Toxic Organizations are Toxic for Everyone

Ivy HestHow-To, Individual Sustainability, Real Talk, Strategy

Hello wonderful friends!

It’s nearing the end of October, and only 12 days away from the elections on November 4th!  I’m going to try to practice what I preach, and take a week off of generating brilliant content for you- and instead share some brilliant content with you by other people.

It’s important to recognize when the work or the issue is burning you out, versus the organization.  Admitting you’re in a toxic organization is the first step toward healing.  Unfortunately, a popular model of social justice out there is the canvassing/your-income-is-based-on-how-much-time-people-on-the-street-have-for-you model.  Often young adults, bright eyed and bushy tailed, are lured into these organizations (I almost was once.  Then I did my research.), with the promise of making a difference.  But the organizations are set up so that they will never see the impact their street cornering hard work does.  Almost everyone I know avoids those folks on the street, including me.  I smile, thank them for their hard work, occasionally buy them ice cream if it’s brutally hot out, acknowledge how frustrating it is to do what they do, and then quickly run away before they can ask me for money to save the children.

When you’re stuck in a toxic organization, you start to wonder if it’s you.  “Am I just not cut out for this kind of work?”  Then you start to resent the job.  “All organizing jobs must be this terrible.”- even when what you’re doing isn’t actually organizing, but that’s a way sexier a title than “minimum-wage slave to the movement”.  You may even start resenting the issue you’re working on.

And then it hits you.  The place where you work sucks.  It’s not your fault, you are part of a machine designed to work you as hard as possible, then spit you out on the other side.  They don’t care what happens to you after- being invested in you and your growth isn’t the point.Read More

Earl’s Guide to Leadership Development, Part 2: Leadership in Staff

Ivy HestIndividual Sustainability, Real Talk, Strategy, Supervising and Mentoring, Theory

(About 4.5 minutes to read)

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Leadership Development.  Click here to actually get the background of what I’m talking about!

Last night, I had one of those “this conversation is so interesting it feels embarrassing that it’s happening via g-chat” conversations.  It began as a discussion about job hunting (since I’ll be funemployed after the elections!), then turned to what reasonable expectations are for being a community organizer, followed by how we worry about our long-term sustainability in this work as young organizers hoping to one day be mothers, and finally, the depressing thought: Organizations will not be ready to provide a good balance of work time and non-work time until directors lead by example, and we couldn’t name any organizations that completely succeeded at this balance (though some came close, but at the expense of pay or other drawbacks).  And then this one sentence stuck out in my head, over and over again.

Executive Directors are doomed to fail if they do not ascend the “leadership ladder”, rung by rung.Read More

Earl’s Guide to Leadership Development, Part 1: Leadership in Volunteers

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles, Theory

(About 4 minutes to read)

Earl is one of my favorite people that I’ve encountered in this work.  Earl is a 73 year old man who spent all his life in Boston.  He directs 5 gospel choirs and is the leader of his tenant organization.  And his tenant organization is one of the strongest I’ve come across— meetings have about 1/3 of the building in attendance (at worst), there’s lively discussion, and they get things done.  They even have a 50/50 raffle (his idea, of course) where the winner wins 50% of the income from the raffle, and the other 50% goes to the tenant organization, where they throw parties or buy leather couches (in a Housing Project).  Earl knows every tenant in the building and has a personal relationship with each of them.  I asked him to give me a CD guide to his favorite music— to which he responded with 5 CDs because he just couldn’t stop at one, he got too excited. He giggled in excitement most of the time I spoke to him about writing this article, though he wanted me to be sure I am fair and critical of his work as well.  Sorry Earl, not this time!  Oh- and he’s blind.

PersonFallingOffLadderThere are three senior/disabled housing developments that are called the “Three Sisters” because their architecture was identical and they had the same manager, all about a block or two from each other in the same neighborhood.  However, it felt like Goldilocks and the Three Bears when I visited the Three Sisters.  One building had one tenant keeping their tenant organization active, but for the most part the Housing Authority ignored this building.  There were no big problems, they didn’t complain loudly, and so they just skated by.  The second building was what everyone in the housing world considers one of the worst buildings in the portfolio.  They had Big Momma, a pimp who ran a prostitution ring out of her building.  Drugs were rampant and there was an arsonist setting fires to objects in the building.  To top it all off, while their manager spoke English and Spanish, most of the other language speakers were Chinese and couldn’t engage with anyone else.  And finally, the third building was Earl’s building, a beacon of hope.  Clean, friendly, and well-managed, both by the manager and the residents.

I needed to learn from Earl.  I had to understand why, when the conditions are virtually the same in all three buildings, did his shine so brightly?Read More

When Grassroots Organizations Get It Right

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles, Strategy, Theory


(About 5 minutes to read)

Not all organizing is created equal.  Unions have a different model of organizing from interfaith organizations. Some organizations integrate direct service and community organizing, others organize around public policy, and still others organize around local issues.  Some build power in solidarity, others build power for themselves.  The basic principles are generally the same throughout, but each organization has its own flavor of organizing, how the staff interacts with its membership, etc.

I am proud to say that I worked in one of the purest grassroots organizations I’ve come across.  After reading all those “world as it should be” books, I had a very idealized outlook on how change should happen and the role organizations can and should play in that change.  Then, being in the “real world” and working for and with organizations that didn’t quite stick to that idea I had, I started to believe it was all just theory.  Real organizing was too messy and incomplete.

But then I found the place which I left only because of a cross-country move.  A place that I was proud to be a part of because of its reputation, its strategy, its impact, and perhaps most importantly, how it worked with members.Read More

How to Defeat the Underpants Gnomes

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles, Strategy, Theory, Uncategorized

Before you do anything else, watch the video above.  I’ll wait.


(About 5.5 minutes to read)

Ok thanks, this will be so much easier to explain now that you’ve watched it (P.S. if you’re lying to me, I swear, the thing is 30 seconds long and applies to your life ALL THE TIME).

I’ve seen exactly two episodes of South Park in my life, and I had the wonderful fortune of bumping into the Underpants Gnomes one of those times.  And ever since then, I refer to it all.the.time.  In this episode, one of the characters keeps getting his underwear stolen in the middle of the night.  The characters stay up one night, follow the underwear, and discover that there’s a large group of gnomes who collect underpants, because they think it will turn into Profit.  I call it the Underpants Gnomes Problem.

The Underpants Gnomes Problem afflicts even the most competent of us.  You have a goal in mind, you have the first step toward that goal, but eventually your plan will unfold at some point because there’s no next step to get you to that goal.  You just expect the first step to end in that goal.

I encountered the Underpants Gnomes recently while volunteering with an organization and helping them put together a fundraiser.  This thing was doomed from the beginning.  When I came in, they told me they were having their Annual End-of-the-Year fundraiser, since that’s when people try to unload their money because they want tax credits.  I asked them how long they’ve been doing it, and they said this will be their first time. 

For those of you keeping score at home, here is a pearl of wisdom.  NEVER call something annual until you’re actually doing it for at least the second time.  Otherwise, you’re committing to something that could be a failure (just to name one reason…).  So we were off to a questionable start.Read More

That time I had a chair thrown at me (or: 10 Rules for an effective decision-making meeting)

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles

It went something like this.

It went something like this.


(About 9 minutes to read)

It was a beautiful evening at someone’s house that had a view of the ocean.  Buoys and boats were peacefully bobbing around in the water.  The colors of the sunset were distractingly beautiful through the floor-to-ceiling windows.  And then someone picked up a chair and threw it clear across the room toward me.

Planning a great meeting is hard work.  It requires a lot more work put into it than we tend to give, no matter what our profession.  As a result, it leads to a culture of meeting-haters, which squashes wonderful opportunities to learn from each other.  Furthermore, I’ve seen so many effective organizers run kick-ass meetings with their membership and then bumble their way through a staff meeting.  Different setting, and so it’s assumed there are different rules. 

I decided to shift gears a bit with this post, because I believe that a big part of stress and burnout for me is feeling like I’m failing or I don’t know what I’m doing.  Also, everyone has their own style of organizing, and I think one can always benefit from hearing others’ perspectives.  At least that way, you can say “wow, that’s definitely not how I would have done it”, or “interesting…maybe I’ll try that next time”, and this post would have served its purpose.  What I’d like to share with you today is about the art of planning out the decision-making part of your meeting.  Because as they say in Sharknado, “Always be prepared.” 

That chair-throwing meeting was a great meeting.  A very hard, challenging meeting which I will never forget, but one that was productive and decisive.  And I was prepared for that chair.  I knew that chair was going to be thrown my direction a week before it was thrown.  I made it my job to know all about that chair throw.  I practiced that chair throw with my boss.  I prepared all attendees in that meeting for that chair, including the thrower.  The chair was inevitable.Read More

My social justice penis is bigger than yours.

Ivy HestIndividual Sustainability, Real Talk, Supervising and Mentoring

(About 4 minutes to read)

Sometimes I feel like I need to carry around a measuring stick to keep track of everyone’s ego at any given time.  Not just because it irks me, but also because I need to keep expectations of myself in check.

This weekend, my friend told me that she was going to be late because she needed to make 30 calls or else Racism won’t ever end.  As I mentioned on my Why This Blog? page, I fall prey to that way of thinking too.  It’s how we’re trained.  “Here are the keys to making real, sustainable change.  It’s up to you.  Oh also it’s snowing out and there’s black ice.  Make sure the car doesn’t come back dented!  The world is depending on you!”

And at the same time, we’re taught that the work isn’t ours, it’s the people’s.  Real people going through real issues.  And your job is to simply teach them the skills they need to fight back, and then fade into the background.  Empowerment is the name of the game.  Ultimately, you aren’t important, and you’re doing it wrong if things can’t happen without you.

Oh, plus, there isn’t actually time to supervise you.  Try things out, fail, you’ll get the hang of it.  Or you won’t, and we’ll let you go.  But it should be ok.  Just organize!Read More

Your Personal “Burnout Prevention” Campaign

Ivy HestHow-To, Individual Sustainability, Supervising and Mentoring

Cartoon credit: Megan Hills at

Cartoon credit: Megan Hills, My Burnout Thing at

(About 5 minutes to read)

I sent an e-mail to all my friends with the subject: “Help! Tools for preventing organizer burnout?”. The response was fascinating. Many called and asked when I was quitting my job , what I would do next, and commiserating that this is what happened to them too. Some suggested that I take a vacation. One, however, e-mailed 2 other people who he thought were also on their way to burning out, and asked if we could all sit down together.

I find the response interesting because it’s pretty much what was going through my head at the time:

  • Step one: I have to get out of here. Where else can I go? Is there an organization that doesn’t burn out its staff? Is it even possible to be an organizer and not burn out? OH MY GOODNESS MY WHOLE PROFESSION IS DOOMED. I have to leave the movement entirely, it’s the only way. I wonder when auditions are to perform on that cruise ship…
  • Step two: Or I could travel. Maybe study Portuguese in Brazil for a few months? Ooh I’ve always wanted to see Aurora Borealis. But they don’t speak Portuguese there. I wonder how long my partner can take off so we can do both…
  • Step three: My partner just pointed out that I actually like my job and don’t really want to leave. Well, shit. I suppose he’s right. So…what now?

Read More

Morality is Bullshit.

Ivy HestReal Talk, Skills and Principles, Theory

Image found on

(About 3 minutes to read)

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now.  Morality is total, utter bullshit.  Feeling scandalized?  How could I care about others and not believe in morality?  What kind of heathen am I!?  Well, step onto my carpet, and I’ll show you a whole new world.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by morality.  Morality, to me, is the belief that you inherently think that something is good or bad.  It’s part of your own being, or a way you define yourself.  We draw a line in the sand of people with good morals versus those with questionable morals. 

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, nothing, really.  It’s completely meaningless.  I may act in a way that follows my “moral character”, but that’s not why I do anything.  If it were, I’d lose myself very quickly.  My definition of myself would dissipate into a pool of diatribes and soup kitchens.  My believing that I stand for something in particular because it’s right means that I’m standing for a broad idea or feeling, not because it’s grounded in my own experiences and the values shaped because of them.Read More