Friday, February 27, 2015

I'm not in love with my apartment, but I guess I'll stay

I live in what you can call a high end apartment complex by Gainesville standards. It has the nice Victorian windows, the premium downtown location- which is close to shopping and restaurants but equally near to the city's homeless. The historic feel, although for my wheelchair it means more and more getting the front wheel stuck in the cobble road, the convince of many buses. You pay a hefty premium for the location- the walls are thin, the apartment may feel moldy at times, no utilities are included, the countertop finish feels and look cheap, but at least you can walk or wheel places. The complex is one of the most expensive in the Collier's portfolio and for years and years the rent went up. At least I could have said that I felt like, as much as I paid to be here, they cared for my tenant experience. I don't know what happened in the last year or two, and it's of course extremely subjective and some may find it unfair, but I don't think they care anymore. Maintenance crew used to pick up my trash from in front of my door- that was part of what the management agreed to do for me as I first moved there as I'd have to get over a step if I wanted to carry my garbage myself to the collection site. They stopped checking. The wheelchair ramp they built for me is now missing some bricks and makes it a bit harder to wheel over it. A few weeks ago I had my dishwasher unscrew itself from the cheaply made sponge like countertop that seems to expand with moist- tilt and fall on me a few times. I have not had a good run at this unit- which was supposed to be an upgrade. On day one I was faced with a dishwasher that had a dead motor. It was then replaced with what I can only describe as one of the cheapest appliances on the market. This may sound silly- but for weeks I regretted the switch as the one I left behind had a sanitize mode, while the new one often left my dishes wet and smelly. I know, you shouldn't make a decision about a move based on a dishwasher, but to me it's a good indicator of how much they valued me as a tenant. But what gets me the most is how the management tends to plan ever inspection- sprinklers, fire alarms, fire extinguisher- a day or two in advance as if it's something they could not have figured out with adequate notice. Don't people have jobs? In strikingly similar fashion they plan special events, typically designed to get you to renew your lease. I know, I know.... I don't have to be there, but then I don't like for strangers to be in my apartment- with my valuables, credit  cards, sensitive documents without be being there. I have more technical crew in my apartment now than I used to when I stayed at a "student living" property from the other end of the spectrum in Collier's portfolio- and they were allowed to inspect my bedroom over there every few weeks. Did I tell you about the things that don't work? During the Thanksgiving weekend I was stuck with a loud window unit as my AC gave out. It was a loud little machine that had a pipe you've put outside your window. The AC unit itself was so old that when it had a Freon leak it  had to be replaced and couldn't be fixed. Knowing my struggles with that, the management had the bright idea to schedule the replacement of the water sprinklers in my apartment the next day. Not only did I again- have strangers in my apartment three days in a row, that seemed to be surprised with everything they found in my AC closet or ceiling (how old can it be?), but after making a few holes they made a mess and  just left. I felt I shouldn't be the one to clean after them, to get on my knees from my wheelchair and clean the drywall off my kitchen floor, so I did insist they come back and clean it and they did- a week later. All of this - and not even an apology, not mention any kind of rent concession. I'm in a wheelchair- if you make a mess and just leave it, I will just track it on my wheels all over the place. Nobody seems to care- and that to me is the worst part. And  with rent going up every year and me growing more and more disenchanted with Arlington Square the time will come that the cost of being here will not be justified by the experience. It hardly is this year- but they make you decide by the end of February. Even though I don't like it, I will most likely renew my lease. Because I'm in a wheelchair and moving far is always a complication that I will avoid if I can. Getting people to help me, packing, unpacking. I didn't even have time to look for a suitable place. And for now, it still has some value for me to live Downtown. I'd say not for much longer though. But I doubt that anyone cares. They were too busy leaving renewal notices and candy at my doorstep to ask about my actual experiences.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Photoshoot

On Friday I did something I don't get to do very often. I took one of my best suits out of my closet, I put it on and for a few hours I posted for pictures to remind everyone that I'm first and foremost an attorney. I might be in a wheelchair, I might run a non profit and be a disability activist- and between all those other things it's easy to forget that in many ways I'm just like the people you find behinds the desks of big law firms. I have three law degrees and I'm licensed in two jurisdictions. Unfortunately, my wheelchair doesn't help to get that point across, it doesn't scream "capability" or "power". So when my Foundation's creative director requested to see some new pictures of me, she opted for a more traditional look. It's been a year since I had my headshots taken and they were outdoors. It seemed like a fun idea at the time, but it wasn't practical and much of it was not usable. And of course she had a point. "You're very... unconventional"- she said or something to the effect of a nicer way of saying that disability, wheelchair and cerebral palsy is not something people traditionally associate with the word "lawyer"- so we have to put you in the most traditional of legal settings. She will then use those pictures not only on the foundation's website, but for a page she's been putting together for my upcoming law practice. I can help my foundation and myself best if I establish  myself as a lawyer in my community first. People need to start seeing me as an attorney. "If you were more known as a lawyer, then we could have played around with a more modern setting and environment"- she explained, but I got the point and I agreed with it. We  needed  a law library and an office, a suit and a tie, play down the wheelchair, play down the disability. It took a while to set up, between the photographer I hired and a friend who had an appropriate location to put their schedules together.

Unfortunately,  I don't have a law office of my own, but the place we went to was perfect. You couldn't help but be impressed between the wooden bookshelves filled with tomes of Federal Reporter and the big conference table that still impress you although you know nobody really uses books for research anymore, but this sends the right message. A lawyer works here, doing what other lawyers do. And I wish I could say I felt we were staging something, but although the tablet and the netbook I brought were not even charged and served as props I felt I belonged there. This is the type of a law office I will have one day. And although the books were probably mostly for show the wooden finish on the walls, the bright light coming into the room had my crew in awe of this scholarly atmosphere and the vast legal knowledge contained. It's about projecting the right image, the wisdom, the skill, the experience and I've made first steps to have people seeing me differently. Yes, I hate pictures. I gave the photographer quite a task to figure out how not to make me blink, as I'm faster than the flash and the camera shutter sound, I say it's quite a talent. And yes, I hate wearing suits, but I'm always in one when I go to a courthouse or an agency so I don't wear them often. It's easy for things to twist a bit in different directions  when you get in and out of a wheelchair. It's easy for a jacket to get caught in my wheels and buttons don't make me feel comfortable. But the underlying message I want to send is to all my future clients is, I can help you and you can trust me. And to get there I need to build my image up a bit.  And yes, sometimes this means pretending to be on a phone for a picture or pointing to things on a screen that isn't there. Because what matters to me, as fun as it is to dress up, smile, not smile, make faces once in a while - is that underneath the clothes I know I do a good job. But people often don't get to see it when they look at me, because my image doesn't go along with what I have done and what I will do for other people. One thing is certain- it made for a unconventional Friday afternoon.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

F for Florida

My non profit has long struggled to find it's identity. The logo said "DAAF", the full name added  below itwe called it FDAAF and there is the word "Florida" in the Foundation's full name. The image was prepared with the future in mind I guess, but the truth of the matter is, while we dream of having some of our products down the line to expand nationwide, we don't expect this to happen for at least the next two or three years. And we can't allow for what we are doing right now to be tainted by some illusive vision of the future. We have to focus on the "now", otherwise there will never bee a "then". I did tell my Board members to dream and think big. But I what I didn't mean was to do those big thigs right out of the box. My goal was to not let our size or local scope limit anybody's creativity. But we are a Florida non profit. I think that when we were looking at the logo, a perfect opportunity for national branding, combined with the actual need for more accessibility and more awareness of disability rights and issues not only in Florida, but across the nation we got over excited and ahead of ourselves. And we also thought, a logo is just a logo, it's only a piece of graphic, a brand, we can do it whatever we want it to be. We are not gonna get "there" anytime soon and I'm find with that. There's nothing wrong with being local, there's nothing wrong with being connected to a smaller community. I wouldn't probably go as far as to focus on Gainesville or the Alachua county, but the state gives us plenty of people or projects to work with. It's perfectly fine to not think of what we're doing now as a stepping stone, although we'll continue to think of ways to do more and help more. I'm perfectly content running a nonprofit that isn't planning to be a big national institution and just do our work well. Whatever happens, happens. But for now, it's a big sigh of relief for us as I feel we're pretending to be something we're not and overextending ourselves. The naming and branding was confusing for everyone. Our webdesigner, our PR person and ourselves as we were figuring out in what terms to talk about it. There's nothing wrong in admitting that we are small. That we are here; That we are local, that we will work on small budgets at least for the next 2-3 years which is as far as our planning takes us, not to get us somewhere else but to get the projects done. Our Creative Director unveiled our new logo a few days ago. It now features the letter F before the DAAF, a change you might find is cosmetic, but that signifies our change in direction. That we are happy to be "here" and "now", that there are things that we need to do, before we can even think of doing anything else and if we don't ever get there, that'll be fine too.  It was our mistake to push a brand that was one thing,  but meant something else. Thinking about that duality just took time and energy. Well, no more. We hope to avoid getting our sponsors, volunteers, donors and the media all confused. Florida, we're coming home.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Wasting talent

Today my non profit is a 501(c)(3) charity. We have the Florida solicitation license and we are exempt from the state sales tax. Our USPS rate application for tax exempt entities is ready to be sent off and we're looking into getting a permit to fundraise at the DOT rest stops and Welcome Centers. My Creative Director just revised our logo and gave us our new letterhead. We have claimed and edited our presence on GuideStar and Causes. There are people working on our website. It's moving forward and although it's unfortunate that it's actually live as people add content to it, it will be done in a week, maybe two. We have secured our Google Grant with Youtube and Ads components as well as got involved with TechSoup for some software solutions. And I know see that this is where it actually starts. We have built the foundation to actually build a Foundation. With all the elements we need, we are finally becoming a "real" nonprofit. And I know that I've expressed this sentiment in many other ways before, but having that bare minimum now made me think of how much talent we've wasted along the way, because we were not ready to receive what they could give us. Because we couldn't give them what they needed to in turn do what they do for us. Over the last few weeks I've been mostly filing applications and receiving permits. I know that our Director of Resources is putting together a strategy to get us the funds we need. I don't know what it is yet, but whether she plans to focus mostly on grants, send volunteers off to public highways, have an event, an online fundraiser or do a mailing campaign I want us to be ready. I want her to her pick of going any route she can think of and give her any fundraising tools I can. This in turn made me again think about the time that we were in flux, that we weren't ready, that -I think- we recruited some of the most professional volunteers prematurely, wasted their skills and their time, frustrating them and ourselves in the process. Two people that stayed on board av year later are my Resource Director and my creative. I think quite frankly that we didn't have our vision formed at those stages yet, and it may had been a nifty idea, but it was incredibly unfair to have anyone else step in to figure it out for us. I've also learnt that not everything I was planning can be accomplished with volunteers. It was our Linked In recruited Creative Director who pointed out that building a software developing team- something a recruiter can take weeks to put together may not be the best idea, their good intentions aside, using randomly matched volunteers with different schedules, skill-sets and tempers. (FDAAF main mission was to develop an app for the disability community). She then suggested we go at it another way. Strengthen our core charity fundraising activities, recruit volunteers in that direction instead and find a way to pay for it. With her we also developed a new project strategy. What we want to build as our minimum mission over the next three years. There'd be more of course if funding permits, but if there isn't we'd be content with that. Our volunteer management strategy has also changed. No more recruiting everyone all at once. They'll come along as needed, as we develop more in certain areas. No more expecting other people to come in and give me answers I should have about my organization and the things I don't know. With all those coming together, it's an exciting time for me- I see possibilities. I see where we can take this if we do it right. And it seems to me we are finally doing what we're supposed to, instead of waiting on a volunteer to come in and magically fix our non profit. The FDAAF website is not much to look at yet, it doesn't have a donate button, but it changes everyday. The only active recruitment operation we've had in weeks was "content writer" and I think we're set for the moment. Either way, if you visit you'll see my dream come to life.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A wheelchair friendly dog.

Many dogs are not used to a wheelchair.  And it's something that pet owners easily forget or don't realize. Since it's something they've never seen before they either find it scary or intriguing. I noticed  most react in one of three ways, and each one has the owner embarrassed and apologetic if their pet passes me on the sidewalk or even sees me from a far. Some freeze, panic and refuse to move. The man sitting in this thing with big squeaky wheels must be a terrifying  encounter The owner calls the dogs name, then yells it, then pulls on the dog's leash. Then he ends up having to pick it up if it's a tiny animal or somehow move it, because all it sees and all it's focused on is the chair. Then, there's the protector. How do I know my neighbor from the building across is walking the dog? I hear it as soon as I go outside my door. It's barking loudly, all it has to do is see me and it must be really confused when its owner is trying to get it to be quiet. It's being such a brave dog after all, defending its owner from the strange wheeled machine. And I guess don't really understand how brave dog is and how strange the chair must be, because it doesn't give up or look away, or get quiet. This when you get your typical "I don't know why he/she does that, he she usually loves people. To most dogs I'm not people. I'm a sitting down hybrid with big wheels. And then there's of course the type that considers everything that rolls and turns a play thing. Throwing itself at the wheels of a bike or a wheelchair, pounce as if it was a big toy. My good friend has a dog who had known me and my wheelchair for as long as it can remember. This resulted in it having no self protective instinct as it sees the wheelchair rolling its way. The puppy would get on the wheels risking me hitting it or rolling over it's paws as it would get dangerously close to stick its head everywhere. You never know with dogs.

 So imagine my hesitation when my former neighbor invited me over to his new apartment to work on some copy for the Foundation's website. I knew he recently picked up a dog from the pound. The one he had before liked me or at least tolerated me, while it wasn't as fond of the people I brought along. I have never met this one, though. My neighbor had the good sense of  taking it for a walk to my apartment as I was getting ready. That way his puppy got to meet me in a neutral setting. Wow. Is that the friendliest dog I have ever met. Between all the licking, leaning on my lap and running he wouldn't leave me alone. As we were working the puppy wouldn't come down for a minute. My neighbor explained that he was looking for a less outgoing dog and in the pound this candidate looked more reserved. Boy, was he wrong. His dog got so excited that he had a guest that he had get put away in his crate, just to let us work. And then wouldn't stop crying. It's worth nothing though that medium to large sized dogs are usually more calm with wheelchairs and the small ones in my experience make a lot of noise.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Can a volunteer become a future position?

One of the main problems I hear smaller non profits bring up when dealing with volunteers is making them understand that their position will not become a paying job down the line. There was no money, there is no money and there won't be any money. And I wonder if that is not a mistake. Now, don't get me wrong- I'm not talking about all the people who apply for volunteering positions thinking that they can talk their way into an employment. I too have been in situations where a "Volunteer Web Designer" ended up asking for $200 to create a web design. By the same token, I don't think there's anything wrong with talking and thinking about the future. And just like the volunteers we recruited for something often end up finding their strengths in something else, what started as a volunteering position may over time and organically become something else. It's my belief that any nonprofit as part of its mission of helping whomever or whatever it was formed to help needs to grow to help more and do more and in the process- react and adapt to a changing landscape. I also don't think it's wrong for a nonprofit to have a long time goal of having the resources needed to carry out its mission better and for me, in the long run - being more efficient means having professional staff. People perform better and feel better if they can afford to dedicate themselves fully to the cause, without having paying job and clients competing for their time and attention. There are positions that will always be not compensated of course. Board members are traditionally not paid for their time served on the Board where they guide the organization, establish direction and policy (but when they're involved in a different capacity as well, being officers which can be taxing and demanding that may be a different story). We will also rely on student volunteers for your basic grass roots, community and campus connection efforts. But what about everyone else? What if there's someone you really want to keep?
My Creative Director hates asking people to work for free, primarily because in her own time she was approached about a number of "portfolio building opportunities". Assuming that people will work for free, to their fullest, sacrifice their time and energy passing over gigs that pay just because you have an attractive mission does sound a bit like you're taking them for granted. She approached me with the idea that we both agreed worked better than simply having an endless stream of volunteers coming in and drooping off. I was straight with my team. Give me six months to a year of your time. It's my goal for it to be in a position where I'm able to hire people and I pay them. If it happens and we establish full time positions you'll be the first ones we offer it too. If in the meantime you find a job on your own and you wish to part ways with us, that's fine. If a year passes and nothing has changed then we have failed as organization. I believe that creating a "cut-off" point in time for yourself is also necessary for your own mental hygiene. A time has to come where you look at your efforts and where you are and it either working or not. If it isn't you must ask yourself at one point, how much more can you dedicate to it and are you equipped to fix it. Otherwise you'll continue to repeat the same patterns with no hope in sight. I'm not saying you need to have the most accomplished organization in your field but work towards some signs of stability, so that it doesn't rely on you to go on. I also think that talking to people honestly about where you want to take your organization and what you hope to accomplish structurally gives them hope and motivation, shows them you have a vision and we're all working towards something together. Some of it feels personal to me- because I've been with organizations where I felt I like I had an uncompensated full time job with them. I was doing things that they didn't even care I did, but I was taking upon myself to create those opportunities for them, because quite frankly no one else had time to. And as many of my volunteers today I wanted to turn it into something permanent, but they were never in a condition well enough to get there. Shame, too, because I would have given it my all. I volunteered for a few years and when I couldn't carry on having a job without pay I left. I felt I did it for as long as I could- and there was never any hope or any discussion of turning things around. They liked it me for as long as I was there, when they left they didn't mind either. Something was missing. That's why without falsely promising something that I can't deliver I have honest discussions with my volunteers. I don't like where we are- and so I will try to change it over time. I'll do what I need to do to make it grow. And for me it's a scary yet exciting adventure. And those who volunteered with us today are embarking on a journey with us and what they do and their input has actual effect on what it shapes out to be. But one thing I'll never do is expect them to volunteer forever or assume that they would because they have spare time to do so. Limit their time and limit yours. For their benefit and yours.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Wheelchairs, detours buses and vans

On Sunday afternoon I was set to do shopping like I do every week. I try to get to the bus stop at 3:30 at the latest, as the last run home is at 5:30 and I'd be stranded otherwise. I find that two hours is just enough to grab a sandwich and get some groceries. The bus usually comes every thirty minutes. Didn't come this time. I figured I just missed it. No big deal, I can wait a bit longer. Another 30 minutes goes by and I see my bus taking a left turn instead of going straight down like it does every day. What's going on? Is there a detour? Have the adjusted the route? Is there a bicycle race or an art fest that they shut down certain streets for? I check the Gainesville Sun website to figure out if there's an event in town I haven't heard of.  Usually, when a bus stop is temporarily closed there's a notice attached to it. I looked at it, but there was nothing. I looked at the one across the street. Nada. I decided to look for information on the transit system's website, they usually post raider alerts on closures and changes but there was not a word on it about it. I texted by bus driver friend to ask if she new what happened with most of the buses downtown (some others occasionally showed up, mostly on the other side of the street). She said she didn't know. If it was a planned event she'd get an an email about it, but she didn't, maybe it was an accident? An accident... I thought and decided to wait a bit longer. It was after four already. I figured I was not going shopping this week after all. But then a driver from a different route saw me across the street and asked if I was waiting on bus 1, which I was. I asked her if she knew why it wasn't coming, she said, she didn't know, but she would call it in. Some twenty minutes later she shows up on my side of the street and says the supervisor is coming to pick me up in a van. She still didn't know why. The supervisor did come out with a van and drove me to the shopping center. As it turned out, GRU- the utility company asked for a last minute closure of some streets that morning. I still don't know why some buses were driving up and down third avenue, while others didn't but at least I got to the store. The bus service really came through for me as I was ready to go home. As I got to Publix I had an exactly one hour to get back to that stop. I've never done it before, but hey I like a challenge. Grabbed some items in a hurry, spent the least I had in weeks, but if I have my protein bars, energy drinks, coconut water, vegetable juice, cold cuts and cheese I'm happy. I went to a sandwich store, but with 25 minutes to go I didn't really have time to sit down and chew so I took it to go. The driver apologized and apologized although none of this was his fault and I didn't really mind and he wondered if he should have used the business card I gave him to text and warn me. One thing that I do think about all of this is that the city should really have a better way of communicating between all of its bodies and branches. It's not some external company planning this, it's all Gainesville. Overall, an interesting day. Not something I'd ever expect as I went to bed last night.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Go see the Oscar nominated shorts!

It became my annual tradition to watch the Oscar nominated shorts as they hit my local arthouse theatre. Two hours of live action and two hours of animation played together in blocks make for four hours of a cinematic experience as I usually watch them in a row. I usually don't care as much for cartoons, especially since often they're in some modern, progressive style where every frame looks like it's individually colored by pencil to make the images vibrate. I love the live action ones though. I find to appreciate the short form much more as I don't have as much patience to sit through a two hour stretched out feature anymore. Shorts are less concerned with following a structure of a "movie" and focused instead on telling a good story. It can be as little as 15, 30, 40 minutes- the creator's imagination is endless and there's usually no unnecessary filler. It seems like the form allows them to experiment with themes and subjects and presentation as well, more so than a traditional "independent film" label allows. I wish shorts as a format were featured more widely than theater sets, reviews and retrospects- the concise form seems to be to the point, makes an impact and stays with you. This year, or should I say this week- I doubled up on my Oscar viewing extravaganza by adding documentaries to the mix. I felt I had to. Two of them were produced in Poland, and although I've never heard about these movies before (although at least one created some media buzz back home) and- despite having a busy week I'm really happy I decided to go. I'm if you will, a "documentary kind of a guy", I'm not into over intellectualized cinema or things that are overwhelmingly depressing, but this I liked.  Those who visit my blog for my insights on therapy, rehabilitation and special needs childhood, will appreciate "Our Course"- the entry from Poland. It's about a family coming to terms with the newborn baby's condition as it first comes home. What's unusual is the rarity of the condition itself, the mechanics and the work it requires, not so much what the parents actually go through as they learn to accept it and make it a part of their lives. The baby has Ondine's Curse- it must be hooked on to a machine that helps it breathe at nightime, every night, for the rest of your life. The condition is scary- as the parents say it themselves- every night their child is at risk of dying. If he falls asleep unsupervised he may never wake up. So we see machines and tubes and hear the ventilation noises but otherwise it's life as usual. I do think the director, who I believe is the father filming himself, his wife and the baby as they mostly talk and drink wine- could do a better job showing them as they come around. Although at the beginning they're afraid of both being able to pull it off and what the life will be like for their son, a lot of times they're exhausted, they're in fear when the equipment malfunctions and they're once scene when they discuss if he'd ever attempt suicide when he's older, as they go forward there's never a moment of doubt shown. Out of the Live Action Shorts I loved the three women stories, because they never turn out what you expect them to be. In "Aya" a woman practically impersonates a driver and drives a musician from an airport, across Israel on an impulse. Sally Hawkins is astonishing in "Phone Call", an amazing emotional exchange between a suicide hotline worker and a man planning to take his life. One strange element I focused on is that her character was working only with a notepad and her office had no computers or supervisors waiting to jump in. The HBO documentary- on the very same topic- although specifically a US veteran suicide hotline- that I watched the next day showed us more of the highly computerized mechanics of what it takes to safe a person rather than to just talk them down. It was strange and interesting to see the Live Action and the Documentary shorts days connected thematically. What I liked the most was the second Polish entry- Joanna. I've never seen the topic of death approached from such a heartwarming perspective. I don't know how else to explain it. As the woman was coming to terms with the finality of her days she wants to teach her son the most, live life to the fullest and equip him with as much love, knowledge and wisdom as she possibly can. Apparently, the woman was (as she since passed in 2012) a famous Polish blogger who documented her struggles with cancer and was told she had months to live although she actually was able to turn that into years. She has the most eloquent, involved conversations with her son as she wants to learn about him. What he feels, what he likes, how he thinks, what makes him tick. For a child this age (for a child any age really) he has a very elaborate, poetic vocabulary. But if you glance over his mother's blog that I must confess I did, it makes sense. The film doesn't shock us with tubes or pills or machines, although apparently Joanna herself was a controversial, in your face cancer activist. But that's not what the movie's about. It's also not about her husband, who as it turns out is a convicted rapist and many have accused him of exploiting her (they met only months before her diagnosis and her son is not his). Apparently he was scheduled to published a book, now canceled and the movie release stir up some controversy as well. She developed quite a following through her blog, many were rooting for her, helped to get resources for the film to be made. The release was held back for a few years. Now, with Joanna landing the Oscar nomination- and being one the most thought provoking and beautifully shot films in recent memories, a lot of people who felt personally invested in the project  now feel excluded, as make money off it. That shouldn't discourage you from seeing it. The film is about Joanna- living -not dying, her son, their talks and nature. There's no death and very little fear. It could have easily been set in a XIX century Polish village. It's a movie that makes you think, but not depress you and out of all of them it stayed with me the most

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Dealing with Volunteers

I keep hearing the same story over and over from a number of different non profits. They put some time and effort into recruiting a volunteer. They pick the best candidate... who then vanishes without a trace. It's not uncommon for the key players in other small charity for advice. We've been for the most part in the same boat. I've been active on the Linked In volunteer recruitment platform for a year now and I do think that some experiences have made me wiser. But that doesn't mean I always get it right and I get people to stick around every time. I've never had people in key positions just take off without an explanation (not at my current non profit at least, the charity that I worked at before I established this one had different experiences), but I did have people resign. Some as early as the first week after being picked. There's a lot of reasons for it.  Many people get excited about the cause that speaks to them, but lack the needed skills, the creativity, the leadership that's required, the drive or the vision. Feeling excited about something is not good enough of a reason to get involved. Similarly, you soon learn that you can't accommodate everyone that wants in. And as nice it would be to have all the people with disability that applied carrying my  charity's mission (and having them would speak to donors no doubt) "having a disability" alone doesn't make them necessarily a good fit. So, how do you retain volunteers (and should you in the first place)?

1. Volunteers like structure. When we first got started, we were in the process of figuring out our business plan for the form 1023, 501(c)(3) filing. I soon noticed, that being in a setting that is pretty much in a flux is  outside of the comfort zone for most people. They were asking for procedures, policies ( such as a  anti-sexual harassment  policy) that I felt given the early stages of the organization was too early to think about. They wanted a more traditional, corporate setting. This seemed counter intuitive because part of the reason to bring these people on in the first place was exactly to develop these procedures and strategies and figure out what else is needed. But the advice I give anyone before they recruit anyone else- figure yourself out as much as you can to give them in turn as much as you can to work with. If you don't, chances are your volunteers will seek it anyway and -what happened to me- propose advanced plans,  elaborate chains of command, filling the blanks in the only way they know how and that gives them comfort.

2. Don't assume volunteers will care as much as you do. Non profits of course exist for the public benefit and don't have owners. The point is they must carry on the mission long after you're gone and in a way that is independent of what you'd like it for it to be and where you'd like to take it. That's why we have successions plans and elections - so that there is a supply of fresh blood and new ideas. That said, don't assume a recruited volunteer will care as much about a project you created as you do. Figuring out everything from scratch in a collaborative group environment where everyone has a voice is often a nice theory and theory only. You can't assume everyone will be involved to the same extent and therefore, I believe you should decide what kind of corporate setting you want to create and how  you'd like people to relate to each other.

3. Make tasks manageable. Not everyone is comfortable building things from nothing without much guidance and direction.  "Help us build this plan" or "Figure out that strategy" is something we've asked many people before and I suspect it made them panic- and combined with how broad the task was and how much work was needed, combined with the lack of structural support - because we didn't know any better - eventually scared them away. A non profit out of the box is more like a start up than an established corporation. For many people the role of giving form and shape to something will never be a good fit. The reason why I tell the story of our Creative Director and how well she's working out is because she is- that key word again- independent and creative enough to know how she needs to do things to make them work all by herself.  She fills in the blanks by using her best judgment, but that's a rare quality. I'm willing to give her a free hand and that's why it's working out and she has the good sense of not asking me things I don't know. For most other people you need to figure out what you them to do and when, as broken up as possible in a way that they can grasp.

4. Volunteering is not a job without paying. People usually have jobs that they are paid to do. If they don't they're on a lookout for one and as soon as they find one, they may distance themselves from your non profit. The Linked In for non profits program, by using the same mechanism they have for seeking employment essentially suggests that the two are at least functionally equivalent, it isn't. If  you work full time - volunteering at a non profit is not a second full time job you take on in the evenings and on the weekends. I've had a Board member try to carry on this scenario for about a month, he couldn't do it and then he quit completely. Our non profit, not his job.  And yes, the non profit needs the same type of work done as a paid employee would do, but assuming someone would apply themselves in the same way at both is not realistic. Also the goals of a "volunteer" job post and a paid post are entirely different. I do think Linked In should address this in their fee structure somehow. When you hire an employee, you recruit them, you sign a contract, you're done. The point of getting a volunteer on board is not simply picking one (maybe it's not just one, maybe it's two, three or four to do the one person job) but getting  them to stay on. This is where the pay-per-posting model doesn't really work in my opinion.

5. Volunteers will not always stay on. It's the nature of the beast, but learn to receive what they give you and move on. Focus on the tasks they complete to get you that inch further. Figure out a strategy that will allow you to replace one volunteer with another, so that you don't fall to pieces when one person drops off.

6. Don't nominate new Directors too quickly. Since you're not paying them, the position on your Board is the highest "honor" you can give to a volunteer. Not to imply of course that your entity is an amazing creation anyone should aspire to join, but when you do nominate them right off the bat,  you have nothing more to offer. And then you give it away even before they get to prove themselves. And remember: some people simply don't work out. Do you really want to go through whatever procedure you have in your bylaws to get rid of them later?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Why don't women eat at bars"?

A friend of mine asked a question not too long ago. Why do women choose to wait for at a table in a restaurant rather than grabbing a stool and sitting by the establishment's bar and ordering food from the bartender. She tried it and loved it, as it gave her a new perspective. Guys, according to her- do it all the time.  I was reminded of this question as bars, restaurants and anything with a big screen TV were when many Americans spent their Sunday evening. It was the Superbowl weekend. As I was out grocery shopping earlier that day and then grabbed a sandwich I can attest to the fact that wherever everyone else was it wasn't the usually busy Publix supermarket and Firehouse Subs. Whether you're a fan of the sport (which I still don't get) or just watch it for the most extravagant commercials of the year or the pop event of a half time show, chances are if you are in America you opted to join with crowds all across the nation to eat bar food, grab a slice of pizza, drink beer and cheer. Many of my friends do it at actual bars. And I don't know about women- I'd say that avoiding unwanted advances from men definitely contributes to it, but I can tell you why I opt for a table experience while not being keen on fighting off hordes of people trying to order as I eat. And no, it's not only because a bar is often too high to eat anything off if you're in a wheelchair. I've been known to order corn nuggets or tofu squares but that's to share with friends around me and yes, it's sometimes hard to reach. If I go to a restaurant and order a pricier meal I like the experience that goes with it. That means taking my time to chew and having my space- either by myself or those who join me. For those few moments I'd like to be separated in a way from the rest of the room. It doesn't mean that I'm unfriendly or will be unkind to anybody that walks by to say hello, but I don't encourage a full conversation while I try to fish things out of my plate either. This is also the moment that I can talk without yelling with those I'm having a dinner with. When- after the meal- we head to the bar for a little drink- the conversation is harder and the bar is louder. And then we invite the whole world in, and that's fine too, but it's more like a dessert. For me fine dining is an experience. And that experience requires time, mood and is a ritual. If I wanted a quick meal when I swallow things whole, I'd go to McDonald's. I suspect a lot of people feel the same way.  I also am not to keen on people watching me eat. Those who have business lunches with me notice that I rarely chew anything as we talk. I catch up when they look away or excuse themselves. It's not for public viewing. Also, to be quite honest- food smells. And that's probably not too appealing when you just had a meal. A friend of mine would meet us at a late night bar and then devour a full course dinner with ribs and broccoli. She'd be the only one eating as we were next to her drinking. It really wasn't fun. Also, bars get busy. If there's a special people line up, shove and push to get through any opening to get to a bartender and order. I know I wouldn't like crowds pressing on me to get through me. Also, typically if you're just one or two people the wait is never that long, although you might get one of those blinking coasters for a few minutes. I eat, I come up to a bar when I'm ready to grab a drink and socialize. And that's also something I look forward to. If you asked me why I- a guy no less- don't like ordering food and consuming at the bar, I'd say first and foremost for the elevated experience before and after and to not disturb others with the dirty, smelly food.