Tag Archives: nonprofit life

How Nonprofit With Balls got its name; it’s more complicated than you think

 

balls 2Recently, a new nonprofit came to meet me at the VFA office, which I appreciated, since I’m a very busy person, and meeting at my office allows me to watch a second episode of “The Daily Show” on hulu.com. This particular advocacy organization was trying to advance education in Seattle, and they wanted to see about collaborating with VFA. “Luke” came on time and was very friendly.

“Two separate people mentioned you, Vu, as someone we should talk to,” he said, beaming. He went on to present his concept, which was not altogether a horrible idea for advancing education. But I had this sinking feeling in my stomach. He was going to ask VFA to pull together a focus group.

“We’re trying to really engage communities of color, so we’re hoping you would do a focus group of 15 or 20 people for us to listen to.”

Every week, VFA gets some sort of request to rally our community members: “Vu, the seawall is breaking! Can you recruit several immigrants and refugees to give input?” The following week: “Vu, the combined sewers are overflowing! We want to get the Vietnamese community’s thoughts!” It is rarely anything fun: “Vu, a delegation is going to Hawaii to study the effects of hula and mild inebriation on nonprofit executives’ burnout rates, and we’d like you to come.”

“To be frank,” I said, “we are at capacity. We have only three full-time staff here at VFA running several programs and projects. I’m afraid that unless there are resources provided, I cannot ask my team to tackle any additional responsibilities.”

Luke looked perplexed and started talking about the importance of the effort he is trying to advance. I told him that if he wants effective collaborations, he should go to his funders and advocate for a more equitable financial support of organizations that are out there on the ground doing direct work so that we can have more capacity for advocacy. He became irritated and extremely defensive.

“So basically,” he said, “you want me to go back to my funders and say ‘Vu won’t play ball unless we give him money.’ I can’t do that.”

Luke must be new to Seattle. In a city known for process and indirectness, it was rather refreshing to hear him talk so bluntly. It had a certain symphony, like a wrench thrown into a blender.

“Play ball? Listen, we small ethnic nonprofits are knee-deep in balls! We have balls flying at us from every corner, from the City, from the County, from the School District, from organizations like yours. Usually without any funding to support our operations. We can’t juggle your balls for you!”

Kidding, I would never say that; at least, not while sober. What I said was, “The traditional ways of engaging communities of colors do not work. If you want to rally a few people to ‘listen’ to, then I am sure you can succeed in the short term. If you want long-term impact, I am telling you that you and others will need to shift your traditional way of doing and funding things. You can either hire a multicultural team of outreach staff, or you will need to work with cultural organizations; either way or preferably both, it will take resources because it takes much more effort to reach communities of color.”

He was visibly annoyed. “I am not looking for a handout, Vu,” he said, “you know what, if you just write down how much it’ll cost to pay for a few hours of someone’s time to call up people and how much facilities and food and other expenses will be, we’ll figure out a way to pay for them.”

I told him I didn’t have time to sit down and figure out his budget for him. And that even when there are resources, sometimes we have to turn down great projects because they do not align with our strategic plan.

“That really saddens me,” he responded, “and when this effort is huge and successful, and the Vietnamese community’s voice is missing, we’ll both understand why.”

I smiled. There was no point arguing further with him.

“All right,” he said, “how about this? We get lunch, you and I, and you bring just one Vietnamese client. Just one. You know what they say, the journey of ten thousand steps begins with one step, so can you do that? Just one client.”

“Luke,” I said—

“Just one!”

“Do you know what it takes to coordinate even something as simple as that? First I have to figure out which clients I know, then I have to call up four or five of them to see if any are interested. If one is interested, I have to find a slot that works with your schedule, my schedule, and this other person’s schedule. Also, I’d be more than glad to have lunch with you, but I am 90% certain that a client will not join, because they work during the day.”

Our time was up. I started feeling a pang of guilt. Perhaps I was a little too harsh. “Listen,” I said, “I want to be sure there is no misunderstanding between us—”

“Oh, there’s not,” he said, smirking, “I heard you loud and clear.”

“I don’t BS,” I said, staring him in the eye, “if you want real community engagement, help change the traditional way of doing things.”

I walked him out and sat down at my computer to write my follow-up thank-you email. Was I out of line? Was I taking out some sort of unconscious frustration on Luke? I don’t doubt his or his organization’s intentions. Perhaps he just came at a bad time. Every month, we get a dozen similar requests, usually from well-meaning and well-funded organizations. My staff work ridiculous hours managing programs and several capacity building and other projects. I’ve never worked with a more dedicated team. Is it unreasonable then for me to feel protective and to get annoyed at people like Luke, who seem to think we ethnic nonprofits have unlimited time and that we are selfish when we refuse to “collaborate” and “play ball” with mainstream organizations vastly better funded than we are?

Luke responded back, and we are having lunch in a couple of weeks. I’ll keep you updated. [Read Part 2, my lunch with Luke]

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Reflections for Thanksgiving

thanksgivingLast week I received a severe drubbing from a program officer for unintentionally breaching protocols with her foundation while seeking funding for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which I chair. I’ll explain the whole thing later in my book “Unicorns, Equity, and General Operating Funds: Quest of the Nonprofit Warriors.” (It’s a working title). Suffice to say, I apologized profusely and left the lunch meeting feeling very much like crap.

On the way back to the office, I walked by Panha, an elderly Cambodian woman who sells fish and vegetables on the sidewalk. Seven days a week she is out under a makeshift tarp awning, sitting on a short stool, her eyes framed by crows’ feet and greying hair. “Yellow mushrooms yet?” I asked. She shook her head. “Not yet!” For the past several weeks I have been waiting for the chanterelle mushrooms that Panha’s friend harvests for her to sell. Despite the heavy rain, still no signs of them. “You buy leaf?” she asked. Panha speaks broken English and does not know the vocabulary for many of the vegetables laid out in front of her. All the greens—kale, collards, bok choy—are “leaf” to her. She pointed at some greens that I did not recognize. “What can I do with them?” I asked, knowing what the answer will be, since she does not have vocabulary like sautee, braise, steam, etc.

“Make soup!” she said, and we both cracked up. It has become an inside joke between us.

In my cubicle, I composed a short email reiterating my apologies to the program officer, then started working on some grants that were due, thinking of how nice it would be to have four solid days off for Thanksgiving. I was still feeling pretty crappy.

Then I thought about Panha sitting out there in the rain and cold, like my mother may have once sat long ago, selling her wares at the market, which we transported for miles on her bicycle. It made me realize what an ingrate I was being. I started thinking about the things for which I am thankful. They range from small things (wine, The Walking Dead), to big things, like friends and family and good health and shelter. I am thankful for all these blessings.

But I am also very thankful for my work. In all the daily craziness, I forget sometimes how lucky I am to be able to wake up each day and be engaged in meaningful work. Three decades ago I was a kid growing up in a small mountain village in Vietnam. The War had recently ended and my parents would struggle to feed us. In my fractured memories of that time are images of our wood-burning stove, the dirt floor, the smell of pine and red earth, and the monsoon rain that battered our rusty, leaking tin roof.

It was luck, or Fate, or maybe Karma, that brought us to the US. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if we had not made it here. I was a frail and timid little kid. I did not know anything of the War or what it did to our family. Now I realize that my father’s role as a soldier on the losing side of this War would ensure that none of us kids would be able to make it into college. We would end up repairing bicycles or farming a tiny plot of land or, if we were lucky and clever enough to navigate the network of corrupt officials, maybe opening a small business. All noble occupations, and we might have even been happy.

But I like the work that I am doing now. I don’t think many people in the world get to do what they find fulfilling. This work, strengthening a nonprofit, advancing a community, is challenging and often crazy driving. We face obstacles constantly. There are days when I get bad news from a funder, or an elder lectures me for an hour on what I did wrong, or our cashflow is awful because a reimbursement-based grant payment is delayed and we might not be able to make payroll.

But there are also days like this Saturday, when I dropped by our SES program to find 80 kids experiencing Thanksgiving for the first time in their life. It was also moving to see two VFA board members there, serving these kids their inaugural portion of turkey. Later in the same day, at a different location, our Youth Jobs Initiative program brought in guest speakers with different occupations to inspire a different set of our bright kids who face so many barriers.

The work is constantly challenging, oftentimes aggravating, and infinitely rewarding. I get to meet and collaborate with awesome, dedicated people all the time. I have the best and most amazing team in the world. And my actions, perhaps in just a small way, may be helping to make a difference in the world, to make it better. For the chance to do that, I am very thankful.

I took a break from grantwriting and ran downstairs to get Panha some Vietnamese coffee. She loves Vietnamese coffee, steaming hot, with condensed milk. The rain still fell, and she was huddled under her blue tarp awning when I approached her. “Oh, thank you, honey,” she said, her eyes lighting up when I handed her the coffee. I asked her how business was going. “Not good,” she said, “raining, raining too much. Nobody buy.” The winter would be worse for Panha. But she is always in good spirit. “You buy pumpkin?” she said, gesturing at some green squash. What can I do with it, I asked.

“Make soup!” she said, and we laughed, and I went back to my office.