Category Archives: Nonprofits and management

What is Wrong – and Right – With the Navy?

Since January, four warships in the US Navy’s 7th Fleet have been involved in serious accidents. The most recent occurred this week when the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore; the USS Fitzgerald experienced a fatal collision in June. In both cases, sleeping sailors (no doubt exhausted from the daily grind of life at sea) awoke suddenly to the sound of tearing metal and the rush of seawater. These incidents have many wondering: what on earth is wrong with the navy?

As a former Surface Warfare Officer who spent hundreds of hours standing watch on the bridge of a warship, I know that many things have to go wrong for collisions to occur at sea.  Nearly all of them involve human error by the officers in charge.  Whatever else is going on, it appears the navy has a serious leadership problem.

New reports suggest that the John S. McCain suffered a “steering malfunction” prior to its accident. But navy ships are designed with system redundancy, and well-trained watch teams practice and prepare for such emergencies. When I was a young junior officer, we constantly trained for potential loss of steering, man overboard, and engine room fires. We’d cover the bridge windows with old nautical charts to practice navigating in low-visibility. Our senior officers purposely created training opportunities designed to prepare us for anything. 

That the commanding officer of the Fitzgerald was in his stateroom at the time of the accident is a huge red flag. All watch standers should be familiar with the captain’s “Standing Orders,” which require him to be notified when other vessels get within close range. Were they afraid to tell the boss they’d let another ship get so near? Did they completely lose basic situational awareness? Both are bad; the investigation will eventually determine the truth.

Meanwhile, the responses by the enlisted crew members in both accidents demonstrate what the navy is doing right.  In each instance, berthing compartments flooded in mere minutes – another emergency for which sailors prepare. I will never forget that training simulator, in a dark compartment with cold, high-pressure water spraying in our faces.  As the water quickly rose over our boots, above our waists, and to our armpits, we struggled to stay calm while working to contain the flooding and get everyone out safely.

It’s no wonder the sailors who did just that, after waking suddenly upon impact, are being called heroes for saving so many lives. In the case of the Fitzgerald, they have been commended for keeping the entire ship afloat.

Early investigation results specifically highlight the bravery of Gary Leo Rehm, Jr., who was posthumously advanced to Chief Petty Officer based on his actions. Survivors report that he personally evacuated many shipmates from the flooding compartment. Men like Chief Rehm represent what’s “right” with the navy.

Something else the navy gets right is accountability. To date, the three senior leaders on the Fitzgerald have been removed, and several junior officers were relieved of their duties by the U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin. Ironically, Vice Adm. Aucoin himself was relieved after the John S. McCain accident.  More firings are sure to come.

Holding leadership accountable, however important, feels “too little, too late.” In these recent tragedies, the officers paid with their careers but the enlisted sailors paid with their lives.

The upcoming operational pause – also known as a “safety stand-down” – is an important first step, but I am concerned about restoring trust. The navy today needs the kind of leaders I remember, who demand exceptional performance and ensure they get it by relentlessly training their teams.

Our sailors deserve nothing less. They deserve to hit the rack after a long day at sea with confidence that their ship is in well-trained, capable hands. The only thing jarring them awake should be the too-early call of “Reveille.”


Is the College Admissions Process Unfair?

This is the question everyone is buzzing about, especially after recent reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears poised to challenge affirmative action policies in university admissions.  The move is a nod to President Trump’s base, which, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, believes that white Americans are “losing out” because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.  The news follows years of legal battles on the subject, including cases involving University of Texas and University of Michigan that have been decided by the US Supreme Court.

 The debate is not going away anytime soon, for two reasons. First of all, universities and their applicants have completely different expectations from the admissions process; and second, it’s so hard to agree what “fair” really means.

 Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the University of Texas case, used a common argument against affirmative action – she claimed that her achievements were better than those of others who were accepted. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference…was the color of our skin” she says in a YouTube video discussing her case.

 Obviously high school achievements matter to colleges. But a close look at their missions reveals that other things matter, too.

 University of Texas says its core purpose is “to transform lives for the benefit of society.” The mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Yale “is committed to improving the world today and for future generations…” through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

 None of these statements brags about the exceptional resumes of the 17-year-olds these colleges admit. Rather, they believe in “educating citizen leaders for our society” and “improving the world…for future generations” and “transforming lives.”

 In short, the obsession with comparing test scores and extracurricular activities misses the point: that the mission of many colleges is to select and prepare students for a promising future, not to reward students for an impressive past.

 So how can colleges “fairly” select the young people they want to educate and send out into the world to make a difference? And what would that mean?

 However hard we try, it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons of people. Even standardized tests, arguably the most objective of the metrics, have limitations. Let’s say one kid takes an SAT prep class, works with an SAT tutor, takes the test 3 times, and eventually scores a personal best of 1350. Another kid can barely afford to take the test once; prep classes and tutors are out of the question. That kid gets a 1340. Who is smarter?

 Other metrics are even more subjective. GPA, sports, and clubs? High schools offer very different levels of academic rigor and options for extracurricular activities. Hobbies? Applicants’ choices about how to spend personal time are impacted by geography, disposable income, and family particulars.  Harvard just admitted 2,038 people into its next freshman class, but are they the “best” or “most qualified” of the 39,506 applicants? How can anyone know?

 Obviously Harvard believes they chose the right 2,038 people to become “citizen leaders for our society.” And by “our society,” Harvard certainly means our diverse society. The class of 2021 comes from all the regions of the US and from around the world; some are “legacies” and others are the first in their families to attend college. For the first time, fewer than 50% are white.

 Certainly their test scores and grades are impressive. But Harvard probably could have admitted only applicants from private schools in the Northeast and formed a class with even higher test scores and grades. Would that be fairer? Would anyone want to go to such a school?

 The college application process will never be “fair” because people are not numbers, and numbers are not everything. My advice (unsolicited) to Jeff Sessions is to stop worrying about how unfair life is for white Americans.  When they become scarce at elite universities – or in the President’s cabinet – he can consider affirmative action policies to address those disparities. 

Tell Me About Your First Car

Was it a brand-new Dodge Shadow, because your dad worked for Chrysler? Did you inherit your mom’s old Volvo with 200,000 miles on it? Or did you hand over $100 to some stranger and drive off in his old jalopy? Whatever your answer, it reveals something about you and probably stirs up a memory or two. That’s why asking about that first car is my new favorite icebreaker.

I wish I could take credit for this one, but it wasn’t my idea. I was sitting around with my team of fellow volunteer consultants (we’re working with a local nonprofit to develop a strategic plan) and we were trying to come up with a good icebreaker to use with our client in an upcoming workshop. Josh tossed out this idea, and we test drove it.

For a group of people that is not particularly diverse (we were all born within 10-15 years of each other, all have masters degrees from Harvard, all live in Boston, all work in similar white collar fields), our answers were all over the map. One of us remembered a little stick shift coupe she got in college (and the treacherous hill on campus that was the source of many anxious driving moments). One of us never owned a car until he bought a Nissan Leaf about a month ago, having lived mainly in cities. Oddly enough, two of us learned to drive in 1970’s-era Buicks that were so enormous an adult could stretch out and sleep comfortably in the back seat.

I grew up in what’s now known as “flyover country,” a place where most teens got their hands on some kind of vehicle as soon as was humanly possible. In addition to reminiscing about our own cars, we remember our friends’ first wheels. One girl’s dad worked for GM and she had an enviable red Chevy Cavalier, brand new. My two close girlfriends had really cute cars with lots of mileage: a little Honda CRX and green Pacer. The Pacer driver eventually upgraded to a Nissan Sentra hatchback because she played the harp, which actually fit in the back when the seats were laid flat.

Playing a large instrument warranted a special kind of vehicle, so a cello-playing friend got his mom’s old green van (not a minivan – this was pre-the invention of the minivan) with limited seating but plenty of cargo room; anyway, no one cared about seat belts back then because we were teenagers and therefore invincible. One guy even drove an old station wagon which he spray-painted matte black (including some of the windows). It probably wasn’t legal but it made a statement. I’m sure he remembers that car.

Over the course of my adult years, I’ve owned a series of forgettable cars. For a time, anything with four doors that could handle car seats sufficed. I shed no tears saying goodbye to a couple of Honda Accords, an Infinity G-35, and my last Subaru Forester (which was actually pretty great but come on – a leaky head gasket at 70,000 miles? Not OK). I’m now in another Subaru Forester, which is totally fine and great in snow but doesn’t turn any heads. Probably because EVERYONE ELSE IN NEW ENGLAND has the exact same car.

The automotive ‘love of my life’ was my 1990 Mazda Miata, black with tan leather interior, with a manual transmission (of course). I drove it home from the dealership (which was CarMax, my employer at the time) on a cold January day with the top down and the heat blasting. I drove that car as long as possible, but in my eighth month of pregnancy I could no longer justify a car with only two seats. As soon as I’m an empty nester, I’m going Miata shopping. Four years, seven months to go. Not that I’m counting.

What was your first car?

The Burden of Proof

Competition among nonprofits for donor dollars has always been stiff, but Giving Tuesday takes the competition to a whole new level. The marketplace of need has never been so cluttered. If you’re reading this blog, you’re online; if you’re online, you’ve seen plenty of appeals for money – these pleas seem to make up at least 90% of online content today. If Giving Tuesday had overlapped with the recent ALS fundraising frenzy, the Internet might have spontaneously combusted but for all the buckets of ice water sloshing around.

What’s the best approach to Giving Tuesday, and giving everyday? Which organizations will be the best stewards of your hard-earned money? Even if you believe whole-heartedly in the mission, how can you tell if a particular program or approach is effective?

Go ahead – ask for proof. But please don’t ask for too much.

Most nonprofit organizations can measure two kinds of things: activity and outcomes. The best organizations generally measure both, but not always. As a donor, it’s important to know what an organization measures and why.

Measuring activity is fairly simple. A food pantry tracks how many people come through the door and how much food gets distributed. A community center measures how many teens and adults participate in its programs. A children’s theater counts all performances at inner city schools and the number of children who attend them.

Metrics like these used to be enough, but thanks to resources like Charity Navigator and GuideStar, donors today probe deeper. They ask about overhead spending and administrative costs, and they definitely ask about outcomes.

Outcomes are extremely important. To demand detailed outcome measurement from every charity, however, can present a burden so great that collecting the data detracts from completing the mission.

Let’s use the example of the children’s theater. Let’s say this organization’s mission is to bring age-appropriate performances to underprivileged kids in their school environment. The audience is almost always new to theater and has never seen a play, heard a concert, or experienced performance art of any kind. Their schools can’t afford an arts curriculum and these children don’t have access to art in their homes and communities. If the children’s theater asked for money on Giving Tuesday, would you give?

Some donors would ask if the theater’s work makes a difference in the lives of the children then serve. A valid question, but not one that is easily answered.

Some of the children who see the shows are profoundly impacted. They may go home and describe the performance to their parents. They may ask their teachers to help them find books about the play. The show may spark a life-long love of theater or storytelling in some. Maybe a fidgety little boy sat at rapt attention for the first time all year, his eyes glued to the stage. Maybe a shy little girl finally came out of her shell at recess, imitating the characters.

All of the above are important, positive outcomes, but they are hard to prove. Unless they hire staff to follow up with each school and collect anecdotal stories about student behavior, or unless they create a database of children who see their shows and follow their academic and social progress through the years (privacy rules make this practically impossible), the theater company can’t rigorously prove anything.

Does this mean its work has no value? Of course not. Sometimes the burden of proving so is just too high. Trying to measure outcomes might strip scarce funding from the actual theater work, resulting in fewer performances and fewer kids served. The marketing materials probably feature quotes from delighted children or appreciative school principals, but not hard data. As a donor, maybe you’re comfortable with that because you believe what the actors do – that they are making small differences by giving their audiences something no one else will give them.

I’m not inherently against outcome measurement – large organizations with multi-million dollar budgets that serve hundreds of thousands of clients can and should invest in the tools to prove their work is effective. But as someone who has seen small, high-functioning organizations take their eyes off the ball because donors were more interested in the scoreboard, I’m wary of outcomes for outcomes’ sake.

Sometimes it’s easier to find donors who already believe, and who are willing to relieve their favorite charities of the burden of proof.

On this Giving Tuesday, may all worthy organizations find such donors. May we all give generously. And may we all be thankful that no one is asking us to dump buckets of ice water over our heads again.


What the Giving Factory Gave To Me

logoI am sedentary, sitting at my desk writing this blog. My torso is slumped in a chair, my fingers are poised over a keyboard and tapping away – because I’m a writer and a consultant, this is my normal. Yesterday, I left normal behind for a couple of hours to volunteer at Cradles to Crayons in their Giving Factory.

Several dozen volunteers listened to a brief orientation and were given our marching orders.  I was directed to “shop” for children in need. One at a time, I took slips of paper from the top of a daunting stack (this is work that never ends) and learned a little about a child I would never meet.

My first assignment was to shop for “Diana,” a 2-year-old girl who wears size 2T/3T. According to her list, she needed clothing, diapers, a winter coat, and boots.  I wheeled a shopping cart around the neatly organized warehouse finding the correct items in the right sizes, and packaged them together with a label so that when her social worker or case manager came to collect them, they would be ready.

Volunteers working in the Giving Factory

Volunteers working in the Giving Factory

I surprised myself by enjoying my shift so completely. I felt warm and fuzzy when we wrapped up and the time flew by so quickly!  Driving home, I realized why the afternoon made me happy. 

This volunteer job perfectly engaged the mind, body, and soul.

My brain loved the activity.  I think for a living, which is highly overrated. The brain needs balance – it likes to work, but not too much.  Shopping for Diana and the many, many other children demanded attention to detail but wasn’t overly taxing. It was focused work but not intellectually challenging work. If my brain were doing aerobics, it would still be able to maintain a conversation. I had just spent 2 hours in a cerebral sweet spot.

The rest of my body was deliriously joyful to be unshackled from my desk. My fingers forgot all about typing and productively gathered clothing and loaded the cart; my eyes were checking shoe sizes and matching colors instead of staring at a screen. After 2 hours of my normal work, I’m usually sore when I stand up; my neck often hurts because I unconsciously assume weird positions when I write. In the Giving Factory, no one sits still. 

My mind and body weren’t so overwhelmed by the shopping tasks that I ever forgot why I was there. Each time I picked up a new packing slip and read the name of another child somewhere in Massachusetts, I felt a tug on my heartstrings.  In some volunteer jobs, you wonder if your work is making a difference.  In the Giving Factory, no one wonders. Every finished “kid pack,” as they’re called, will get delivered to the child whose name is on the label. Each one of those children desperately needs the contents of that kid pack.  To see it all come together is good for the soul.


Kid packs ready to be picked up

Cradles to Crayons proudly tells volunteers how many kid packs it will make and distribute this year (45,000) and how many Massachusetts children it will serve (75,000).  But they didn’t tell us that walking into that warehouse would be so rejuvenating. They let their thousands of volunteers figure that out for ourselves.

A quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. adorns a large wall just inside the Giving Factory. In huge letters, his words remind us that “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”  At Cradles to Crayons, everybody is, because everybody does. Cradles to Crayons Photo1

18 Weeks to 26.2 Miles: My Marathon Training by the Numbers

Ready or not, I’m running the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014.

This race will be inspiring, emotional, thrilling, crowded, grueling, and competitive.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it – no way can I prepare for a marathon with this kind of mental baggage.  Last year’s tragedy at the finish line guarantees that this year’s race will be heavy with meaning and symbolism.

There used to be a sidewalk here...

There used to be a sidewalk here…

If I think too hard about what this marathon means to me and to Boston, I’ll spend the next 18 weeks sitting here at my desk churning out heart-wrenching essays and crumpled Kleenex rather than pounding out the necessary miles.

So for now, I’ll sticking to the cold, hard facts about my training (cold and hard perfectly describes the thick layer of ice currently covering every single running route within 10 miles of my house).

Zero: the number of pounds I’ve lost since I started training.

Everyone warned me this would happen but I didn’t believe them.  With all this running, how can I not lose weight?  Maybe I’m just building muscle (this must be the most over-used excuse of all time but it is such a good one).  Possibly my early carbo-loading regimen is to blame. It is unbelievably easier than the running regimen.

Five: the number of years I’ve lived 2 blocks from course.

boston-marathon-19For years, I’ve stumbled out my front door with chilly fingers wrapped snugly around a coffee mug and wandered over to Commonwealth Ave to watch first the wheelchair racers, then the elite runners, then the incredibly fit masses, and finally the true commoners who bring up the rear.  I’ve cheered, I’ve clapped, and I’ve thanked God for blessing me with enough common sense to know better.  Who on earth in his right mind would run 26.2 miles when not being chased by a lion?  What was I thinking when I signed up for this?

Sixty-something: the number of songs I will listen to during the race.

I’m an unapologetic ear bud runner. My playlist is part tribute to the 80’s (my glory days) and part new stuff my kids find.  I’ll hit “shuffle” in Hopkinton and see what shakes out.  Will I hear Indigo Girls ballads while I run through a tunnel of Wellesley students?  Will Queen’s ever-motivational “Fat Bottomed Girls” play as I climb Heartbreak Hill?  My life experience has taught me that God has a sense of humor, so I’m thinking yes and yes.

Seventy: the age I’d have to be to meet the women’s qualifying standard at my expected pace.

Alas (or thank goodness) – I am not yet 70 years old.  I’ll be tremendously impressed with myself if when I turn 70, I can still run at my current 43-year-old pace.  Based on the time standards, I’m as likely to qualify for the Boston Marathon as I am to win the Nobel Prize or become a Hooters waitress (even though I’m slow, I have a “runner’s build”).  And the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) doesn’t give special consideration to other talents such as blogging – not even for writers who can use “Nobel Prize” and “Hooters” in the same sentence.

Five Thousand: the number of dollars I need to raise for charity.getcashforsurveys1

Of the 36,000 official entrants in the 2014 marathon, about 30% of us are running for charity.  The sweaty stragglers tromping through faster runners’ discarded cups and empty gel packets have an extra reason to celebrate crossing that finish line.  I will be crossing for Sole Train, a running and mentoring program that’s part of Trinity Boston Foundation.  In their words, they “aim to inspire the city’s youth to realize their full potential and accomplish goals they never thought possible.”


I may not be a city youth, but this suburban mom got caught in the crossfire of their inspiration anyway.  By necessity I’ve become a shameless plugger for their cause, which is now my own.  Click here to help me with my fundraising!



Time for me to sign off – I think I see bare pavement where the ice is beginning to melt, and the roads are calling.  The miles need running.  I’m all about the numbers.


On This “Giving Tuesday,” Go With Your Gut

After stuffing ourselves nearly comatose with turkey and pie last week, Americans everywhere are grateful for the clever little weekday nicknames telling us what to do in the immediate aftermath: “Black Friday” is the day for standing in a freezing line outside Best Buy before madly racing toward electronics we can barely afford. “Cyber Monday” is the day for pretending to work while surreptitiously searching the web for the best deal on designer handbags.  And today, “Giving Tuesday,” is the day to write checks to our favorite charities.

But wait – is it OK to just support the charities we believe in?  Don’t we first need quantifiable proof that they have low overhead, maximum efficiency, and measurable results?

On this Giving Tuesday I’ve been bombarded by links to articles and essays telling me how to evaluate charities and how to know if they deserve my dollars.  I recognize most of the advice as “industry best practice” and “supported by all the experts.”  There was even one essay I thought was exceptionally good.

But sometimes I ignore it all.

I think we’ve gone way overboard in expecting charities to prove that they are making a difference.  Do I want to know that a food bank is actually distributing food?  Yes.  Do I want to be certain the food is going to people who really need it?  Sure.  Do I require evidence that those clients are better off with groceries than without?  Nope – I just believe it.

kids readingI also know an organization that buys books for poor preschoolers.  These are children who don’t have many books in their homes and haven’t heard “Green Eggs and Ham” eight million times like I did as a child, and like my own children did.  Measuring the impact of such a program requires collecting data from busy, sometimes transient people and keeping track of their children as they move on to school.  It’s hard, and expensive.  So can I just have faith and believe that these books make a positive difference in the life of each child?

Yes!  I believe it.  Does that mean I’m a bad philanthropist?

No – it means I trust my gut.donate

A few disclaimers: I don’t dispute the basic premise that nonprofits and charities should be well run and effective – and true to their missions.  No one wants to give money to an organization that offers sky-high salaries, gilded offices, and free Starbucks coffee yet serves only a handful of clients.

In addition, large nonprofits with big budgets and copious resources should absolutely invest in tools to measure their impact.  That’s how we learn what works and what doesn’t.

But smaller organizations that do awesome work at a grassroots level, providing high-touch service and helping their very deserving clients overcome one insurmountable challenge after another – they should be freer to focus on those clients and their immediate needs.

After many years of volunteering and serving on boards and running fundraisers for a variety of nonprofits, I’ve observed an obsession with outcomes that sometimes defies common sense.  Donors demand it!  Foundations want to see impact!  I get it.  But when a bare-bones organization is practically spending more money and resources trying to measure its work than it spends on the work itself, priorities beg to be reconsidered.

Nonprofits, donors, and foundations aren’t unique in sometimes missing the forest for the trees.  Actual scientists – who are supposed to be smarter than the rest of us – have also spent time and money proving the obvious. The National Institute on Drug Abuse sponsored a study that revealed – wait for it – that taking both cocaine AND alcohol together is worse than taking just one or the other. 

Also in breaking news, this study shows that going bald can be upsetting for men who preferred having hair! Even more unbelievable: apparently The British Medical Journal (BMJ) decided that the scientific research canon wasn’t complete without this study proving that sword swallowing can be dangerous.

So here’s my pearl of wisdom for Giving Tuesday: go with your gut.  If a charity sends out a funding appeal on embossed linen stationery that’s delivered by a horse-drawn velvet and mahogany carriage, you can pass.  But if a local organization asks for money to match kids with mentors or to help women fleeing domestic abuse go back to school and find work, consider just believing that those actions make sense. Check out their websites, call someone in the office to ask about their programs if you want, and GIVE.

Tuesday and every day.