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

[Image description: A bee feeding at a pink clover flower. Image by HG-Fotographie at Pixabay.com]

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.

Continue reading “Toxic intellectualization: How progressives’ addiction to overthinking is sabotaging our work”

10 archaic and harmful funding practices we can no longer put up with

[Image description: A ring-tailed lemur, staring directly at the camera, looking very annoyed. Normally, these pictures have little to do with the content of the post, but in this case, this is how I look when I hear about inane, harmful funding practices, like the RFP that requires 20 paper copies to be hand-delivered, during a global quarantine…for $3500! No. Just no. Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. I hope you are hanging in there. I’ve heard from so many colleagues of the devastating impact that COVID has had on organizations and people. Here are a few quotes from across the sector:

“My agency that serves people with disabilities is closed, except for essential staff. The other approximately 90 staff have been furloughed without pay or laid off.”

“I work at a food bank that serves people living with HIV and other serious illnesses, the majority of them are seniors. Demand is at an all-time high as clients are losing work or family/caregiving support. Our program is mostly run by volunteers, and we have lost hundreds of hours per week of volunteer support. We had to cancel three fundraising events and dozens of food drives, which would have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in food and cash. So basically demand is increasing sharply while funding and volunteer support is decreasing even more sharply. Many staff are immunocompromised and/or caring for children without childcare while trying to keep the place running.”

Continue reading “10 archaic and harmful funding practices we can no longer put up with”

OMG, can we please stop saying “there’s only so much funding to go around”?!

Hi everyone. I just finished reading Edgar Villanueva’s important and illuminating book, Decolonizing Wealth. It highlights something we actively avoid talking about: the history of philanthropic dollars, which is rooted in the colonization of Native land, slavery, and other abuse of and extraction from communities of color. The book also presents a hopeful path forward. I highly recommend it, and will be discussing it more in depth in one or more future posts, so please check it out.

[Image description: An adorable little brown weasel with a white underbelly. It’s crawling out from under what looks like a wooden porch. This weasel has nothing to do with this post. And jokes about its resemblance to the author are not appreciated. I probably should have used a squirrel. Pixabay.com]
I’m slightly grumpy right now due to the news, and also my two beautiful small children who threw tantrums this evening over something ridiculous. The five-year-old because he had to trace all of four words for his kindergarten homework, something he literally could have done in 30 seconds if he hadn’t spent 30 minutes crying about how much work it was; the two-year-old because his banana had a single bruise spot on it. So keep this in mind as you read. The ornery tone of this post, it’s not you. It’s me. But it’s also possibly you.

A few weeks ago, I gave a keynote, and during the Q&A, someone got up to ask a question:

“I really appreciate how you are trying to move us away from scarcity and martyrdom, but…”—I knew what was coming next— “how do we do that when there’s only so much funding to go around?”

Well slather me in hummus and call me Randall, there’s only so much funding to go around?! Continue reading “OMG, can we please stop saying “there’s only so much funding to go around”?!”

Philanthropy and the Destructive Illusion of “Leveling the Playing Field”

[Image description: Closeup of a person kneeling on a race track, as if in preparation to run in a race. They are wearing shorts and holding a baton. Image from Pixabay.com]
A few months ago a program officer and I were talking about the lack of funding that goes to communities-of-color-led nonprofits (only about 10% of philanthropic dollars go to organizations of color). He shook his head in sympathy and frustration, sipping on his coffee. “There has to be a way to level the playing field,” he said. This was probably the third time that quarter I had heard that phrase uttered by a funder. 

This concept of “Leveling the Playing Field” is very present in our sector in our society, like cats or skinny jeans, and we don’t really question it at all. We assume that it is a good thing. If we just make it so that competitions are “fair,” then the people/groups with the most merit, the best ideas and proposals, will win. If we can just make the field more even, then everyone will be able to play the game and everything is good. 

This philosophy has led some thoughtful funders to accept applications in Spanish or other languages, accept handwritten applications, or accept non-written formats such as videos or photos (Although, how effective is this last one when my one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Capacity Building, has never resulted in funding?). 

Those practices are great, but can they level the playing field? Can the funding field ever be “level”? Continue reading “Philanthropy and the Destructive Illusion of “Leveling the Playing Field””

Can we agree on this simple definition of Equity?

[Image description: An open silver briefcase with stacks of 100-dollar bills held together with rubber bands. Strewn around the briefcase are loose bills. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]
In a previous article, I mentioned that equity has been like coconut water. It’s all over the place. It’s flavored with pineapple, sometimes with chocolate. Everyone is drinking Equity; it’s on websites, in conference themes, and in those “word-cloud” thingies. Given how pervasive it is, it’s weird that we don’t seem to have a common, universally-accepted definition for it. As this article states “Very few foundations had a clear definition of what equity meant to them internally, and absolutely no one saw any common definition emerging from the field anytime soon.” So, after thinking about it for a while and talking to other leaders, here’s my take on it, at least in the nonprofit/philanthropic sense:

“Equity is about ensuring the communities most affected by injustice get the most money to lead in the fight to address that injustice, and if that means we break the rules to make that happen, then that’s what we do.”

Some of you are probably thinking, “Money? That’s your definition? That’s simplistic AF. Maybe you should stick to writing nonprofit jokes.” Yes. It’s money. Equity is about money and whether that money is going to the people most screwed over by our society. All of us need to stop avoiding this basic premise. Continue reading “Can we agree on this simple definition of Equity?”