21 Signs You or Your Organization May Be the White Moderate Dr. King Warned About

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This week we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose teachings have often been beacons of light for our sector. As we transition into something resembling hope and renewal with this incoming presidential administration, I encourage us to reflect on the words Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he warned of the “white moderate” being the biggest barrier toward social justice. He said:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

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Foundations, stop playing the reckless game of Funding-Chicken

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Hi everyone. Quick reminder: The second part of the Philanthropic Reforms town halls is today, 10/5, at 11am PT, where several prominent sector leaders will be exploring policies and strategies on foundations and Donor-Advised Funds to prevent wealth hoarding and tax evasion. This is the follow-up from the first town hall, which I moderated. Here’s the recording.

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Durfee Foundation President Carrie Avery and I were discussing over email the power dynamics between funders and nonprofits. While there is much to talk about, Carrie brought up a really good point that I had not considered before—the term “Foundation Program Officer” is weird:

“Why an officer? An officer makes me think of a police officer, a probation officer, someone in a position of power whose judgment can have a devastating and decisive effect. If foundations want to work with their ‘nonprofit partners’ then why is the person on the foundation side of that relationship called an officer? Language matters. Let’s start a movement to rename this role!”

I agree, and while we’re thinking about new titles, let’s completely reimagine what the role entails. It should be less micromanagey—like a boss who constantly watches over you to make sure you don’t steal office supplies—and more expansive, like a favorite colleague that you can commiserate with and occasionally play pranks on.

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Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the “white moderate” that Dr. King warned us about?

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Over the past few days, I have been thinking of George Floyd’s brutal murder by the police and of the protests happening in Minneapolis, nationwide, and globally, as I know many of you are. I am at a loss on what to do and how to support our Black friends and colleagues and family members who have constantly suffered under the pervasive violence of white supremacy and racism. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have any encouraging words for you at this moment. I am just angry and sad.

And to be honest, I am also frustrated by our sector. I love our field and the people in it. There is so much good that comes from our work. In the most challenging of times, we have often been a beacon of light. There are many amazing organizations and leaders organizing protests, working tirelessly to change unjust laws, lifting up people in need, providing food and shelter and hope. Thank you for all that you do, and for doing it in a time when there is so much community need even as your resources drastically dwindle.

But as I watch the news and hear of police running over protesters, white nationalists creating chaos and confusion so they can blame peaceful demonstrators, and our racist president stoking the fires of hatred and violence again and again—it makes we wonder if our sector is equipped to help bend the arc toward justice, or if we have collectively become the “white moderate” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls the biggest barrier for equity and justice for Black people and thus for us all.

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The Curb-Cut Effect, and Why Race, Equity, Access, Diversity, and Inclusion (READI) Are Even More Critical Now

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Hi everyone, before we get to today’s topic, I’m having a conversation with the brilliant Angie Kim, CEO of the Center for Cultural Innovation, on May 27th at 10am PST, about our sector. “Vu and Angie will have an informal, probably profanity-laden fireside chat, where we discuss what’s working and what’s not. Get ready to get provoked, maybe pissed off. There might be puppets.” It’s free. See details and register here.

Also, I may expand on this topic later, but here’s a petition calling for Congress to enact legislation to increase foundations’ and donor-advised funds’ payout rates for the next three years. Please sign it if you are so inclined. THIS IS THE RAINY DAY that funders and donors have been saving for, and it’s unconscionable that hundreds of billions are just sitting there while people die.

Lately, I’ve been getting more notices from colleagues distraught by their board or team saying things like “It’s a pandemic, we don’t have time to work on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Let’s get back to it when we get back to normal.” This view, that somehow equity work is like the parsley garnish to the risotto of “real work,” is pervasive. I wrote about it earlier here, mentioning a cancer organization that does not understand what race and equity have to do with cancer. This crisis has unfortunately further amplified this perspective for many people and organizations.

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Is there such a thing as too much gratitude? Yes, and it’s been harmful to our work

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An executive director colleague told me he received $1,000 from a corporation for his organization’s emergency funds to help people pay for food and rent. Of course, he thanked the representative on the phone and sent a letter. A few days later, he got an email asking whether the nonprofit would mind publicly acknowledging the corporation and its $1K gift on some combination of social media, website, and newsletter. I could hear the weariness in his voice. He and his team had been working nonstop on the front line and barely had time to breathe. “I kind of wanted to be petty and just return the money. But I can’t, because people are starving.”

If there’s one thing that’s been beaten into all of us in the sector, it is the concept of gratitude. Donors and funders should definitely be thanked, preferably throughout the year and in multiple forms: Handwritten note, phone calls, recognition events, maybe a swag mug. It should be as personal as possible so as to not seem routine. “You can never thank someone too much,” a development director colleague told me.

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