What Cooking Teaches Me about Management

Over the past five years or so, I’ve really devoted much of my free time to teaching myself to cook. I’m no chef by any stretch of the imagination and I live in the shadow of my mother, who’s like a gourmet in her own right, but I do all right and I’m committed to getting better at it.

Tonight I’m cooking flank stank marinated in red wine vinegar, soy sauce, shallots, garlic, and thyme, for example.

But I realized, having just come from a board meeting at work, that cooking has done a lot to inform the way I look at running a business.

1. You have to have a plan before you start, especially when trying something you’ve never done before.
Amateur cooks really have to use recipes religiously when learning to cook because they provide structure to the endeavor, but they also train cooks how to think about a dish as a whole. Recipes encourage sequencing, which is akin to strategy—understanding how step a leads to step b and so forth. I’ve said about 80 times this month that it’s easier to chart a course than it is to turn the Titanic.

2. You have to know what you need before you start.
A mistake I sometimes make is not reading the ingredient list thoroughly enough, or not preparing something to be chopped or whathaveyou before it gets into the pot. It’s a good reminder to myself to understand what resources will be required to accomplish a task in my organization, to think critically about what we have on hand, what we’ll need to go out and get, and what needs to be transformed before it can be used.

3. The ability to improvise is an art in and of itself.
Although having a plan is critical to starting, things don’t always go as planned. Anyone who’s ever managed an event can assure you of that. And true for cooking, too. If your eggs are expired or your greens wilt unexpectedly, knowing what you can substitute without a loss of flavor, quality, or color is important. A friend of mine who also loves to cook was telling me about a show he watches where the host teaches you the science of cooking, explaining, for example, how mayonnaise exists in an emulsion without separating. It’s through lessons like that, by understanding how ingredients work together, that cooks can make smart choices.

4. Patience is more than a virtue, it’s required.
Once you’ve put all your effort into the dish, sometimes you just have to let it simmer before you can dive in. Baking works this way and it’s often just a leap of faith from raw dough to finished pastry. To paraphrase an adage, watching the pot won’t make it boil. It’ll probably just get nervous or uncomfortable.

5. Multiple levels of evaluation are essential to revising formulas.
When tasting a new dish, you think about its color, its aroma, its flavor, its texture, even how well the dish goes with different side dishes or beverages. Thinking critically about each factor discretely and collectively provides the cook with essential insight into what works in the recipe and what needs to be addressed. A program or organization is no different.

University to Pay Off Student Loans for Students Who Work in Public/Nonprofit Sectors

Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., announced yesterday that it plans to help pay off the loans of its undergraduate and graduate students if they work for a nonprofit group or a public-sector employer, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The amount of loan reimbursement will depend on a student’s loan burdens and income levels. The new plan also applies to alumni in public-service jobs. Tufts officials said the program is the first of its kind in the country to promise this level of education-debt relief to all undergraduate and graduate students.

My Pet Issue #5: Equal Pay for Equal Work in the Nonprofit Sector

I feel like if organizations won’t pay their employees a competitive salary, then they are obligated to recognize the deficit between the for-profit and non-profit industry salaries as actual in-kind financial donations that employees can then write off their taxes.

Click for full article.

As nonprofit groups increasingly compete with business and government employers to attract young workers, many people in their 20s and 30s are pressing charities to improve salaries, offer greater opportunities for career development, and do more to promote the diversity of their work forces.

In follow-up conversation to a survey of 1,650 released by the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network last year, which found burnout and low salaries threatening to drive young charity workers away, members of the group held a conference here to discuss how they can bring about changes that will reshape nonprofit organizations in ways that make them more inclusive and give greater opportunities to emerging leaders.

All pigs are created equal, but some pigs are more equal, and other pigs work for nonprofits where they aren’t paid the value of their labor.

I mentioned in class tonight that I get very concerned when I hear a nonprofit leader say something like, “I know we don’t pay our staff what they would earn in the for-profit world, but then again, they get to work in a job doing something they really love.”

And so it happened today that some such statement was made in a room full of conscientious, well-intentioned graduate students studying the world of public administration and nonprofit management, and my response, that it concerned me, sparked an enormous debate.

Well, debate might be exaggerating it. They were all on one side of the fence, and I the other. My position:

The entire nonprofit sector believes its own PR now, that making a lower salary than for-profit counterparts is not just how it is, it’s how it should be. But that’s not how it should be, because our employees are impassioned, loyal, talented, intelligent, committed to causes that others don’t even take time to notice. They better our schools, revamp our neighborhoods, fight for adequate health care, build houses, fund the arts, and on and on. These are critical duties.

And yet, any number of those talented people have turned their backs on higher pay to do something they love. They frequently work longer hours, put in more effort, take on additional duties, work outside their job description, mentor their peers—all because they want to.

And it is the nonprofit that benefits. The nonprofit not only earns back the salary shortage (in a sense), they also capitalize on the labor savings of employees who overextend themselves.

The man sitting next to me asked, “Do you believe, then, that we should take money away from programs to fund staff salaries?”

I said, “Absolutely.” He blanched. In the NPO world, there is supposed to be a delicate ratio of administrative costs/program fees/fundraising costs deemed “attractive” to donors. Pulling money from programs to fund staff upsets the “healthy ratio” and makes an organization appear top heavy.

But, I argue, if a staff member who is fully funded is also the most talented, most committed, most well-educated and experienced employee, aren’t they worth fully funding? And, furthermore, doesn’t the quality of their labor, the fact that the work they do to serve the mission also itself fulfill the mission?

And so, otherwise, why is it appropriate to serve one disadvantaged community all while putting another community at a disadvantage?

These are things I do not understand about my sector. But I’m going to work against this counterproductive philosophy whenever I can.

Vegas, More

I was in Vegas last weekend to attend the annual Americans for the Arts (AFTA) convention. It was my first time attending and it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. There were sessions on Leadership, Community Development, and Economic Development that were of interest to me, and I attended a few things every day. It was so unlike AWP—which, I have to admit, I enjoyed much more this year.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I took much away from many of the sessions. I did attend a really nice discussion of issues surrounding revenue-generating programs in nonprofits, and I also attended the absolute worst leadership session I’ve ever encountered in my whole entire life. Those were the highs and lows, aside from what I mentioned yesterday.

There were two parts that were of great value to me, though. The first was meeting and listening to the other members of the “Emerging Leaders” group (professionals in the nonprofit arts industry who have only a few years of experience or are new leaders in their organizations). They are an amazing, dynamic, smart, and interesting group of people, all so invested in what they are doing and why they’re doing it.

I also got to spend time with some other arts professionals from Arizona, and they were dreamy. Thanks, all!

As someone who organizes a conference, it is so interesting to attend other conferences. I routinely found myself thinking, “Oh, I would not have done it that way at all,” and “What a great idea!” depending on the situation. It’s helpful to experience–as an attendee–other approaches to conference structure and planning. I got some good ideas from them this year.

Principles of Nonprofit Employment in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A Case Study

There are several traits involved in working for and succeeding in nonprofit environment that seem fairly common across the board, whether someone works toward social betterment or in the arts sector. Over seven seasons, Buffy Summers epitomized the kind of moxy the nonprofit employee must embrace in order to create positive change in their community.

1. The nonprofit employee must experience his or her work as a calling.
In the first season of Buffy, we learn Summers has been “called” to duty by an ancient prophesy. The prophesy states that into every generation, a girl is chosen to lead the fight against the forces that seek to harm humans, and that Buffy herself is the most recent chosen one in a long line of former (now dead) Slayers.

Buffy’s work as the Slayer supercedes all of her other commitments. In school, she must constantly miss classes to train, stay up late and skip studying to fight vampires, or work within the academic environment to fight evil. Slaying comes first. In season six, when Buffy finally has to get a “real job” in order to pay the mounting bills, she has to battle evil at her job (the Doublemeat Palace) and rearrange her work schedule in order to be successful in her calling.

Work that is experienced as a calling comes to us as something sacred, something from which we benefit as we benefit others, and seeks to make positive change in the community on many levels. Those who experience their work as a calling in this way tend to be more invested and more passionate about the work they do: they are working for something “more” than just money; they are working for humankind. The pitfall, however, is that the nonprofit employee may then also make too many personal sacrifices to succeed at work, thereby putting their whole emotional investment in the job rather than their life. Buffy manages to offset this through her connections to her family and friends, who provide a necessary level of balance to her nonprofit work. This, too, is an important lesson for the nonprofit employee.

2. The nonprofit employee must know, value, and embody the nonprofit mission statement.
Early in the series, we learn of the Slayer lineage that, “Into every generation, a Slayer is born. One girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of their evil ways, to cease their destructive manners, to prevent the end of the world. When one Slayer dies, the next one is called. ” (I believe this version of the mission is explained to Buffy by one of her nemeses.)

This is a clear nonprofit mission statement. From this, we can gather:
1. Who is doing the work. (The Slayer)
2. What resources are used in carrying out the work. (special strength and skill)
3. Who the target of her intervention is. (The human population/the forces of good)
4. What specific steps the nonprofit organization takes to fulfill its mission (the statements beginning with “to hunt,” “to stop,” “to cease.”
5. How we can recognize when and if the work is completed (evil will end, monsters destroyed).
6. How the organization is staffed. (When one slayer dies, the next is called)

At the end of season 2, we get a clear sense of Buffy’s embodiment of the mission statement when she reveals to her mother that she has been battling evil as the slayer for almost three years:

“Do-do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or, god, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again.” (“Becoming Part 2”)

Buffy’s ownership of the Slayer mission statement and her recognition of the work required to carry it out make her an exemplary nonprofit employee.

3. The nonprofit employee must devote part of their time to fundraising, revenue generation, and donor development.
This is a complicated area for Buffy’s nonprofit work, since revealing her secret identity as the Slayer is perceived as endangering the people she loves. If the forces of evil knew her identity, they could, for instance, target her family for retribution.

In season six again, during Buffy’s financial crisis, she toys with the idea of charging for her services. Many nonprofits, especially these days, turn eventually to for-profit or revenue-generating endeavors in order to fund their community service or charitable work. These endeavors can range from bake sales to membership sales to ticket prices for events, but the end result is the same: the for-profit endeavors can only be undertaken if the end result is that it subsidizes the nonprofit work.

While at a bank applying for a loan to help her pay her bills, Buffy is told she has no collateral and is not a likely candidate for financial assistance. At that moment, demons rob the bank and Buffy fends several of them off, saving the loan officer in the process. Struck by an idea, she tries to use her services as the Slayer to barter with the officer to approve her loan, but ultimately, she has difficulty in developing a revenue stream there because her request is perceived as manipulating her audience rather than inspiring them to donate.

Later in the same season, Buffy does succeed in developing a donor/patron for her work: Giles. In the depths of her financial misery, Giles hands her a check—for all intents and purposes, a tax-deductible donation (were she incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization by the IRS)—to help her offset the overhead costs of her Slaying work.

It’s important for nonprofit employees to understand the importance of donor development in creating a successful organization; although 40% or less of a typical nonprofits income stream comes from private donations, these donations are generally some of the most flexible funding an organization receives because it often comes without governmental restrictions on its use or grant-specific project use.

4. The nonprofit employee must strive to develop an audience for his or her services.
Because nonprofit organizations typically do not provide “needed” services to the community, or because they work in low-income or disenfranchised populations who may not elect to receive services, the nonprofit employee must work hard to embed themselves in their community and reach out to affected or targeted populations in order to be successful.

While Buffy’s identity is supposed to remain a secret, she often goes into underrepresented communities to do her work, finally cultivating there a devoted and supportive audience. In “Anne,” for example, she works among the homeless, runaway youth of Los Angeles (who are sucked into a concentration camp-like hell where they labor tirelessly until death); in “Gone,” she infiltrates the Child Protective Services system in order to save her sister from “the system;” in “Go Fish,” she works among the high school’s swim team to prevent them from turning into, well, fish.

In the season 3 episode “Prom,” we finally get a sense of the return on Buffy’s tireless work to rid the world of evil. At her high school’s prom—which she barely makes because first she has to trap and kill three vicious hell-hounds who have been trained to attack anything in formal wear—she is honored and recognized by the senior class, who give her an umbrella-shaped trophy as the “Class Protector Award.” She is given a round of applause and thanked for her services.

5. The nonprofit employee must understand his or her impact on the community, often through data.
In the same episode (“Prom”), Buffy is recognized for her work in cultivating public safety. During the speech that recognizes her, the emcee includes some factual data to back up the claim that she is the “class protector”: the data collected by the class over her three-year period at Sunnydale High prove her successes: the class of 1999 boasts the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class at Sunnydale High.

Additionally, Buffy also receives gratitude from the people she saves. They thank her for her services, and then run like hell. However, one failing of Buffy’s work as a nonprofit entrepreneur is that she begins to lose touch with her community. In “Once More, With Feeling,” she rescues a man tied to a tree by several demons and vamps. The gorgeous young man, his shirt nearly falling off his body, reaches out to her and begins to thank her, assumedly with some kind of physical affection. Her reply, which cuts him off: “Whatever.” It is during this time that Buffy’s connection to her mission and community are at its lowest; even then, it is critical to listen to the population served, to gather qualitative data on the service delivery, in order to further the mission and better the organization.

In order to carry out both audience development and donor development, data like this are essential in educating the community about an organization’s impact. It is also useful when applying for foundation or government grants to support nonprofit work; those organizations typically prize hard data over soft data (like participant comments and other qualitative data). Soft data tend to mobilize private donors, who are more interested in “changing lives” than broad community impact; their focus on effects on individuals means they are more interested in hearing from individuals.

6. The nonprofit employee must know when it is time to close up shop.
Over her tenure as the Slayer, Buffy works tirelessly to end evil, dying twice in the process (but never staying dead for more than a few months), until, at long last, she rids her town of evil once and for all (“Chosen”).

She does this using an interesting method: first, she shares her sacred power with all of the “potential” slayers, who have been gathered in Sunnydale under her protection so as not to end the lineage of the Slayers. This is her largest community impact and it is a metaphor for the nonprofit employee who is so empassioned, so persuasive, that he or she inspires others through their work to take up the mission and work toward the same goal with her.

Once the Hellmouth (and, in the process, Sunnydale itself) have been destroyed, it is clear that Buffy has fulfilled her mission as the Slayer. Over the course of American history, a few nonprofits have succeeded in fulfilling their missions; their choice, then, is to close up shop or revise the mission. In the case of Easter Seals, they revised their mission to include working against birth defects rather than just polio (which was eradicated from the US); in Buffy’s case, she is reminded that there is still “another Hellmouth in Cleveland” should she choose to continue her work in a new affected community.