The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind


Game-of-Thrones-S3E7-02-e1368427519542A while ago I attended a meeting coordinated by a major local funder. The topic was “Lessons from Game of Thrones we can apply to nonprofit work.” All right, that wasn’t the topic, although that would have made for a much livelier discussion and will be a blog post here soon enough. No, we were talking about Community Engagement. Once again we were talking about community engagement, because it is becoming more and more apparent that voices of communities of color are missing from almost every table on every issue—the environment; education; housing; transportation; food equity; employment; scrimshaw, the ancient art of carving on whale bones, etc.—and everyone is banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

I looked around the 20 or so community leaders, all extremely influential, all very good looking in that inexplicably suave nonprofit director sort of way, and most were of color. The Seahawks had just won the Super Bowl, and we were ecstatic and talking about how awesome the game was. But finally it was time to get down to business. It was a passionate room with much to say:

“Funders don’t invest enough in community organizations.”

“There is no trust placed in communities of color, so why would they be engaged.”

“Yeah! Funders seek input from communities, then ignore whatever doesn’t align with their priorities anyway, so communities are jaded.”

“Other sectors pay better, so our kids gravitate toward them, so we don’t have enough professionals of color in the field.”

“The education system is flawed in general.”

“The nonprofit funding landscape is too much like Westeros in Game of Thrones! The Wildlings are trying to make it past the wall! The White Walkers are coming, and we don’t have an equitable distribution of dragonglass!!!”

“Who is that guy who just said that?”

“No clue. He writes some blog or something…”

Finally, someone said, “It’s like football. I mean, we have to train our offense better, because the turnover rate right now is horrendous. Go Seahawks!” I don’t remember what he actually said, but that sounds about right. For several minutes this football analogy was used. “Exactly,” someone else said, “but you have to have your defense tight, or your quarterback, even a good one, will get sacked before the end of the first quarter. Go Hawks!”

Even though I had written a post on what we nonprofits can learn from the Super Bowl, I was still new to the game, so the metaphors were very confusing. There were a lot of people who nodded in agreement, but there were a lot of bewildered faces around the table. And this is a great symbol for the challenges with community engagement and with the nonprofit system in general.

We love football in the US. No event on TV rivals the Super Bowl. Kids grow up wanting to be Dan Marino and Russell Wilson. Even nonathletic people like me, who would rather watch reruns of The Walking Dead while eating three pounds of Boca vegan soy nuggets with barbecue sauce, are pulled into this world. We can’t avoid football. It is part of American culture.



But think about it. In almost every single other country on earth, it is not football that children are playing. It is soccer. Kids kick cans and coconuts down the road, pretending they are soccer balls. They grow up wanting to be Pele and Ronaldo. Right now the ENTIRE world is excited about the World Cup, where the US is actually the underdog.

What does this have to do with community engagement, you ask? Simple. We are used to football as the one and only game, and we expect communities of color to play it, because we need a strong team, and right now we are missing our cornerbacks and wide receivers or whatever position communities of color represent. Right now funders and policy makers are banging their heads against a wall wondering why there are so few players of color on the policy and advocacy football field. But maybe communities of color like to play soccer. Maybe we’re much better at soccer because that’s what we grow up knowing. Sure, maybe we will be better at tackling and interceptions if we get some more coaching and practice at football. Or maybe we all need to think more about the type of game we’re in because we may never win the way we’re currently playing.

I love nonprofit work and the people in it too much to think of it as a game. Games are for fun and entertainment, while people’s lives are at stake in our work. However, let’s continue with this metaphor. Here is what it is like to be a nonprofit leader of color. Imagine that you have two fields: One for football, and one for soccer. Football represents all the mainstream stuff you must understand in order for you and your organization to be effective: How to write a grant, how to talk to donors, build a database, form a board, create a strategic plan, conduct an audit, lobby for or against a bill, hire staff, fire staff, contract with a consultant, plan a retreat, have lunch with funders, etc. Soccer represents different things, but things you must also understand: How to talk to elders, how to deal with homeland challenges, how to deal with war-and-displacement-related collective trauma, how to navigate your own ethnic and racial identity, how to be assertive enough to be listened to but not enough to be dismissed, etc.

Imagine that the two fields are right next to one another and on a daily basis you must run back and forth, back and forth across the fields. You run to one field and you try to receive a ball, then you run to the other field and try to assist in making a goal, then you run back to try to tackle someone, then you run to over to try to trip another player while pretending it’s an accident. Imagine how exhausting that would be.

I remember one day a while ago when I scrambled to have a great site visit, then I was on a panel to talk about education equity, had several more meetings, then I came back to the office to realize that an elder in a community newspaper had misquoted something I said at my organization’s annual fundraising event that resulted in several other community elders being very angry, so I drove over to beg him to correct the mistake, and he exploded. He stood there berating me for an hour for having the gumption to question him and then he said that if I had any intelligence or talent I would be in an actually useful profession instead of leeching off of the community to make a living as a nonprofit pariah. He said my entire staff and I were just in this profession to make money because we couldn’t find jobs elsewhere. It stung, like I was a goalie who just got slammed in the groin by a soccer ball. I looked down, staring at my shirt, which I had gotten for $12.99 at Ross Dress for Less several years ago. I was wondering what rules of which game applied at this time. Should I play football and verbally tackle the hell out of him, or should I play soccer and respect my elder and try to understand that he had lost so much because of the War, like so many of our elders have lost.

I chose the latter, apologized for upsetting him, went back to my office, called up another elder to help with damage control, and then went to another nonprofit’s fundraising event to complete one of the lowest days of my career. There had been, and would be, many more days like this one, and I’m not the only nonprofit professional who runs around back and forth across several fields catching and kicking football and soccer balls all day. And I would imagine if you’re a woman, add another field, and if you’re disabled or LGBTQ, add some more fields to run around trying to understand the rules and win an occasional game. The more fields you play in, the more nimble you can become, but the more exhausted you are, because you must play them all simultaneously.

This is the longest—and if you’re not into sports, the most boring—metaphor ever. The point is, we’re currently thinking of community engagement as “How do we get more communities of color to play football?” and “Why do some who are in the game suck so badly, and what should we do to get them to play better?” and “You guys in this room are rare, inexplicably suave, and amazing football players of color. How do we help you train other players of color and pull them into the field? We need them so we can win the Super Bowl.”

It is not that simple. We communities of color are still trying to understand the mainstream nonprofit culture, with all its unwritten rules and regulations. We are trying to be better nonprofit football players. We have to, because the game is not going to change any time soon, and those communities who don’t know the rules or who don’t practice enough are left behind. We are also trying to be better nonprofit soccer players. Because we also have no choice.

But funders and donors and all of us in the sector need to better understand just how exhausting it can be to play multiple types of games, that it may take longer in terms of time and significant investments in terms of resources to get communities to be engaged. We all need to better understand which games we are each best at, and which games we can win if we work together. Because maybe it’s not the nonprofit Super Bowl we should be trying to win, but the World Cup of equity and social justice. 

(Go Hawks!)

  • Karen Hirsch

    Thanks for writing this, Vu. It is a great post. You have my vote for MVP of great metaphors.

    • I second that. Great stuff, Vu. Thoughtful, unabashedly candid and spot-on as always. May your work at Rainier Valley Corps help us move toward a better understanding about not just how to level playing fields, but how to make the “games” we play more equitable.

      • Thanks, Liz. I hope so too. I’m excited about what RVC can do.

    • Thanks, Karen. I’m surprised I knew enough about any sport to actually use it as a metaphor.

  • Ana Cervantes

    BRILLIANT post, Vu! I found your sports metaphor neither a boring nor too long. It was actually very clever and imaginative. In my view there are so many things in the US now which militate against the imagination necessary for true inclusiveness, in spite of what many of us would like to believe. This means that you and others in your situation must bring even more imagination to the table, PLUS a generous dose of educating. Good for you for not dumbing this down!

    • Thank you, Ana! What a sweet comment. I really appreciate it.

  • Heidi Venture

    Enjoyed the post, even though it was a sports analogy.

    • Thanks, Heidi. This picture is hilarious and terrifying all at once.

  • Sharonne

    I’m totally stealing this … And why are you spending so much on shirts at Ross? *wink*

    • Sometimes, you just have to treat yourself to something nice.

  • verucaamish

    I think one challenge that the outside world doesn’t get with refugee and immigrant led organizations is the deep roots in our communities. A white led VOLAG does it’s work and often does it well but they don’t move beyond the scope of their funding. For MAA’s, if a community member needs assistance in not getting evicted, you will have to talk to their landlord whether you are funded for case management or not. It’s a different level of accountability. Being a queer Vietnamese myself, playing soccer when my skills set is volleyball, is particularly challenging. There’s a constant internal dialogue of whether I should be out or not.

    • Thanks, verucaamish. That is a really good point, and something on my list to write about. It does get frustrating when people insist on a one-size-fits-all approach when clearly there are different needs and contexts. I’ve had donors come to me and say “Why doesn’t your org do one thing like XYZ org? Why do you do so many things?” Because our community needs all those services, duh!

      • verucaamish

        I also think the other part that funders say over an over again is PARTNERSHIP. They don’t understand the dynamics of communities of color where we can’t just refer people to partner organizations if they need support beyond what our funding tells us to do.

  • Cliff Meyer

    Thanks for another thought-provoking column. Re those “unwritten rules” of mainstream nonprofit culture: Don’t people of color face the same “multiple playing fields” problem in any sector? Vegan or not? 😉

    • Thanks, Cliff. You’re absolutely right, those unwritten rules apply everywhere. And if you’re vegan, it’s even worse. Veganphobia is something that will be addressed in this blog later.

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  • Susan Sullivan

    Great analogy. It really illustrates the challenge.

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  • Sherrie Smith

    I’ve just been introduced to your blog – and I find myself sitting here waving my arms and shouting “OMG THANK YOU!” over and over again as you eloquently explain these dilemmas with humor and sharp insight. I’m a white woman in non-profit working with a well-meaning government funder who is baffled by our ability to engage communities of color yet imposes bizarre and ineffective exercises on us in order to become more “culturally competent.” We were recently given an equity assessment that’s supposed to be filled out anonymously by our staff that is SO inaccessible I don’t know how our relatively diverse staff is supposed to answer the questions. It is from the POV of very white people with PhD’s in bureaucratic legal-ease. Our very experienced-in-government ED can’t figure out a lot of the questions, how are my immigrant staff who speak English as a second language supposed to give their assessment? This kind of thing is constant, and infuriating.
    You’re like the Jon Stewart of non-profit. You made me LOL at a bitter pill so I can get back to business. Thank you.

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