Scary Nonprofit Stories to Tell in the Dark, 2021

[Two jack-o-lantern carved from orange pumpkins, their goofy/scary expressions lit up in the darkness, reflected in the shiny floor. Image by David Menidrey on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. Halloween is coming up next week, which means it’s time for this year’s crop of spooky stories set in our sector. Beware, these stories are terrifying and may keep you up at night. Share your own stories in the comment. Also, check out #NonprofitHalloweenCostumes on Twitter for inspirations like this one: Wear all-yellow clothing. Put on a brown hat. Say things like “In two years, we’ll triple the number of people we serve.” You’re a…Strategic Flan! (Shut up! That pun is one of my life’s greatest achievements!)

Anyway, on with the stories.


The fortuneteller sat across from Roberto, her slender fingers waving over the crystal ball. “Yes,” she said, her face distorted in the glass so that her eyes appeared unusually large from his perspective, “I can see now. Clear as day. What would you like to know?”

As he was about to speak, she interrupted him. “Think carefully,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “for it is better some questions remain…unasked.”

Roberto pulled out his laptop and turned it on. “OK,” he said, “this online grant application won’t let me know the questions in advance. I have to answer each question and save it before I can see the next question. Can you tell me what all the questions are?”

At that moment, lightning flashed and a peal of thunder shattered the evening sky.

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Democracy is Dying. Philanthropy Needs to Stop Its Toxic Intellectualizing.

[Image description: A large colorful mural on a building, by artist Shepard Fairey, featuring a person looking into the distance, with the words “voting rights are human rights” painted in black on red background. Image taken by Tom Barrett on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, just a quick warning that this post will likely burn a few bridges. But as colleague Aubrey Alvarez quoted from a novelty flask, “May the bridges we burn light the way.”

Today I had breakfast with my friend Seth Ehrlich, an executive director who told me that for the third time during the pandemic a funder invited him to attend a forum where nonprofit leaders were asked to give feedback on how to improve that funder’s grant process. Foundations, please stop doing that. Here’s a checklist you can use for free. Stop wasting everyone’s time asking them how you can improve your process.

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10 predictable responses from white dudes when people criticize inequitable systems

[Image description: Three white eggs, each painted with a different facial expression, in a holder, suspended over some bright orange surface. The egg on the left has its mouth open, as if screaming. The one in the middle looks sick and is drawn with a thermometer in its mouth; the egg on the right just looks surprised. Image by Karan Mandre on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, in observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, let’s remember that less than half a percent of total foundation grant dollars go to Native organizations and communities (and I doubt individual donations or government sources are much higher). Foundations reading this, back up your statements of solidary by analyzing how much you are investing in Indigenous-led-and-serving organizations, and increasing the amount. Non-Native orgs, now’s a good time to think of how you can tangibly lift up Native orgs; make introductions to your existing donors and funders, for example. The rest of us, let’s buy from Native businesses, donate to Native-led orgs, subscribe to Native media, and financially support Native individuals. Let’s do all this year-round, not just this week.


This post may ruffle some of you, especially if you’re a fragile white dude, so before I begin, I want to let you know that some of my best friends are white dudes. (Ben, Chris, Kevin, I miss you all; let’s find a time to hang out; I’ll download some Creedence Clearwater Revival and Johnny Cash we can listen to.) I say that as a joke, but it’s also true. There are amazing white dudes in our sector and in society doing critical work making the world better. Still, we need to have a talk.

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Why pitch-based funding competitions are harmful and we need to stop having them

[Image description: A dog and a pony facing each other yet looking downward sadly. They appear to be outside on a mountain, with a pine forest in the background. What are they contemplating? Who knows. Image by Maninderjeet Singh Sidhu on Unsplash].

Last week, I was on Clubhouse in a conversation called “If Nonprofits Were Brutally Honest with Funders” (with colleagues Dr. Rahsaan Harris, Kris Putnam-Walkerly, and Julie Morris). After my remarks about power dynamics, the injustices upon which much of philanthropy is based, and how so little funding goes to organizations led by marginalized communities, listeners were invited to join in. The first person said something about how people of color should learn to “pitch” better so that funders and donors could understand their ideas. (Another person said being nice and getting people to empathize and bringing them ice cream to eat and puppies to snuggle with would work better in soliciting funding than my “angry complaints,” but that’s for another post).

The idea of “pitching” is not new. We have been trained to do “elevator pitches” that are supposed to be pithy yet moving, sincere yet polished, inspiring yet grounded, all in 20 seconds. We pitch to donors, funders, politicians, partner orgs, volunteers. Grants, meanwhile, are basically just long pitches. We do a lot of pitching.

The most extreme manifestation of this idea of “pitching” are the “Shark Tank”-style funding opportunities where leaders go on stage to give short presentations about their organizations’ work to a live audience, after which, depending on how they do and how the “judges” and people watching their presentations react, they could walk away with one of several small grant prizes.

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Stop saying that 80% of nonprofit funding comes from individual donors. It’s misleading.

[Image description: A grey striped cap, lying on red velvet, wearing a tiny red and golden crown, covered in Canadian dollar bills of different denominations. They are wearing a necklace with a gold dollar sign pendant. They are looking to the left, surrounded by an aural of feline regality. Image by Allange on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. Quick reminder: Please get flu shots for you and your family, if you are able to. Hospitals and healthcare workers are overwhelmed by COVID, so in addition to getting your COVID shots, get your flu shot. And then buy yourself a new house plant or some chocolate as a reward.

Every time I criticize foundations, someone steps in with “well, 80% of philanthropic dollars come from individual donors.” Usually it is a well-meaning statement, designed to give hope to those of us who are frustrated with foundations and their various archaic and ridiculous practices. And taken as a whole, it may be true. This report, for example, shows that in 2019, 69% of giving comes from individuals, 10% from bequests, 17% from foundations, and 5% from corporations.

If 17% of our revenues come from foundations and 5% from corporations, why should we spend so much time and energy bashing our heads against the walls, screaming in anguish at the foundations and corporations that require quarterly reports, make us use their own budget templates, or, worst of all, force us to remove Oxford Commas to stay within character limits? If they account for only a fraction of total philanthropic dollars, maybe we’re wasting time trying to get foundations and corporations to change and should focus more time rallying individual donors?

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