing it to make money,” I told a committee stunned into silence several years ago in my first year as their president. Fortunately, they opted to listen to me and make the most of my expertise in strategic and organization planning.

The year previously, they had tried a new fundraiser that didn’t quite break even. I’ve had those learning curves and knew that we take what we learn from those experiences and retweak what we’re doing to make money. We re-invented the entire model for the fundraiser (a talent show) that year. First, I cut the ticket price in half. In addition, I decided performers did not need to buy tickets. Then, we switched from having a full dinner theatre menu to a dessert reception halfway through the performance. With the  dessert reception, to save money, I asked the parents to donate desserts. Because we went from a dinner theatre to desserts only, we eliminated the need for tables and could fit more chairs into the auditorium. As a result, we had more opportunities for ticket sales.

Because the new ticket price was only $5, more families decided to bring grandma, grandpa, their uncles, their aunts, and their next door neighbors. We sold out of tickets, the parents brought in beautiful desserts, and the entire event was a fun success.

In the brave new world of nonprofit development, the smart ones solicit expertise from business professionals. It’s a risky venture for them. Right now, I help two different nonprofits who have decided to make the leap and ask for more help from the business community. With one of them, we meet for lunch each month and review their marketing strategies/fundraising communications. With the other, we meet twice a year for a lunch followed by an intense afternoon of review and discussion of their publications. That one is particularly exciting, because the other members of the committee are from St. Louis, Louisville, Indianapolis, Bloomington, and Evansville.

Both of these organizations have decided to take the risk of bringing materials they have prepared to a table of business professionals from varied fields and ask what we think. And we tell them what we think – what works, what doesn’t, and how they can more effectively present their message. Smart nonprofits recognize that the business as usual, 20th century model no longer yields the same results. They don’t want us to simply rubber stamp their ideas but to share our talents. If  we tell them a logo is dated and needs to be fixed, they may not change it, but they listen attentively to us and thank us for our input.

I thoroughly enjoy those nonprofit panels because I learn from the other professionals attending.  We each have unique perspectives, and I like to think we make a positive impact on the nonprofits involved. Our combined efforts are more effective than if we worked individually.

But there is a deeper issue here. Maybe once upon a time, businesses simply cut checks to organizations they wished to support. What these organizations have realized is the value of cultivating our time, talent, and our treasure. Successful business professionals can bring a lot to the nonprofit volunteer table. We’ll scrub tables and do dishes, but we’ll also analyze ways to fundraise smarter if asked.

The organization wise enough to make the most of my talents is also going to be the one that I support the most financially. Yes, there are other organizations I may write an occasional check to support.

But the nonprofits that wisely make the most of what I can offer them are the ones I’ll support the most and promote the hardest.

And those nonprofits, with a more mature vision of public/private partnerships, are the ones that will most likely succeed in the future.

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