It’s complicated

Since I just posted about how social roles affect social values, here’s a scenario we recently had in my Critical Thinking class.

A man and his son are involved in a car crash. The father dies on the scene and the son is rushed to hospital. On arrival the surgeon on duty says “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son!” How is this possible?

Contextualizing it kind’ve kills the question.

God didn’t do Best Practices

The best Sunday sermon I have ever heard (out of 2, the other having been when I was 8 and the pastor was my aunt; but that’s beside the point) went generally as follows:

The 10 Commandments are unique both in practice, and in form. Of the 10, there are 6 social rules, 3 religious rules, and 1 thoughtcrime (the numbers vary a little depending on dogma, but not by much). Importantly, there are 8 “do not’s” but only 2 “do’s”. God is nearly giving you a free ticket to ride (it was a hip pastor): He didn’t spend too much time on the affirmatives; as long as you stay away from those few simple negatives you can do whatever you want (at least in His eyes).

Of course, we have problems even with that, so there’s another 60ish books (and counting) to fill in the blanks; but that’s beside the point.

Chasing Best Practices

At work we’re pushing the idea of Honest Practices over Best Practices. Honest Practices are stories and analysis that include both successes and failures—the latter being something nonprofits often omit (or reframe). Our focus on developing Honest Practices stems from frustration with the meaninglessness of many “Best Practices” that are out there. From Wikipedia:

A Best practice is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer problems and unforeseen complications. Best practices can also be defined as the most efficient (least amount of effort) and effective (best results) way of accomplishing a task, based on repeatable procedures that have proven themselves over time for large numbers of people.

Despite the need to improve on processes as times change and things evolve, best-practice is considered by some as a business buzzword used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things that multiple organizations can use for management, policy, and especially software systems.

As the term has become more popular, some organizations have begun using the term “best practices” to refer to what are in fact merely ‘rules’, causing a linguistic drift in which a new term such as “good ideas” is needed to refer to what would previously have been called “best practices.”

I really want to toss [[Citation Needed]] after the suggestion that “good ideas” is a suitable replacement for what was formerly known as Best Practices. But that would be too Honest.

Catastophizing and other thought distortions

This week’s topic in my Critical and Creative Thinking class is stress and stress-relieving exercises. I get a kick out of the table of thought distortions brought on by stress from Challenging and changing stress-producing thinking by Felice E Miller published in the Western Journal of Medicine, 2001 January; 174 (1): 49–50.

“Catastrophizing” also reminds me of old woman in the film Underground that continually says “It’s a catastrophe!” (or “katastrofa” because it’s Serbo-Croatian/BCE)—which my girlfriend and I like to repeat ad naseum.

Table 1

Common thought distortions and how to challenge them

_ Distortion _
_ Challenge _
Magnification or minimization
Overemphasizing or underemphasizing one aspect of the situation: “I didn’t check out with the patient if he understood the reason for the medication”; overlooking other factors that may be important
Using black and white thinking: “My colleagues are going to think I am incompetent”; are there shades of gray?
Taking the situation personally and ignoring the total picture: “It’s my fault”; what would I say to a colleague in the same position?
Stress-producing language
Using words such as should, have to, must, need rather than would like, want: “I should never make a mistake”
Pessimistic thinking
Thinking of the situation as permanent, pervasive, and personal: “I’m never going to have the respect of my colleagues” or “I’m not suited to this profession”; rather than temporary, specific, and related to factors beside myself 3
Is this unfortunate incident a catastrophe: “I’m going to be sued”; if the bad outcome happened, what would/would not be the consequences, and could I handle them?

West J Med. 2001 January; 174(1): 49–50.

Welcome Grassroots Users of Technology

This weekend is the Organizers’ Collaborative’s (and our 20 wonderful sponsors’) 10th Annual Grassroots Use of Technology Conference (still time to register!). I’m President of the Board for the Organizers Collaborative, so I’m a little excited. Even more so because I got top billing in the Program Booklet:

Welcome. We gather to celebrate as much as continue learning and sharing. When we began this conference 10 years ago, we expected computer and internet technology to become more important to advancing our vision for a progressive future. What we could not imagine then was that these tools would become the engines for political and social change we seek today.

When we met last year there was tremendous energy and excitement: the rapid-fire exchange of ideas and dreams was contagious as we hoped that we could finally turn the corner. I hope this year’s conference lacks none of that energy; but today we have an even greater opportunity for reflection on the tools and strategies we used, and the challenges we still face.

There is any number of emerging technologies and tested strategies I could highlight, but that would miss the power of what we have to build upon. At the heart of any technology lies our own unamplified voices and minds. I am excited that we can gather here today to use and develop these very human tools: together we can better imagine the world we wish to live in, and the technology we’ll use to create it.

In 200 words there isn’t a whole lot of places to put things, but I’m satisfied that I nailed the important stuff.

In the beginning, God separated Heaven and Earth

Biblical news from Academia:

Professor Ellen van Wolde, a respected Old Testament scholar and author, claims the first sentence of Genesis “in the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth” is not a true translation of the Hebrew. …

She said she eventually concluded the Hebrew verb “bara”, which is used in the first sentence of the book of Genesis, does not mean “to create” but to “spatially separate”.

The first sentence should now read “in the beginning God separated the Heaven and the Earth” …

She writes in her thesis that the new translation fits in with ancient texts.

According to them there used to be an enormous body of water in which monsters were living, covered in darkness, she said. …

She concluded that God did not create, he separated: the Earth from the Heaven, the land from the sea, the sea monsters from the birds and the swarming at the ground.

That doesn’t make for great dogma, but it fits in with my thoughts on consciousness: it’s the continual process of creating meaning by separating something from the nothing at the corners of our consciousness (not to mention beyond it) that is the world around us. The fun of consciousness is taking control of that process of separation—which is why I spent so much time rewriting that last sentence.

Perspectives on Building Power

Flitting around on, I came across this review of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals:

As a VISTA “organizer” in Columbus, Ohio(1969-197):CMACAO)I heard the name of Alinsky quoted like biblical scripture. I read excerpts from his writing and suffered through several seminars led by his disciples from Chicago. As I explained to one(garbed in a suit with short hair-cut in contrast to pseudos garbed in hippie gear and “hair down to there”)I disagreed with many of the implications of his mentor because they seemed to be based on ENVY,INDOLENCE and IGNORANCE of the organizees and that the stirring of conflict for its own sake was counterproductive and created new dependence and an ensconced Underclass.

The man asked me what I did in VISTA (at my idealistic age of 21)and I told him I taught GED classes for adults and moved a lot of donated furniture to the apartments of poor folks.He stated that what I did was “practical” and not really the Alinsky thing.

After VISTA I spent three years in the Army(USAREUR/NATO duty).It was non-combat, showing the flag as a trip wire threat to the now defunct USSR. But it put the Vista time in perspective. Most of my buddies in Vista were pseudo hippies and draft dodgers (my room mate had spent 4 years in the Air Force as a Russian language translator). Half my Army buddies had served in Vietnam. The point is that Alinsky was a “guru” for middle class ingrates with pretensions to “playing” revolutionary. (Mark Rudd;Bernadette Dohrn etc). And they had a field day encouraging students at OSU to walk-out of class during the disruption of campuses in the spring of 1970.It was a Felini movie. Alinsky’s book as the script.It was a game.RULES FOR RADICALS was his money-making,”rock-star” text(sucked-up by college kids with names like Obama and Clinton).

The most important/impotent chapter in the opus is “Tactics” (pp. 126-164). At he center of this chapter are the 13 rules on how to raise hell by creating guilt. He left-out the 14th. “Organizer potential “organizees”usually have one set set of “values”incommon~ENVY;IGNORANCE; & INDOLENCE(or you can plant them in varying degrees!).This unwritten rule for targets turn the struggling person into the malcontent that the organization(say, ACORN)can use and abuse for their own glory and self-apotheosis: HENCE President Barack Obama,”the dream of his father Saul.D. Alinsky.” Read this mess and laugh/weep at a con artist at his best.

The reviewer gave the book 3 out of 5 stars.

Millenial Nonprofity Exposition

I was recently invited to participate in a blogging alliance of millennial nonprofity folks. Which is pretty fitting considering I am of the appropriate age range, employment and that “nonprofit” is the largest tag in the tag cloud in the sidebar of this blog.

I can’t speak to any teleological path leading me to where I am today. I can though give the short and contextualized version:

In 2001, as I was preparing to graduate from high school I really wanted to do AmeriCorps (or the military, but my parents were strongly against that). I also hedged my bets and applied to some state colleges—being in California I had some decent options. Unfortunately my AmeriCorps dreams were cut short when my entire application packet (motivational essays, letters of reference, etc.) was lost by the USPS… or so I assumed since no one from AmeriCorps was ever able to consistently return my phone calls. So I went to college.

Three years later, as I was preparing to graduate from college I was looking for things to do. My parents were strongly against me enlisting the previous year (when I really wanted to go) and my friends now in the officer’s program weren’t singing many praises either. I was accepted into Teach for America; but after taking their welcome packet’s advice and calling some alumni, I was told that the benefits I really wanted—structured personal and professional development—weren’t there. The post-graduation internship I really wanted at a local defense contractor didn’t come through either. So I (re)applied to AmeriCorps. To my glee, the new application packet now came with a FedEx envelope. So I moved to Boston to serve in AmeriCorps.

Five years later, I haven’t moved far from that. Working within and with nonprofit organizations has afforded me a lot of flexibility in the work I do and the people I do it with. I find myself driven more by excellence than by mission. Mostly I enjoy the direct problem solving and latitude I have: I haven’t worked myself out of a job yet, so there is obviously room for innovation.

If that’s not a millenial memoir, I don’t know what is.

Janets Spiral Periodic Table

Janets Spiral Periodic Table

My office bookshelf fell off the wall today; to lighten the load I decided to read something on it: working in an environment of higher education, I pickup a lot of junk books:

Above is Janet’s Spiral Periodic Table from E.G. Mazur’s Graphic Representations of the Periodic System during One Hundred Years

(1974), cited in Punyashloke Mishra’s_ The Role of Abstraction in Scientific Illustration: Implications for Pedagogy_ (1999) republished in Carolyn Handa’s Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Got all that?

I had to scan Janet’s Spiral out of the book since I couldn’t find it on the internet. I did find Alexander Roy’s patented and $14.95 Desktopper. He seems to tout it as originally his, but it’s trivially Janet’s Spiral Periodic table if you stuck your finger into each spiral and pulled up.

**Update: **

_ Having just printed off and built the paper template included in the patent application, I must admit the design is a unique and  innovative._

Below is from the patent:

Alexander Periodic 1 Alexander Periodic 2

Nonprofit Budgeting Scenario

While cleaning up some files, I came across this awesome scenario I wrote for our AmeriCorps*VISTA orientation last summer. I wrote it to give our new service members an idea of what it’s like to enter a small community nonprofit organization in contemporary times: under-staffed, under-resourced, broadly missioned, lacking in a comprehensive strategic plan. Most importantly, the nonprofit in this scenario lacks a well-prepared board… which is the role you play in this scenario.

I pasted the text of the  scenario below, though you can download the whole thing along with the budget worksheet in a word document(.doc).

Nonprofit Board of Directors Roleplay:

**Rural Food Services **

Mission: “SERVING the needs of Spring County


You and your table make up the Board of Directors of a small nonprofit organization: a rural food-bank that also houses a community radio station. As the Board of Directors, you are responsible for setting overall strategy: balancing the health of the organization with the needs of the community. Every year you create an Annual Budget that provides the Executive Director with the expected income and expenses she is to manage. Unfortunately, you were just informed by your primary funder, a Private Foundation, that due to the current economic climate, all funding will be cut by 50%.

Using the following information about the organization and the community—and your own experiences and imagination—together design an Annual Budget that balances expenses with the newly reduced income. There is no “right” answer.

You have been provided with a Budget Worksheet to help you understand the current expenses and plan your cuts. Do not sweat the math so much as what your overall cost-cutting strategy is.

Be creative, but remember that this is a very common scenario that nonprofit organizations find themselves in.

At the end of this activity, your group will be asked to briefly share your budget with the room. While you do not need to go line by line, you should summarize your overall strategy for the budget, where you had to make major cuts, and the impact you expect those cuts to have upon the organization, its services and the community.


Your organization, Rural Food Services is the only Food Bank in rural Spring County. Covering 1,200 square-miles, Spring County has a population of 40,000 , an average age of 42, and a median income of $22,500. Light commercial (call centers) and light manufacturing (automotive and industrial parts) are the primary employers. And a WalMart Supercenter.

Rural Food Services was founded in the early 1980s to provide free and reduced-cost food and staples to rural Spring County. It is the only Food Bank in Spring County.  20% of residents (8,000 people) in the county receive aid from the Food Bank each year.  The food itself is donated from distributors and the government, but Rural Food Services must pickup and store the food, dispose of rotten or expired food, and comply with licensing and inspection requirements.

In the year 2000, the organization applied for and received a low-power, non-commercial radio license. Since then, KSRV has been broadcasting local news, disaster alerts and community-produced stories from a small studio in a former storage room.  KSRV is the only non-commercial radio station serving Spring County, and the only radio station that consistently covers local issues. All programming is created locally by volunteers, but Rural Food Services must pay for music licensing, antenna-tower rental and equipment maintenance.

Rural Food Services depends upon volunteers for nearly all of its operations. In addition to the Executive Director, the staff only includes a Finance/Operations Manager, a Grants/Fundraising Manager, and a Volunteer Manager.

**Current Circumstances: **You have just been informed that your primary funder, the Pierpont Memorial Trust, has decided to reduce all grants by 50% because of the current economic climate. Though your organization receives a mixture of private and government grants, individual donations and earned income, this news will severely impact your organization in the coming year. Tough decisions have to be made about how to cut costs with the knowledge that the need for your organization’s services has not lessened (they have most likely grown). The questions you must tackle include:

  • What do you think the organization’s priorities are? Immediate and long-term

  • What values do you think the organization should protect? Internally and externally.

  • What sacrifices are you willing to make to get the organization through the year?

In addition to cutting expenses, Rural Food Services has two “Earned Income” strategies for creating income based on their services, though each has its own drawbacks and implications.

  1. Sliding Scale Fee charged to individuals using the Food Bank depending on their ability to pay. Increasing this income increases the amount charged to Rural Food Services’s clients.
  2. Underwriting (advertising) for the Radio Station from local and national businesses. Increasing this income will reduce the local/independent focus of the station’s community-led programming.

Lastly, income from Individual Donations (“Individual Giving”) has been left open. While the current economic climate forecasts a decrease in individual giving, you could recommend the implementation of aggressive individual fundraising (especially from “Major Donors”); though such a strategy would require significant inputs of staff time and resources.

The Budget Making Process:

As the Board of Directors, you have control over how much money is allocated for specific expenses (“line items”) in the budget. For example, “staffing” or “rent”. You must take into account the impact of that reduction upon the activities that money is used for—though ultimately it is the role of the Executive Director (not yours) to cut costs within a particular line item. For example, you can decide to cut staffing costs by $20,000, but it is the Executive Director’s role to decide whether that becomes an across the board pay-cut or the elimination of a position. You still must take into account the impact such a cut will have though and make a recommendation for what that cut will look like.


Reduce Staffing by $20,000 - The Volunteer Manager position could be reduced to half-time. Volunteers themselves could take over some responsibilities.

Reduce Equipment Maintenance budget by $5,000 - Try to stretch things out. Seek equipment donations if necessary.

Stop providing Health Insurance - Staff can apply for individual coverage (a de facto pay-cut)

Budget Worksheet: this can be downloaded in the attached Word Document.