Have you noticed how we in this sector tend to hoard stuff? There are several reasons for this. First, we are trained to be thrappy, which is a combination of “thrifty” and “scrappy,” to keep our “overhead” low. Second, because we are empathetic, even to inanimate objects, and just the thought of these poor gala program booklets and rickety chairs being abandoned makes us sad. And third, because we’re busy making the world better and stuff, OK?
Recently, my colleague April Nishimura, RVC’s awesome Director of Capacity Building, got hyped on Marie Kondo’s tidying method. She made me clean out my box of crap, which I had not done for four years. It was therapeutic. I found a forgotten bar of Theo-brand dark chocolate that had been gnawed on by what looked like rats (or possibly a volunteer with very small incisors).
Inspired by this experience, I decided to learn the KonMari method by watching Kondo’s show on Netflix. After four episodes, I was able to grasp the basics, which are grounded in the question of whether something “sparks joy.” If it doesn’t, thank it for its service, and then let it go. These methods can be applied to our organizations. So here are some lessons, directly taken from or inspired by Marie Kondo, in case you and your team are thinking of tidying up your org using the KonMari method:
Lesson 1: Organize by category, not by room: You may be tempted to go from room to room—board room, supply closet, kitchen, weeping-closet, etc.—organizing as each room one at a time, but resist the urge. Instead, it’s important to gather similar items all in one place and deal with them one category at a time, so that you can inventory and find homes for the items you are keeping. After much thinking, I have determined that the main categories for Phase 1 are: outdated books, useless documents, crappy chairs, expired snacks, random supplies, personal dumpster fires (which each team member must tackle on their own), and “komono,” which is what Marie Kondo calls miscellaneous, e.g., dying plants, ancient awards, giant presentation checks, etc. Go through each category one at a time. We will deal with Phase 2 later.
Lesson 2: Determine if each item sparks joy or potential liabilities: For instance, when you are going though chairs, look at each one and ask yourself, “Does this chair, held together with duct tape and is likely a home for a family of mice, spark joy? Or could the spring sticking out of it possibly impale someone and lead to a lawsuit?” Keep the items that spark joy for you. Thank and toss the items that spark liabilities.
Lesson 3: Create or update your document retention policy. Here’s a primer on this topic from our friends at 501 Commons. So many of us keep thousands of files that we know we will never look at again, but we fear getting rid of because we think, “If we get audited, they might want to see these receipts from 1958.” Have a policy in place, then order pizza for the team, scan any important files, thank them for their service, and shred away.
Lesson 4: Get rid of outdated leadership/management books and training materials: I am sure “The Power of Ignorance: How to Create a Colorblind Work Culture” or “Winking and Nodding: Communication Skills for Women” may have been widely used decades ago, but may be useless or potentially harmful now. Snap some pictures of the hilarious ones and post them on your social media page, to spark joy in others, then get rid of them.
Lesson 5: Do not inflict your crap on other organizations: As much as we all hate the random donations of expired cans of beets, collection of creepy porcelain dolls, and pairs of worn underwear, let us not inflict our stuff on other nonprofits. Chances are, they might actually take it, which creates a vicious cycle, which is how my last organization ended up with 8,000 crayon stubs and 500 ancient math textbooks at one time. (We loaded them off on some other sucker nonprofit).
Lesson 6: When you are overwhelmed, do something to purify the air: Tidying is a long and draining process, both physically and emotionally. When you are overwhelmed, Marie Kondo recommends taking some deep breaths, lighting a candle, or spraying a scent. But we’re talking about the nonprofit sector, so I think screaming in the supply closet or waving a check from a general operating grant around the room should do.
Now that you’ve accomplished all the categories in Phase 1, it is time to move on to Phase 2, which is not an official part of Marie Kondo’s method, but I find her tips to still be relevant:
Lesson 7: Give each board member a tap to wake them up. Kondo likes to tap books to symbolically “wake them up” before determining whether they spark joy. This is a good strategy with some board members. They should bring joy to your organization, but sometimes we get attached to them and keep them on our board because of our hoarding tendencies. After you shake them a bit to “wake them up,” consider each board member and see if they spark joy. Keep the board members who spark joy; thank and release the ones that do not. Do this with other volunteers too.
Lesson 8: Determine if you want to take staff into the future. If the question of whether something sparks joy for you is not working to help you decide whether to keep it or not, Marie Kondo recommends asking the question, “Do you want to take this with you into the future?” This is a good question to ask as you consider whether to keep each of your staff, including the Executive Director. Gaze at each team member and ask yourself if this person would be good for your organization to bring into the future? Do this with consultants too.
Lesson 9: Go through each donor in your database and ask “Does this person make me want to stab something?” Most donors spark a lot of joy. But not all of them do. Some of them spark fear, dread, or the heebie-jeebies. They might be sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, a predator, or just arrogant and condescending and bizsplainy. Look at each donor’s name on your list and see what feelings it brings up in you. Thank and say goodbye to the donors who do not spark joy.
Lesson 10: Determine which funders/grants spark joy: I met a colleague who had a grant for $7,000 that required quarterly reports. Clearly it did not spark joy in her, and she had decided to let go of this abomination of nature. Look through each of your grants to see if they spark joy in you. If they don’t, call up the program officer and say, “This grant does not spark joy in me,” and see if you can change things. If that doesn’t work, thank the grant for its service or whatever and let it go, then spend some time in your weeping closet if you have one.
I hope that has been helpful. What I learned after thanking and releasing the things in my office that no longer bring me joy, and something Marie Kondo reiterates, is that by letting these things go, we make space for other joyful things to come into our lives. By letting go of our crappy chairs, outdated documents, molding snacks, dying plants, and the occasional board member or ED, we make room for more joyful things and people to enter into our organizations.
And if you don’t think that’s true, just know that after I threw away my chocolate bar that had been half-gnawed-on by rats, Theo Chocolate (the most amazing and socially responsible chocolate company in the world) heard about my temptation to eat the other half—which was definitely NOT gnawed on by rats, OK?—and sent my office two dozen un-rat-bitten bars of chocolate. So there you go. I’m more joyful already.
Vu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears monthly in the GuideStar Blog. This article is a cross-post of a March 17, 2019, piece from his blog, Nonprofit ... And Fearless. Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.