Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Conflict Encourages Non-Profit Sustainability

"Reboot!" or "R.E.B.O.O.T.?"

The first, "Reboot," is trademarked by National Veterans Transition Services Inc. It's a workshop that supercharges the process of moving from active duty military service to civilian life as a Veteran.

The second, "R.E.B.O.O.T.," is an acronym for Reflection, Empowerment, Brain/Body Awareness. Openness, Optimism and Transformation, the name of a program offered by Harvesting Happiness for Heroes, and its goal is to transform post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth for Veterans of our most recent wars.

Both programs are sponsored by Federally-registered tax advantaged non-profit corporations. Both programs work.

So why are there attorneys fighting over the use of the word "reboot?" Yes, toes were trod upon and branding was upsot. Let's get over it, find a resolution, and get back to work. We have better things to do. In this case, those things would be delivering the amazing services each program offers.

If I were a donor to either program, I'd feel poorly about my contribution being used to fund a legal fistfight. Money is tight in the non-profit world. Participants of these two programs don't deserve to have their program resources diluted. In my opinion, donated funds that don't actually reach a program had better damn well be spent for a really excellent non-program purpose or the administrators of those funds need to be held accountable.

There are thousands of non-profit corporations "doing something for the troops." Even if only a few hundred of them can afford to hire employees to do the same desk jobs every business must do, and even if those employees work part time for minimum wage, that's still a huge chunk of change that never makes it into a real program. Sure, one could argue that the "cost of doing business" is a part of this or that program, but that's not a good argument these days. Why? Money is tight. Donors who give money to "do something for the troops" expect to know that a huge percentage of that money actually does do something for the troops, not just for the office staff who administer the troop-doing program.

Soldiers Scams

We've all heard the stories about a non-profit that raked in donations for a cause that sounded righteous only to benefit some nameless faceless con artist who vanished with the funds once questions started to be asked. No one wants to fall victim to such a con, but when money is plentiful it's easy and simple to give to what sounds best without doing our homework first. The smooth-talking guy with the British accent interviewed on your local TV news looks credible and sounds sincere, so why not send him a few bucks, even though he's supposed to have served Her Majesty in uniform?

Please: I am definitely NOT implying that either of the "reboots" above are a scam -- far from it. You can confirm that for yourself using the excellent tools available on the 'Net, such as Guidestar.

You can also use Guidestar or your Secretary of State's website to check any corporation for scam status: if you can't find it, or if it seems to be buried beneath a pile of alias companies, beware!

Sadly, some folks don't take the time to authenticate organizations before giving to them -- sometimes generously, and sometimes to the detriment of the giver. Please don't fall for this. You deserve better.


I've had the honor of serving as a volunteer in the San Diego County community for a few years now. I've seen non-profits come and go, and I've seen some non-profits engage successfully with the community and some non-profits alienate the community. When funding gets tight, it puts pressure on every kind of organization that depends on giving -- public or private -- to become more accountable for its results. This pressure can make organizations do some very self-interested things, like hiring attorneys to protect their turf, or making funds so difficult to obtain that worthy organizations who could use the funds can't afford the paperwork to claim them and/or substantiate their use.

I'd like to suggest that the smart money isn't on the bureaucrats nor the organizations that lawyer up when conflict comes to call.

My colleague, Col David Sutherland of The Dixon Center, has suggested that it may be time for organizations with similar goals to join forces. I agree. 

San Diego County has several hundred powerful organizations serving the nation's largest population of Veterans, and, at last count, the vast majority of the Veterans' Service Organizations were non-profit or publicly funded. That's a lot of replication when it comes to finding, writing and administering grants, managing programs, keeping the lights on and competing with similar teams of folks doing similar things. It takes money to sustain that replication of effort. Why not combine the adminstrivial teams, maximize their effectiveness by using the best practices from all of them, reassigned folks no longer needed in the front office to work the programs themselves and thus make the very best possible use of whatever limited funds are available?

Doing this will be tough. As the San Diego Veterans Coalition and other similar "social change" organizations throughout the United States have demonstrated, giving up on "what's in it for me" can be scary. But, unless and until we do so, competition and conflict -- even in trivial areas -- will escalate. In self-interested organizations, the next tendency is to further dilute their funds that could be better invested in programs (eg "reboot" above) by hiring someone to defend "what's in it for me."

Conflict has benefits. We need to sometimes grind the gears to learn to shift them better. Friction can produce both heat and light, and some of both necessary to identify and burn away dead wood. But there's no reason that, working together, we can't find a better more effective and efficient way.

Conflict Resolution Exhibit A: REBOOT

How about this? Harvesting Happiness and National Veterans Transition Services combine their programs. The organizations have synergy, value and plenty of "customers" so why dilute the programs they offer by fighting about what they're named? Yes, that would take some up-front effort. Yes, there might be some egos bruised. Yes, giving up some of the "what's in it for me" might be required. But would a net better offering for Veterans result? Would it be more cost-effective? Will lawyers still have customers if these two organizations stop squabbling? (Being rhetorical to make the point.)

So here's an action item: give it a try! Reach out to people you respect who work for non-profit organizations caught in a cash crunch. Ask them if they would like to talk about working more closely...together. It's called "collaboration," not "merger," and most leaders today will be willing to talk about the idea (at least) and actually work with you (at most) which could result in a more efficient machine that delivers the goods you both want to deliver (at best).

Let me know how it goes. I'm curious, interested and willing to help. Really.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Tall Ships

Tall Ships

It’s odd, this flotilla of Tall Ships

gathered in the Bay each Labor Day weekend.

They cannonade each other

dogs and car alarms howl

And we sit poolside jabbering about

whether Congress has learned

That bombing yet another civil war that isn’t ours

is as futile as a two-gun black powder broadside fusillade

With neither shot nor sangrenel

aimed at tourists who paid sixty-five dollars to line the rails

And celebrate a day off work

pirate style.

At least the mess

left by our lecherous mayor –

Who, though he “did nothing wrong,”

offended at least eighteen middle-aged women

Only a few of whom were groped or drooled upon –

can be cleaned up at citizens’ expense

While other truly civic issues

remain unattended and underfunded.

(The News likes to call them “middle-aged women”

presuming that longer journeying around the Sun

Makes one a more credible accuser

than some sexting youngish vixen.)

The Facebook rant on such things

favors puppies and prurience

Over politics and policy

and tweets from legacy-makers

Only fill up The News

while Real People Who Care

Wink along with Stewart and Colbert

posting wisdom-embedded photos

That bow a reassuring heartstring or two…

Intentions leaning backwards into better times

Before the ‘Net

of instant opinion.

Let us hope

the ones who care and know so much

Get off their butts

and vote.