Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift (and why I’m leaving my job)


chessWhen I first got out of grad school with my Master in Social Work, I was a bright-eyed kid full of hopes and dreams of doing my part to make the world better. Completely broke and desperate to find work before the student loans people released their hounds, I applied to countless jobs and found that no one would hire me because I had no experience, a vicious “Experience Paradox” that many young grads go through each year. Frustrated and dejected, I secluded myself in my room (in my parents’ house), sending out my resume all day, coming out at night to raise my clenched fist to the dark skies and screaming “I may be inexperienced, but I am still a human being! A human being!!!” Then I would eat some ramen and watch Spanish soap operas on Univision.

What is the point of that story? The point is that communities of color, and the organizations led by these communities, often feel like these recent grads. We are stuck in this debilitating and demoralizing “Capacity Paradox” where funders do not invest sufficient funds in our organizations to build capacity because we don’t have enough capacity. Yet we are constantly asked to do stuff, to sit at various tables, to help with outreach, to rally our community members to attend various summits and support various policies. Everyone seems to be in agreement that major efforts to effect systemic change are missing the voices of communities of color and would benefit from having those voices. Everyone also seems to be in agreement that communities of color that have strong organizations behind them are much more involved and effective at all levels of service and policies. Building the capacity of these organizations, then, is critical to all systems-change efforts: Housing, homelessness, climate change, education, neighborhood safety, etc.

What many of us fail to recognize is that the current efforts to increase the capacity of nonprofits led by immigrant, refugee, or other communities of color, which I call “nonprofits of color,” are not sufficient. Funders who provide significant, multi-year, general operating funds—the holy grail of funding and the thing that will help any organization develop its capacity the fastest—operate under systems that leave most nonprofits of color behind. These significant capacity building grants are almost impossible for nonprofits of color to attain. We usually don’t have the same relationships. Or grantwriting skills. Or board members who can strongly articulate the vision. Because we don’t have capacity, we can’t get support to develop capacity.

With significant, catalytic funding out of the question, funders provide small grants to nonprofits of color so they can do things like hire a consultant to facilitate a strategic planning retreat, or to send them to workshops on board development, fundraising, personnel policies, or myriad other capacity building topics. These grants can be very helpful to keep an organization going. But in the long run it doesn’t work because there is a critical missing element. Staffing. You can send an organization to a thousand workshops and do a thousand strategic planning processes, but if they do not have staff to implement their learnings, they are not going to build significant capacity. We have many, many nonprofits that are doing good and much-needed work, that are constantly asked to do more work for free, without receiving any of the trust and support to hire qualified staff to sustain and grow their operations.

The paradigm has to shift. I don’t say this lightly, because there are few things I hate more than jargons like “shifting the paradigm.” But the reality is that what we are doing is not working, and we have to change our mindset completely and do things differently. If we value the voice of our diverse communities, we must build the capacity of organizations led by those communities. But we must do it differently than how we’ve been doing it. We must invest strategically and sufficiently. We must take some risks. It to society’s benefit to help these nonprofits break out of the Capacity Paradox.

For the past couple of years I have been working with a group of brilliant and passionate people on a project called the Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), a model designed to increase the capacity of immigrant/refugee-led nonprofits by providing this critical missing element of staffing. The project recruits emerging leaders of color from within immigrant/refugee communities, trains them in a cohort on capacity building and nonprofit management, and sends them to work full-time at nonprofits of color to help those nonprofits develop their infrastructure and effectiveness. Now we can send these nonprofits to workshops and do strategic plans, because now there is staffing to implement stuff. These emerging leaders get a stipend, healthcare, and a bonus to support paying back student loans or furthering their education. They will get mentorship and support and encouragement to stay in the nonprofit field and rise up to become leaders within their communities.

RVC addresses several needs, among them the vital staffing that is required for capacity building to be successful. But it also addresses a scary challenge that many of us are not even talking about: The gap in leadership among the immigrant/refugee communities will widen further because kids are not entering the nonprofit field. Most immigrant/refugee kids are pressured by their families to go into jobs with higher pay and prestige. Many nonprofits of color are currently led by elders, who will in 10 or 15 years retire, and if we don’t start to develop the pipeline for new generations of leaders of color soon, we may not have many in the future. This will jeopardize all sorts of systemic-change efforts.

So, Rainier Valley Corps will increase capacity of nonprofits of color, improve services to immigrant/refugee communities, build up new generations of leaders of color in the nonprofit field, and foster collaboration between diverse ethnic groups to address inequities. If we do a good job, lessons can be learned that can be applied to diverse communities all over the US.

The project itself is ambitious (nearly $700,000 per year for seven years to support cohorts of 10 to 18 emerging leaders/organizations each year), but if we genuinely want to build the capacity of nonprofits of color, then we must be willing to invest sufficient funds to make it work.

This year, RVC received some start-up funding, enough to hire a full-time Project Director who will focus on raising the $700K/year, develop the infrastructure and curriculum, and strengthen relationships among the various nonprofits, funders, and capacity-building organizations. And because I so firmly believe that this model holds the promise to greatly increase our immigrant/refugee communities’ effectiveness and voice, I am leaving my job as executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) to become RVC’s project director starting on June 2nd, 2014.

It is bittersweet leaving an organization that I love and one that has given me so much in terms of skills and connections and even relieved some of my existential angst about the meaning of life. But VFA is doing great, with an incredible board, amazing staff, and dedicated supporters. I have nothing but gratitude to VFA for the past nine years, and pride in all we achieved during this time. I still remember when we had an operating budget less than $20,000, no staff, and one program. I remember staying at the office until midnight to get work done, and then come to my car to find it had been broken into. We have grown a lot. We strengthened our capacity. We now have several staff, many great programs serving thousands each year, and we’re being more and more involved in cool stuff like working with other ethnic groups to push for education equity.

VFA is why I so strongly believe that Rainier Valley Corps holds the key to capacity building for immigrant/refugee communities. Ten years ago, when I could not find a job because I had all this passion and no experience, I was accepted into a unique program. It recruited us emerging leaders, trained us in a cohort on capacity building and nonprofit management, and sent us to work full-time in small Vietnamese-led nonprofits across the US to help those nonprofits develop their infrastructure and effectiveness. I was sent to VFA. I know this RVC model and how effective it can be because I personally went through it and have seen the results. The program drew us inexperienced-but-passionate grads into the field, and many of us stayed and continue to contribute. Several of us became leaders of our organizations and within our communities.

Which is great. Without this program that kept me in the nonprofit field and inspired Rainier Valley Corps, I probably would have ended up on another career path: Writing for Spanish soap operas.


45 thoughts on “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift (and why I’m leaving my job)

  1. Karen Kirkwood-Whyte

    Let me be one of the first to wish you well in your new position, Vu! I look forward to hearing more about the work of RVC.

  2. Laura R-B

    Congratulations, Vu. The RVC sounds like an awesome program, one that should be replicated all around the U.S. I, too, hope you keep writing. Now go kick some ass! 😉

  3. Nancy White

    Fabulous. If any of the RVC folks ever has an interest in hanging with a crazy facilitator, let me know. Even if I’m white in skin color and name. 🙂 I’m deeply interested in next generation leadership and think our current model for us, ahem, elders in work needs to be co-working w/ next gen leadership.

    I’m experiencing an uphill climb when I’m working overseas and telling clients they need to hire a local facilitator to work with me so next time they will have a local facilitator to hire – and stop the crazy flying white North American’s to facilitate in other parts of the world. Crazy in so many ways… What I’m noticing is that there is not an entrepreneurial approach to capacity development, and, as you note, less interest in system building vs the project of the moment.

    P.S. it was great to meet some of your VFA staff earlier this month at the liberating structures workshop.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Nancy. We should get coffee in June if you’re around. We elders do need to help develop and work with the next generation of leaders. I feel like an elder. Or maybe I just look like one after having this baby.

  4. Diana Burrell

    Congratulations! I know you will accomplish amazing feats at RVC. I’d love to talk with you more about the model and the work you’re doing. As the refugee population of Idaho swells, we’re facing similar paradigms. I’d love to try to get in front of this instead of playing catch-up for next 5 years. All my best wishes to you & RVC!

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Diana. Hopefully we can make a model that can work for other communities. I’d love to talk in June or July as we start working on this project.

  5. LongmontKathy

    Congratulations, Vu! I wish I were a grantmaker and could give RVC a nice fat multi-year general support grant!

  6. Karen Hirsch

    Congratulations, Vu. You are a bold and inspiring leader. Seattle is lucky to have you at the helm of RVC.

  7. ESwit

    Great post, Vu. Congratulations – you are right on and with you taking on this work, maybe the paradigm will shift!!

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, E. There’s nothing I love more than shifting paradigms. Except TV. And dark chocolate. And bunnies.

  8. Andrew Jay

    As a 1st generation Canadian immigrant & refugee from the land of Manitoba (and the oppression of poutine!) I am so excited for RVC. Congratulations on the shift!

      1. Andrew Jay

        Aye! My family is from the land of Manitoba but I was raised in the San Juan Islands with only Canadian TV (Damn you French Sesame Street!). I hope you wont hold it against me.

  9. Jan Masaoka

    Congratulations, Vu! I know you’ll be great in your new job. I hope that one of the things you’ll address there is the problem of people of color in nonprofit leadership constantly being recruited out into the infrastructure. For example, one critique of the old Kellogg leadership program was that it took talented EDs and program directors of color and they all ended up becoming consultants, program officers, and think tank staff — in short, a brain drain. Again, congrats.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Jan! You bring up a good point. We need to keep people in the field. I do think brain drain is a huge issue. Luckily, you’re still here! Maybe RVC will do a training on resisting tempting offers to go to the other sides of the table.

  10. Elizabeth Ralston

    Congratulations!! Keep challenging us and lighting those fires beneath our feet. I hope you will still keep posting. Regards, Elizabeth

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Elizabeth. Yup, will still be writing. In fact, I’m sure I’ll have even more stuff to write about.

  11. verucaamish

    Congratulations! My last two jobs were doing capacity building work so if there’s any way to connect, let’s do it. Right now I run fellowship programs for social justice leaders.

  12. Cliff Meyer

    Wow, you are the perfect person to lead this, and (with a little luck) create a sustainable, replicable model. Sounds like it may involve long hours. Where do we send the donation so you can install a car alarm?

    1. Vu Le

      Cliff, thank you so much for the encouragement. It will involve long hours, but I’m very excited about it. Right now, we don’t even have an office yet. It’ll be fun to see this project develop. Donations are appreciated. Please go to and designate the donation to RVC

  13. Robin Carton

    What a terrific post and a great next step. Having been a grantmaker for 18 years – I know intimately what you are talking about in terms of funding and access. If there is any way that I can be helpful as you move forward – please feel free to contact me.

    1. Vu Le

      Thank you so much, Robin. I really appreciate the offer to help. I will get in touch in June when my role is official.

  14. Mary Cahalane

    Brave and admirable of you, Vu! You WILL make this work, I know it. And your diagnosis is all too right, as well.

    Please say you’ll continue writing this blog, though!

    (And btw, I just resigned last week myself.)

  15. Liahann Bannerman

    Congratulations Vu, and I’m glad I’ll still get the opportunity to work with you as RVC moves forward (lots of LT, LEAD, SVP & WTF lessons learned!) Also proud of our role in getting RVC going (St. Lori!) and the promise it holds for shifting the paradigm…sustainably, w/ evidence-based practi… Never mind.

    1. Vu Le

      thanks so much, Liahann. UWKC has been an amazing partner in this effort. I’ll be pulling you personally in, though, to help with the project 🙂

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  18. Kat

    While I agree that there needs to be more inclusion of diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences in serving “communities of color,” I disagree with your diagnosis. Put in simpler terms, youre saying that “hey, we started a nonprofit but we don’t know how to run it, so you should give us money to train us.” I think that this is not the problem–It is a symptom of a greater problem that must be tackled at the roots: education. Communities of color are not producing leaders of color because _education_. Claiming that organizations don’t know how to do their jobs is not going to get people to give you money– the real problem is that people in low-income communities are not getting equal access to education that would put them in a position to be able to run a successful organization. I admire your efforts to create leaders in Rainier Valley, but I also think your priorities are a little clouded.

    1. Vu Le

      Kat, thanks for adding to the discussion. Not at all with the “hey we started a nonprofit but we don’t know how to run it, so you should give us money to train us.” That’s the standard model, where funders have been providing money to train people. It doesn’t work. Because there are few people to actually be trained, because few people go into the field, and the ones who are in the field don’t have the support they need to navigate the field. I completely agree with you that here is inequitable access to education. However, how will that be changed? Education is one of the most important issues, and it is missing the voices of communities of color. How are we going to bring about equity, in education or any other area, when communities are not engaged because we don’t have enough leaders of color to help and lead in these efforts? I’ve seen countless mistakes made by well-meaning people because there are not enough diverse perspectives at these major decision-making tables. These systems will not spontaneously change themselves. We must find, rally, train, and equip leaders of color to work with allies to change these systems, including to address educational inequity.

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