Credidero #11: Mortality

I have written ~32,000 words to date as part of my planned 2019 writing project, Credidero, including an introductory article followed by ten pieces in ten months reflecting on ten topics. Some of my regular readers may have gotten through all ten of them. Many probably haven’t. Without checking the data, I suspect that the ones with the highest readership levels were those that covered the more common, basic aspects of  shared life experiences, e.g. community, security, or authority. Pretty much everybody will have to think about these topics at some point, some of them fairly regularly, and many of those folks might be inclined to see what someone else thinks about them. On the flip side, I expect the more esoteric topics — say, absurdity, complexity, or inhumanity — would have drawn lower readership levels, simply because not everybody has a need to consider such concepts regularly. So why bother investing any time in my thoughts on them?

If I’m correct in this assessment, then this month’s Credidero article — covering mortality — should be the most widely read of them all, since it’s the only topic of the twelve I’m covering that every single human being who has ever lived, is living, and ever will live, has or is going to experience. Some of us will face our own mortality sooner, some later, some suddenly, some after terrible lingering illness, some surrounded by loved ones, some alone, some welcoming the final curtain with a graceful bow, some raging against the dying of the light. We all experience birth (thought none of us remember it, so we can’t reflect on it), and we all experience death. In between those points, the only things that we all will share are breathing, eating, drinking, excreting, sleeping, and aging. When any of those activities stop, we die. Everything else is noise, on some plane. Or vanity, to cite the more eloquent words of the Preacher, the Son of David:I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

King Solomon went on in his Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes to lay out a rubric designed to give meaning to our experiences between birth and death, beyond the basics of biological function. His crowning instruction was “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” but before that, he exhorted us to (among other things) enjoy life with the ones we love, seek wisdom instead of folly, cast our bread upon the waters, share our riches with those less fortunate, etc. But even if we follow all of the Preacher’s instructions, eventually the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” and forever [the dead] have no more share in all that is done under the sun.”

I cite Ecclesiastes here simply because it’s a relevant text in the faith tradition in which I was raised, so I’m most familiar with it, but I just as easily could have picked just about any culture in the world, ever, and found texts related to death and dying, and how to prepare ourselves for that imminent eventuality. The universality of mortality means that death must be among the most discussed and debated topics in human experience, and as each of us wrestle with its inevitability individually, so too do we seek to find shared senses of meanings about it, through practices designed to postpone and/or mitigate our fear of death, through rituals related to the disposition of our bodies, and through spiritual traditions designed to inspire or frighten us as to what we might experience after our final exhalations.

In considering mortality for this month’s article, I kept returning to the fact that there are really two aspects to evaluate: beliefs about what happens before we die, and beliefs about what happens after we die. Most faith-based and spiritual traditions put heavy focus on the latter, presuming that we all possess some unseen living essence that will survive the death of our bodies, and will either be reborn in some form under the sun again, or experience eternal paradise or endless damnation in some non-corporeal world. Typically, such spiritual traditions also provide rules for living our physical lives that are designed to heighten the probabilities of positive outcomes for our posthumous infinities. Some focus on litanies of sins to be avoided, some focus on lists of good deeds to be done. But in either case, all of our experiences, and all of our relationships, and all of our accomplishments in our brief (cosmically speaking) physical lives are ultimately just ticks on a tote board, elements of grades to be assigned in a final judgment, precursors to a metaphysical life that’s considered to be of infinitely more worth and value than our mean slogs through the mud of measurable human experience

As it turns out for the purposes of this series, I reflected on and wrote about my own beliefs regarding metaphysical life after death in an earlier Credidero article on eternity, so I won’t revisit them in detail this month. Suffice to say, I believe that when I die, I will not experience any lasting metaphysical consciousness or existence in any way that is identifiable as me, or by me. I will leave behind physical remains, of course, and I’ve left instructions that they should be burned, and my ashes be kept or disposed of as my surviving loved ones see fit. While I have always enjoyed visiting graveyards and cemeteries, I don’t wish to have any permanent marker placed with my name upon it when my time comes. While it won’t be my call, if asked now to identify a place where my remains most sensibly belonged for ceremonial reasons, I’d pick Stoney Creek Cemetery in South Carolina (some images and stories about it here). There are plenty of fire ant nests there, and in my sense of the perverse, I would find it apt for them to spread the little bits of me around the marsh over a period of months or years, the better to sustain whatever living things might find my constituent elements useful.

Neither of my parents will be there, though, should Stoney Creek actually be the final resting place of my scattered remains. My father is embalmed and buried at Beaufort National Cemetery (if you visit that Wikipedia link, I took the photo at the top of the page; my dad’s grave is just to the left of and below the huge live oak in the center of the shot), and my mother has directed that she wishes to join him there, an intention that I will honor as the executor of her estate. Neither of them were comfortable with the concept of cremation, and both of them place(d) high value on their remains being together in a dedicated location specifically managed as a memorial resting place for those who served in the armed forces and the spouses who sustained and supported them. So be it. I’ll honor those wishes. And I’ll likely continue to visit the cemetery and keep the graves clean and pause for moments of reflection. As one does. All good.

That being said, I’ve still never emotionally embraced the logic behind preserving a body with chemicals, putting it in an impervious (and expensive) metal box with fine decorations outside and within, then burying it all in the ground — especially in cases where the deceased believed that they are going on to some greater glory where their meat container is as meaningless as a shucked cocoon. Why preserve it? Why look at it before we close the box? Why keep it from the bugs and the plants that could make use of it? It seems most odd to me that we put such expense and effort into disposing of our bodies, beyond taking the most simple and effective steps to ensuring that our remains do not create health hazards or aesthetic displeasure to those who survive us. I suppose in the case of cultures like ancient Egypt where the Pharaohs believed that they’d need all of their corporeal bits in the afterlife it made some sense to keep things from decay, or if we expected to lie in state under glass, Lenin-style, for a couple of centuries. But within the precepts of most modern monotheistic religions that clearly describe a living spirit existing independent of its former body, it seems a largely meaningless excess and indulgence that preys on the emotions of the bereaved and plays into the funerary industry’s profits. But I know mine is a minority opinion.

(For a less jaded view on how our modern American funerary culture arose, I highly recommend reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Many of the elements of contemporary death rituals in this country, secular and spiritual, trace their histories to the ways in which our Nation endured and moved on from the carnage of its greatest historic convulsion. I specifically noted above that I do not emotionally embrace the modern practices of managing the death process, because I do intellectually understand how they came to be, and why people want them that way. It just doesn’t feel right to me).

So as I consider the posthumous elements of my own mortality, those are my basic beliefs regarding both the metaphysical and corporeal elements of what happens after I die. Which leads to the second element of the analytical dichotomy posited above: What are my beliefs about mortality before I die? Not to be facile, but the easiest way for me to answer that question on a macro basis is probably to post a picture of the tattoo on the back of my left calf:

Those words come from a song called “Amethyst Deceivers” by COIL, one of my all-time favorite musical groups, who were (the two core members are both dead) hugely influential to my creative and musical aesthetics. That quote, to me, means that I know death is coming, and that I should be mindful and respectful of that fact, and to the other living things that live with me, and will follow me, or even consume me, when I am gone. I’m a small organism in a big ecosystem, and all of us are doing what we do while we have the chance to do it, none of us any better or more worthy than any other. The sigil above the quote is the black sun, an alchemic symbol that represents the first stage of the magnum opus, illuminating the dissolution of the body, and the namesake of Harry and Caresse Crosby’s incredible Black Sun Press, many original editions from which I had the chance to research and work with in a prior professional engagement.

That sign recurs regularly in the COIL oeuvre (they were artists as well as musicians), including the lyrics of the song “Fire of The Mind,” (click the link to hear it), which I’ve suggested should be played at any memorial service held on my behalf. The song’s lyrics are as follows:

Does death come alone or with eager reinforcements?
Does death come alone or with eager reinforcements?
Death is centrifugal
Solar and logical
Decadent and symmetrical
Angels are mathematical
Angels are bestial
Man is the animal
Man is the animal
The blacker the sun
The darker the dawn
Flashes from the axis
Flashes from the axis
On the hummingway to the stars
Holy holy, holy holy, holy oh holy
Holy holy, holy holy, holy
Holy holy, holy holy, holy
Man is the animal
The blacker the suns
The darker the dawn

(As a related side note, for many years, I suggested the Velvet Underground’s “Black Angel’s Death Song” as my final musical elegy, though my feelings about Lou Reed evolved over the years to a point where it seems less fitting for me now than it once did. Still, that song’s lyrics, especially the last ones — Choose to choose, Choose to choose, Choose to go — speak to me, and I know its truly abrasive music would be terribly uncomfortable for the people being forced to listen to it in the stuffy confines of a church or funeral home, which appeals to me. Have I mentioned my sense of the perverse?)

So, is it morbid that I wear that COIL quote and image on my body, and will until my body is no more? I didn’t intend it to be so, and I don’t think that it is. The tattoo celebrates the memory of artists who moved me, it reminds me of my place on the planet, and it exhorts me to be respectful of even the least attractive denizens of our amazing living world, for even they have their places, and their roles. (The song “Amethyst Deceivers” also references crows, rooks, ravens, humans, and the toxic little mushrooms that give the song its title, also all things I like). Man is the animal, indeed. One of many. The COIL quote doesn’t make me think about death, it makes me think about life. It’s not telling me to dwell on the vultures (metaphoric or otherwise) that will consume me, but rather telling me to be in the moment, alive, now, mindful, and to acknowledge the vultures on the occasions when our paths cross, graciously.

For the third time in the Credidero series, I find myself returning to an old article of mine called “Seawater Sack Guy Speaks,” which I originally wrote as light parody or absurd satire, but which, as I get older, somehow moves closer to being a sincere manifesto of sorts, though it’s still a bit more extreme in places than my real views might be. The key quote relevant to the topic of mortality is this one:

I’m not going to be carrying any metaphysical seawater around any metaphysical heaven or hell when my sack breaks down and releases all its atoms, so I figure I should use every bit of the consciousness I’ve evolved, here and now, to enjoy my fleeting, warm, moist moment in the Sun. This is not to say that I’ve a problem with other sacks of seawater whose enjoyment of their own fleeting, warm, moist moments in the Sun involves the belief in something different. If such chemical processes provide them joy or comfort (or at least the chemical processes that cause their seawater to produce such sensations), then such is their right, and who am I to force my chemistry upon them?

I take joy and comfort from just being conscious, and consider that scientifically miraculous enough.

When I actively think about my own mortality, which truly isn’t very often, I usually end up thinking and feeling along the lines of that quote, rather than finding myself consumed with existential terror and despair. (I do recognize that this might change were I given three months to live, or were I a frail 95-year old). I don’t come out of any occasional reflections on my own mortality feeling like I must do anything and everything to push death as far away as I possibly can, but rather I come out thinking that, well, it could happen tomorrow, so I’d better do something I like doing today, and be happy doing it.

Sometimes that’s an active pursuit, sometimes it’s a passive one. I love adventure travel, as an example, but I can also have a really good day hanging out around the apartment, puttering, occasionally popping in to bother my wife with kisses and nonsense. It may not be an epic and memorable day, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. If all goes well, I’ll be able to do it again tomorrow. And I’m good with that, I really am. As someone who has wrestled with anxiety, depression, addiction, chronic pain and/or neurological health issues through different significant chunks of my life, I have learned to appreciate every day that doesn’t hurt, mentally or physically. Damned if I’m going to create bad days when I don’t need to by dwelling on the inevitability of my death until I make myself unhappy.

I will admit as I was researching the topic of mortality that I felt like I should sort of think about it in ways that made me unhappy, or at least uncomfortable, but I just couldn’t really make myself do that on any meaningful emotional basis. Maybe I’m too shallow or unimaginative, or maybe I’ve just built such strong walls between my intellectual and emotional states that I can’t deploy the former to excite the latter. I found the concepts of mortality salience and its underlying terror management theory to be the most interesting new (to me) things I uncovered during my research, but they remained intellectually stimulating, not emotionally so. The Wikipedia summary of those related articles explains that:

Mortality salience engages the conflict that humans have to face both their instinct to avoid death completely, and their intellectual knowledge that avoiding death is ultimately futile. According to terror management theory, when human beings begin to contemplate their mortality and their vulnerability to death, feelings of terror emerge because of the simple fact that humans want to avoid their inevitable death. Mortality salience comes into effect, because humans contribute all of their actions to either avoiding death or distracting themselves from the contemplation of it. Thus, terror management theory asserts that almost all human activity is driven by the fear of death.

There’s boodles of academic and popular writing out there to back up this premise, but it rings hollow to me when I try to apply it to my own life experience. If there’s anything about the concept of mortality that does make my soul quake on occasion, it’s not pondering my own departure, but rather pondering the departures of those close to me. I don’t have a lot of deep personal connections in my life, but the ones I do have are titanic in their import to me. If I were to outlive them all, then the ratio of “hurt” vs “doesn’t hurt” days would probably change pretty dramatically for me.

Most couples who have been together as long as my wife and I have will pick up inside songs or phrases that speak to the nature of the relationship in casual, affectionate terms. One of ours is a song called “More Than The World” by FREEMAN (the band that Aaron Freeman, a.k.a. Gene Ween, established during a hiatus from his better-known act), which features these lines:

I can’t make it alone
I’m too dumb to be on my own
I’ve never been very strong
I love you more than the world

That would be me speaking to her, not the other way around. And while it’s been a long time since I’ve had to test the theory, the “too dumb to be on my own” line is probably still true, so I’m more frightened by that future than I am by the prospect of my own departure. I do recognize that works both ways: while I might not spend much time or energy dreading my own flight into nothingness, those who love me likely worry about and fear my departure as much as I fear theirs. That’s the main thing that motivates me to consider longevity in my actions, despite my temperamental proclivities to embody that old joke about the stereotypical redneck’s final words: “Hey, y’all . . . watch this!”

But once again, what else can we do in the face of the ways that mortality will impact us, sooner or later, except live life to the fullest while we still can do so? As trite or pat as that might sound as a concluding sentiment for this article, it’s what I have believed, do believe, and hope to always believe. While death is ultimately just the absence of life, living is not just the absence of dying. There are so many things, big and small, that give me joy, and that I want to do, that it seems short-sighted to dwell on the time when such joys and desires are going to be snuffed out.

I’ve honestly spent more time thinking about death and dying this month as a result of writing this article than I probably have in all of the years combined since the early grieving stages that followed my father’s death in 2002. And once I finish tidying up this article and hitting the “publish” button, I’m going to get right back to happily respecting the vultures and moving my seawater around and loving my wife (and daughter) more than the world, because I can, and it’s good to do so, no matter what tomorrow might bring.

Your plumage looks very nice today, Mister Vulture. Respect!

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’ve used a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this eleventh article complete, I don’t need to roll the die again, since I know that December will be dedicated to that last remaining topic: “Possibility.”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Southernism in Song

I was reading an article about Dolly Parton’s heart-tugging 1971 hit “Coat of Many Colors” today, and it referenced a 2005 survey done by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to identify the 100 greatest songs of the American South. I had to see that list, of course, and finally found it on an old Prince fan site. “Coat of Many Colors” came in at #10, while Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” topped the list. That “winner” is an epic, important, amazing, historic song, for sure, though it kind of stings to think that lynching turns up as the subject of the most notable song from/about the region that spawned me and my kin for generations and generations. (And, yeah, for many of those generations, my ancestors trafficked in human misery as slave-owners, so maybe “Strange Fruit” is the right song for such a list, hmmm, and alas).

But that point of musical and historic darkness didn’t stop me from thinking about my own most meaningful Songs of the South, the ones that speak to my own experiences and understandings of the region over the past half-century, in all of its weirdness, implicit and explicit. My songs may not be as important or topical or well-known as the ones on the Journal-Constitution‘s list, but they do take me home when I hear them, or at least make me want some boiled peanuts and okra and country ham while they’re spinning. Here’s a baker’s dozen worth of the ones that resonate most strongly with me, for one reason or another, most of those reasons not anchored in explainable logic.

For those readers from the region, which of your favorites did that old newspaper and I miss?

“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by The Sanford-Townsend Band

“Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips

“Heartbreaker” by Nantucket

“Satan’s River” by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner

“Moving to Florida” by Butthole Surfers

“The City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie

“Driver 8” by R.E.M.

“Creek Bank” by Mose Allison

“Breakfast Song” by Minister Cleo Clariet

“I Love” by Tom T. Hall

“I’ll Take You There” by The Staples Singers

“Down On The Farm” by Little Feat

“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” by Washington Phillips


Nonprofit Management: Tips of the Trade

In 1996, I wrapped up 14 years of Federal service in a variety of military and civilian roles. I had already established a solid freelance writing business at the time, but I wanted a “day job” to provide healthcare coverage for my family and a stable salary base atop which my I could write what, when, and as I wanted. Most of my colleagues from Navy days facing similar transitions at the time went into the for-profit sector, but I decided that public service meant too much as a guiding principle for me to walk into a world where shareholder profits were at all a governing interest in my day-to-day work.

So I made a conscious decision to enter the nonprofit sector, where I’ve remained ever since. I had to essentially start my career over that year, since my acquired skills of negotiating complex, high-value, confidential contracts for submarine and aircraft carrier components didn’t exactly translate into the cultural, educational, and social service sectors. But I’m a quick learner, and it didn’t take long before I earned the first of four nonprofit chief executive positions that I have held to date.

As that phase of my professional life now winds down with my retirement from TREE Fund this month, I wanted to share ten frank thoughts that I think might be useful to the next generation of up-and-coming nonprofit executives. I would have appreciated having someone tell me some or all of these things in 1996, so hopefully others may find them useful. (Note: in the few cases where I’ve already written more on some of these topics elsewhere, I link to those articles, rather than simply repeating them here).

1. Understand the differences between governance and management: Nonprofit boards are tasked with governance, nonprofit executives are tasked with management. I developed this grid to explain the key differences between those roles. When boards manage and executives govern, nonprofits fail. As the chief executive of a nonprofit organization, you sit as the single crossover point person looking upward to a multi-person board that supervises you, and downward at a multi-person staff that you supervise. No one is in a better position than you are to monitor roles in both directions, to set appropriate boundaries, and to formulate and implement corrective action when the governance vs management relationships get out of alignment.

2. Serve on nonprofit boards: You will never fully understand or appreciate the challenges that your boards face in fulfilling their governance and fiduciary roles unless you yourself sit on that side of the table at some point too. But don’t just serve on a board as checklist item on your resume, or for the cache of having your name on the letterhead of a prominent charity. Board service involves a lot of challenging volunteer work, and there are specific duties and responsibilities expected of all nonprofit board members. I developed this summary of those roles and responsibilities, and you should be prepared and committed to live, work and deliver within such a rubric before you join any nonprofit board.

3. Understand nonprofit accounting standards and auditing practices: On some plane, I’d almost say this is the most important of the ten tips provided here, as an adept skill with your budgets and financials will allow you to work most closely and effectively with your board’s treasurer and your own staff financial professionals. You want to have the best people possible in those roles, sure, but you don’t want to turn them into the de facto financial decision-makers for your organization because you don’t have a complete, timely and accurate understanding of the reports they produce, review and approve. Some years ago, I wrote a (hopefully) amusing introduction to this somewhat dry topic called Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers. While I mostly developed these skills in a hands-on fashion over a lot of years, if you’re at that transition point between being a development or other nonprofit middle manager and serving as your organization’s executive, I would most emphatically recommend that you find a training or certificate course in nonprofit accounting. It will set you apart, and it will serve you well.

4. Develop a thick skin: I often use a sports analogy when I discuss the life of a nonprofit fundraiser, noting that a really good professional baseball player will hit at or above .300 over the course of a season, meaning that 70% of his at-bats result in failure. Well, guess what? A really good fund development or institutional advancement professional has about the same success rate in a given year, and if being told “no” hurts your feelings, then you’re in the wrong business. Some nonprofit executives think they can get around this by having their development directors and/or board members make all of the hard asks, but that’s a recipe for failure over the long haul. Peer-to-peer asks are crucial, and many times you are the right person to make such asks, and many times you will receive a negative reply after you make them. They key to enduring that is to recognize that most “no” answers are actually “not now” answers, and to practice your swings and hone your skills until the next at-bat comes around, with a smile on your face while you do it.

5. Understand and practice the donor development cycle: Related to the point above, if you step up to the plate having done none of the necessary training and practice, the likelihood of a big swing and a whiff increases exponentially. The donor development cycle involves prospect identification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship, and it takes time, research, and talent. If you ask someone for a big gift the first time you meet them, you can pretty much plan on a “no” response. If you do not understand what motivates a prospect before you ask them for a gift, you’re even more likely to get a “no” from them. And some of those “no” answers will really mean that, for good, with no invitations to come back around again for another try. The one part of the donor development cycle that most often goes neglected by nonprofit executives is the stewardship phase, or what happens after you actually get the gift. If a major donor does not hear from you again until you want more money, he or she is less likely to feel the love and write the check. But if you carefully, judiciously, and personally steward those donors, your next gift is more likely to come in, and hopefully be bigger than the one before it. People want to feel connected to their charitable causes, and they want to know that their gifts make a difference. You are one of the most important players in making sure that’s the case.

6. Respect the sector and its people: There’s a sadly common trope in the business world that “people work in the nonprofit sector because they can’t cut it in the for-profit sector.” From a strictly monetary standpoint, this might seem to make sense, since salaries in the nonprofit sector are generally lower when compared to comparable positions in the for-profit sector, and if people can get paid more for doing the same job in the for-profit sector, then their continued presence in the nonprofit sector must be indicative of their second-tier talents, right? But this is very wrong, offering a shallow and reductive view of the nonprofit sector that fails to recognize fundamental elements of the charitable experience: altruism, belief in a mission, philanthropy, a desire to serve others, a sense of deeper meaning, wanting to make a difference, etc. Some of the most talented individuals that any of us are ever likely to encounter have forged their entire careers and reputations working for and with nonprofits, to the tremendous benefit of their communities. The nonprofit workforce isn’t less effective or less valuable than the for-profit sector is, it’s just driven by a very different set of motivations and inspirations. I believe those of us in leadership positions within the nonprofit sector have a clear responsibility to educate those outside the sector on this front, and we should never denigrate, by action or by inaction, our colleagues and their organizations in the eyes of those who would judge our staffs that way.

7. Understand and manage the power dynamics of our sector: This is a subtle one, somewhat related to stewardship, somewhat related to developing a thick skin, somewhat related to respecting the sector and its people, but it’s a common facet of the nonprofit world experience, so I think it needs to stand on its own. At bottom line, you need money for your organization, and your donors have the money you need, which means that your donors have a profound power to greatly enhance your success, or to deeply undermine it, as they see fit. Some of your biggest donors will be clearly aware of this fact, and they’re not going to be bashful about letting you know what they want and expect from you, when they want and expect it. Sometimes, those wants and expectations are going to cross lines of professionalism and propriety and you will have to stand firm on principles in such cases, and (hopefully) do so in a way that does not produce negative outcomes for your organization. But other times, sorry to say, you’re going to have to suck it up and go along with what they want, when they want it, on their terms. This can be a real prick to the pride when you’re feeling particularly powerful and accomplished as the CEO of your nonprofit corporation, and I’ll admit that accepting this reality has always been a challenge for me. I’m a seasoned professional and a major donor for some organizations in my own right, so being treated like “the help” can really sting sometimes, e.g. going to a gala event with a lot of heavy-hitting donors in your community, where their interactions with their peers, and then with you, make it very clear that in their minds, you are not one of them. But that’s, sadly, the macro nature of a world where there are those who give, and those who need their gifts. Many major donors are truly gracious and would never treat you this way. But a surprising number of them will, and you should know that going in.

8. Foster a strategic culture: Strategic planning is crucial to the success of any good nonprofit organization. It may be broadly viewed as an iterative, two-part undertaking. In the first part of the process, an organization defines a vision for the future that is consonant with its mission. In the second part of the process, the organization then allocates financial, capital and human resources toward achieving this vision. The two parts of the process must be linked with regular feedback mechanisms that allow both the vision and the allocation of resources to evolve, together, to meet emergent opportunities and challenges. Strategic planners must recognize a principle most eloquently elucidated by General Dwight D. Eisenhower during planning for the invasion of Normandy: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Planning is a dynamic, ongoing enterprise, not an occasional activity resulting in a static, printed plan that becomes obsolete soon after it is created because it is placed on a shelf to gather dust. Planning is a process, while plans are tools—and no tool should ever be held in greater reverence than the process it supports. As your organization’s executive, you sit smack in the middle of this crucial process: you must encourage and empower your board to think and act strategically, and you must manage your staff to implement the plan to fulfill the board’s vision, not your own personal preferences and projects. I wrote a bit more on this topic here.

9. Don’t start your own nonprofit as a hobby or on a whim: I will admit that this is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen more people than I care to consider over the years say “I see a very niche need not being met in my community, so the best thing for me to do is to establish a new nonprofit corporation to address that need.” And then they do it. And more often than not, it fails, but only after wasting a lot of donated money. Maybe some of those folks are correct in taking that first step to organize and establish, sometimes, but not very often, and a nonprofit organization shouldn’t be established as a hobby, especially if it needs to suck funds from a finite pool of community resources. You also should never establish a nonprofit corporation to give yourself a paying job as its executive. That’s just bad form. While changes in tax codes and economic uncertainty are resulting in shortages in individual funding for the nonprofit sector these days, there is no shortage of nonprofits themselves: the National Center for Charitable Statistics reports that there are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in existence in the United States today, of which about 1.2 million are 501(c)3 charities. (Don’t make the amateur mistake of saying “501(c)3” interchangeably with “nonprofit;” they are not, necessarily). The Balkanization of the nonprofit sector caused by a growing number of tiny niche mission nonprofits ultimately hurts the overall effectiveness of our sector. If you see a charitable need unfulfilled in your community, your best, first bet is to figure out which existing service provider may have a mission that could allow it to meet the need within its established operational and fundraising infrastructure, and commit to helping it do so. Setting up competing, small nonprofit corporations without the ability to actually pay for such provision will generally make it very difficult for any funds raised to have any significant, long-term impact. Again, this is not to discourage you from volunteering your time, talents and treasures in a visionary fashion, but you’re going to be a lot more useful to a lot more people if you don’t reinvent the wheel by starting a new nonprofit from scratch on a personal whim.

10. Keep charity charitable: There’s been a lot of (needed) discussion over the past couple of years about tax code changes making it financially beneficial for donors to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing deductions (including charitable giving), thereby reducing the strictly financial tax return benefit donors receive from their charitable giving. But I think we make a mistake in our communications when we put too much focus on tax benefits, because the charitable good that donors do is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit they receive as a result of their philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and nonprofit organizations need to demonstrate, at bottom line, that they remain worthy of support for the good work they do, and for the benefits that they deliver to their clients and communities. After all of my years in the nonprofit sector, I know that when push comes to shove, the sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through one’s gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for individual donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax-deductions does not. As your organization’s leader and spokesperson, it’s your job to keep the sense of awe that comes from doing the right thing front and center in everything you say and do.

Bonus Tip #11: Learn how to calculate and build a donor campaign pyramid. It should not look like this one.

Five by Five Books #9: “Gog” (1967) by Andrew Sinclair

(Note: After a lengthy hiatus, I am returning to an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? This immense novel opens with a naked, seven-foot man washing ashore on a beach between two cliffs in Scotland. He has no knowledge of his identity, nor any memory of his past, and the only clues available to him in unraveling those mysteries are the words GOG and MAGOG tattooed across the back of his knuckles. The giant experiences an overwhelming compulsion to reach London, some four hundred miles to the south, and after a brief stay in the hospital where his rescuers carry him, he stuffs stolen bread into the pockets of a stolen uniform and sets off on his quest, not knowing why he wants to go, nor what he expects to find when he arrives. Gog describes the giant’s journey in glorious detail, down the full vertical span of Britain, mostly by foot, his unfolding story tangling knotted ropes of past, present and future as recurring allies and nemeses (it is often hard to tell which are which) assist or dog him along the way. While he relearns, recreates and/or revisits his own stories, Gog (as the giant eventually identifies himself) also uncovers the ancient narratives and mythologies of Great Britain and how they shape the narrative of modern England and its people.

Who wrote it? Andrew Sinclair (1935 – 2019) was an English novelist, historian, biographer, critic, and filmmaker. After earning a Ph.D. in American History from Cambridge, he pursued an academic career in the United States and England, publishing his first novels in 1959, and his first nonfiction works in 1962. Gog, published in 1967, is his best known novel (it eventually spawned two sequels — Magog in 1972 and King Ludd in 1988 — forming what Sinclair called his “Albion Trilogy”), while his nonfiction work has included books about the American Prohibition Era, the emancipation of American women, Che Guevara, Jack London, Francis Bacon, 20th Century European Aristocracy, Dylan Thomas, and many other subjects. In the early 1970s, he wrote the screenplays for and directed a trio of films, most notably Under Milk Wood, based on Dylan Thomas’ play, and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole. He was honored during his lifetime as both a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

When and where did I read it? I first picked it up in a public library during my high school junior year in Newport, Rhode Island, sometime soon after I had read The Flounder by Günter Grass. It was one of those books that I had to hide while reading at home, as the title alone (referencing the twin nations that would ally with Satan in his final battle with Christ and His Saints) would have been enough to set off alarms with my highly-religious parents, never mind the earthy, bawdy horrors and hoots they would have found had they opened its covers. I got maybe a third of the way through the book before I had to return it to the library in advance of our family’s move to Jacksonville, North Carolina — and then I don’t think I ever saw the novel again, anywhere, for decades, despite looking for it every now and again in libraries or used book stores over the years. Those occasional searches finally paid off when Valancourt 20th Century Classics reissued Gog in 2015, and I acquired and devoured it on my Kindle, mostly in our condo in Chicago. In the glow of finally completing this monumental and inspirational work, I did track down used print copies of Gog‘s two sequels, though they remain unread as of this writing; the original novel was such an epic totality in its own right for me that the early goings of Magog undermined the original in my estimation, rather than enhancing it, so I set both sequels aside, have not returned to them, and may never do so.

Why do I like it? This one pretty much hits on all cylinders and pushes all buttons when it comes to the things that move me in literature. It tells an immense story through both macro (e.g. the history of the people of Britain) and micro (e.g. the grittiest, grimiest, grossest details of Gog’s travails southward toward London) lenses, and it deploys all of Sinclair’s formidable skills as novelist, researcher, journalist, and screenwriter as it unfolds, with chapters whipsawing between formats and styles, each suited to its own particular theme or topic, like some shaggy modern-day fellow traveler of James Joyce’s more-urbane Ulysses. The book’s recurring characters are all archetypal, though they hide their true selves from the reader, and from each other, and from Gog (the character), until they don’t, but unlike most literary archetypes, Gog (the novel)’s dramatis personae are not stereotypes, nor are they even internally or externally consistent from scene to scene and chapter to chapter, even though they always are what they are, except when they’re not. While Britain (real) and Britain (ideal) are certainly documented and documentable, and Gog certainly touches upon centuries of story-telling and history-making in placing its rollicking narrative within both of those Britains, the specific literary megacosm through which our giant protagonist strides ultimately represents a masterful piece of world-building, where the reader is rarely sure whether he/she is experiencing Gog’s delusional interpretations of a factual world, or Gog’s factual interpretations of a delusional world. I enjoy few things more than a fully-realized surrealist universe that feels like something we could all live in, somehow, somewhere, sometime, despite its hallucinatory fantasias and suspensions of natural law and logic, and Gog is simply nonpareil on this front.

A five sentence sample text: “Beyond Innerleithen, the first attempt is made to kill Gog. He has walked through the bruised border town with its hopeful crest of a tame bear and bridled horse, supporting a shield, which shows St. Ronan calming the troubled waters that rear up a full inch high above the mottos Live and Let Live and Watch and Pray, as though these words had ever been the least defense against the boiling Border barons, who made the local ballads bloodier than anything since the Old Testament.  And Gog has passed the old graveyard in the town where a weathered anchor is carved on a sailor’s tomb with the pious expectation, SOON LOST BUT NOT TOO SOON FOR GLORY. And Gog has passed Traquair House, standing among its trees in tall granite and freestone rubble, with its windows slit against arrows and crows. And he has sweated up the steep slope of his first real hill, the track towards Minch Moor on the short cut to Yarrow, with flies teeming about his burning face to drive him mad.”

Click the link to score your own copy of this epic masterwork.


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)


(Don’t Go Back To) Five Songs You Need To Hear

In which we return to our occasional mini-series, for links to five songs that I know and love, and you probably don’t, but you should, so now you can, no excuses. These five cuts were all released in the past year, all culled from albums that you’ll likely read (much) more about in my “Best Albums of 2019” feature coming in a month or so. Fresh baked, as it were. Warm and tasty. Ready? Open wide your brain, and dig in . . .

#1. “Hollow” by Sin Fang

#2. “Three Sisters” by Daniel Khan (featuring Vanya Zhuk)(Audio Only)

#3. “Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft” by Lingua Ignota (Audio Only)

#4. “Almost It” by Sacred Paws

#5. “Wolf Totem” by The Hu

PRESS RELEASE: TREE Fund Names New President and Chief Executive Officer

Note: My successor as President/CEO of TREE Fund begins his tenure this morning. I will be remaining with the organization in an advisory/emeritus status through November 15 to help, as needed and requested, with transition, then onward. I’m really excited about TREE Fund’s next chapter and leader, and I hope that all of you who have been a part of my story there will continue to support Russell and the organization in the years ahead. It was an amazing four-plus years for me, and I thank everyone who played a part in that. Excelsior!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: TREE Fund names Russell King as its new President and Chief Executive Officer

Naperville, IL, October 28, 2019: Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund (TREE Fund) is pleased to welcome its new President and CEO, Russell King, who is taking the reins at the Naperville, Illinois-based nonprofit organization on October 28. King’s hire followed an extensive national search to replace J. Eric Smith, who is retiring as President and CEO after four years’ service to the organization.

King is a seasoned nonprofit executive with over 25 years’ experience in the public sector, including multiple chief executive roles. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from San Diego State University, an MBA from LaSalle University, and is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s Institute for Organization Management. He is the author of four books, a long-time contributor to numerous online and traditional print media outlets, and has an extensive community service resume, including election to the Verona (Wisconsin) Area Board of Education.

“We are truly delighted to have hired Russell to serve as our new President and CEO,” says TREE Fund Board Chair Steven D. Geist, BCMA, RCA. “He is a deeply experienced nonprofit executive, with formidable leadership, development, communications and financial skills. Russell has a proven track record of leading growth and transformation in the nonprofit sector, and the Search Committee truly admired his deep hands-on, mission-driven, servant leadership experiences throughout his career. We are confident that he will sustain and build on our recent successes under Eric’s administration, and we look forward to working together to benefit our urban and community forests and the skilled professionals who care for them.”

“Communication, collaboration, diversity, and servant leadership have been, and remain, the keys to my success with those I serve, whether staff, board members, donors, or the communities we support,” says King. “Although the depth and breadth of my experience and education may have uniquely qualified me for this role, what most defines me is the passion with which I immerse myself in a worthy cause. When I take on a mission, it becomes my driving force, my raison d’être. I now look forward to putting my abilities to work on behalf of TREE Fund.”

About TREE Fund: TREE Fund is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge in urban forestry and arboriculture. Since 2002, TREE Fund has distributed over $4.4 million in research grants, scholarships and funding for environmental education to advance the science, practice and safety of tree care and engage the next generation of tree stewards. For more information, visit

Happy trails . . .