9 crappy paradoxes that shape nonprofit and philanthropy

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Hi everyone, quick announcement: Please put August 10th at 12:00pm Pacific Time on your calendar for Community-Centric Fundraising’s first town hall meeting. Sign up here and we’ll send you the zoom link. Until then, the (CCF) Hub is designed to provide alternatives to our default white-centric fundraising narratives. It features about three new thought-provoking pieces of content each week, including “How prospect research can help nonprofits become less racist and more inclusive,” “What I Learned from Losing Two Jobs in the Fight for Racial Equity,” “‘You want a director of what now?!’ When orgs that are hiring are too lazy to know what they want,” and the first episode of the Ethical Rainmaker podcast, where CCF Co-Chair Michelle Muri and I talk about fundraising and equity. Check it out!

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I’ve been spending a lot of time flossing while thinking of how to categorize the challenges in our sector (What, like your quarantine activities are so much more interesting). Many of the stuff we deal with falls under the category of “well-meaning people inadvertently making nonprofits’ jobs harder.” Here are a nine. I’m going to call them paradoxes, though some of these are not paradoxes exactly, but are more like dilemmas, conundrums, or shenanigans. I’ve written about a few of them, but they keep coming up and remain a problem, so it’s good for us to review and have common language to push back. If we want our sector to succeed, we need to be aware of these paradoxes and control for them.

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

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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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It’s OK to feel like crap right now

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Hi everyone, before I get into this week’s topic, thank you to the 2,700+ colleagues who attended last week’s Community-Centric Fundraising launch event, “Let’s Make Fundraising Less Racist!” The excitement was so much that we crashed several websites. If you missed it, here’s the recording. And check out the CCF website, communitycentricfundraising.org. Meanwhile, this week on 7/24 at 12:30pm Pacific Time we have another free event, Data Says: What BIPOC Fundraisers Have Known for Years, where evaluator and CCF leadership team member Anna Rebecca Lopez will present the results of the Fundraising Perception Survey, which over 2,000 people took. See you there.

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I was looking at my list of topics to write about, and honestly, this week I’m just really tired. I know many of you are too. It has been a horrible year. And now Congressman John Lewis just died, another light gone when the night seems interminable and our democracy so tenuous. I don’t know how much more we can all handle. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote “Things are not normal. It’s OK to not be OK.” I did not anticipate, though, how much worse it would get for the world, for our sector, for all of us.

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It’s time we fundraise in a way that doesn’t uphold white moderation and white supremacy

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The past few months have been challenging, testing all of us our limits. At the same time, it has also been amazing to see more and more folks owning their complicity and power, being bolder, and challenging established norms. Our communities cannot afford for us to doubt ourselves, be too deferential, or always default to philosophies and processes that we were trained in. 

This includes the way we do fundraising. The fundraisers in our sector, of whom I am proud to be one, are dedicated, hardworking, and endlessly creative. We have to be. We know that if we stop, if funding stops flowing, real people’s lives are affected. Thank you to the amazing development professionals in the field, without whom our programs and services would not be possible. 

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The general public is completely clueless about nonprofit and philanthropy, and that’s a problem

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Hi everyone. Quick announcement: Edgar Villanueva—the author of Decolonizing Wealth—and I are having an Instagram Live chat today, 6/22, at 4pm EST where we talk spontaneously about whatever is on our minds. Follow @nonprofitaf and @villanuevaedgar. See you soon; ignore my stress-related acne.

A few months ago, I had just left my position as an executive director and was starting to work on a cool project: A sketch comedy show about nonprofit work! It would be so sweet; each episode would feature several short and hilarious skits that bring to life the complexity of our work, sometimes involving hummus (which is present in 80% of nonprofit meetings and events). No one outside the sector really understands what we do, and I thought it would be fun to let people get a glimpse. I was starting to write scripts when the pandemic hit and everything had to be put on hold and who the hell knows if I’ll ever get to it at this point.

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