What nonprofit and philanthropy must do now to help ensure this nightmare won’t happen again

[Image description: Black and brown protesters, all wearing covid masks, holding up signs, including a large one that says “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Ella Baker.” Others hold up signs that say “prosecute killer cops,” “end police brutality,” and “Black lives matter, Black trans lives matter.” Image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.]

Happy Monday, everyone! The happiest I can recall in a while! I was able to sleep soundly for the first time in a long time, and my stress acne magically cleared up and has been replaced by hope acne. (Look, even my sense of humor is returning!) Before I forget, Crystal Hayling, ED of the Libra Foundation, and I will be having an informal conversation this week, November 10th at 1pm PT, to debrief philanthropy and anything else that we want to discuss. We didn’t plan any talking points, so half of the conversation may just be about our favorite shows, who knows, join us.

I know that most of us are taking some time to celebrate this political and moral victory. Some of us are still in disbelief, and like a large multi-year pledged donation that hasn’t been paid, we can’t really believe that this is real until our new president and vice president are sworn in on inauguration day. I too am a jumble of emotions: hope, catharsis, joy, but also hypervigilance and fear at the backlash that may be coming.

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Democracy hangs in the balance. Nonprofit and philanthropy need to stop being neutral.

[Image description: A crowd at a protest. The person in the center holds up a sign that says “No justice, no peace.” Image by Clay Banks on Unsplash.com]

Hi everyone, apologies for the likely brusque tone of this week’s post. Like many of you, I am shaken by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; may her memory be a blessing. It is hard for us to celebrate the life of an extraordinary (and imperfect) leader when there are so many terrifying implications now that she is gone. Already Trump and McConnell plan to ram a nomination through, despite what they said four years ago about not confirming SCOTUS nominees during election years. The hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy are astounding but not surprising. We need to ensure Biden/Harris are elected and the Senate is majority blue, then expand the Supreme Court, set term limits, grant statehood to DC, pass the Voting Rights Act, end the filibuster, and get rid of the electoral college, among other things.

If you’re asking me why I’m talking about politics on a nonprofit blog, I need you to shut the hell up. Believing that nonprofit and philanthropy are somehow separate from or above politics is how we’ve been complicit in perpetuating unjust systems. And yet we keep doing this. Last week, I gave a keynote virtually where I reminded folks that kids are still in cages, that Black people are still being killed by the police, that Indigenous women are still missing and murdered, and that everything is still being controlled by rich old white dudes and we need to get more women of color elected into office. In the chat stream was a sniveling remark along the lines of “Wow, this presentation did not need to be so political.”

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How philanthropy fails to support its greatest assets, BIPOC leaders, and what it should do about it

[Image description: A group of protesters, most are BIPOC, most wearing face masks. One person in the center appears to be talking on a bullhorn. Others are holding up signs. Image by Josh Hild of Unsplash.com]

Hi everyone, real quick before I get into today’s topic—since the launching of the Community-Centric-Fundraising movement a month ago, the team in Seattle has been excited but also overwhelmed by the incredible response from you all! Thank you for your patience as we sort out the logistics. More is coming, including a meeting to discuss the creation of local CCF chapters (it’ll likely be on 8/20 at 12pm PT, sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t so we can send you more details).

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A few months ago, I left my job after being an ED for 13 consecutive years across two organizations. “How does it feel to be retired?” people would ask. “I’m not retired,” I would joke, “I’m Financially Untethered, aka FU!” (This was before the pandemic, when I still had a sense of humor). It was a needed sabbatical, and I was looking forward to recharging by re-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, and The Golden Girls.

One day, I got an email from Angie Kim, President & CEO of the Center for Cultural Innovation. “I’m wondering if you have a soft landing? Can our work (www.ambitio-us.org) potentially fund you, give you a business card, and act as a platform so that you continue to be in the field in ways that might work for you?”

Through our conversations over the following months, I got to understand what Angie meant by “soft landing.” This is what conservatives do for their leaders. They provide them with support to ensure that their work continues. If a right-wing pundit gets fired or leaves their position, you can be sure the conservative movement will rally around them, help them get a new job, a slot on Fox News, a post at a research institute, a book deal, a litigation lawyer, a spot on Dancing with the Stars, or whatever. They understand that their most effective leaders are their greatest weapon, so they do everything they can to protect and invest in them and their ideas.

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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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How nonprofit and philanthropy’s lack of imagination is a barrier to equity and justice

[Image description: A protester holding up a sign that says “Black Lives Matter.” They are wearing round sunglasses and a mask that covers their nose and mouth. In the background are other protesters with signs. Image by Joan Villalon on unsplash.com]

Over the weekend, I am sure you are aware, another Black person was killed by the police. Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. He was asleep when the police woke him up and murdered him, like the police murdered Breonna Taylor while she was asleep in her own home. The list of names of Black people being murdered by the police keeps growing, even while we’re marching. Over here in Seattle, there is a strong call to defund the police and decriminalize Seattle, with many people, including me, signing on to this petition asking to halve the police budget in Seattle and investing that money in mental health, housing, and other services.

This moment in history is a test for nonprofit and philanthropy, and unfortunately, I don’t think we are doing very well. Our sector has been frozen for so long by fear. Nonprofits fear not having enough resources to keep going. Foundations fear what will happen when they increase their payout rate beyond the pathetic minimum 5%. Fundraisers fear upsetting donors when they bring up difficult topics like white supremacy. Staff fear their boards. Boards fear giving staff too much power. The entire sector is fearful of political engagement. And most people, me included, fear losing their livelihoods and means of feeding their families if they rock the boat too much.

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