OMG, can we please stop saying “there’s only so much funding to go around”?!


Hi everyone. I just finished reading Edgar Villanueva’s important and illuminating book, Decolonizing Wealth. It highlights something we actively avoid talking about: the history of philanthropic dollars, which is rooted in the colonization of Native land, slavery, and other abuse of and extraction from communities of color. The book also presents a hopeful path forward. I highly recommend it, and will be discussing it more in depth in one or more future posts, so please check it out.

[Image description: An adorable little brown weasel with a white underbelly. It’s crawling out from under what looks like a wooden porch. This weasel has nothing to do with this post. And jokes about its resemblance to the author are not appreciated. I probably should have used a squirrel.]

I’m slightly grumpy right now due to the news, and also my two beautiful small children who threw tantrums this evening over something ridiculous. The five-year-old because he had to trace all of four words for his kindergarten homework, something he literally could have done in 30 seconds if he hadn’t spent 30 minutes crying about how much work it was; the two-year-old because his banana had a single bruise spot on it. So keep this in mind as you read. The ornery tone of this post, it’s not you. It’s me. But it’s also possibly you.

A few weeks ago, I gave a keynote, and during the Q&A, someone got up to ask a question:

“I really appreciate how you are trying to move us away from scarcity and martyrdom, but…”—I knew what was coming next— “how do we do that when there’s only so much funding to go around?”

Well slather me in hummus and call me Randall, there’s only so much funding to go around?!

“Resources are limited.” “There’s way more nonprofits than there are dollars.” “Maybe you should try a stronger deodorant.” These are things I hear all the time, and they are very frustrating and symptomatic of how entrenched many of our lines of thinking are.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. There’s PLENTY of money to go around. We as a society just don’t want to spend it. Foundations, for example, are only legally obligated to spend out 5% of their endowments each year, money that, since we’re being honest, might have been better spent as taxes. This means that 95% of philanthropic dollars are banked away. Just sitting there…Like a vacuumed-sealed package of pre-made guacamole.

Meanwhile, as wealth inequality continues to grow, more individual donors are putting money into Donor Advised Funds (DAFs), and since there are few or no regulations around how much of those funds donors must legally spend out, the majority of those funds are also banked away. I was told by a frustrated philanthropic advisor colleague about a few DAFs she manages that have not given away ANY funds to ANY causes in five years; this is frustrating when the donors are getting tax breaks for it. The debate on DAFs is contentious, so I’ll save it for another day.

But no, I don’t believe there’s “only so much funding to go around.” The notion that there are limited resources is an illusion that we have all internalized. And this is dangerous, because it forces us to work within an inequitable system instead of challenging that system. It allows us to be complacent, and this gives fuel for injustice—the very injustice we as a sector vow to fight—to proliferate.

I and others have been pushing for foundations to increase their payout rates beyond 5%, and you should too, because, as I’ve argued before, why are we saving for a rainy day when it is pouring on our communities? I know, there are counterarguments, but I just don’t buy them. They basically add up to “Well, if we spend down all this money, there won’t be enough to address future problems.”

But future problems are caused by inadequately-addressed current problems. Imagine if we can put adequate levels of funding now into strong programs for babies and youth; fewer of them would drop out of school, get into trouble, commit crimes, end up in jail, etc., which means we won’t have to spend ten times as much funds trying to address those issues later. If we invest now in young people, more will have gainful employment, escape poverty, avoid experiencing homelessness, further contribute back to society, etc.

If we spend more now on equitable policies and practices, we can prevent having to spend way more time and money trying to address injustice in the future. If progressive foundations put had put more funding into civic engagement and mobilizing marginalized communities to vote years ago, as many of us nonprofits were begging for resources to do, then maybe we might not have ended up in this current social and political climate.

The squirreling away of money in some “ant-versus-grasshopper” morality of preparing for the future is a counter-productive self-fulfilling prophecy that jeopardizes that same future. So many of our problems are exacerbated because we do not put enough resources into them now, so they continue to grow and fester, which allows us to justify squirreling money away, which means we do not put enough resources into solving the problems, which allows these problems to grow and fester, which allows us to justify squirreling money away.

Our sector needs to get out of this vicious squirrel-related spiral. And this start with changing our thinking around this area and stop believing this pervasive illusion of scarcity. Even while we have been harping about moving toward “abundance,” even as many of us talk up a good game about taking risks and accepting failure, even as we say and believe things like “every dollar spent now on youth programs is calculated to yield $10.50 in gains to society,” many of us are still unconsciously and consciously gripped by the mentality of fear and limitations.

Our communities deserve better. We all need to resist and challenge the destructive illusion of scarcity. It is harmful to our work and to the people we serve, preventing us from advocating for the adequate resources (not just from donors and funders, but from general society) that we need to tackle society’s growing problems and prevent them from getting worse. We need to think critically and push back instead of internalizing and spouting the same damaging beliefs. We need to stop accepting foundations’ and donors’ trickle-out-5%-while-society-burns-so-that-we-have-funds-to-rebuild-from-the-ashes-later mentality as normal.   

Whether you are a donor, funder, volunteer, or nonprofit leader, if you ever say to me that there’s only so much money to go around, I will seriously give you the side eye. It’ll be hard to tell, since I have a twitching left eye like most nonprofit folks, but trust me, it’s there. Stop saying there’s only so much funding to go around. More importantly, stop believing it. 

A few months ago, I took my kids to the playground. They played for two minutes before running back to me to settle an argument. “What’s the matter?” I said. Viet, the older one, said, “Kiet wants this woodchip. But I found it first! It’s my woodchip!” Little Kiet said, “My wood chip!” They looked so serious. “Look around you,” I said, “there are millions of woodchips here!” They were quiet for a second, then dropped the contentious woodchip and ran off, later literally arguing over the moon (“That’s my moon!” “No, my moon!”)

If we have any hope of making a dent in the problems we’re tackling, we all need to look around and stop fighting over woodchips.

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