Tag Archives: grantmaking

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

Time inequity: What it is and why it’s no-good, very-bad

[Image description: A black-and-white photograph of two hourglasses standing side-by-side within a black box frame overlooking an indecipherable background (it might be a city, out of focus). The hourglass on the left has white sand, and the one on the right has black sand. Both seems almost full and are trickling sand, culminating in small sand piles in their respective bottom chambers. But the black-sand hourglass seems to have less sand in the top chamber.]

People have been asking me, “Vu, how do you manage to write a blog each week while running a nonprofit and parenting a toddler and a baby, and yet still retain your youthful good looks?” The secret is simple: I don’t sleep, and also, personal hygiene and nutrition standards have been lowered. Having a second kid, especially, has sapped our time so much that we tend to eat over the sink in five-minute increments; I don’t mind, because it allows me to rinse pureed peas and quinoa from out of my hair.

I can’t blame the baby for flinging food at us though. We haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to him as we did with his brother. He just turned one, and I think half the people we know aren’t even aware that we have a second baby, so little have we mentioned him. One person seemed irritated; he cornered me one day and said, “Hey, I heard you have a new baby? Why didn’t you tell me?” I felt terrible. All I could reply was, “Sorry, Dad…” Continue reading

Why we need to stop asking “What do you do?”

[Image description: A right hand is in focus, extended toward the viewer, as if this person is offering to shake hands. The person is out of focus, but appears to be wearing a grey button-down shirt with a black blazer. The composition is focused on the hand and torso, so we don’t see the person’s head.]

A while ago, while I was seeking input for a post on how we can all be more disability-inclusive, a colleague mentioned that we should drop the get-to-know-you question “What do you do?” because people with disabilities face significant employment discrimination, and this question is often a painful reminder of that. Another colleague of mine who is brilliant and talented and hilarious and wheelchair-enabled told me she spent seven years searching before someone hired her. I can imagine all the times during those seven years when people asked her “What do you do?” and how she must have felt. This has made me think of the “to-do” culture that we have and how it’s been affecting our work.

I learned a few years ago, through my participation in the German Marshall Memorial Fellowship, that the US has a default “To-Do” culture. The first thing we ask someone we meet is about what they do. Actions, in our culture, define us. For other cultures, though, are more of a “To-Be” culture, and you are defined less from what you do, and more from who you are:  Your relationships, your family history, your beliefs, your passions, your haircuts, etc. Continue reading