Answers on grant proposals if nonprofits were brutally honest, part 2

[Image description: An adorable red panda, staring directly at the camera with its piercing, soulful eyes. It looks like a raccoon This red panda has nothing to do with the content of this post, but every post can be made better by inserting a picture of a red panda. Image by Marcel Langthim of]

Hi everyone. It’s been a rough few weeks, but I’m starting to feel hopeful again. Before we begin this week’s not-serious-at-all post, thank you to all the monthly patrons of this blog on Patreon. We are more than halfway to our goal of 250 patrons. Once we reach that, I’ll eliminate all the random ads from this blog (The ads on the side will remain). Also, I’m working on recording blog posts for patrons so you can listen to them while running or cooking or something, but it’s been rough, because hearing my own voice creeps me out. I’ll work on it.

Meanwhile, please go on and write anonymous reviews of foundations you’ve interacted with, or if you are a funder, encourage your grantees to do so. It’s like a Yelp for foundations, and the more we use it, the better and more useful it becomes.

A few months ago, I wrote “Answers on grants proposals if nonprofits were brutally honest with funders.” Well, that was just Part 1. Here is Part 2. Thank you to nonprofit colleagues, who will remain nameless, for helping inspire these questions and responses.  Continue reading “Answers on grant proposals if nonprofits were brutally honest, part 2”

12 steps for writing a kick-ass blog post

monkey-blogHi everyone, and valar dohaeris to all the Game of Thrones fans. A few people have been asking me, “Vu, what’s your process for writing your blog posts each week?” So today, we’re going to take a break from normal nonprofit topics, and I’m going to meta-blog, which is to blog about blogging—which is nearly as fun as meta-drinking, which is drinking about drinking (It makes more sense if you have a few drinks).

But first, why should you blog? Blogging may seem archaic to younger people, with your “Snapchat” and your “Instagram” and your “Myspace,” but blogs are totally awesome when they don’t suck. If you or your organization aspire to be a “thought leader,” a consistently-updated blog is a must. With society’s short attention span and constant barrage of information, having a platform you control to deliver your opinions is critical, and social media are great for sharing content, not hosting it.

To have a killer blog, though, you need these three things: One, topics people actually care about and that you actually know enough stuff about to actually write. Two, consistency (I always post every single Monday, come rain or shine, or stomach flu, except holidays, and that’s mainly because people are off work so no one will be reading); for blogging, I would argue that quantity/consistency is more important than quality. And three, blood, sweat, tears, your soul, and the occasional anguished silent scream on your balcony at 2 or 3am. Continue reading “12 steps for writing a kick-ass blog post”

7 challenges inspired by the Icebucket Challenge

Ice Bucket ChallengeUp until now, I’ve managed to avoid talking about the Icebucket Challenge. First, because I don’t have a personal Facebook page and thus have been spared videos of friends and celebrities pouring freezing cold water over their heads to raise awareness and funds for ALS.

Second, I’ve been very jealous at the humbling success of this viral campaign. Over 100 million raised?! Can you imagine what most nonprofits could do with $100,000,000? Five words: Unlimited. Breadsticks. During. Committee. Meetings.

Honestly, I’m not really sure how I feel about it all. On one hand, it’s inspiring that so many people—people of all races and classes, kids and adults, celebrities and the unwashed masses—are participating in addressing a terrible and incurable disease. It’s great that an important message is able to cut through the noises and get some needed attention. Continue reading “7 challenges inspired by the Icebucket Challenge”

Letter to my newborn son, in case I die early

Hi everyone. I have been thinking of my son and what would happen if for some reason I die early. I don’t plan to, but who the heck knows what Fate has in store. Having a kid, and running a nonprofit, makes you think about your own mortality a lot. So I wrote him a letter. I am posting it here so that it doesn’t get lost. If Fate doesn’t want me around, please make sure the baby gets this some time.

Moon-fullDear Son,

By the time you read this letter, I am probably no longer around, and you’ll probably have a hover board and a flying car. That would be awesome. No, not the part where I’m no longer around, but the part about the hover board. If time machines have been invented, please bring me back a hover board.

Your mother and I have had you for two months now. I still remember when we were waiting for you to arrive, anxious to meet you. One day you had the hiccups, and I rested my hand on your mom’s stomach and could feel you jolting every few seconds. Despite all the ultrasound pictures we had of you, you had always seemed distant to me, like a baby unicorn, cute but mythical. But with every jolt of your tiny body, it became clearer and clearer to me that you were real, and that you would be here soon, and that I would get to hold you and sing to you and watch you grow, and maybe use you as an excuse to avoid many, many evening meetings in my nonprofit work.

The past two months have been more difficult and wonderful than I could imagine. I stare at your hands and feet and can’t believe how tiny they are. We have been sleep deprived and exhausted and smelling like spit-up and hand sanitizer, but there are moments—when you smile or talk or fall asleep on our chest or shoulders—when your mother and I just stare at you and selfishly wish for you to remain this small forever. The other day, when you were soundly sleeping, you started laughing, and I wondered what you were dreaming about.

You’ve been appearing in my dreams a lot, probably because I’m thinking about you all the time now. You were about one, and I was holding you, and you got distracted and started squiggling around and tried to climb down the bed. You were too small and the bed was too high and you were afraid to let yourself drop the four terrifying inches down to the floor. You looked up at me with your big liquid eyes, and at that moment, like any good father would, I ignored your plight and frantically tried to find my phone to take a picture of you.

Not all the dreams are as happy. Recently I dreamt I had a terminal illness and only a week left to live. I was sad, one because I would not get to continue watching Game of Thrones, a great television series that I hope you will get to enjoy when you’re old enough, like 30. And two, because I would only have a week left to get to know you. In my dream, I sat down and started to write a letter to you listing out some important life lessons I wanted to teach you, hoping that you would read it one day and know that your father thought of you and loved you more than Game of Thrones, more than the Walking Dead or Arrested Development, more than his own heartbeats, which he needs to watch his favorite shows. Yes, your father sometimes refers to himself in the third person; all fathers must refer to themselves in the third person when they’re writing these types of letters to their children. You’ll understand one day when you have your own little ones.

I woke up from that terrible dream and was happy that I had more than one week left to live. But then I thought of how ephemeral life is. Any of us can go at any time. I should write you a letter any way, just in case. This is supposed to be a private letter to you, and that’s why it’s so long, but your mother and I have poor record-keeping skills, so I am hoping one of my friends on my blog will be able to pass this on to you should anything happen to me.

My son, these below are the lessons that I want to pass down to you. These lessons are not original. I’ve learned them from many people, especially in my work in nonprofit, which has some of the coolest people ever, in case you ever decide to go into this field. Through experience and sometimes painful failures, I have found them to be helpful to live by. Depending on when you read this letter, they may not even apply to you at all. I hope you will read this from time to time, and maybe it may make better sense at different points in your life. Read once a while and let these principles guide you to a long and meaningful life that I wish for you:

Never judge anyone for anything ever. Unless you are in the same context, with the same upbringing, the same genes, the same brain structure, unless every atom of your existence is the same as theirs, you have no basis to judge most people. Try not to judge anyone. Even people who create stupid commercials, like those Subway commercials with the annoying adults with kids’ voices, what the hell were they thinking? Also, people who don’t know how to correctly use “literally.” They say ridiculous things like “that meeting literally made my head explode.” It’s easy to judge them, but try not to, since it doesn’t make you any happier in the long run.

Always assume the best intentions in people. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Some people will prove to be unpleasant to deal with and you will encounter many, many people that you will just want to punch in the mouth, but most people are good, and we all have bad days. Don’t burden yourself too much being angry at people and thinking they intentionally mean to hurt you. Most people are also just trying to make it through the day, to get home to their family and a cold drink and their favorite TV show, so if they cut you off in traffic or bumped into you on the sidewalk, they probably didn’t mean it.

Find beauty and humor in the world around you. Sure, it’s really crappy sometimes, with bad things happening to good people all the time. But like Don Quixote said, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams, this may be madness…Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.” This is one of your father’s favorite quotes, and I hope that you will always try to see life as it should be.

Never think you are above anyone. No matter how successful you are, a major part of your success is the context of your existence. You are born to us, including a very cool dad, in this country, and we are lucky to have so many rights and privileges, but you could have been born elsewhere under different circumstances, and your fate may have been completely different. Be thankful, and never look down on anyone.

Never think that you are beneath anyone. By the same measure, never think that you are beneath anyone. It is normal for you to go through a period where you see others being more successful than you, and you may feel like crap when you compare yourself to them, especially when your family is all like “why aren’t YOU a successful real estate investor like your brother or a doctor like that Nguyen kid?” Use others’ success to motivate you, but again, everyone’s circumstances are different, so comparisons are often meaningless. Be thankful, work hard for what you believe in, and don’t waste time with self-pity.

It is not talent or genius that leads to success, but hard work and perseverance. 95% of the time, those who have C+ talents but A+ perseverance will always be more successful than those who have A+ talents but C+ perseverance. Pursue your dreams, pursue them hard. You will face countless rejection and failure and naysayers who naysay things like “Vu, a teeth lacquer-tattoo business is a bad idea,” but keep trying, because the road to success is littered with geniuses who give up.

Follow your life’s passion, but give back to your community. While you pursue your dreams, don’t forget that you belong to a community, a society. You will never achieve happiness, even if you achieve your dreams, unless you contribute back to the world in some way. Volunteer. Donate. Join a nonprofit board. Help your friends when they’re moving.

Always keep your word. Few things build respect as quickly and consistently as when you do what you say you’ll do. Not just for the big stuff, but also for the small things, like when you say, “I’ll send you that recipe” or “we should get coffee, I’ll email you to arrange a time” or “I’ll drop by your office with Season 6 of Burn Notice.” We have too many let’s-get-coffee’s that never lead anywhere. Your word is your promise. Never promise anything that you do not plan to follow up on.

Acknowledge people. Everyone has an important story that you can learn from. Try to learn people’s names and their hopes and dreams. You may forget, and that’s understandable, but try to really “see” the people around you: your family, friends, co-workers, teachers, bosses, but also your mail carrier, neighbors, waiters, grocery baggers, bus drivers, etc. Be genuine and present when you talk to anyone, no matter if you will encounter them again in your life or not.

Don’t be restricted by labels: The world is complicated, and we are tempted to categorize ourselves and others: Democrats, Republicans; Male, Female; Gay, Straight; Orange juice with pulp, orange juice without pulp. But the world and you are much more complex and interesting than that. Try not to label others, and apply labels to yourself only if you find them helpful. Otherwise, explore the awesomeness of life and existence and do what makes your life meaningful, as long as you don’t hurt others.

Never be too certain of anything: Life is full of uncertainty, and reality is weird and unpredictable, and that’s what makes it both terrifying and interesting. If you become too certain of anything, you may close yourself to the possibilities that may exist. Keep an open mind; listen to others’ perspectives. Otherwise you become that annoying know-it-all that no one really wants to hang out with.

The right things to do are usually the hardest: For example, getting up to go to work, apologizing to someone you wronged, calling up your parents and asking how they are when you just want to go partying with your friends in college, not taking that fifth glass of red wine at an annual fundraising dinner. Try to always stand up for what you believe in, and always do the right thing, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if people dislike you, even if they think you’re an idiot. It is always better to be an idiot who did the right thing.

One person can make a difference: Never listen to anyone who tries to convince you that the things that you are trying to do is too big and that you are just one person. It always starts with one person, who through courage and perseverance inspires another person, who inspires another, and so on. That is the only way things happen. Always do the right thing, even if you are the only person doing it.

You can get a lot of things done if you don’t mind who takes the credit: I know very few people whose life goal is “to get a lot of credit for doing something.” The people you should get to know are those whose goals are to achieve something, to change the world for the better somehow. The argument over who gets the credit can oftentimes be distracting or even destructive. Fame and approval should be a bonus, or the tools for achieving your goal, not the goal itself. This can be a hard lesson to absorb, but I’ve learned it works well when everyone buys into it…Of course, there’s a limit to this, so if anyone continually steals your credit and it distracts you from your goal, don’t hesitate to kick ass.

Never forget your family and heritage. Our family has gone through a lot—several wars, countless heartbreaks. Your paternal grandfather was sent to reeducation camp. Your paternal grandmother pedaled her bicycle for 30 miles each day to sell grains and feed your aunts and uncles and me. I’m sorry that you never got to meet her, as she would have loved you more than you can know. They, and your mother’s side of the family, have gone through things that you and I can only imagine. These things, and our families’ tireless perseverance, led to me and to your mother and to you. For whatever reason, you are born to us. Learn where you come from, and as much as you can keep and pass down your heritage. You will go through some times when you are frustrated at your family. It’s OK. You can love people, and not like them from time to time. But just remember that no one loves you more than your family.

Be generous with yourself and others. You will make mistakes, and so will others. Your father has broken many of these rules that he has written down here in this letter to you, and likely he will do so again in the future. He has screwed up lots of times. You will also screw up from time to time. Learn from your mistakes, and forgive yourself. Try your best to be a good person. Don’t expect perfection in yourself or others.

Appreciate the little things, the small moments, in life. Finally, the last lesson I want to make sure to pass down to you, is also one of the most important: Don’t take the details for granted. The little things, that’s what life is made of. I was visiting Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee)’s grave, and this was carved on it:

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” (Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky)

I have known of this lesson, but only in the last couple of months having held you and gotten to know you and getting spit up on by you, that I really understood it. I have learned this lesson from you. I have learned that time does not stand still. I start thinking of how many more times I will get to hold you and read to you and swaddle you and rock you to sleep on my shoulder and place you gently down in the baby swing. Soon you will be walking and talking and going to kindergarten and getting your first job and going to high school and entering college and experiencing your first heartbreak, hopefully in that order.

I am writing this to you on my first Father’s Day, and you are only two months old, but if you are reading this, then you are already much older. We may have already gotten into arguments about how dangerous hover boards are. You may have already run away from home once or twice and stowed-away on a shuttle to the moon colony or something. You may already have been embarrassed multiple times by your dad showing up in his beat-up hydro-powered car to pick you up from your underground school, spouting some stuff about social justice and cultural competency.

I do not know how many more Father’s Days we will have together. If Fate is kind, it will give us our afternoons, and the twenty or so times where we can watch the full moon rise. I would like that very much. And hopefully I will be there when you have your first little one. If Fate is not so kind, if my life is cut short for any reason, I want you to know that your father has had a good life so far, made much more complete now that he has held you and listened to you laugh in your sleep, and that he loves you more than he ever thought he could love anything.


How Nonprofit With Balls got its name; it’s more complicated than you think


balls 2Recently, a new nonprofit came to meet me at the VFA office, which I appreciated, since I’m a very busy person, and meeting at my office allows me to watch a second episode of “The Daily Show” on This particular advocacy organization was trying to advance education in Seattle, and they wanted to see about collaborating with VFA. “Luke” came on time and was very friendly.

“Two separate people mentioned you, Vu, as someone we should talk to,” he said, beaming. He went on to present his concept, which was not altogether a horrible idea for advancing education. But I had this sinking feeling in my stomach. He was going to ask VFA to pull together a focus group.

“We’re trying to really engage communities of color, so we’re hoping you would do a focus group of 15 or 20 people for us to listen to.”

Every week, VFA gets some sort of request to rally our community members: “Vu, the seawall is breaking! Can you recruit several immigrants and refugees to give input?” The following week: “Vu, the combined sewers are overflowing! We want to get the Vietnamese community’s thoughts!” It is rarely anything fun: “Vu, a delegation is going to Hawaii to study the effects of hula and mild inebriation on nonprofit executives’ burnout rates, and we’d like you to come.”

“To be frank,” I said, “we are at capacity. We have only three full-time staff here at VFA running several programs and projects. I’m afraid that unless there are resources provided, I cannot ask my team to tackle any additional responsibilities.”

Luke looked perplexed and started talking about the importance of the effort he is trying to advance. I told him that if he wants effective collaborations, he should go to his funders and advocate for a more equitable financial support of organizations that are out there on the ground doing direct work so that we can have more capacity for advocacy. He became irritated and extremely defensive.

“So basically,” he said, “you want me to go back to my funders and say ‘Vu won’t play ball unless we give him money.’ I can’t do that.”

Luke must be new to Seattle. In a city known for process and indirectness, it was rather refreshing to hear him talk so bluntly. It had a certain symphony, like a wrench thrown into a blender.

“Play ball? Listen, we small ethnic nonprofits are knee-deep in balls! We have balls flying at us from every corner, from the City, from the County, from the School District, from organizations like yours. Usually without any funding to support our operations. We can’t juggle your balls for you!”

Kidding, I would never say that; at least, not while sober. What I said was, “The traditional ways of engaging communities of colors do not work. If you want to rally a few people to ‘listen’ to, then I am sure you can succeed in the short term. If you want long-term impact, I am telling you that you and others will need to shift your traditional way of doing and funding things. You can either hire a multicultural team of outreach staff, or you will need to work with cultural organizations; either way or preferably both, it will take resources because it takes much more effort to reach communities of color.”

He was visibly annoyed. “I am not looking for a handout, Vu,” he said, “you know what, if you just write down how much it’ll cost to pay for a few hours of someone’s time to call up people and how much facilities and food and other expenses will be, we’ll figure out a way to pay for them.”

I told him I didn’t have time to sit down and figure out his budget for him. And that even when there are resources, sometimes we have to turn down great projects because they do not align with our strategic plan.

“That really saddens me,” he responded, “and when this effort is huge and successful, and the Vietnamese community’s voice is missing, we’ll both understand why.”

I smiled. There was no point arguing further with him.

“All right,” he said, “how about this? We get lunch, you and I, and you bring just one Vietnamese client. Just one. You know what they say, the journey of ten thousand steps begins with one step, so can you do that? Just one client.”

“Luke,” I said—

“Just one!”

“Do you know what it takes to coordinate even something as simple as that? First I have to figure out which clients I know, then I have to call up four or five of them to see if any are interested. If one is interested, I have to find a slot that works with your schedule, my schedule, and this other person’s schedule. Also, I’d be more than glad to have lunch with you, but I am 90% certain that a client will not join, because they work during the day.”

Our time was up. I started feeling a pang of guilt. Perhaps I was a little too harsh. “Listen,” I said, “I want to be sure there is no misunderstanding between us—”

“Oh, there’s not,” he said, smirking, “I heard you loud and clear.”

“I don’t BS,” I said, staring him in the eye, “if you want real community engagement, help change the traditional way of doing things.”

I walked him out and sat down at my computer to write my follow-up thank-you email. Was I out of line? Was I taking out some sort of unconscious frustration on Luke? I don’t doubt his or his organization’s intentions. Perhaps he just came at a bad time. Every month, we get a dozen similar requests, usually from well-meaning and well-funded organizations. My staff work ridiculous hours managing programs and several capacity building and other projects. I’ve never worked with a more dedicated team. Is it unreasonable then for me to feel protective and to get annoyed at people like Luke, who seem to think we ethnic nonprofits have unlimited time and that we are selfish when we refuse to “collaborate” and “play ball” with mainstream organizations vastly better funded than we are?

Luke responded back, and we are having lunch in a couple of weeks. I’ll keep you updated. [Read Part 2, my lunch with Luke]

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