We have much to learn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For those of you who live under a rock and have never seen Buffy, the opening credits tell you what it’s all about – “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires and demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer”. The main point being, nobody actually wants to spend all their time fighting monsters and various creepy crawlies. You get chosen by forces outside your control. You’re in the position to fight the good fight, and you better do it, because who else is going to?
The murky non-profit underworld often feels like a chapter of the Buffyverse, without quite as many supernatural critters, and the decreased acceptability of driving a stake through someone’s heart as a viable solution. But sometimes it does feel like an epic battle against those vampires (internally and externally) who would rather lay waste to what little good we can do, use non-profits for their own nefarious purposes, and gut the non-profit community. Certainly, times are changing for the community based organization. Increased accountability, decreasing funding, more competition, and less local community voice are the trends of our time. Many community based organizations, particularly those in the HIV/AIDS field will likely disappear over the next few years. We should be comforted by the fact that many have served their communities, often when no one else would step up, and decades of dedication have led to this point in time, where we are close to developing prevention tools, social and medical that may just take us towards the dream of an AIDS-free generation. We should celebrate this if and when it occurs, and immediately start looking for what other sorts of good we can do for the world.
I for one, would like to combine my extensive knowledge of Buffy with the hard lessons learned after nearly a decade in the world of the community based organization, to offer this list of techniques, derived from the best of the Buffyesque philosophical view on the world, and equally applicable to fighting creatures of the night or handling the non-profit world.
- Frenemies are real and can be useful. Buffy had Cordelia (“Cordelia, your mouth is open, sound is coming from it. This is never good”). You have them. You know you do. Sometimes you are even polite and even friendly in your behavior towards them. Secretly, late at night, in the privacy of your thoughts, or to your significant other, you are cursing the ground they walk upon, and cringing over their latest antics or evil deeds. In Buffy terms, we all have our Cordelia. They may get on your nerves, but they’re still part of the “Scooby Gang”. They can come in handy when there are larger things at stake, in the office or the larger world. Everybody sucks it up, swallows their pride, and stands together when there are big common issues like defunding of entities, lack of resource, or getting heard by politicians. Even though we might not want to deal with our frenemies, but sometimes there is simply more at stake. You don’t have to share shoes, but there will be times when you and your frenemy can share laughs at someone else’s expense, and angle your sharp, pointy sticks in the same direction.
- Finnesse is important, but sometimes you need a rocket launcher. Buffy fought most vampires and other nasty beasties with martial arts, sharp stakes, witty rejoinders, and a keen fashion sense. Every once in a while, a villain would come along that wasn’t quite so easy to deal with. This is when Buffy would occasionally turn to other tools at her disposal. If stakes don’t work, maybe you need to power up and get yourself a rocket launcher (see Episode: Innocence). CBOs are accustomed to certain tactics to meet the needs of their communities. They have their own set of cool moves, resources, and techniques that generally do the job. As things change, CBOs need to assess whether standard tools are appropriate to a given situation. Sometimes you have to ditch the stakes and get the rocket launcher. Enough said.
- Its time to systematize. Many CBOs are used to running by the seat of their pants. At one time, on a small scale, this might have done the job. These days, systems are needed, and specialists are required. We need to standardize and write those dreaded protocols we do so loathe. Funders demand them, and it becomes truly necessary when organizations become sufficiently complex. Buffy was a bit of a “fight them at a whim” kind of girl, but she had a system backing her up. Giles and Willow did research. Xander provided comic relief. IN one episode, Buffy and Willow were startled to find out that there was a Slayer Handbook: “There’s a Slayer handbook? Wait handbook? What handbook? How come I don’t have a handbook? Is there a T-shirt, too? ‘Cause that would be cool”. Well, considering the number of t-shirts I brought back from the International AIDS Conference, we have that part down. Now we need to work on protocols, our version of the Slayer Handbook.
- Sarcasm is fun, but there is a time and a place for it. I don’t think I know how to handle a situation without making a joke, being facetious or plain old sarcastic. I find it can ease tension and of course shows how on the spot smart I am. I’m a Gen-Xer. We’re like sharks, we have to be sarcastic or we can’t breathe. However, remember the generational differences in the workplace these days. Dealing with a Baby Boomer (who is halfway out the door and is a relative dinosaur in the field) and Generation Y (who cries at the drop of a hat). Sarcasm may just push them in directions you never intended. As Buffy responded when Giles remarked: “I’ll just jump in my time machine, go back to the 12th century, and ask the vampires to postpone their ancient prophecy for a few days while you take in dinner and a show.” Buffy: “Okay, at this point, you’re abusing sarcasm.” Don’t abuse sarcasm! But more importantly, don’t lose your sense of humor.
- Sometime you just have to get through it. Work these days can sometimes seem like a never-ending series of painful meetings, presentations, and “just got to do it” moments. In the words of Buffy, “It’s funny how the earth never opens up and swallows you when you want it to”. After the third meeting about future meetings to organize a future meeting, you start praying for a supernatural disaster. Don’t worry, you will get through it, particularly if you can simultaneously read E-Online on your smartphone. Some people resent it when you look at your smartphone during a meeting, and try to answer urgent emails, so you don’t have to go home and spend hours after work catching up on the emails from the time you were in meetings. Give them the option – they can allow you to read your email, or allow the earth to swallow you up. Their choice.
- Recognize that mistakes happen. Giles noted once: “That was hardly the worst mistake you’ll ever make… That wasn’t quite as comforting as it was meant to be.” Just remember that next time you send the wrong email; present the wrong data or otherwise do something that seems like the end of the world. It’s not.
- Don’t be an egomaniac that it undermines your work: Whether you are high up or low down the organization ladder, recognize that you are one part of a larger system and not everything is a “I, me or my” moment”. As a buffy character noted: “Whatever is causing the Joan Collins ‘tude, deal with it. Embrace the pain, spank your inner moppet, whatever, but get over it.” Not everything that happens is about you. Sometimes it doesn’t even involve you. Sometimes you’re just collateral damage or a side show. Keep the ego in check.
- Competition: embrace it! While I advocate for working with your frenemy and leveraging resources across agencies, it doesn’t hurt to be a little competitive and stand out. As the aide to Sunnydale’s mayor’s noted “Competition is a beautiful thing. It makes us strive, it makes us accomplish, occasionally makes us kill. We all have the desire to win. Whether we’re human, vampire… Whatever the hell you are, my brother, you got a spiny-looking head thing, I never seen that before”. Don’t resent your competition, use them to make you better, to challenge your boundaries.
- Use your passion. Everyone who ends up at a CBO did so in spite of the salary. When you feel like you want to be swallowed up by the earth, remember what you led you here to begin with. As part of a rally cry, these Buffy words are appropriate: “Passion: It lies in all of us. Sleeping, waiting, and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir. Open its jaws, and howl. It speaks to us, guides us. Passion rules us all, and we obey. What other choice do we have?”
- Everything’s going to be okay. Or in the words of the slayer Faith, “Its Five by Five, B”.