Category Archives: leadership

7 things you can do to improve the sad, pathetic state of board diversity

[Image description: An adorable but sad or tired chihuahua puppy lying on the floor staring into space. It’s brown with tan splotches on its face and paw. It’s probably sad because it read the new BoardSource report of board diversity. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Apologies in advance for the grumpiness of this post. In addition to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose, every week brings some sort of fresh horror from this administration. The president’s decision to end DACA is the latest injustice we as a sector and as a society must add to our growing list of injustices to fight. 800,000 Dreamers (who had no choice in being brought into this country) are in limbo, not to mention the lives of millions of their families. Please read this article written by a Dreamer and call your elected officials. The voices of people in support of ending DACA are loud, so we must be louder.

Meanwhile, we have some other challenges in the sector we have to deal with. BoardSource just released its report on board diversity, and the statistics are frustrating, disappointing, and somewhat anger-inducing (like this season’s Game of Thrones—seriously, Arya and Sansa?!) Here are a few highlights from the survey of 1378 nonprofit executives and 381 board chairs, though I highly recommend you read the full report. Continue reading

Progressive funders, you may be part of the problem

[Image description: A statue of an angel, with shoulder-length wavy hair and wings. The angel has one hand raised up and looks sad. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

I’m still angry due to Charlottesville and our president’s horrifying words that are fueling the rise of neo-Nazis, the KKK, White Supremacists, anti-Semites, and other groups that breed hate and violence. And now the terrorism in Barcelona and Finland. I’ll try to move back to grace and humor, but it may take a while. It is difficult to do so when my organization’s work is to develop leaders of color and to build the power of communities of color to fight injustice, and these past few months it has been seeming like the currents we are pushing against are only getting stronger.

In the midst of feeling weary and hopeless, I read and re-read this on a grant application:

“We are pleased to accept proposals you’ve submitted to other funders. Please share a recent, complete proposal that represents you well and that reflects our interest. The foundation’s grants are unrestricted, general operating resources, though our focus and interest is on leadership and network development. On the backside, we will accept final reports you’ve submitted to other funders.”

The previous week, I had shared these above incredulous words on NAF’s Facebook page. Within 24 hours, it received over 2,000 likes, the only NAF Facebook post to have ever achieved that feat. Colleagues all over the country expressed disbelief—“Don’t give them your credit card information. Or meet them in a remote parking lot”—and unfettered joy—“All my Nonprofit Unicorn dreams come true!”

This was the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, who allowed me to share their name. RSCF has been implementing The Whitman Institute’s Trust-Based Grantmaking Model, which I wrote about earlier. [Disclaimer: My organization currently gets funding from both RSCF and TWI].

The fact that there was so much surprise and delight in a funder’s trusting nonprofits is revealing about the dynamics between funders and nonprofits. In light of Charlottesville, we have to examine these dynamics closer. I was talking to a colleague about the differences between right-wing and progressive funders. For right-wing funders, it seems that as long as you align with their values, they’ll go “That’s great! Here’s a million dollars! Make it happen!”

Unfortunately, those values are often anti-Immigrant/refugees, anti-women’s-rights, anti-LGBTQ, anti-climate, anti-unions, anti-taxes, anti-science, etc.

For progressive funders, however, you can align with values of social justice, equity, environmental protection, etc., and the response is often:

OK, that’s great, but what’s your data? What’s your track record? Have you been around at least three years? Are you scalable? Who else is doing this, and are you getting along with them? Where’s your logic model? Who else is funding this because we don’t want to be the only one? Can you 100% guarantee this is going to work? Where’s your research? Do you have a control group? How does this align with our priorities? How are you accountable? Why don’t you fill out this application, and we’re going to need to see your financials for the past three years to make sure you’re stable. Is there 100% board giving? It’ll take us nine months to make a decision. And if we do approve you, it’ll be for one year, and with lots of restrictions, because we wouldn’t want you to be unsustainable.

Look, it’s understandable that you do due diligence. You can’t just throw money at everyone who asks for it. But the balance is off. Way off. In the effort to be fair and to not make mistakes, many progressive funders have given up speed, agility, responsiveness to current dynamics, and the ability to accept risk and failure. The incredible irony is that liberal funders are more conservative in their funding strategies, and conservative funders are being bolder and less risk-averse.

Don’t just take my word for it. Many leaders in the sector have pointed this out over the years. This article discusses a critical report by Sally Covington, published by NCRP, that shows the differences between conservative and progressive funders:

“First, nearly half the total money [given by conservative funders] was given as general support — as distinct from specific project support — which allowed the grantees both respite from fundraising and the luxury of deciding how to spend the money. Second, grants were focused on building institutions, not programs, with funders remaining faithful to their grantees year after year, sometimes for decades at a time.”

Here’s a quote from another article:

“[R]ight-wing funders are offering support with fewer strings attached, with an eye toward the long-term health of the conservative movement. While progressive funders tend to support specific projects […] conservative funders are more likely to focus on leadership development, capacity building, or to give unrestricted funds. […] This has paid off through a new generation of conservative elected officials, judges, and thought leaders who have been trained by a well-oiled conservative leadership pipeline.”

Here’s an eye-opening analysis:

“[W]hile conservative funders usually treat their grantees like peers, whose work deserves long-term support, respect and trust, too many progressive funders treat their grantees like disobedient children who need to be constantly watched and disciplined.”

Sadly, these reports and criticisms have spanned over decades. The Covington report was written two decades ago. I don’t know how much progress has been made since then. From my experience and from talking to other leaders, not much, and we might be regressing. For example, conservative funders are outpacing progressive ones in terms of funding conservative youth leadership. This report shows:

“Between 2008 and 2014, conservative youth organizations received nearly $500 million more in contributions than progressive youth organizations. The largest conservative youth organization’s total revenue is larger than the combined revenues of the wealthiest four progressive youth organizations. The disparity is growing: in 2008, conservatives held a 2-to-1 financial advantage; by 2014, it had grown to nearly 3-to-1.”

Conservative funders fund faster, with more focus, with more money as general operating funds, with investment in infrastructure and institutions instead of just projects and single-issues, over longer periods of time, and view grantees as partners, not as freeloaders. 

Charlottesville must be a wake-up call. The way many progressive funders are funding may actually be preventing progress. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we nonprofits are like firefighters trying to put out the fires of injustice, and every three or four steps trying to get to the fire, we are stopped and asked “What’s your hose-to-water ratio? I want to make sure most of the money is spent on the water, not the hose.” You might not be pouring gasoline on the fire, but by delaying us from our work of putting it out, you are helping it to grow stronger and to spread.

I’ve already written about what progressive funders must do in this current political landscape. But so have many others. Over and over again. We are getting tired. We are tired of spending 80% of our time fundraising and Frankensteining bits of funding here and there together in a desperate gamble for survival while the forces of evil run down good people. We’re tired of proposing brilliant ideas only for them to get shot down again and again in the abyss of “due diligence” and “accountability” while our community members die. We’re tired of having to justify our work on a daily basis. We’re tired of giving the same feedback year after year, only for incremental change that often comes too little too late. We’re tired of the words of condemnation that sound good while masking the fact that funders and politicians and corporations and many nonprofits will continue to do things business-as-usual. 

Communities of color and other communities most affected by injustice are especially tired. I don’t mean a “we’re tired and fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore rabble rabble” inspiring sort of tired. I mean a sad, resigned tiredness that comes from lack of hope that anything will change, that our efforts are futile, that we are losing the battle, that our voices are raspy from saying the same things again and again, that our hearts can not be put together yet one more time after being broken. This week I saw in many leaders, and in myself, an existential weariness and a sense of despair that I hadn’t seen before. It’s frightening.

The vast majority of program officers and trustees that I know are wonderful, caring people. Foundations have provided the significant portion of the support for my organization’s work. In addition, many program officers and trustees are my friends and mentors, people whom I care deeply about and who have helped to shape my work. And I know many funders, like Robert Sterling Clark and The Whitman Institute, have been changing the dynamics and allowing nonprofits to focus on our work and doing other awesome things. Some funders are increasing their payout rates; as a friend of mine says, “When a house is on fire, do you want to put all your resources into putting out the fire, or use only 5% of your resources so that you can put out future house fires?”

But they still seem the rare exceptions. In light of recent events and the looming waves of hate and violence that threaten to wash over our country and world, we all need to examine our actions. We nonprofits must ask ourselves if we are fighting injustice or causing it, if we are building up people for the movement or driving them out of the sector, if we’re eliminating poverty or perpetuating poverty tourism, if we’re getting donors to feel they’re a part of the community or if we’re reinforcing otherness, if we’re working for our community or only for our organization’s own survival, if we’re just talking about equity or actually doing things.

As we nonprofits ask ourselves these questions, foundation program officers and trustees must do the same. Because good intentions are no longer enough. Good intentions, in fact, may be adding fuel to the fires of hate and terrorism. Every foundation must gather their trustees and staff and ask themselves these and other questions:

  • What are ways we might be unintentionally adding to the problem?
  • Are we allowing leaders to do their work, or forcing them to spend precious time in paperwork and hoop-jumping? How do we free up leaders’ time? 
  • Are we building infrastructure or forcing nonprofits into a state of constant survival?
  • Are we helping build morale of the sector or destroying it?
  • Are our processes forcing nonprofits to compete with one another instead of collaborating?
  • Are we remaining politically and ideologically neutral at the detriment of our society?
  • Are we too narrowly focused on a single issue when all these societal issues are interrelated?
  • Do we take enough risks? Have we failed enough to say that we do?
  • Are we investing enough in progressive leaders?
  • Are we treating our grantees like peers, or like children who must “be constantly watched and disciplined”?
  • Why are we still so hesitant about providing general operating funds?
  • Why are we saving for a rainy day when it looks like there’s a monsoon outside?

Bertrand Russell said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubt.” White supremacists and neo-Nazis and KKK members and anti-Semites and other hate groups are very, very certain, and they have been energized in ways we have not seen in a long time. Things will get worse before they get better; Charlottesville may only be the beginning. Each of us must be honest with ourselves as we examine whether our processes and philosophies are contributing to stopping the fires of injustice or unintentionally helping them to proliferate. And then we must act. 

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Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.

Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

Charlottesville and a time for gracious anger

[Image description: A raging fire in the background. In the foreground is the silhouette of a wooden chair and some branches. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. If you have been reading the news this weekend about the white supremacists, hooded KKK members, and Nazis protesting in Charlottesville and the car the plowed into counter-protesters, killing several and injuring dozens of others, and our president’s cowardly response blaming “both sides,” you may be feeling a combination of weariness and hopelessness and anger. And fear for the people we love and for our country, the United States. This feeling has become familiar these past few months. I don’t really know what to say in this post. I know the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends…I don’t know. In recent months it seems that this arc is bending the opposite way, toward injustice, racism, misogyny, bigotry. “The heat here is nothing compared to what you’re going to get in the ovens,” says a white supremacist in the protest. It seems our side, the side that fights for inclusivity and justice and compassion, is losing.

A while ago, a colleague of mine, Nancy Long of 501 Commons, shared with me her philosophy of cultivating gratitude and impatience and how we must work toward a balance between the two, the balance of appreciating what we have, but to be impatient and to use that energy to push for change. This concept has stuck with me over the years; it is wise counsel on some of the darkest days.

Reflecting on Nancy’s words, I realize the horrible events and the state of generalized fear and anxiety of the past few months require us to balance something more difficult than Gratitude and Impatience, and that is Grace and Anger. Continue reading

Ending the Nonprofit Talent Hunger Games

[Image description: A reddish squirrel peaking out from behind a tree. Its left paw is at its chest. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. I just came back from speaking at the Blue Ridge Institute, a 90-year-old week-long retreat in the Tennessee woods for nonprofit leaders. It’s a combination of thought-provoking conversations and endearingly ridiculous hijinks, including an all-ages talent show, skits, hiking, dancing, a lot of singing, a softball game with equal-opportunity cheering and heckling from a designated group called “The Best Worst Cheerleaders,” a sarcastic daily news parody segment that roasts everyone mercilessly in good fun, and something called “moonshine cherries.” Basically, if I designed a retreat for nonprofit leaders, it would look a lot like BRI. But with more sock puppets (and Oxford Commas in the marketing materials). Check it out. It’s magical, and kids are welcome.

During my keynote, I brought up the Nonprofit Hunger Games and how all of us are in constant competition with one another for resources and influence. “I call it Stabbing for Dollars,” says one seasoned nonprofit executive. A manifestation of this is through our hiring philosophies and practices. There are thousands of articles on staff recruitment, retention, etc., but they all have something in common: It is always about the well-being of the organization, getting the best talent for the organization to ensure the organization thrives, rarely about the entire sector or community. We recruit professionals to fulfill our individual missions, not paying much attention to what happens when they leave our organizations, or how the way we treat them might affect their work at their next organization, or our own individual responsibility to support a “bench” of talent needed for the entire sector to thrive. Continue reading

Why we need to end the culture of “Cultural Fit”

[Image description: A whole bunch of greenish yellow figs, with one black fig. Image obtained from pixabay.com]

A few weeks ago, the Building Movement Project released this critical report, Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, which has profound implications for our sector. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest you do. It debunks some crappy and destructive myths about leadership and diversity in our sector. Like the one about people of color not wanting to be in leadership positions—WRONG! We actually want it MORE! Or the one about the assumption that POCs just don’t have the same level of qualifications as our white colleagues—WRONG! POCs are just as qualified as our white colleagues, it not more so! Or the myth that vegans don’t have enough energy to be effective leaders—WRONG! Vegans make excellent leaders due to our natural ability to empathize! Continue reading