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What if “The Office” Were a Nonprofit?

September 24, 2012

It is my pleasure to again host guest blogger Francesca Rattray. In this post, Francesca hits the nail on the head with her parody of a nonprofit soap opera.  Francesca Rattray has spent most of her adult life in the nonprofit world as a fundraiser, trainer, and consultant. She studied Asian Studies at Georgetown University and has an MBA from Boston University’s School of Management. She can be reached at fdr67@aol.com. — Laura Carter

I recently read a job posting for a position with a large nonprofit. The posting included the standard human resource language – the mission and vision of the organization, nuts and bolts of the position, responsibilities of and qualifications for the position. Then, the next sentence under “Working Conditions” made me stop reading. It said, “Normal office environment.”

By “normal,” did the organization mean “Survivor: Nonprofit,” I wondered? Where egos, turf-wars, and power plays could mean getting voted off the island?

Yes I’m talking about the nonprofit world, which draws individuals whose primary motivation is not necessarily money but rather “saving the world” and being a “hero.” Hence, egos, pride of ownership, and turf wars ARE the norm. Layer on top of those, the competition for funding and challenges of working on a shoestring and you have the recipe for some interesting internal dynamics.

Let me be clear: I love the nonprofit world, but it’s like a dysfunctional family. And since all families are a little dysfunctional, and the nonprofit world is where I started, this is MY dysfunctional family and I keep returning to it in a sort of weird, Freudian way.

So, the “Normal Office Environment” set me daydreaming about a sitcom re-imagining “The Office” in a nonprofit setting. The cast of characters would be caricatures, of course, and composites of many nonprofit archetypes, but would capture the quirky, sometimes zany, often ego-maniacal world of nonprofits.

Warning: If you’re a nonprofit employer in San Antonio, I realize this may spoil my chances of working with you. Please do not see yourself in this spoof.

Let’s start with the cast of characters:

“The Ex-Hippie Program Manager” – In many nonprofits this character plays a starring role. Perhaps he or she did time in the Peace Corps or marched for causes in the ’60s and then went on to get a master’s degree in social work, possibly a PhD in education or anthropology. Maybe this person helped found the nonprofit, but chose NOT to become the Executive Director because he or she wanted to be close to “The People.” Passionate, full of stories, and caring, this person relishes the role of Maverick, which goes like this: “I’m too busy changing people’s lives and making a difference to put together a report. I don’t have time to be accountable to you suits who run the office and don’t know what it’s like in the field.”

If I were going to cast this role, I’d see if Jeff Bridges would be willing to bring out “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski with a smaller dosage of chemicals.

I love the Ex-Hippies – they keep the organization focused on Mission. But they’re the reason policies and procedures are created – to keep these guys in check.

Next up: “The ‘Charismatic’ Executive Director (CED)” – Ex-Hippie may have been buddies with the Executive Director back in the day but their paths diverged dramatically when funders started demanding that nonprofits act like businesses. That’s when CED got an MBA or master’s in Public Administration (if he didn’t already have an economics background or law degree) and decided that running for public office was too blatantly self-serving, and that running a nonprofit would still give allow the ED to have a platform to give speeches.

CEDs love charisma moments – and live for them. They make speeches to donors, the public, and the media that will literally bring even the most jaded to tears. Checks will be written, soundbites recorded, maybe a few groupies will share digits or at least business cards.

In private, however, CEDs can bring their staff to tears – again, literally. The CED wants posters and slogans with big-picture, deep thoughts on teamwork and leadership around the office, but in reality, micromanages, presents unclear or contradictory objectives, and gives feedback in a less than charismatic way.

CEDs are seductive – and the more “rock star” they are, the better for their nonprofits. Just sayin’ that they are often different when they’re not onstage.

Steve Martin – reprising his role as CEO of the Whole Foods-type supermarket in Baby Mama – would kill it as CED.

Working closely with CED, while secretly eying the position, the Ambitious Development Director (ADD) must navigate the relationship between Ex-Hippie and CED while trying to raise crazy money. ADD may put some initials after his or her name (CFRE, MBA) to remind everyone that fundraising is a discipline – and is so much more than cocktail parties and lunches with rich people.

ADD’s favorite phrases include “fabulous” and “now THAT idea has legs” and “no one is to talk to donors without talking to me!” To be fair, ADDs have one of the toughest jobs – getting information (or not) from Ex-Hippies for proposals, coaching CEDs on what to say to donors (and hoping CEDs don’t retell the same story for the 10th time), and making sure the rest of the staff doesn’t kill a deal the ADD has been trying to close with a donor. Typically, the ADD has to laugh at the ED’s jokes, while trying to hide her rolling eyes.

I have a couple of ideas for casting this role. Nicole Kidman’s local newscaster in To Die For or Tilda Swinton doing an East Texas accent.

Depending on the size of the nonprofit, there could be a cast of several others. The “Skeptical Intern” who thinks no one in the office knows what they’re doing, played by Topher Grace; the “Silent But Deadly” mid-level manager making Machiavellian maneuverings, Kristen Stewart; the “Perpetually Perplexed” finance or marketing team who have come from the for-profit world and probably should have stayed there because this Whole Nonprofit Thing “Just Doesn’t Make Sense” – Matthew McConaughey, maybe? We need to give it some sex appeal.

Now we have the cast, let’s try to imagine a fun, farcical situation to pit everyone against each other.

One common situation is the Strategic Planning Session, whereby the team must come up with a new Mission Statement. The task involves 1) including everything the organization stands for 2) the organization’s core values 3) involving everyone, including the Board, the receptionist, the maintenance person, the community, and relatives of the community who may not necessarily live in the community and 4) not offending anyone.

The session starts. It’s led by Perpetually Perplexed Public Relations Person.

PPPRP: Ok, y’all, we’re revisiting our mission statement. Why exactly are we doing that?

CED: Because times are changing, our old mission statement doesn’t really say what we do and we don’t do what we say, and you could practically run a TRUCK through what we say our mission statement is.

Ex-Hippie: Yeah, but didn’t you say just last week that our mission statement was too specific and didn’t give us the freedom to take advantage of opportunities?

ADD: Yes, but, the donors need to see something that balances big picture bold goals with data-driven business-speak about where we’re going.

PPPRP: Uh … what?

CED: We need something that talks about being a catalyst for a movement while being measurable and specific about what we want to do to galvanize the community around this space we call “creative mobilization.”

Ex-Hippie: Dude I love the way the language flows but I’m not feeling it. I need a mission statement that appeals to the mind AND heart and rallies the people.

PPPRP: We’re not getting anywhere! I need to put some materials together for the conference next week and I need real language! Why do we need to change the mission?

And on it goes. Tune in next time when the team decides whether or not to Take On A New Program.

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  • Josephine

    Talk about hitting the nail on the head. This is one of the reasons I left the non-profit world!

  • Guess who

    Hm…..I can think of the perfect person for the role of CED..a real JERK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    CD from S.P.