In honor of Mother's Day, I thought I would devote a column to famous, exceptional mothers of the non-profit world: charitable people like Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt -- Imelda Marcos. To get a feel for the topic, I started with the best source on motherhood I know.
"Hi, Mom. How're ya doin?" I asked stupidly. After forty-three years, I should know better than to start with a leading question like that. "What's the use complaining?" she started out, followed by detailed, blow-by-blow complaints ranging from her visit to her doctor to the fight she had with her New York City landlord ("He should only drop dead from the aggravation he gives me").
In one of life's rare moments, a heavy fog lifted from a deep, dark recess of my mind. Light bulbs switched on everywhere. Could it be that my mother's enigmatic sayings were designed to do something more than drive me and my sister to distraction?
With utter humility, I realized The Truth. My ethnic mother, all 4 feet, 11 inches of her, was in reality the ultimate non-profit manager. Yes, it's true. What I had always viewed as trite platitudes were actually cryptic mother-jargon designed to teach valuable lessons.
In the spirit of Mother's Day, I'll share some of them with you.
Those of you from ethnic backgrounds will doubtless recognize some of these sayings. For those of you who have never experienced one of those rare, stereotypical ethnic mothers, sorry. Or, maybe, congratulations.
* "It's always something." Now, is that true, or what? Tell my mother something that went wrong and she'll predictably respond with the above. Yet, in non-profit management, the fact is it really is always something. In February, after a horrendous day, the boiler went caput right before a board meeting of one of my clients. Around the huge, wooden table sat 25 men and women, all in their 70s, shivering through the reading of the board minutes. It sounded like someone had turned up the volume on a Polident commercial.
* "Every cloud has a silver lining." This one caused me a great deal of consternation as a kid. It also caused me to flunk science in the sixth grade. Anyway, this one is another Big Truth. In the case of the Frigid Board, a savvy staff member ran across town, picked up a heap of blankets from Goodwill, and the two formerly competitive agencies have worked closely on several projects since then.
* "What will the neighbors think?" Is this good marketing or not? Before a non-profit undertakes a new program or a capital campaign, it must think of the neighbors. Will the program hurt other non-profits? Will potential funders be receptive? How might the general public respond to the initiatives?
* "If I drop dead it'll be your fault." Not to be taken lightly, this is the ultimate threat for the agency to use on reluctant funders. Of course, it helps to modify the phrase a bit more subtly. Except in a case where a beleaguered executive director is talking frankly with the board chairperson.
* "Eat everything on your plate; kids are starving in Europe." I think one of the factors contributing to my advanced neuroses was trying to figure out the connection between those two phrases as a kid. Well, as far as the first phrase goes, good non-profit organizations do just that. They try to make good use of whatever gifts they get.
Now, this attitude usually works well, until you come up against a plateful of dried-out liver with canned peas. You sort of stare at it, trying to fathom how this is going to go down, or get trashed without hurting Mom's feelings.
I remember a corporate exec complaining to me about an ungrateful non-profit agency that had just turned down his gift of some used computers. After some probing, it turned out the computers used 8-inch floppy drives and a proprietary language that Borg the Mammoth Hunter had abandoned after his first system crash. As the irate exec pushed the machine specs across the table to me I had images of liver and peas.
* "Whasamatter? You don't call, you don't write. . . ." Guilt, pure and simple. If you're a non-profit executive, use this one with great care when soliciting for your annual campaign. Some may tell you why they aren't calling or writing.
* "Did you remember to put on clean underwear?" Now, look, you can poke fun at many things in life, but not this age-old question. Few things prepare a person better for later success than this one. In fact, it's not really a question, it is an attitude. Non-profit organizations should be concerned with making sure that their internal operations are clean and efficient. One can never be sure when an accident will happen and the organization will be under intense public scrutiny. Then, dirty underwear can be very embarrassing.
I remember once, when I headed up a non-profit agency, spending hours having to explain to the public an internal staff problem. It was awful. But, what's the use complaining. . . ?
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.