Being a nonprofit with balls, part 3

[Part 3 of the Nonprofit with Balls series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 before you read this]

batmanAfter several months, I was able to meet with Ted, Luke’s multi-millionnaire friend. It had taken a while to arrange this meeting, and the coordination was done through Ted’s assistant, leaving me to conjure up the image of Ted as an elusive genius, like Batman inside his Bat Cave devising plans and building awesome gadgets to combat injustice.

I got there 20 minutes early, parked my car, and started re-googling Ted and his accomplishments. They were numerous and very impressive. Obviously he is a very smart man. And he’s trying to improve education. Since I chair the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which is trying to rally community-based organizations and schools to work together to help all the schools in Southeast Seattle succeed, my primary objective was to learn what he’s doing, and to tell him about what SESEC has been up to, and see if there is any ground to collaborate.

The secondary objective was to convince him to give Southeast schools a gazillion trillion dollars.

He had a modest office, a small room tactfully decorated, and all around were pictures of his family. What a nice man, I thought.

“Thank you for meeting with me,” I said, “I know you are extremely busy, and I am very appreciative of your time.” He nodded. Behind his high-quality but simple desk, Ted described his effort with Luke to reform education. I asked him question after question, and he was open and articulate, the easy confidence of a man who has earned his laurels. One day, I thought, I too shall have the easy confidence of a man who has earned his laurels. And I’ll also have a high-quality yet unostentatious mahogany desk.

Ted is trying to build a movement that will change the educational tides, pushing agenda items that many would agree to. As he talked, however, I was getting a little concerned. Not so much about his policy agenda, but about his approach to building the base.

“Our strategy is to target the low-hanging fruit,” he said. I had heard this term before from Luke. Low-hanging fruit are families that are already engaged, have the language skills, don’t work several jobs to make ends meet, etc. “Basically, White families, and some Asian families,” Luke had said.

“So then high-hanging fruit,” I said to Ted, “are people like immigrant/refugee families, or others who have language, socioeconomic, transportation barriers and other stuff they have to deal with that make them hard to reach?”

He nodded.

“Don’t you think, though, sir, that these families have been historically left out of these types of discussion, even though we know they are MOST impacted by our flawed education system?”

He sighed. “Yes, but we only have so much funding.” He paused. “However, we do everything with them in mind.”

I argued that this low-hanging fruit approach is one of the weaknesses of current educational advocacy efforts. How could you inspire people to action when you see them as passive fruit on a tree, waiting to be picked? And doing things with people “in mind” is patriarchal and condescending, which might even be OK if it were actually effective. It hasn’t been. For several decades we have had this “achievement gap,” and this approach has not been closing it.

Having worked in the community for a little bit of time, I understand the temptation to go fast, to go big. We get pressure by funders who are driven by regional, global reach. But it is counterproductive if in our urgency for change and for scope of impact, we leave behind the very people who most need this change. SESEC, comprising over 25 organizations and growing, take our time building relationship and trust and agreeing to a collective agenda. We are rallying diverse communities who speak different languages, who face all sorts of historical and political traumas, who are still trying to navigate a very complex system. We will not be able to quickly agree on anything. It is complicated and sometimes frustrating and always challenging.

It is also inspiring. We are starting to see the SE communities starting to work together. Funders and education advocates need to understand that it takes lots of time to build bridges. It takes years and a series of small victories, leading to medium ones, leading to big ones. It takes belief in the premise that those who are most impacted by anything should be leading the efforts to change it, no matter how messy that process might be.

For forty-five minutes I sat across from Ted. Debating with him didn’t get me anywhere. I also realized nearing the end of our meeting that he never asked me once why I wanted to meet with him. He never asked me a single question about anything, in fact. I started telling him what SESEC is doing, which is precisely trying to engage these “high-hanging” fruit. He nodded, asking no follow-up question. He seemed both focused and bored; focused on his own methods, and bored by my attempts to argue with him and also present the work that SESEC has been doing. He was meeting with me probably only as a favor to Luke.

I thanked him for his time and left the Bat Cave disappointed. Ted seemed intellectually uncurious, as if his admittedly impressive success in life made him immune to ideas that run counter to his own. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has vast resources to invest in new technologies that he uses to fight injustice. He is influential, connected to others who are just as powerful. Together they can change the world for the better. Batman becomes a symbol of hope for the city. I don’t think that was whom I met.

Or, who knows, maybe Ted just had a bad day. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. Still, I wrote him the customary thank-you email and have yet to hear a response. Maybe I should hang lower.


9 thoughts on “Being a nonprofit with balls, part 3

  1. corbin1994

    Do you ever feel like you’re the only one out there telling the unvarnished truth? Because it would appear that you are, or may be one of the few. PLEASE write a book, with all this stuff in it. What can I do to make this happen? Really. Though I have no idea where to start, I can figure it out.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks for the encouragement, Corbin. I have been thinking about writing a book on community engagement. You can help by finding out which publishers might be interested in this subject, since it seems to be pretty niche.

      1. Ivy Hest

        I’d buy it! And probably make it required reading for anyone I ever interact with ever.

        You could self-publish either online or paper to start out, which I’m sure takes more time and energy but also takes out the need to go through the arduous process of getting officially Published. I imagine you’re capable of googling, but this was one of the firsts to pop up and seems fairly useful.

        Unless you’re ideologically against Amazon (which I totally understand), in which case there are small publishers. My heart breaks to find out that my favorite publisher, South End Press, went under this year (I found out because the Wikipedia article’s verbs are all in the past tense), but here are some others, based on general how-to’s from my bookshelf: Mill City Press, Jossey-Bass, and OR Books are just a few.

      2. Sherrie Smith

        I would read your book. Community Engagement is huge right now (at least in Portland… I know we’re in the PWN bubble) but I find myself really looking in your blog for the approaches you recommend to reach those who need access to services the most. The vulnerable populations who are treated like they’re some kind of “black sucking hole” (a term I heard somebody use to describe DHS clients) or completely ignored.
        Oh and THANK YOU for talking about how long it takes to build relationships. This is what one-year-at-a-time funders don’t seem to understand. You can’t just have short-term projects, get all in a community, then take the program away after only a year. Bad mojo, that.

      3. victoria fear

        not sure if you’ll see this reply since the post is years old, but some of my nonprofit books are published by jossey-bass, greenleaf book group, and island press. a more radical publisher i was recently introduced to is called haymarket books

  2. Sherry S. Jennings

    Vu, as an organizational psychologist, I read this with interest: “Ted seemed intellectually uncurious, as if his admittedly impressive success in life made him immune to ideas that run counter to his own.” An interesting observation.

    I, too, have encountered a similar phenomenon with a gazillionaire friend who is interested in funding education. We had an argument about an education nonprofit that refused his grant money. It was a sizable chunk of change. He was a bit angry at being thwarted. However, I pointed out the money had all kinds of strings attached (basically, to fund his idea) and absolutely no provision for overhead (i.e., staff time). Then he got angry with me, “They HAVE the bandwidth to do it, they just don’t have the vision to do this project!” Heavy sigh. I tried explaining that his money would encourage mission drift and it wasn’t fair to ask them to reallocate staff time from organizational priorities to his project. He didn’t listen. I could hear his eyes rolling in his head over the phone. The only thing he wanted to hear from me was, “Yes, friend, of course you’re right. That nonprofit is stupid not to accept your gracious offer and implement your idea.” My friend was a Wall Street wunderkind and sold a startup for a ton of money within two years. I wonder if former titans of industry who gained such early success are unequipped for hearing “no” or alternatives to their ideas?

    On another note, the New York Times magazine had an interesting feature on philanthropy several years ago. One article pointed to wealthy individuals who start their own foundations rather than funding existing ones (e.g., community foundations). The overwhelming reason was because these wealthy individuals wanted total control over funding what THEY wanted to fund…and not to fund someone else’s idea. It seems like the criteria for some foundation funders and how projects are evaluated are designed to support and give evidence that the foundation founders are right about what the community needs, instead of actively seeking input on what the community actually needs. Focus groups designed by these funders will never be able to tap into the real need. The Ford Foundation echoes my sentiments

  3. benwikler

    Luke’s story was: “I met Ted, who is a millionaire. He told me about this thing he’s trying to do to improve education, so I said that sounds great, how can I help? And he gave me a job.”

    Which seems like Ted’s MO: if you want his help, start by agreeing with what he wants to do and offering to help him do it.

  4. Abigail Soto

    I also feel like reference to communities of color as fruit hanging from a tree is super racist. Makes me think of Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit.’ Just really not the best term in any way, shape, or form.

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