Toxic intellectualization: How progressives’ addiction to overthinking is sabotaging our work

[Image description: A bee feeding at a pink clover flower. Image by HG-Fotographie at Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, quick announcement: if you are a funder, please join this webinar this Wednesday 7/29 at 1pm ET, led by NDLON and Hispanics in Philanthropy, where you will hear about the impact the pandemic has had on day laborers, domestic workers, and other low-wage earners, the organizations that serve them, and what is needed from funders at this time.

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About a year ago, I was complaining to my friend Ben Reuler, ED of Seattle Works, about my backyard. I told him how the yard had been cleared the year prior and had just remained a patch of dirt. This was because my spouse and I were indecisive. We didn’t know whether to plant grass seeds, or maybe roll out some turf, try for an ecolawn full of clovers, or possibly hire a landscape designer. We wanted to do some more research. So for 14 months the yard remained barren, save for weeds. The kids refused to play in it except when it rained, then they loved jumping around in the mud. No one complained. We just thought, “We’ll get to it and some point.”

A few weeks later, we invited Ben and his family over for lunch (I make kickass bánh xèo). Ben arrived with a bag of grass seeds, a bag of compost, and a seed spreader thing. “Come on,” he said, “we’re planting grass in your yard.” And just like that, we were out in the yard, sprinkling grass seeds and compost. I was skeptical. Ben is not an expert in lawn care; he is a nonprofit executive director, and everyone knows we EDs have very few useful life skills. Over the next few months, though, as we moved into the rainy season, the grass grew. Now we have a lawn! It’s great for picnics. The children wrestle on the ground. This little yard has been a lifesaver during this pandemic when schools are closed.

Why the heck am I bringing this up? This story is an analogy for a critical weakness in our sector: Our over-intellectualization, tendency to complicate things, gravitation toward research and planning, and avoidance of risk and action. Just like my partner and I hemmed and hawed and was indecisive about what to do about our yard for over a year, we nonprofits and foundations too equivocate and overthink all sorts of things. And gradually, over the years, we start to praise ourselves for doing endless researching, planning, and pontificating instead of taking actions, to the point where we now consider this course of inaction as “best practices.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t plan or research, but the pendulum has swung too far and it’s become destructive and we don’t even realize it. For instance, I talked to a foundation CEO who asked me to facilitate a discussion about how to better fund Black and Indigenous communities during this time. I told him to just increase payout and give multi-year general operating dollars to Black and Indigenous-led organizations, the end, stop wasting time. Another funder, when I told them something similar about increasing funding to communities-of-color-led orgs, said, “Well, we would love to do that, but we are very white and haven’t really done our inner work yet to be more diverse, so it would feel hypocritical.” So basically communities are suffering because you need months or years to think and reflect and plan and look good to the public.  

Toxic intellectualizing is pervasive across our sector. We have deeply internalized it, overusing concepts like “due diligence” and refrains like “the process is just as important as the results” to justify it. We have built entire industries of data/evaluation and strategic planning consultants around it. We are geared toward planning and thinking because it is safer and less risky to do. The consequences of taking impulsive actions and failing are usually serious in our sector and in society, but we don’t want to seem like we’re not taking any actions, so the middle ground is to think and talk about stuff, and in doing so we continue to waste so much time and resources.

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Why we need to move away from empathy in our fundraising approach

[Image description: Black-and-white image of two people, likely children, walking down a dirt path, facing away from the camera, the taller person having their arm across the shoulders of the shorter person. Image by Annie Spratt of Unsplash.]

Happy Monday, everyone. I hope to see you at the Community Centric Fundraising’s launch event today at 11a PDT (you can still register to join). If you can’t be there, please sign up to get more information on future events. Our next one, on 7/24, will be about the data we collected from the Fundraising Perception Survey. (Spoiler: A majority of the 2300 people who responded to the survey, both BIPOC and white, are not happy with the way our sector has been doing fundraising.) 

I am also thrilled to announce that the Community-Centric Fundraising Website is up! Check out communitycentricfundraising.org! The CCF Hub will serve as a central area for reflection and learning. Already there are several pieces on there, including 

There is also a list of some CCF-aligned actions you can take at your organization. Please keep in mind that these actions, crowdsourced over the years, are not comprehensive, and this list will change and evolve. The exciting and necessary work of this movement is for all of us to reexamine the philosophies that ground so many of our practices in the sector.

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The problem with everything being all about relationships

[Image description: Two adorable puppies, one biting the other. The one that’s bitten seems to be a chihuahua with black and white face, wearing a…yellow onesie? The one doing the biting is fluffy and white, with beige ears and patch over the eye, but it’s probably an affectionate nip in the jaw. Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, this week is Valentine’s Day, arguably the most annoying and stressed-filled day ever. I like it as much as I like infinity scarves. But at least we have #NonprofitPickupLines on Twitter. Go make that trend again. “Hey there, is your nickname Cash-Flow Issues? Because you’re constantly on my mind.”

Valentine’s Day, however, is a great time to talk about relationships. Namely, the philosophy that everything is based on relationships. Fundraising is about developing, maintaining, and strengthening relationships with donors. Hiring is often about who you are connected to. “Remember,” we are often told, and we often tell others, “it’s not about what you know, but about who you know.” In this blog post, written six years ago, I explain that “85% of 95% of grants is 90% relationship building” (Let’s just say math is not my strongest suit).

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Guidelines for higher education programs that require students to do special projects with nonprofits

[Image description: A cute little brown kitten peeking out from under a brown book tent, which is a tiny tent created with an open book. Aw, look at this little kitten, with their sweet baby kitten paws! Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Quick announcement before we launch into today’s post. The Peery Foundation, whose CEO Jessamyn Shams-Lau and I co-authored the book Unicorns Unite (along with the amazing Jane Leu of Smarter Good), is having an Ask Me Anything on 2/14 at 11am Pacific time. They’re trying to “pull back the curtain on foundation decision-making. No question is off-limits and our host’s favorite question will win a box of chocolates.” Find out how philanthropy sausage is made.

Also, I’m on a webinar on 2/5 at 9:30am PST, called “Fundraising from a Different Point of Vu.”

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a while. Thanks to colleague Theresa Meyers, Chief of Staff at DC Central Kitchen, for bringing this back to my attention. Every once a while, we nonprofits get requests from students, usually from a nonprofit management program. The requests often go like this,

“Hi, I am a student at so-and-so college. I am taking a course on organizational development this quarter. Part of our curriculum is to interview several leaders at a nonprofit, and then develop a series of recommendations on how your organization can improve. May I interview you and your team? This project is due next Friday. Thank you for your time.”

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It’s 2020. Be bold or get the hell out of the way

[Image description: People marching int a rally. Many are wearing pink hats. A person in the center, with long blond hair, is wearing a white jacket and pink gloves. Their left fist is raised and their right hand is holding a sign that says “We are better than this!” Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Today’s post will likely be serious, as it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I know many of us in the sector are reflecting on his legacy. It has been a rough few years, and there were several moments where it was hard for me to believe that the “arc of the moral universe” bends toward justice. But I know it does. I see it on my travels, speaking with various brilliant leaders and organizations. I see it in on a daily basis through the work that you each do to lift up individuals and families and make our world better. Thank you. You give me hope and keep me going.

Unfortunately, however, we still often stand in our own ways, sometimes without even realizing it. A while ago I attended a meeting with group of local leaders. We were talking about equity. Someone said, “What is our definition of equity? Have we defined it? Are we on the same page?” The discussion devolved into a conversation about the definition of equity. I have no poker face, so it slowly contorted into a visage of pure frustration tinged with rage.

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