Category Archives: Funder Relations

The urgency of making big funding bets on organizations led by marginalized communities

[Image descriptions: Four stacks of coins of ascending height in a straight line from left to right, with a large filled with coins at the end of the line. Each stack of coins as well as the jar has a green plant with multiple leaves growing out of it, the size of the plants also increasing with the height of the stack of coins or jar. They appear to be outdoors, with an out-of-focus outdoorsy background. Image by Pixabay. Description, as always, by Vu].

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.

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Can we stop assuming that people with corporate or academic backgrounds can run nonprofits and foundations better than nonprofit folks?

[Image description: A white sheep sticking their head out of a wire fence. They have an annoyed expression. This is basically what I look like when thinking about how many people who have little to no experience working in nonprofit but who still have significant power on nonprofits. Pixabay.comm]

Recently I learned that a colleague of mine didn’t get a job leading a major organization. It was confusing, since all signs had seemed to indicate she was a good fit. After weeks wondering, she got a you-didn’t-hear-this-from-me from one of the hiring team members that the board had decided to go with someone with a corporate background. Someone who had no experience working in nonprofit was now going to lead a large and influential one, over my colleague who had years of relevant experience.

This happens frequently in our sector among the largest and most influential organizations. Foundations are especially guilty of this. According to this report from CEP that looks at the leadership of the largest 100 foundations in the US:

Experience as a grantee, if you exclude colleges and universities …. isn’t much valued by foundation boards when they’re searching for a CEO. In 2012 we identified just 14 foundation CEOs with immediate previous experience at an operating nonprofit that wasn’t a college or university. Today, that number is even lower — just 10.”

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Sometimes the best thing we donors can do to advance social justice is to just write the check and get out of the way

[Image description: A super adorable little fluffy brown baby bear cub clinging to a tree and looking directly at the camera! Awwww, what a sweet little baby bear! Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. This post will likely be controversial, so grab a bar of dark chocolate, or, if you are in Seattle, a warm cup of hemp milk and some kale chips. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about our philosophy on donor engagement, and I think we need to have a serious discussion. Honestly, I am starting to believe that the way we engage donors, and habits and patterns of thinking we reinforce among ourselves and our donors, are possibly damaging to the work and to communities.

But before we go further, I want to try something different. I often speak from the nonprofit perspective, because I love nonprofit work and I love the people who choose to be in this beautiful and frustrating sector. But I also donate to several organizations; with two small kids, it’s not always as much as I would like, but I still donate. In fact, I am willing to bet that everyone who works in nonprofit also donates to other nonprofits. That means all of us are also donors. So instead of speaking from the nonprofit perspective, for this post I am going to speak from a donor’s perspective. It might be a little weird, but bear with me (here’s a picture of a baby bear for being awesome).

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How funder fragility is similar to white fragility and what funders can do about it

[Image description: Two adorable baby chickens, golden fluffy, standing in the dirt in sunlight. Image by Karim Manjra on Unsplash.com]

Hi everyone, if you are in Seattle this Thursday evening (1/31/19), come to RVC’s “Inside the Activist’s Studio” event, where one of our fellows interviews a community leader. This time, we’re featuring the legendary Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder of Technology Access Foundation. Details of the event here.

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At a group convening I attended a while back, we discussed some of the challenges facing leaders of color in the sector, including how 90% of funding still go to white-led organizations, how funders still use a very white lens in what is considered good data and effective programs, how the smallest and most burdensome grants are often the only ones accessible to marginalized-communities-led organizations, how white foundation boards are, the general lack of trust foundations have for nonprofits, and how progressive foundations spend endless amounts of time intellectualizing, which disproportionately harms marginalized communities because they cannot afford to wait months or years for funding decisions.

This was a group of all leaders of color, so it was cathartic and affirming for many attendees to hear that their frustrations were not imagined. As we started talking about potential solutions, though, the group’s conversation and energy quickly took a detour. A foundation program officer, who was of color, started talking about how the foundation she worked for was not like that, how they had been changing, how it felt like we were attacking and “vilifying” foundations, how we needed to not be “divisive,” etc. The previous momentum was cut off as several people in the group in succession started affirming this program officer and reassuring her that she and her foundation were great and helpful and generous and amazing. A conversation on systemic challenges suddenly became about one funder’s feelings.

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Why nonprofit staff should not be asked to donate to the organizations they work for

[Image description: A gray-striped cat, their head peeking from unde ra shaggy carpet that is brown, tan, and white. They look shocked, with big turquoise-emerald eyes. This cat has nothing to do with this post. I was going to add a picture of a houseplant, but plants unfortunately cannot compete with adorable kittens. Image from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Before we launch into today’s topic, a quick announcement: My organization, Rainier Valley Corps, is expanding our team and are looking to add two critical positions: Operations Support Program Director, and Capacity Building Lead. If you love capacity building and operations and want meaningful work, an amazing team, and an inspiring array of office snacks, these positions may be for you. We also have a nap room, if that tips the scale.

This week’s topic may be polarizing and possibly rile you up, so please stare at the nearest houseplant for a few minutes (apparently, they are scientifically proven to reduce stress). Once a while our community gets into a discussion about whether nonprofits should ask their staff to donate some amount of money to the organization. There are passionate arguments from both the “absolutely” side and the “hell no!” side. (It is very similar to the Oxford Comma debate, although it really isn’t, because obviously the Oxford Comma is beautiful, practical, and magical, and there is clearly no point debating this because #OxfordCommaForever.)

I cast my vote with the side of No, we should not ask our staff to donate to our own organizations. Here are several reasons why, as articulated by many colleagues in the field, combined with some of my own thoughts and experiences:

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