The Year of the Dragon and what it means for nonprofit and philanthropy

[Image description: A colorful, lit-up sculpture of a dragon with a long, wavy tail. Image by RM on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, before we get to today’s topic, if you’re free next Tuesday, February 13th, at 10am Pacific, please join me and the ED of Future of Good, Anouk Bertner, for “Cutting through the BS so we can actually prioritize workplace wellbeing.” It’s free; captioning available. Register here.

This week, Saturday specifically, marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year, ushering in the Year of the Dragon, widely considered the most powerful of all the Chinese Zodiac animals. Dragons are apparently smart, creative, persistent, visionary, and talented. Which is why some people—don’t ask who—would consider me a Dragon, instead of my actual sign…the chicken, known for occasionally crossing roads.

The Dragon is, above all, strong and courageous, and thus Dragon years are fortuitous for bold, risky endeavors. What does this mean for us? As much as I love our sector, we are not always known for courageous actions and risk-taking. In fact, we’re probably one of the most risk-averse fields. Who can blame us, though? Decades of being told what we can and can’t do (“here’s my grant/donation of $12, don’t use it to pay staff wages”), and existing in a constant state of financial uncertainty (“maybe I’ll renew my $12 next year, maybe not”) and severe consequences for even actions that align with the sector’s expressed values (“your org publicly supports ending the murder of children in Palestine? We’re no longer giving you $12″) would lead anyone to play it safe.

But with everything going on in the world, we can’t continue that way. The lunar new year provides us a fresh start. Time to channel some Dragon energy. For this year, let’s:

Be visionary: The Dragon is the only mythical animal in the Chinese zodiac, and the only one that truly flies. Let’s renew and reawaken our vision for what the world could look like and our sector’s role in actualizing that vision. We can save our default pragmatism, realism, and incrementalism for another year. This year, let’s go all in on audacious dreams that people keep trying to tear down. I mean dreams like a society with minimal police presence, more just and equitable laws and policies, reparation, equity in wealth, fewer nonprofits and foundations because we won’t be as needed, and a free Palestine.

Be ambitious: Remember the old saying, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”? That saying makes no sense. The moon is much closer to Earth, and stars are much farther away. Do people not consider physics and astronomy when they come up with sayings? Anyway, the point is, we’ve been conditioned to think very small: In budgets, in grant requests, in number of people served, etc. In the year of the Dragon, have the audacity of ambition. Our grand visions for a better world can only be achieved if we have similarly grand ambitions. Increase your budget. Add a zero or two to your grant requests. Ask for what you need to solve a problem and not just scramble take care of its symptoms.

Be courageous: So many of us operate with fear as our guide. Fear of donors and funders pulling support. Fear of community members being disappointed with us. Fear of getting on the radar of racists and xenophobic assholes. Fear of politicians passing policies that will affect us. Fear of getting fired. Fear of getting sued. A lot of these fears are valid. But our sector’s overarching mission is to better the world, and it’s vital we summon our courage in public support of things that will make the world better, especially as the forces that seek to keep the world unjust are so vocal and so good at weaponizing our fear of them. Move away from neutrality, as that’s where cowards hide. Support a permanent ceasefire. Defend DEI. Condemn transphobia.

Be optimistic: I don’t remember a time where we’ve been so collectively pessimistic before. And for good reasons. Everything is horrible, including most of the people we worked so hard to elect over the past few years, who are voting this week to send $17.6B of additional funds to fund Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, while it’s calculated that $20B would solve homelessness in the US. But still, we need to be optimistic that our actions make a difference, despite the relentless bleakness. There are silver linings in that people are starting to wake up to the real horrors of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Let us believe it will lead to significant positive societal change, and work to make that happen.  

Be ferocious: Our sector tends to attract really nice folks, and then we’ve been conditioned to be even nicer. That means we put up with a lot of crap all the time from every direction. But dragons breathe fire. This year, let’s try not to just graciously endure grievances when we’re clearly in the right. When possible, fight back against racist donors, egotistical board members, arrogant funders, clueless partner orgs, blowhard politicians, entitled CEOs/EDs, bizsplaining vendors, etc. And let’s use this assertiveness not just for ourselves, but to stand up for others, including people outside of our org, sector, city, country, etc.  

Be experimental: It’s not just the year of the Dragon, but of the Wood Dragon (there are five elements: fire, water, wood, metal, earth). Wood is strong, but it’s also flexible and can bend a fair bit without breaking; think of bamboo. This is a great year to try new stuff at our orgs and in our sector: four-day work week? Go for it. A new policy to provide sabbaticals to all staff who’ve worked a certain number of years? Great time to do it. Co-leaders to replacing the solitary ED? Sounds good. Stand-up comedy show as a fundraiser instead of a stodgy gala? Amazing.

Here’s to a good year for our sector. In researching for this post, I learned that according to mythology, the Dragon came fifth in the race to see which animals would appear on the Zodiac, which was surprising and unexpected to everyone, as again, the Dragon was widely considered the fastest, strongest, and smartest. Well, that’s because there was a village that was on fire, and the Dragon stopped to help. This is a good reminder for all of us: You can be brave and strong, and still be kind. There is so much injustice out there and we are clearly needed, so let’s be both.

Chúc mừng năm mới.

Please continue calling for a permanent ceasefire. Sign this open letter. And here’s a toolkit with lots of other actions you can take.