The Boggart Defense

A boggart, according to the Muggles’ Guide to Harry Potter, is “a shapeshifter that usually lurks in dark spaces. It has no definite form, taking the shape of that which is most feared by the person who encounters it. When not in the sight of a person, it is believed to look like a dark blob.”


For those true Harry Potter fans, you will no doubt remember the scene in which Professor Lupin teaches his Defense Against the Dark Arts class to fight the boggart. The students line up, and, in turn, the boggart pops out of an old dresser and transforms into the single thing most feared by each student at the front of the line: a giant spider, Professor Snape, a soul-sucking dementor, the moon. The students defend themselves by thinking happy thoughts and shouting the word “Ridikulus!” and the boggart transforms into a harmless version of itself – the spider, for example, suddenly has roller skates and falls onto the floor.

The scene that always intrigued me was the one in which the boggart had been beaten, and, nearly defeated, it keeps shifting shapes from one terrible-seeming form to another, in a last-gasp attempt to distract its foe from the fact that it is, indeed, quite harmless.

This happens so often in groups and in organizations: one person makes a challenging comment or creates an uncomfortable situation, and the system (the people, the values, the norms, and the beliefs that have been challenged by that action or assertion) puts up its defenses. A slew of true, but ultimately irrelevant, points are made in an attempt to avert focus from the original threatening statement or action.

These can take the form of attacks on the person creating the uncomfortable situation (“The way you’ve said that makes it clear that you don’t understand ______ about our culture.”). More often, it comes in the form of a subtle deflection (“What about this!?” “Yes, but here’s this other thing!” “Let’s talk about this thing that we love to get bogged down in and never resolve!”).

The boggart defense is any engaging-enough and true-enough statement that feels so real and important that it’s hard to notice what’s really going on: a form of cultural self-defense. It’s the organization’s immune systems fighting off threatening behaviors, where “threatening” means “if we don’t kick this back under the table it runs the risk of starting to shift the way we do things around here.”

The good news about a boggart is that it’s actually NOT a soul-sucking dementor or a giant killer spider. Instead, it’s a creature whose only power is to play on our fears (or, in this case, play on our willingness to be pulled away from an uncomfortable truth.)

Our job, in the face of the boggart defense, is to see and acknowledge the dementor, the terrifying giant spider, the full moon that turns us into a werewolf, and to realize: you are just a harmless shape-shifter that has no power over me.

The moment we can see this is the moment we can help shine light back on the original uncomfortable truth, and, if we’re feeling brave, stop hiding and engage with it fully.


So often we toil away for months or even years to hit the markers for success we’ve laid out for ourselves. 

Often when we arrive we end up disappointed. We had focused so much on the toiling and the achieving without ever having figured out, in the first place, the “why” behind it all. 

What would have happened if, at the outset, we had imagined what exactly we’d do – who we’d be and what steps we’d take next –  when we hit those markers. What would have napped if we’d pre-imagined our success, been sure that we could pull it off, and planned from there?

Better yet, what would have happened if we hadn’t been so quick to accept anyone else’s markers?


It’s summertime, my kids are back from camp and we’ve slogged through piles of dirty laundry, camp keepsakes, and emotions.

With a moment to breathe, now is an excellent time to do some virtual housekeeping too. For me that means wrestling all my various healthcare and spending accounts to the ground (thank you U.S. healthcare system), and remembering to back up my computer.

You might want to back up your computer too. It’s one of those things that doesn’t matter until it does.

I think most of us don’t back up our computers because there are too many ways to do it, that feels overwhelming, and in the absence of doing it just right we don’t bother. It’s true, you could use Dropbox or Crashplan or one of the 10 options PC Magazine just reviewed if that floats your boat. I suspect that one of these is an optimal solution.

I’ve never managed to get over the hump of wading through all of that. Instead, I simply buy an external hard drive (1TB options cost about $50) and manually drag my files over ever few months. It’s an imperfect system for lots of reasons, but it gets me 80% of the way there so that if I drop my computer I’ll be fine.

I was reminded yesterday on NPR radio hour that, in the words of self-proclaimed Ad Man Rory Sutherland, the interface is everything, that we need easy interfaces to do nearly anything.

So, figure out what “simple interface” means to you and take care of this today. Your future self thanks you.

How we Support Each Other

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to sustain someone trying to make a difference in the world, and about the kind of virtual contract we need to sign with each other if we are going to do this work together.

Here’s a starting list for what I’d put in that contract:

I will answer your call, even if I haven’t heard from you lately. Because I know that if you’re calling, it’s important.

When we speak, I will be there fully for you – emotionally as well as intellectually.

I will care for you.

I will express support and love.

I will ask tough questions, and I will be willing to search for answers with you.

I will help you hold up a mirror to yourself.

I will always show up in service of your purpose, which sometimes means holding your feet to the fire.

I will be kind, and tough, gentle and strong.

I will remind you of why you do this work.

I will help you to see that you are stronger than you think you are, and that you are stronger than you feel right now.

Additions welcome…

Impresario fundraising

It’s very easy for fundraisers to forget that they have a superpower.

The best fundraisers are network hubs, people who build strong relationships and who make change happen by connected trusted people to meaningful opportunities to do good in the world.

And yet many fundraisers feel stuck. Stuck in a role that they might like (or that they are good at) but that feels too narrow. Stuck in a career path that doesn’t obviously lead to the top. Stuck hearing an unspoken story that the people who “really” do the work are someone other than them.

Here’s a playbook to get unstuck.

Recognize that the relationship currency you have invested in and built is an underutilized asset.

See that the funders you know and trust – and who know and trust you – nearly always feel like there’s more they could be doing in addition giving money.

Also see that there’s an important new set of things your organization could be doing if it had the right kind of capital to make that happen.

And realize, most importantly, that the story that’s been handed to you about what your organization is, and the boundaries around what it does and does not do in the world, is just that: a story.

Your opportunity is to reconfigure these resources in a new way. And it is YOUR opportunity because the hardest-to-acquire and most important pieces of this puzzle are the trust and relationship currency you and only you have with funders.

This is a trust that you can translate into a conversation that pulls together all of these pieces in new ways: trust that will get 10 funders into a room for a real brainstorming conversation; trust that gives you license to talk to folks internally about what they could do if they had new, different, more ambitious funders; trust that allows you to dream of new products that people could invest in, new structures that would allow you to take on more risk, new stories that could make sense of what your organization is and does, and new relationships that could actually change all of those things for the better.

Great new things happen because an existing set of relationships and ideas are brought together in new ways; because we discard old stories (of self, of our organizations, of how these pieces fit together) and dare to write new ones together.

The fundraising impresario is the person who picks herself, who sees the unique role she can play in painting a new picture of what is possible, and who takes the first steps to reassemble the puzzle pieces. She is a person who is willing to go out on a limb to host and curate the conversations that make crazy, new, important things happen. And she is the person who discovers, the moment she gets out on that limb, all the people who thank her and say, “finally, here’s something we can all get excited about!”


Often blogging feels like a chance to pick my head up to the thoughts floating around, to look more closely at them and explore what they might mean.

But right now, every time I look up, the only things I seem to see all around me are either the violent attacks that happen somewhere new every day, or the US Presidential election and its rhetoric of fear and division. I can’t seem to make any sense of it.

I find myself scouring the newspaper looking for something that will happen to make it all go away. I keep wishing it’s just some sort of bad dream.

I read articles about the perspective of poor rural whites to try to understand where all of their anger is coming from, knowing that on some level I must be out of touch, I must be failing my own proximity test since I’m not seeing what they are seeing.

I struggle to convince myself that supporting a candidate who spews racism, sexism, hatred and demagoguery doesn’t mean that a person is, on some level, open to racism, sexism and demagogues. I struggle to put out of my mind that in every single society that descended into institutionalized violence and genocide – every single one – the first step is always a gradual normalization of hate speech perpetuated by a strong leader promising salvation.

And I can’t help but be inspired, and feel hopeful, when I hear folks like Cory Booker proclaim that we cannot be a country where we simply tolerate each other, we must be a country where we love each other – and love isn’t always pretty or easy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fierce.

I cannot help but feel emotion when Michelle Obama speaks with fiery, motherly pride in describing her daughters playing on the lawn of a White House that was built by slaves.

I feel like on some level I must be a little bit blind, because right now I’m seeing lots of absolutes. Right now I am failing miserably to make sense of the bile, hatred and fear that is so appealing to so many – including the anger of the Bernie supporters, which feels both short-sighted and self-defeating.

I’d like to believe that I’m aware of at least some of my own privilege, and that this awareness helps me recognize some of the things I cannot see – but, of course, I too am prone to exaggeration.

Mostly, I’m coming up very short on answers.

I really, truly believe that this country was founded on a set of fundamental values, that “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

Yes, indeed, it is self-evident!

What this means to me is that there is an inviolable set of values that we share as Americans. And if these values are inviolable, then they come first, no matter how messed up everything else is.

And what that means to me is that when anyone, on either end of the political spectrum, is happy to trample on those values – daily, publicly, unabashedly, and without a shred of remorse – then we, most of us, nearly all of us, should be calling them out as frauds and as un-American, no matter what else we also believe.

What am I missing?

Buying Solutions Instead of Efficiency

At a recent conference I attended, Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, bravely took another stab and debunking the nonprofit overhead myth.

Antony’s simple framing was that we – as nonprofits, as funders, and as partners to both – need to decide which question we should be able to answer:

Question 1 is, “Are you efficient at delivering your programs?”

Question 2 is, “Are you effective at turning funding into results?”

Further paraphrasing the example Antony gave, he described two conversations a funder could have with a homeless services organization. In the first conversation, the funder asks the service provider, “If I give you this money, will you, in fact, put in 10 more beds to the homeless shelter, as promised?” Alternately, the funder could ask, “If I give you this money, will you make a dent in the homelessness problem?”

It’s easy for us to smile and nod and say, “Oh, but of course, it’s question 2!” but that is not how we behave. “Don’t waste my money” is the prevailing message coming from most funders who demand “accountability,” a conversation that often ignores the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness.  And most social sector organizations are all too willing to play the game, communicating back, “Look! I’ve done what I told you I would do!”

This is such a low bar and is so fundamentally disappointing.

And while it’s easy to point fingers at funders who “just don’t get it” or at social sector professionals who either can’t be trusted to aim higher (so why are you funding them?) or who aren’t able to explain exactly how they are in fact delivering results (again, why are you funding them?), the truth is that the only way we get out of this dance is if we all truly pull up a seat to the table and do real work together.

The real work of deeply understanding the problem.

The real work of exploring what it would take to make progress on that problem.

The real work of recognizing that our organization, no matter how great we are at what we do, is probably not going to make much progress alone.

The real work of pulling together the people and organizations who could make some progress if they found the right ways to work together.

The real work of being honest about what we do and don’t know, about what part of the problem we are trying to chip away at right now, and about what success would look like now and in the future .

As we have these much deeper, more honest conversations, it will become clear that things like how much an organization spends on fundraising and management (aka “overhead”) could either be excellent or terrible proxies for judging the organization’s effectiveness.

For example, imagine you really, truly understand the problem you’re working on and discover, together, that you’ve got all the answers but are $100 million short of being able to make the change you’ve been trying to make. In that case, a massive investment in fundraising, or in a partnerships strategy, could be the single smartest thing you could do.

Or, imagine that you discover that what looks like an expensive and inefficient services model is actually a conscious strategic choice on the part of a nonprofit to focus on the hardest cases because that’s where they can make the most difference.

The list of examples goes on and on.

It’s time to stop talking about overheads and ratios, and it’s also time to stop talking about how efficient we are at doing what we said we would do.

We must hold ourselves to the much higher standard about turning money into solutions and about creating results, not activity.  The people you aim to serve will thank you for it.