Final observations on Europe before we get back to unicorns and wombats

cuppolaHi everyone, sorry for the lateness of this post. I was traveling back from Berlin. It is good to be back in Seattle, though I am jetlagged and look kind of like someone just punched me in both eyes. Today I realized I have lost 5 pounds, which gives me a great idea: The Vegan Balkans Diet! Basically, just become a vegan, then go to the Balkans.

Since I’m jetlagged and trying not to fall asleep until at least 9pm, I don’t know how coherent this post is going to be. Berlin, Germany was really great, except that people were kind of rude, saying things like “You do not have an account at this bank? Then no, you may not withdrawal money here” and “Stop! You can’t just try to break off a piece of the Berlin Wall at this museum!”

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Serbia, nonprofits, Breaking Bad, and veganism

Hi everyone. I am so exhausted. I don’t think I have thought this intensely for this long a period of time since, I don’t know, maybe the first season of Game of Thrones. I am now in Serbia in the city of Belgrade, some place that I never thought I would be. No one really says, “I want to go to Serbia for vacation” or “We’re going to Serbia for our honeymoon” or “Congratulations, you just won a free trip to Serbia!”

And that’s too bad, because the city is beautiful. Belgrade has been fought over in 115 wars and burned to the ground 44 times in its history by various armies. But, except for the buildings bombed by NATO during the Kosovo War in 1999, everything looks great, with shiny glass buildings standing harmoniously next to ancient architecture. I have been trying to absorb everything. There are some painful memories of the brutal atrocities committed during the tumultuous past, a significant part by the Serb army, but as a whole the country is trying to move forward with its future, a major step being joining the European Union.

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Europe’s nonprofit structure: The good, the bad, the stylish

The past few days have been intense, filled with 10 to 15 hours daily of meetings with government officials, local business leaders, education leaders, city planners, etc. The lunches and dinners are also packed with interesting stuff. In Copenhagen we toured the city by bicycle, learned about the port’s development while riding down the canal on a boat, talked with top officials of the Danish Parliment, got a briefing from an association of employers, had dinner with an industry leader in her office, toured and chatted with the publicly-financed radio and television station, rode the light rail and learned about its development, spent a night at a wine maker’s mansion and learned from him the challenges employers are facing with the inheritance tax and the high costs of hiring workers, toured a “ghetto” where many of the immigrants are living, and sat through a beautiful opera where I was struggling to stay awake after 12 hours information.

Each of those events would make a great blog post, if I had more time and weren’t so lazy. With everything being so fascinating, I didn’t think it was taking a toll on me, until one of the other fellows told me “Every morning, it looks like someone had broken into your hotel room and beat you.”

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An Executive Director’s Self-Evaluation

Hi everyone. For the first time in my eight years with the organization, my board has decided to conduct a performance review. These are two words that send chills up and down every Executive Director’s spine, on par with “budget deficit” and “annual event.” The board had a clandestine meeting three weeks ago to talk about my performance as an ED. Soon they will meet with me to deliver feedback.

I’m nervous. I just know they’re going to say something like, “Vu, you’ve developed a reputation as a drunkard and a loudmouth. That’s affecting VFA’s image. We need you to stop mixing drinks at work. Also, funders are saying you’ve been dressing up as Oliver Twist during site visits and literally begging for money.”

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The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildlings, and White Walkers

wallLast week I wrote about the Sustainability Question and how it is symptomatic of an ineffective funding system where funders and nonprofits are not equal partners but more like frenemies. This apparently resonated with many readers, at least 138, since that’s how many people shared it on Facebook, and only 26 of those were from me mandating staff to do it. “Yeah, Vu, high-five!” said a colleague at a meeting, and we high-fived, which was tricky, since I was holding my 5-month-old baby Viet. We are doing a nanny-share with another Executive Director, but even with the split costs, we could only afford it four days a week, so on Fridays, we two EDs tote our babies around.

The post sparked some great conversations, especially around the challenges of communication between funders and nonprofits. “I call it the Wall of Philanthrophy,” said one of my ED friends. She painted the image of a physical wall between funders and nonprofits. “There is a tiny window in the wall, and every once a while it opens just a little bit, and maybe there is an exchange of ideas, but then it quickly closes, and it’s solid wall again.”

This reminds me of the Wall in the Game of Thrones. It is 700 feet tall, 300-mile-long wall made of solid ice to keep out the Wildlings, people who are regarded as primitive, cruel savages who have poor hygiene. The Wildlings live North of the Wall, a barren, desolate, cutthroat, and eternally wintery landscape that has very few good restaurants. Every once a while they try to cross the Wall and get South into the warm Seven Kingdoms, which are more civilized and you can go to the bathroom for more than two minutes without fear of frostbites and gangrene. While a Wildling or two sneak past the Wall here and there, in a thousand years not a single assault on the guarded Wall has succeeded.

Another unhygienic wildling asking for general operating
Another unhygienic wildling asking for general operating

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like nonprofit organizations and staff are like the Wildlings trying constantly to make it past the Wall. “Sound the alarms! There is a group of Wildlings at the base of the Wall, and they are chanting ‘General Operating Funds! General Operating Funds!’ Quick, prepare the hot oil!”

This Philanthropic Wall manifests itself in many ways:

  • After the site visit, we hardly see funders at programs and special events
  • Nonprofits are rarely invited to conferences and other important gatherings of funders
  • It takes anywhere from a week to nine years to get a hold of some funders, often when we are trying to get support for time-critical projects
  • Funders almost always refuse to join committees for projects initiated by nonprofits
  • Not a single funder accepted my invitation to 80’s-themed trivioke night, a combination of trivia and karaoke.

I don’t think I will be able to scale this wall in my lifetime, which is why I’ve been training my son Viet when I have him on Fridays, hoping that one day he will follow his father’s footsteps into nonprofit and continue the work. Instead of children’s stories, I’ve been reading strategic plans and annual reports to him. “One day, son, all funding will be general operating. I probably won’t be around to see that. Learn and grow strong and help to make that happen.”

Every once a while, though, there is a glimmer of hope. An Executive Director friend of mine said she was invited to a conference of funders to present her organization’s work. “Really?!” I said, nearly choking on a pluot, “you’re attending a conference of funders? No way!”

“Yeah,” she said, “but they made it amply clear that I am not to approach any of them to solicit funds. Actually, it was hinted that I shouldn’t talk much at all. In fact, I have to wear this scarlet N on my nametag to mark me as a Nonprofit.”

We nonprofits can understand why people feel that the distance between funders and nonprofits is necessary. After all, there are so many nonprofits, and funders should be fair and should not be playing favorites. However, the quest for objectivity and impartiality has led to an unhealthy adversarial system that has been harmful to the field. How can conferences to talk about funding structure and collective impact and other important stuff be effective when the people doing the direct service work and thus have first-hand knowledge of client and community needs are only marginally part of the conversation?

Plus, when there are insurmountable barriers to communication with funders, it just means that the nonprofits with the strongest relationships and connections make it through, finding support for their own projects. So many great ideas never get off the ground because many nonprofits leaders do not have the behind-the-scene connections with funders, and on the other hand, so many crappy ideas do get funded because someone knows someone who knows someone.

Funders have more power, and thus must take a larger share of the responsibility for perpetuating an ineffective system where we nonprofits spend much of our time trying to figure out how to survive instead of innovate. We have been at the base of the Wall chanting things like “general operating funds!” and “overhead is necessary” and “standardize your budget forms!” for a long time now, with little result.

But we nonprofits are not off the hook either. Like the Wildling tribes, we are constantly in competition for survival, which tends to happen when resources are scarce. We have to work together and support one another while simultaneously delivering common messages and proposed solutions. We can’t just keep grumbling at the base of the wall. We must unite.

white walkersWe must ALL unite. In the Game of Thrones the Wall wasn’t originally built to keep out Wildlings. They were just unlucky enough to be caught on that side when the Wall was built thousands of years ago to defend against the White Walkers, who are kind of like scary-as-hell evil ice mummies who could turn dead people and animals into evil ice zombies and the army of mummies/zombies went and killed everyone, Wildlings and civilized people alike, until they were driven back to their cold, wintery home and the Wall was built to keep them there. Winter is coming, it lasts whole generations, and the White Walkers are stirring once again.

The point is, there are greater threats out there—poverty, racism, violence, loneliness, war, inequity, oppression, homophobia, injustice, unaffordable childcare, hunger, illness, death, etc., the White Walkers of our nonfictional world—and we should be working together to defeat those things, not focusing so much of our time building and maintaining walls around ourselves and each other. Funders and nonprofits must communicate better and work in partnership more effectively.

How about we start by carpooling to the next trivioke night?

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Related Posts:

Collective Impact: Resistance is Futile

Site Visits: Uncomfortable, Yet Terrifying

The Most Crotch-Kickingly Craptastic Grant Application Notice Ever

Nonprofit Funding: Ordering a Cake and Restricting it Too