Last week, SSIR published a case study I co-authored with David Bley of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation detailing Gates’s significant investment in my organization, Rainier Valley Corps (RVC). Our partnership started with 1.1 million over four years to launch RVC’s fellowship program to bring more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector. These brilliant leaders would run programs, fundraise, set up systems, mobilize community members, and do whatever else the organization needs to be effective. About half the fellows are hired full-time at their host organizations during or after their fellowship, a critical outcome when only 18% of nonprofit professionals are people of color.
After running our successful fellowship program for a year, RVC learned several significant lessons, including the fact that the philosophy that grounds organizational development does not work for organizations led by communities of color. This philosophy, as I’ve pointed out before, is basically to force all organizations to be generalists, so that even small grassroots organizations must scramble to do HR, finance, payroll, evaluation, communications, legal compliance, contract monitoring, etc. And the ones that cannot do all these highly complex tasks simultaneously and with a degree of quality are punished.
This philosophy, pervasive in our sector, has been preventing organizations from focusing on their programmatic work, and has been especially punitive to organizations led by communities of color. RVC approached the Gates Foundation with another significant request for funding to pilot a program where RVC would handle most administrative tasks so that these important yet underfunded organizations could devote the significant portion of their time and energy to their primary services.
Gates invested another 1.5million over three years for RVC to launch this program, which now has 15 partner organizations (our website is still being updated with the new partners who just joined; the program has grown, with more partners still joining on). It has not been perfect, since we are still testing things out and continue to make many mistakes, but so far, this “Community Alliance” model (which is deep and also includes RVC providing coaching on important areas like strategic planning and board development, along with fundraising support), has been freeing up organizations’ time to address inequity and injustice.
David and I wrote about the lessons we learned through working together. Please take some time to read it. This partnership between Gates and RVC is a case study of what can happen when a funder makes a big bet on a marginalized-community-led organization. This blog post, meanwhile, will provide more context on the urgency. Overall, we need to make more big bets on marginalized-communities-led organizations because:
The way we’ve been funding marginalized communities is inequitable: Communities-of-color-led organizations only get 10% of philanthropic dollars on average over the past few decades, and these few dollars are incredibly painful to get. The default philosophy is to provide large grants to large organizations and small grants to small ones. This is so pervasive that even program officers from communities of color or other marginalized communities fall prey to it. Unfortunately, the smallest grants—the only ones that are accessible to grassroots organizations—are often the most hair-tearingly burdensome and frustrating grants in existence. I’m talking 8-page narrative plus 10 attachments, plus a bespoke budget, plus a theory of change, plus a logic model, for a $10K grant. We are saddling organizations led by communities of color, LGBTQIA+, communities of disabilities, and other marginalized communities with the most onerous, obnoxious, time-consuming grants for the lowest amounts of funding imaginable. This needs to change.
Small grants, while appreciated, are not enough for “innovation”: I wrote a while ago about Juicero, a wifi-connected juicing machine that went bankrupt after reporters discovered you can get the same amount of juice through squeezing their proprietary packets by hand. It got 135million in venture capital. Meanwhile, we are given $25,000 (if we are lucky) and asked to end racism, poverty, child abuse, food security, homelessness, domestic violence, climate change, human trafficking, etc. For all the talk about “innovation,” what sort of innovation can be achieved when nonprofits are forced into survival mode because of small, one-year, unstable, restricted grants? What innovative dreams can we dream when our thoughts are taken up with nightmares about cash flow and whether we can make the next payroll or whether we have to lay off team members or cut programs next fiscal year? Small grants, especially if they are unrestricted, are helpful, but they are not enough to drive solutions.
Most big bets currently go to mainstream, white-led organizations: Just like white folks tend to hire other white folks, because foundation trustees and staff tend to be white, 90% of the funds in our sector go to white-led organizations of certain types (Organizations with disabilities, for example, whether their leadership is white or of color, still don’t get much funding either). Again, this is not to say that these larger organizations don’t do important work, because they do. Usually. (Sometimes they take a bunch of funding and do things that are ineffective, occasionally even harmful). But the balance is off. We keep talking about equity in our sector, and funders throw around this word a lot. But what does it look like? Simple, it looks like equalizing the severe imbalance of where dollars are allocated. More significant funding needs to go to marginalized communities.
In this socio-political climate, we do not have time to waste: The past three years have been rough on all of us. And they have been horrifying to Black, Natives, POCs, women, the Muslim community, the Jewish community, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, and older folks. If we are to be effective in mobilizing people and addressing the rising level of hate and violence, then we do not have time to Frankenstein bits of funding together any more. The people who come from these communities have the solutions to these problems, but we are never trusted with the level of funding needed to fully implement what we think is needed. It’s always, always some smaller-scale version of what we want to do (and then ironically, we are asked how we would scale it). We no longer have time for this. It is not working. Provide large investments to organizations led by marginalized communities so we can work to build a just and inclusive community.
Leaders from marginalized communities are burning out and leaving: In the past six months alone, I’ve known at least a dozen nonprofit leaders of color who quit the sector. Every time it happens, it’s like another jab to the heart. But I can’t blame them. Imagine coming from a community that is severely affected by injustice. You see it. You live it. You know your community. So you enter into the work, sometimes disappointing your family, who wonder why you would choose this difficult path, a path that they don’t understand so cannot respect. But instead of being able to implement solutions, you are forced to spend your days cobbling together bits of funding here and there. The vision you have of helping make your community and the world better gives way to a reality of watered down versions of what you know might actually work. Then you see larger, more mainstream organizations get ten or more times the amount you got to “serve” your community, often ineffectively, and sometimes causing harm. Who can blame people for leaving our sector?
The way funders have been investing in marginalized-communities-led organizations has been deeply inequitable, often ineffective, and causing leaders of color, leaders with disabilities, and LGBQT leaders to leave the sector at a time when they are desperately needed. Funders can turn the tides by providing making more big bets on organizations led by marginalized communities. This includes getting out of the destructive cycle of intellectualizing and inaction, and taking risks and accepting that some big bets will not work out.
I am appreciative of all funders and donors who have supported my organization’s work, and I am especially grateful for the Gates Foundation for taking a huge risk to make the first big bet on my organization when it had one staff, no track record, and barely any infrastructure, and then for making a second big bet on RVC when we decided we were going to expand to an area where we again didn’t have a track record or any relevant systems in place. Without these big bets, it would have been nearly impossible to launch these two critical programs focused on strengthening the bench of leaders of color and the infrastructure of organizations led by communities of color. Either programs, could have failed (and still can, let’s be honest, as is the nature of bets), but it is this spirit of trust and partnership and intentional investment in organizations led by and serving the communities most affected by injustice that will allow us to together solve some of society’s biggest challenges.
PERSONAL MESSAGE FROM VU:
Hi everyone, this week is actually my birthday. Usually, I ask for people to donate to my organization (although it seems like we received some significant investments from funders like Gates, the reality is that we still need to raise a lot of money; a big bet of 500K a year is still only a small portion of our ideal budget). This year, however, I am asking you to donate to one of RVC’s many amazing Operations Support partner organizations, who are all led by and serving communities of color. They do incredible and vital work. If you’ve found Nonprofit AF to be entertaining, thought-provoking, or useful at some point, please go here, find an organization whose work inspires you, and make a donation today. Thank you!
Also, if you can write a (anonymous) review of a foundation on Grantadvisor.org, it would totally make my week!