I’ve spent my career in behind the scenes jobs. It all started, quite literally, with a behind the scenes role as the student producer of plays at Yorktown High School in Arlington, VA. Our drama teacher, Ms. Eiserman, was a dynamo. Each year, she corralled a bunch of teenagers to pull off two major productions. Against my better instincts as a shy, introverted junior, I signed up for her theater class. One day she said to the class, “we need a student producer for this year’s musical.” No hands went up. After class, I timidly approached her and said I was interested. “Fabulous!” she said. “What am I supposed to do for the play?” I asked. “You’ll need to make sure everyone has what they need to do their jobs.” I nodded. “You need to make sure everyone is moving along on schedule and that they have all the necessary supplies – the lighting supplies, the lumber, props.” She paused. “Actors are a dime a dozen, but a good student producer is worth their weight in gold.”
The true test came when it was time for me to produce Little Shop of Horrors. “We need a dentist chair, an Audrey II and a lot of fresh flowers for the shop.” said Ms. Eiserman. “You need to find them.” “Wha…?” I started to ask, suddenly feeling the urge to flee. Seeing the fear on my face, she quickly assured me, “Just go through the phone book and start calling places” she said. “See what you can find.” I sat in her office, trying not to hyperventilate. I took a breath and started dialing dental supply companies. When the first person picked up her phone, I managed to blurt out that we were doing a student production of Little Shop and needed a dentist chair and would they loan us one? The woman on the other end of the line was infinitely kind. “Sure, hon,” she said, “we can do that.” Soon I was driving around the DC beltway in a rented U-Haul with my freshly printed driver’s license, going to a theater supply shop, a florist and a dental supply company. On the first night of the performance, as I watched Audrey II evolve from a bloodsucking houseplant into a murderous monster onstage, I felt pride at the part I’d played in making the production come to life.
A production of Little Shop without a dentist chair or without Audrey II would be in a pretty sorry state. The same is true about most of the backstage work we do to keep nonprofits running smoothly. In my twenty years in the nonprofit sector, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of colleagues who, as Ms. Eiserman would put it, are worth their weight in gold.
The stuff that happens to make a nonprofit effective happens in the dimly lit backstage of Management, General and Administration. The green room of management training. The catwalks of evaluation. The lighting board of technology and software. Because of the way we’ve come to stigmatize overhead, we imagine an insatiable Audrey II gobbling up the precious lifeblood of an organization and shrieking “Feed me Seymour!” Unfortunately, all too often, the reality looks more like an anemic fern than a bloodsucking monster.
Our work is the often maligned “overhead,” otherwise known as indirect costs. Donors often don’t see the importance of the work that goes on backstage. Or we try to mask the behind the scenes work and pretend it isn’t happening. Even nonprofit boards and leadership sometimes cut infrastructure to the quick because they worry it will take resources away from the people they are trying to serve.
Things are starting to change. A recent Bridgespan article made the case that donors need to pay what it takes to manage a well-run nonprofit, including more for overhead, sparking a fieldwide debate, which I participated in.
If we’re going to change perceptions, we need to bring this behind the scenes work into the spotlight. I’m going to use this space to write about this behind the scenes work. I’ll share what I’ve learned about what it takes to run an effective organization, from my experience leading operations at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and from talking with other nonprofit leaders who, in many cases, are doing an even better job than we are. This is all a work in progress, so I’ll share what I’ve been struggling with as well. If there’s a behind the scenes topic you think deserves a closer look, please let me know. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.