Around this time last year, the pandemic was getting into full swing, and all of us were terrified. I found out that some foundations were still requiring the printing-out and hand-delivery of grant proposals. These funders’ cluelessness was no longer just annoying, it was literally endangering people’s lives. I turned into a nonprofit Hulk and start smashing things around the house. But being vegan, I didn’t have the strength to do much damage. And so instead, the hashtag #CrappyFundingPractices was born on Twitter.
Over the course of the year, colleagues direct-messaged or emailed me the ridiculousness they endured—from funders refusing to pay for staffing, to others requiring quarterly or weekly reports, to one who waited 30 months to make a grant decision—and I would call these funders out by name using the hashtag. Colleagues would pile on, retweeting and commenting. Sometimes we hear nothing from the funders. Other times, they respond with committee-written malarkey, and on some occasions, they actually apologize and make corrections.
Now, some of you are thinking, “Wow, Vu, that’s so excessive. Couldn’t people just contact them and offer feedback directly like adults? Where’s the grace? Where’s the assumption of best intentions? Didn’t your mother teach you not to be cruel, you sexy but heartless monster?” Indeed, I got a whole bunch of comments along those lines (Surprisingly not from funders, but from nonprofit folks, especially fundraisers).
Assuming that people will change if we just be courteous hasn’t worked. Calling things out in general also hasn’t worked, or hasn’t worked as fast as our community needs. It’s been decades now that we’ve asked for more trust from funders, for funding to not be restricted, for our time not to be wasted with meaningless tasks like creating bespoke budgets at the whims of foundations while our communities face varying forms of violence on a daily basis.
We have tried the route of asking nicely, of providing feedback directly and discreetly. The response 99% of the time is, “Thank you so much for your feedback. We will take it under consideration blah blah blah” and then nothing substantive ever happens. The feedback itself becomes a part of the charade, helping to further the complacency. “Thank you for your feedback” in many instances is the equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.”
We have been way too nice. We’ve been prioritizing the comfort and image preservation of those in power over what would best advance equity and justice. It is time to change tactics. I appreciate Marc Gunther’s article “The culture of philanthropy is polite. Too polite.” He says:
“Not calling out bad actors is a missed opportunity. While reporting on business for FORTUNE, I found that corporations can be motivated to change by criticism as well as by praise. That’s why their critics publish lists of the best or worst companies — for women and minorities , for deforestation, for animals, whatever. They ‘rank ’em and spank ‘em,’ as the saying goes. […] some foundation leaders could benefit from a good old-fashioned public spanking.”
Not just funders whom we’ve asked nicely to change, but people and organizations with privilege and power in general. We need to lift up and participate in efforts like #ShowTheSalary (by @ShowTheSalary), which publicly calls out by name the organizations who still refuse to disclose salary ranges in their job postings, which perpetuates the racial and gender wage gap. @CharitySoWhite and @RaceEquityIndex spotlight organizations and projects that reinforce white supremacy practices and cultures. And GrantAdvisor.org allows for anonymously reviews of foundations, at least in the US for now.
We need more of these efforts. Jan Masaoka, CEO of CalNonprofits, said something that really stuck with me. “The only two ways to change funder behavior (of more than just a few funders) is public shaming and legislation.” Not data. Not persuasive arguments. Not baskets of mini muffins. Public shaming and legislation. The latter does take longer, so while we work on legislation, such as this effort (charitystimulus.org) to get Congress to require foundations to give out more money, we should continue calling out bad behaviors of foundations, organizations, and public figures. By name.
This should be done thoughtfully. If you think the “common courtesy” (non-public-shaming) approach will likely succeed, and you have the energy, try that first. Public shaming should be focused on those with power, privilege, and resources. When possible, it should highlight tangible behaviors and offer solutions; however, people from marginalized communities are exhausted always having to do the work of figuring out solutions to things that oppress us, so sometimes we’re all just going to have to be OK with problems being pointed out and the people who cause the problems needing to figure out the solutions themselves.
Also, because there is potential backlash such as loss of funding, those of us who can afford to take the hits should be on the front lines of calling out BS while acting as a shield for others. For instance, if you are secure in your job, point out when an organization doesn’t list salary ranges on job postings, so that colleagues who are applying for jobs won’t get screwed if they point it out themselves.
Meanwhile, if you or your organization are on the receiving end of the shame, learn to be OK with that. We’ve been talking so much about failing forward, being vulnerable, etc., so let’s put that into action. If you are called out, acknowledge it, learn from it, change behaviors, and set good examples for others. Avoid being defensive. And avoid the thoughts-and-prayers approach of thanking people for their feedback and doing nothing to improve the situation.
We’ve wasted a lot of time tip-toeing around the BS that’s preventing us from fighting inequity effectively. The preference of the privileged to not be publicly embarrassed should not outweigh the urgency of our work addressing the pain inflicted on marginalized communities.
Let’s all continue working to build a sector where no one has to be publicly shamed to do the right thing. Until that happens, though, please feel free to DM me on Twitter (@nonprofitAF) or email me when you encounter #CrappyFundingPractices or the lack of salary in job postings (including at your own org), and I will call these organizations out by name.
Sign the charitystimulus.org petition to get Congress to enact legislation requiring foundations to double their annual payout rate.
Write an anonymous public review of a foundation on grantadvisor.org
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