Brett Kavanaugh, and why we must stop intellectualizing and take more actions

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Hi everyone. A quick announcement before this week’s post. My colleague and occasional drinking buddy Joan Garry has a free workshop being released starting next week that I strongly encourage you to check out. This series of videos covers strategies for running a successful nonprofit – stuff like how to build a great board, how to increase donations, how to inspire volunteers, etc. The workshop is helpful for new as well as experienced leaders. At the end of the workshop, Joan will introduce the Nonprofit Leadership Lab. I’ve been lurking in the Lab for a while and can vouch that it’s a great resource and support community at an affordable monthly rate. I never promote things like this, and in full disclosure, Joan is giving me a cut for any new members I end up sending her way, which will help defray the costs of running NonprofitAF. But I would not endorse anything that I don’t believe in. I have seen how useful the Lab is for its members. So sign up to check out the videos. They’re free and helpful even if you decide not to join the Lab.

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I am in a crappy mood, so my apologies in advance for the tone of this post. I am distraught and disheartened over the Supreme Court, and I know many of you are too. I want to provide some encouraging words, but I don’t really have any at the moment. This is horrible, and no amount of “we-are-in-this-together-and-remember-that-the-arc-bends-towards-justice-and-rainbows-and-unicorns” bromides is going to be enough this time.

Honestly, I am really tired of the constant intellectualizing we do. Nonprofits and foundations in general, but progressive ones in particular. It has actually been contributing to the situation our society is in. Two years ago, after the elections, some colleagues and I helped gather a bunch of funders and nonprofit leaders of color in the Seattle area to discuss how to work together to respond to the urgent needs. We spent three hours together, sharing stories and brainstorming solutions, which included funders providing rapid-response funding for immediate needs, multi-year general operating funds for ongoing needs, and removing as many barriers as possible so nonprofits on the front lines could continue to focus on their work protecting families. Everyone left optimistic.

Then…nothing happened. Or not much happened. It took several more months before one or two funders released some rapid-response funding. And it was competitive and for tiny amounts, requiring nonprofits yet again to spend hours trying to justify their work and then waiting for decisions while people’s lives were destroyed. It was demoralizing. That hopeful discussion of 50 or so program officers and 50 nonprofit leaders did not lead to insignificant change in the power dynamics and inefficient grantmaking processes.

A year later, we had a follow-up summit, and it was just as well-attended. Same thing: We discussed what we each could do to respond to the horrors inflicted on our community. And I also have yet to find anything that actually changed after that gathering. The planners and I got together to discuss the third annual convening. But what’s the point? What have these things done except give everyone the illusion that they actually did something useful? 

This is a problem, and it is pervasive across our sector. We love having gatherings and summits and discussions and endless meetings. We love strategic plans and white papers and logic models and theories of change and think tanks. They make us feel smart and productive, like we’re actually accomplishing things. We as a sector feel proud to spend thousands of hours thinking and talking about issues but we always find ways to avoid taking bold risks and actions that might actually make a dent in the issues we’re trying to address.

I always joke that if MLK Jr. were here and he said “I have a dream…,” the response would be “Your dream is great, but where’s your data? Do you have a track record? Are you scalable? What’s your theory of change? Where’s your logic model? Have you run a double-blind controlled experiment to prove that your strategies would achieve this dream? Do you have a strategic plan? Where’s your development plan? What percentage of your board donates to the organization? Are you diversifying your funds? How will you sustain this ‘dream’ when our support runs out? It’ll take us 12 months to do our due diligence to determine if you align with our priorities.”

It was funny before. Now it is just disturbing.

And it is not just foundations who sit there thinking about stuff while civilization burns. A colleague told me that the staff at her organization wanted to release a statement and join the protests to condemn the cruel and inhumane forced separation of immigrant children from their families a few months ago. But her board vetoed it, saying it was too “partisan” and might offend some of their conservative supporters. I hear stories like this all the time. They are sickening. Sure, let’s spend endless amounts of time intellectualizing about equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice, but let’s stop short of actually DOING something meaningful that might lead to those ideals.

This is getting out of hand. While we nonprofits and foundations are not responsible for the cruel, incompetent, and corrupt administration, nor for the Apocalyptic dumpster fire that is our social and political landscape, the way we have been operating has not been helping things. We did not confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s place on the Supreme Court, where he will probably be for the next terrifying 50 years, but our wishy-washiness and lack of actions as a sector probably have laid a brick or two on his path there. Our constant intellectualizing while failing to take substantive actions will continue to place our society on the destructive path that will put more babies in cages, kill more people through the denial of climate change and immunization science, further embolden those who spew misogyny and xenophobia, and otherwise roll back progress that millions of people have worked and sacrificed over decades to make possible.

We have had enough time for “thinking;” we need actions. Meaningful actions. Funders, I know you are probably just as distraught as nonprofit leaders, but please don’t write a blog post or think piece intellectualizing about what’s happening with our society and how we must not lose hope, blah blah. We’re seriously sick of those. How about you double your annual payout rate? Instead of convening meetings of nonprofits to strategize or whatever, how about you make sure all your funds are significant multi-year general operating from now on? Instead of continuing to waste nonprofits’ time, how about you simplify your grant and reporting processes and follow the principles of Trust-Based Philanthropy and let us do our jobs? Instead of commissioning another useless white paper, how about you release some rapid and unsolicited funds right now to some organizations led by the communities on the front lines of injustice? Right NOW, like within this month. Please stop waiting for your “next cycle;” injustice does not operate on your schedule. 

I was exchanging emails with a well-respected leader in the field about philanthropy’s pervasive addiction to intellectualization, and she wrote “Real people are harmed and struggling while philanthropy convenes and strategizes and designs. Let’s do stuff and see if it works and then fix it and make it better. Some stuff will be a terrible failure—but then you know it and figure out a new way to go about it.” I have to agree completely.

Nonprofits, sorry, we don’t get off the hook either. We are equally guilty of overthinking and talking for ages about stuff when we should be acting. We have had more than enough meetings to discuss what “resilience” means or what “equity” looks like or something; how about we now spend time mobilizing people to vote? Instead of whining and complaining about unfair funding practices, why don’t we challenge them so we have the resources to act? Instead of worrying about whether we’ll piss off some people, we accept that we need to piss off some people if we are to do this work well, and just go ahead and piss them off? Instead of wringing our hands over whether or not we might lose some donors if we take a stand on basic human rights, we drop those donors and stand up for the individuals and communities who depend on us? Instead of paying token service to the idea of collaboration by attending meetings and then changing nothing, how about we actually support one another by sometimes giving up funding and attention to and proactively lifting up the organizations that are taking actions to mobilize communities? 

Jan Masaoka, in her thought-provoking essay about the dangers of the over-professionalization of the nonprofit sector, wrote “new executive directors can write personnel policies and grant proposals while practicing self-care, but they don’t know how to get 5,000 people to a protest demonstration or 50 parents to a city council meeting.” This is something that should seriously concern us all. 

The constant thinking, theorizing, and otherwise ceaseless intellectualizing in our sector hasn’t been working so well, has it? We far outnumber those who are anti-black, anti-immigrants, anti-women, anti-science, anti-globalism, anti-diversity, anti-LGBTQ, anti-disability, and yet they keep on winning, keep installing more and more horrifying people into power. This is probably because they don’t spend years having endless, useless meetings, and their funders don’t take ten months at a time to decide whether or not to give them a tiny one-year grant that cannot be used to pay for staff wages and can only be used to buy dry-erased markers or something.

I am angry and despondent over a country that I love and have called home now increasingly resembling a dark, dystopian society. I’m frustrated that we have so many brilliant and talented people in our sector, yet we are constantly paralyzed by risk-aversion, fear of failure, and excessive thinking and planning. 

But I know there are many amazing organizations and foundations that are out there taking bold actions every single day. There are incredible leaders who refuse to give into the despair, who fight daily. Thank you for all you do. You give me hope. Last week in New Orleans, I met a foundation program officer who told me she pushed her trustees for general operating funds, and actually succeeded. 

Another thing that cheered me up significantly is a tour I took of VAYLA, a progressive multi-racial organization that empowers youth and families. The ED, Minh, led me down the hall of his office, and I peeked into their phone banking room and saw several kids on the phone. “Our youth leaders are calling people to remind them to vote,” Minh said, “They will be doing it every day until the mid-terms.”

If the determined young leaders at VAYLA are any indication, and I believe they are, there is hope. They are our present and future leaders, and they are doing precisely what we must do more of as a sector: Taking bold, consistent actions, and mobilizing communities. And there are thousands more organizations across the US doing that.

A strength of our sector is that we always try to be thoughtful and deliberate. But the pendulum has swung too far, and it is critical for us to swing it back toward concrete, substantive, IMMEDIATE actions.  It is not hopeless. I still believe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but we need to stop doing so much intellectualizing about how it will bend and start doing more bending. 

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