Love, power, and the nonprofit sector


[Image description: A green sprout breaking through the grey concrete ground. The sprout is bending to the left. It has a white bud, and two leaves. There are black crack lines radiating from where it springs up.]

Hi everyone, Valentine’s Day is coming up, so let’s turn down the lights, play some soft music, uncork a medium-priced bottle of white zinfandel, and gaze deep into one another’s eyes as we reflect on the intersection of love and power and how the nonprofit sector must embrace this duality to effectively fight injustice during this current political turmoil. Hold on, I’m going to slip into something a little more…comfortable.

(What, like your Valentine’s Day plans are so much hotter).

The last few weeks have seen terrible policies springing up on a daily basis. My organization works with many immigrant and refugee communities, and my family and I escaped poverty and violence under an oppressive regime, so it’s been hitting me a little hard thinking of all the banned people whose hopes now are dashed, and innocent adults and children doomed to suffering and death. Layered on that is everything else—the war on truth, on the press, on the environment, on public education, on the arts and humanities, on kindness and compassion. There is a profound sadness of seeing the country I love, flawed as it’s always been, but nevertheless a shining beacon of hope and freedom to my family and to so many others, drift further and further into darkness and hatred.

After the Women’s March, a colleague reminded all of us of one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quotes:

“One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. […] What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Our sector, the nonprofit sector, though it too is flawed, embraces love. So many of us are driven to this field because of love for our community, for our neighbors, for our environment, for animals, for justice. We love and speak up for many who may not yet have the strength and resources to raise their own voices. We are not always good at what we do, and we don’t always know what to do, and we make mistakes and fail—but we are firmly on the side of love and everything it stands for.

But, as Dr. King said, there is an identification, often unconscious, of love as a resignation of power, that they are on opposing sides of the continuum. And so our sector, as a whole, has shied away from power, from the perception that we are taking power or having power or wielding power. “Love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Unfortunately, sentimental and anemic is how our sector is often perceived. Many of us avoid advocacy and lobbying. We often do not fight back against destructive expectations like low “overhead.” We defer to funders and donors’ sometimes-ridiculous wishes. We jostle to seem humble and consensus-driven in every interaction.

Our sector embraces love, but facing injustice we must now also embrace power. As our country moves further into intolerance and chaos, we must summon our strengths and be the balancing force. “Power without love is reckless and abusive.” This is what we are seeing in this new administration. In some of my daydreams, the new administration defies our fears, moderates some of its rhetoric and policies, and maybe puts the well-being of our country, the world, and the tenets of democracy above pleasing its base. Maybe, as one now-former reader puts it, “maybe it won’t be as terrible as you think it will be.” I wish she were right. I wish it were true that some of us are just being alarmists and the sky is not falling and that after a few glasses of white zinfandel and some time, things will calm down and we can read the news and not recoil in horror at every headline. After all, they are keeping the previous administration’s order to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. So maybe things are not all that bad.

No. There are signs of things becoming as horrible as we think. The actions and words of this administration even at this point are terrifying. To believe that things will be OK if we just wait it out, that would be sentimental and anemic. In these dark times, with so many lives at stake, love and justice demand we own our power and mobilize. In the face of oppression, our sector cannot remain neutral. Equity does not allow us to remain neutral. When power operates without love, then love must operate through power.

How that looks will shift and evolve. I am still trying to figure it out, but I do know that we have way more power and influence than society and we ourselves have led us to believe. As I mentioned earlier, in the busyness of our urgent daily work, we forget that we employ 10% of the work force. We are the 3rd largest sector. We contribute $900Billion to the economy each year. (Here’s more data). We are far from anemic and sentimental. We just have not been fully tapping into the collective power of our sector. Here are some things we must do:

All organizations must engage in advocacy and lobbying: There is this misconception that 501c3 organizations can’t be engaged on advocacy/lobbying work without jeopardizing their status. We cannot endorse candidates, that’s true, but we can legally use 5% to 20% of our time and resources in advocacy work. So let’s do that. Here are some wonky details. If each organization currently not involved in advocacy work now spends 10% of its time locally and at the state and national level to inform our policy makers around various issues affecting our communities, imagine how much we can accomplish. I know, none of us have eight minutes to spare each week, must less four hours. But the needs of our communities will increase even as our resources get cut if we do not make time for this. Bring this up at your next board meeting and staff meeting. My organization just spent 3 hours writing postcards, emailing, and calling local and national public leaders last week. It was fun and easy and a great community-building event. Let’s have more actions like that. Let’s all do at least 10%. (This needs a cool hashtag. #10PercentAdvocacyChallenge)

We must support organizations leading in the work: There are advocacy organizations working hard to fight unjust laws, educate our community members of their rights, lead protests and lawsuits, among other important actions. We do not all need to reinvent wheels. Let’s support these organizations’ efforts by talking about them to our circles and rallying ourselves and our donors, volunteers, and clients to bolster their efforts. When they call on us to sign petitions, call legislators, add our org’s names to a letter, show up at a protest, let’s thoughtfully and quickly engage. So often we get stuck in bureaucratic processes, spending endless time in debates about mission alignment when our nonprofit colleagues at the forefront of the fight call on us. Yes, we must be thoughtful and deliberate in which actions we support. But we must all be involved, because all missions fall under our sector’s prime mission of creating a just and inclusive community, and right now that is severely threatened.

We must end the Nonprofit Hunger Games: We cannot build collective power if we are constantly fighting with each other for resources and credit. If there was ever a time for us to place the value of our community above our organization’s individual survival, it is now. We must support each other, talk to one another, build alliances, share resources, introduce our donors and funders to one another when appropriate. Only when we all firmly believe that our work is all interconnected and that we must support one another’s work can our sector unleash its full potential.  

We must work closer with the press and other sectors: As I mentioned earlier about cross-sector collaboration, our sector needs to do a better job working collaboratively with ourselves, but with other sectors. At this moment, our colleagues in media and journalism are also feeling anxiety as “alternative facts” and fake news are all around. It is terrifying, this assault on facts and truth. We need to do a better job supporting our friends in journalism, especially those lifting up the voices of marginalized communities. Let’s subscribe/donate to them, write positive comments on their articles to counter trolls, and work together to make sure our communities’ stories and messages are out there.

Funders, you must be more agile: Philanthropy’s necessary evolution during this crisis needs to be explored more (I have some recommendations here and will write more in future posts) but suffice to say, it needs to evolve, because many current funding philosophies and dynamics actively prevent the nonprofit sector from building power. In two weeks, we have seen an incredible amount of harm. Our communities cannot wait for the six or nine months it takes many funders to make decisions, for example. Nor can we afford to lose hundreds of millions of hours each year trying to navigate restricted funding. Increase your payout, set up an emergency fund, fund faster, fund advocacy, continue to fund direct service, stop restricting funding, take risks. Philanthropy must also own its power and influence, and nonprofits and funders need to work more effectively together, and quickly.

We must individually be engaged: I encourage all organizations, not just advocacy organizations, to roll up their sleeves and fight. But all of us, as individuals who believe in a just and inclusive community, have our own personal responsibilities to embrace our individual power to make stuff happen. If you’ve never written an op-ed, write one. If you’ve never been in a protest, be in one. If you’ve never called your legislator, call one. If you’ve never testified at a public hearing, testify in one. And if you’ve never given feedback to someone who said something racist or misogynistic or Islamophobic or homophobic or anti-disability, speak up; do it with love, but firmly. And if you’ve done all these things, keep doing them.

It is time that our sector summons its strengths, claim its power, and use love to implement the demands of justice. I know this is not always going to be easy. As Dr. King said:

“The road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted […] But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

We must maintain this audacious faith in the future. But to realize that future, we as a sector, and as individuals, so used to love, must gain and wield power. We must now embrace it with the same determination and passion we always bring to our work. Equity and social justice demand nothing less of us.

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38 thoughts on “Love, power, and the nonprofit sector

  1. Brooklyn11210

    Sexy Unicorn 2020! Hey #10PercentAdvocacyChallenge send this post to five of your most influential press or funder friends.. yah, GO!

  2. betty barcode

    I think that a lot of us confuse power-over and power-to. Power-over is domination or control. Power-to is independence, autonomy, etc.

    And on a semi-related note, I wonder if this is a good time to request a blog post about inter-agency etiquette. How to treat your fellow nonprofits and how not to.

  3. Heather Moritz

    This is a powerful post! Dualistic thinking is what feeds the monster; breaking down the mythology that love and power are opposites is just the sort of clear-headed thinking we need right now.

  4. Ophelia Hu

    Howdy, Vu and social-impact family. I’ve got a question related to love+power: is it appropriate for nonprofit workers to go on strike?

    There’s little question around the efficacy of a workers’ strike in sending a pointed message. But the social-impact sector works in large part for “the people.” Do nonprofit workers do more harm than good if they go on strike?

    1. Kelly

      It’s a great question, Ophelia – it came up several years ago, when I worked with a 24-hour crisis response org and some staff were considering participating in the “Day without Latinos” to draw attention to immigration issues… but it would have left the Spanish-language phone line unstaffed. Decided that wasn’t the ideal way to celebrate the intent of the day!

  5. Debbie Albertson Smith

    Well that was disappointing. I signed up on this blog to communicate with other ED’s, ideas and collaborations, and in general to communicate with other non-profits. The very first blog I receive is political, personal views, negative and name calling. I hope this gets better.

    1. nonprofitcommenter

      I think many in the nonprofit field, including Vu, feel their work is inherently political and personal. I am certainly glad he shares his personal views here; I learn a great deal from them. If you’re looking for something a bit more traditionally oriented towards technocratic management, I would recommend the Nonprofit Quarterly (particularly the articles in print), the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and perhaps the publications of your state nonprofit association. The internet is a big place; if this post doesn’t appeal to you I am sure you can find something elsewhere.

    2. Erin

      I don’t see what you see in terms of name-calling. What, to you, was name-calling in this article?
      Additionally, I believe it’s very important for those of us in the nonprofit sector to acknowledge that our jobs are about to get a whole lot harder and more important. All I see when I read articles like this is tips on how to more effectively survive the oncoming years of difficulty. What do you see?

    3. Michael Brand

      Debbie, I’m a frequent reader and sometime commentator here. Vu touches upon many important aspects of charity and philanthropy and mostly does so in an engaging and interesting way. As with any blog you have to take time to understand where they’re coming from in order to put their comments into context. Vu brings a west coast, urban elite perspective to his work. Not bad or good, it’s just limited in its vision….as we all are.

      1. Meredith

        “My organization works with many immigrant and refugee communities, and my family and I escaped poverty and violence under an oppressive regime, so it’s been hitting me a little hard thinking of all the banned people whose hopes now are dashed, and innocent adults and children doomed to suffering and death.”

        Way to bring that “west coast, urban elite perspective”, Vu!

        1. Michael Brand

          Not my intent to denigrate Vu’s background. His rise up and beyond his circumstances is a testament to what one can accomplish in this country. For that I am truly a fan It’s merely an observation on where he is today.

      2. Jim Beck

        I’m not sure labeling Vu (or anyone else for that matter) as simply an “urban elite” is helpful, illustrative, fair or true. Particularly in the case of someone who came to this country as a refugee, lived elsewhere in the states, and brings all that experience to his present way of being. Simply living in Seattle doesn’t really make someone a “west coast, urban elite.” Way too limiting. Labels = not helpful.

        1. Michael Brand

          Agree that much labeling is not helpful, but that’s the society we live in now. Heavy emphasis on proclaiming one’s identity (accompanied by their preferred pronoun; xi, they, etc) Even to reference one’s self as a ‘refugee’ can be a tacit way to establish authority in any discussion on immigration.

          And I emphasize being on the receiving end, having my thoughts dismissed as coming from a ‘white male’ (looking at your profile pic, I suspect you’ve been on the receiving end of this as well). But I’m not minimizing nor dismissing Vu’s points, just acknowledging a man frequently referencing hummus, veganisim, unicorns, etc is coming from an urban elite perspective.

    4. betty barcode

      You might also like Joan Garry’s blog. Lots of good nonprofit management advice for staff, boards & EDs alike.

  6. Patrick Taylor

    My one comment is that you assume that everyone in the nonprofit sector thinks what the administration is doing is bad. While most if not all of the Trump administration’s policies go counter to what most of us in the sector are working towards, there are plenty of charities and advocacy organizations (and Americans!) for whom the Trump Administration is the culmination of years of work. His policies and cabinet picks have been informed by conservative think-tanks. A conservative journalist is his chief strategist, and conservative news outlets are covering his administration favorably. Conservative churches are asking him to repeal the Johnson Amendment so they can explicitly advocate for Republican candidates. The number of state executive and legislative branches that are aligned with trump vastly outnumbered the states that are opposed to him. This disconnect between the moderate and left leaning America and conservative America is one of the biggest issues our country faces, especially in an era where conservativism as it is practiced is in government has become a heads I win, tails you lose proposition. What worries me the most about this administration is not so much his policies, it is the fact that almost no one on the right is standing up to him, and his administrations misinformation is being taken as truth by conservative news outlets and their reader and viewership.

    1. Michael Brand

      Thanks for your comment. It nudged me to think of all the nonprofit missions that stand to benefit from the new administration. But it’s not just the conservative ones. There are a host of organizations working with poor and marginalized populations who see opportunity in what Trump is proposing. I believe we see this the most in the fight over Betsy DeVos, which is less a red/blue fight than one about the status quo vs change. Every time a new charter school opens in my state, it’s immediately over subscribed and must rely on a lottery to determine who gets in. Most of these charters are nonprofits.

      You want to see something heartbreaking? Watch the anxiety of a low-income single mother sitting in the lottery drawing desperately holding out hope that her child may get a seat and thus a chance for a life different than the misery of her own.

  7. annaldr

    Thanks Vu. Your sense of humor and insight are always appreciated!!! Also, this post reminded me of a podcast I just listened to which is well worth the time: John Lewis reminds us that love was at the heart and center of the civil rights movement, but that that certainly didn’t mean being a doormat.

    On a somewhat related note: would you consider a post about tyrannical EDs? At the last 3 nonprofits where I’ve worked the ED has functioned more or less like a benevolent dictator, firing great colleagues who are respectfully asking challenging questions about organizational structure and mission and keeping budgets and salary info on lock-down, which creates an atmosphere of distrust and perpetuates a scarcity mentality. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this one as I am considering finally exiting the nonprofit sector after 10 years of working as a program manager, administrator, and director – but never ED (I am currently raising my foster son, so don’t have the bandwidth to be an ED myself – at least not yet). I am fed up with how nonprofit staff are treated: why can’t we practice what we preach?

    1. Anonymous11

      Yes, or EDs who are on the opposite end and let everyone else do the hard work, and they take the credit and the substantial raises that the board gives, and they promote the lazy or unqualified people before they leave, just to be nice.

  8. Suzanne Hoban

    Vu, you touched a real nerve with people, and you certainly touched one with me. White Zin??????? That. Is. Not. A. Thing. #wineisnotpink

  9. JKoz

    This hyperventilating is exhausting, and we’re just three weeks into the Trump administration. People need to calm the F down. The 24/7 fear mongering is not doing anyone any good. The gnashing of teeth and renting of garments is reaching a point where we’re looking like snowflake nursery school. We may view ourselves as defending the ramparts of civilization, but I can tell you that most people in middle America just casually dismiss our histrionics as batsh!t insanity (or in the case of the Berkeley riots, borderline fascist).

    So the question is: “Do we want to feel righteous, or do we want to be effective?”. For in the end, how you be effective in America is by winning elections, which we haven’t been doing too much of these past eight years.

    1. Kelly

      JKoz – while the state-level elections have tilted against the party holding the White House – as they tend to do – the Republicans have not won the popular vote in the US presidential election since 1988 – except for 2004, when the country was at war and rallied around George W Bush. 7 million more Americans voted against Trump than for him (and 3 million more voted for HRC). So I’d posit that the Democrats HAVE been winning elections – at least by vote counts.

      1. JKoz

        That may be comforting to some, but it’s a denial of the reality we face. The only numbers that matter today are 68, 35, 239, 52 and 1. The Republicans control:

        – 68 of the 98 state legislative bodies
        – 35 governorships
        – 239 seats in the US House
        – 52 seats in the US Senate
        – 1 big seat in the White House

  10. Jane Elder

    Wow. Well done. Although my bylaws (yes, my bylaws) forbid us from lobbying, we have found opportunities to speak out and speak up in nonpartisan ways that at least create the space to discuss ideas and draw attention to issues. Oh, the work ahead.

  11. Michael Brand

    Vu, please acknowledge that ‘the sector” is large and diverse so none of us can speak for it as a whole.

    These are not ‘dark times’ for nonprofit charter schools working in minority and poor communities. They see the new administration (and it’s nominee for Education Secretary) as a ray of hope in addressing the inequities of the public school system.

    These are not ‘dark times’ for nonprofit economic development organizations who see the promise of easing burdensome and counter productive federal regulations as a chance to bring real economic growth to marginalized communities.

    These are not ‘dark times’ for nonprofit health clinics who’ve had to deal with the fallout of ACA which pushed many working poor into high premium-high deductible plans which left them still unable access healthcare.

    You don’t have to like it all to acknowledge that it’s not all doom and gloom.

  12. Greg

    Appreciate this sentiment a LOT, as I usually do when I visit this blog. But I’d add this: above all else: mobilize the people we serve! That can take many forms. But it’s vital. It’s also how we build real power. If your client is about to lose their healthcare, don’t send their congressman a letter. Send them your client, and 12 of her friends.

  13. Anonymous11

    Thank you for the pep talk, and thank you for being bold, even if it upsets right-wing readers. It is the right thing to do because non-profits exist to help, and these policies are hurting a lot of folks (an animals).

  14. Meredith

    We’ve been struggling with this issue quite a bit in The BBSC. When one of my 9 year-old Big Brains looked up at me and said, “I hate the news”, I simply sighed. “Yeah. You and me both, kid.” They’re all walking around feeling like they have a target on their backs (even more than usual), and it’s the responsibility of all well-meaning entities to both shield and strengthen them. No excuses.

  15. Kelly

    Self-Care: Feeling outnumbered by all those red states? The big rectangles like Montana & Wyoming fill a lot of space with only a few actual people. We’re much more purple than red!

    Check out a 2016 election results map BY POPULATION

    or better yet by population and degree of R/D split:

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