Hi everyone, you may notice that the blog looks way different. I asked my ridiculously talented friend Stacy Nguyen to make it awesome. We are still experimenting with the features and getting everything to work right, but I hope the new blog format will be easier and more fun to navigate. Please do me a favor and surf through it and leave feedback and suggestions in the comment section; just keep in mind that we nonprofit humor writers have very low self-esteem, and a mean comment may result in my hiding in the bathroom, rocking back and forth, gnawing on a piece of wheat gluten…which is also what I do on days when we have board meetings.
Thanksgiving is coming up this week, a time for us all to put aside everything, gather around friends and family, and reflect on all the things for which we are—OMG, a laptop/tablet with 13.3-inch touchscreen, 4GB DDR3 memory, and 128GB Solid state drive for only 500 bucks at Best Buy if you are one of the first people into the store on Black Friday!!! Hells yeah, I’m totally packing a cattle prod and some empty Snapple bottles and camping out in front of the store on Thursday evening!
Hi everyone. For the first time in my eight years with the organization, my board has decided to conduct a performance review. These are two words that send chills up and down every Executive Director’s spine, on par with “budget deficit” and “annual event.” The board had a clandestine meeting three weeks ago to talk about my performance as an ED. Soon they will meet with me to deliver feedback.
I’m nervous. I just know they’re going to say something like, “Vu, you’ve developed a reputation as a drunkard and a loudmouth. That’s affecting VFA’s image. We need you to stop mixing drinks at work. Also, funders are saying you’ve been dressing up as Oliver Twist during site visits and literally begging for money.”
Last week I wrote about the Sustainability Question and how it is symptomatic of an ineffective funding system where funders and nonprofits are not equal partners but more like frenemies. This apparently resonated with many readers, at least 138, since that’s how many people shared it on Facebook, and only 26 of those were from me mandating staff to do it. “Yeah, Vu, high-five!” said a colleague at a meeting, and we high-fived, which was tricky, since I was holding my 5-month-old baby Viet. We are doing a nanny-share with another Executive Director, but even with the split costs, we could only afford it four days a week, so on Fridays, we two EDs tote our babies around.
The post sparked some great conversations, especially around the challenges of communication between funders and nonprofits. “I call it the Wall of Philanthrophy,” said one of my ED friends. She painted the image of a physical wall between funders and nonprofits. “There is a tiny window in the wall, and every once a while it opens just a little bit, and maybe there is an exchange of ideas, but then it quickly closes, and it’s solid wall again.”
This reminds me of the Wall in the Game of Thrones. It is 700 feet tall, 300-mile-long wall made of solid ice to keep out the Wildlings, people who are regarded as primitive, cruel savages who have poor hygiene. The Wildlings live North of the Wall, a barren, desolate, cutthroat, and eternally wintery landscape that has very few good restaurants. Every once a while they try to cross the Wall and get South into the warm Seven Kingdoms, which are more civilized and you can go to the bathroom for more than two minutes without fear of frostbites and gangrene. While a Wildling or two sneak past the Wall here and there, in a thousand years not a single assault on the guarded Wall has succeeded.
I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like nonprofit organizations and staff are like the Wildlings trying constantly to make it past the Wall. “Sound the alarms! There is a group of Wildlings at the base of the Wall, and they are chanting ‘General Operating Funds! General Operating Funds!’ Quick, prepare the hot oil!”
This Philanthropic Wall manifests itself in many ways:
After the site visit, we hardly see funders at programs and special events
Nonprofits are rarely invited to conferences and other important gatherings of funders
It takes anywhere from a week to nine years to get a hold of some funders, often when we are trying to get support for time-critical projects
Funders almost always refuse to join committees for projects initiated by nonprofits
Not a single funder accepted my invitation to 80’s-themed trivioke night, a combination of trivia and karaoke.
I don’t think I will be able to scale this wall in my lifetime, which is why I’ve been training my son Viet when I have him on Fridays, hoping that one day he will follow his father’s footsteps into nonprofit and continue the work. Instead of children’s stories, I’ve been reading strategic plans and annual reports to him. “One day, son, all funding will be general operating. I probably won’t be around to see that. Learn and grow strong and help to make that happen.”
Every once a while, though, there is a glimmer of hope. An Executive Director friend of mine said she was invited to a conference of funders to present her organization’s work. “Really?!” I said, nearly choking on a pluot, “you’re attending a conference of funders? No way!”
“Yeah,” she said, “but they made it amply clear that I am not to approach any of them to solicit funds. Actually, it was hinted that I shouldn’t talk much at all. In fact, I have to wear this scarlet N on my nametag to mark me as a Nonprofit.”
We nonprofits can understand why people feel that the distance between funders and nonprofits is necessary. After all, there are so many nonprofits, and funders should be fair and should not be playing favorites. However, the quest for objectivity and impartiality has led to an unhealthy adversarial system that has been harmful to the field. How can conferences to talk about funding structure and collective impact and other important stuff be effective when the people doing the direct service work and thus have first-hand knowledge of client and community needs are only marginally part of the conversation?
Plus, when there are insurmountable barriers to communication with funders, it just means that the nonprofits with the strongest relationships and connections make it through, finding support for their own projects. So many great ideas never get off the ground because many nonprofits leaders do not have the behind-the-scene connections with funders, and on the other hand, so many crappy ideas do get funded because someone knows someone who knows someone.
Funders have more power, and thus must take a larger share of the responsibility for perpetuating an ineffective system where we nonprofits spend much of our time trying to figure out how to survive instead of innovate. We have been at the base of the Wall chanting things like “general operating funds!” and “overhead is necessary” and “standardize your budget forms!” for a long time now, with little result.
But we nonprofits are not off the hook either. Like the Wildling tribes, we are constantly in competition for survival, which tends to happen when resources are scarce. We have to work together and support one another while simultaneously delivering common messages and proposed solutions. We can’t just keep grumbling at the base of the wall. We must unite.
We must ALL unite. In the Game of Thrones the Wall wasn’t originally built to keep out Wildlings. They were just unlucky enough to be caught on that side when the Wall was built thousands of years ago to defend against the White Walkers, who are kind of like scary-as-hell evil ice mummies who could turn dead people and animals into evil ice zombies and the army of mummies/zombies went and killed everyone, Wildlings and civilized people alike, until they were driven back to their cold, wintery home and the Wall was built to keep them there. Winter is coming, it lasts whole generations, and the White Walkers are stirring once again.
The point is, there are greater threats out there—poverty, racism, violence, loneliness, war, inequity, oppression, homophobia, injustice, unaffordable childcare, hunger, illness, death, etc., the White Walkers of our nonfictional world—and we should be working together to defeat those things, not focusing so much of our time building and maintaining walls around ourselves and each other. Funders and nonprofits must communicate better and work in partnership more effectively.
How about we start by carpooling to the next trivioke night?
Hi everyone. I just came back from Port Orchard for a friend’s wedding. A day-trip with 3-month-old infant is grueling. It was like writing a grant. A cute, drooly, moody grant who spit up all over my suit. I’m exhausted. That is to say, I don’t know how this post is going to turn out. This may not be my finest post, but I am committed to getting a new post published every Monday. Like I’ve been telling the baby, “Consistent adequacy is always better than inconsistent excellence.” And also: “Please don’t throw up on Daddy.”
A few months ago, I received a request from a staff at the City of Seattle’s Department of Critical Services (DCS)*. “Vu,” said the staff, “can you gather a whole bunch of Vietnamese people so that the Director of the Department of Critical Services can come and listen to their concerns? We’ve already pulled together mini-summits with three other ethnic groups: Spanish, Somalis, and Canadians.” (Kidding about the Canadians).
Sigh. Despite my best efforts, this seems to happen a lot in Seattle: “Let’s get a bunch of ethnic people together and listen to them. I bet they’re just standing around; they’ll love to come to a meeting and be listened to, especially if we have hummus and baby carrots.” It is very well-intentioned, and usually ineffective in the long-run. Sometimes it is just insulting, especially when the hummus is all chunky and grainy and not smooth, like high-quality hummus should be.
Summits, conferences, and other gatherings, when used right, can be powerful tools for community engagement. Kind of like a blender. You get a blender and make some awesome margaritas, and people are like “this is the best party ever.” (This may be the worst analogy ever). These gatherings can connect people around a common cause, equip them with skills and resources, and energize everyone to take action. They also look cool: “Ooh, look, 500 people attended! Snap a picture for our annual report! (Make sure you capture the diversity).”
But lately summits have become the default shortcut for everything:
We need to demonstrate to funders that we are doing stuff. Let’s have a summit!
Our strategic plan needs input from communities of color. Let’s have a bunch of mini summits!
We need a cool picture for our new brochures. Let’s have a summit!
We need to spread awareness of a critical issue. Let’s have a giant summit and get a national speaker to keynote!
I and a bunch of other people in the field are sick of summit-like meetings, especially as tools for engaging communities of color. It’s like taking a blender and trying to make an entire meal with it, blending the salad, blending the entrees, blending the dessert (I’m not giving up on this blender analogy).
Here’s why most summits suck as a tool for engagement:
They give a false sense of stuff actually getting done. Sweet, we placed sticky notes and stickers on easel papers and drew visions of an ideal community. Yay! We did stuff! (Hey, we got people to vote using sticky dots on easel paper and write their ideas on sticky notes! Yay! We did stuff!)
They give a false sense of hope and then usually lead to nothing, especially the community input gathering sessions. Time and time again, we ethnic nonprofit staff rally our communities to various listening sessions. Time and time again, little if any of our community members’ suggestions are ever implemented.
There is usually very little follow-through with relationship building. Summits are enticing because you can kill 50 to 500 or more birds with one stone. After that, though, 90% of the generated energy tapers off because there are usually no funds allocated for staff with the language and cultural skills to continue to develop the relationships.
Funds to organize summits are inequitably distributed: I’ve seen so many summits that pay consultants and event coordinators, and allocate nothing to ethnic organizations to do outreach work. So what happens? The paid consultants and/or event coordinators start calling us up to ask us to do outreach for free. It’s very annoying. We got stuff to do, like, you know, running programs and stuff.
The worst part of many summits, though, is that they supplant actual effective community engagement practices. They make people think “Yay, we engaged the communities of color, since they came to our gathering!” Then they might not bother with the one-on-one meetings. One-on-one relationships are the basic building blocks of community organizing and engagement. Absolutely nothing can replace it, and it is totally time-consuming.
Anyway, I told the staff at the Department of Critical Services bluntly that I didn’t have time to rally a bunch of VFA clients for his boss to listen to, and that I didn’t think these types of meetings would be effective anyway, consider how annoyed our community members are with the lack of follow-through from previous gatherings. What would be effective, he asked. Well:
Meet with community leaders one-on-one, on their own turf. Go yourself, don’t send your assistant. It’s a respectful thing to do, and the relationship building will pay dividends. Stop it with this “I’ll come down from the mountain once a while so that the people may rejoice in my presence” business. That’s not what you mean, but that’s what it feels like when the only time the community sees you is when you’re pushing some project.
When you meet with people, ask them to refer you to other people, and meet with those people one-on-one. It’s time-consuming, meeting with individuals, getting coffee, listening to them tell their life stories, finding out about their hopes and dreams and their worries about their kids, etc., but you cannot engage anyone until they feel like you know and understand them and vice-versa.
Be where people are. There are tons of places people are already gathered: Senior programs, churches, temples, youth groups, etc. Go down there, meet the coordinators, go multiple times, build the relationships. Attend organizations’ events.
Budget for outreach staff who can do on-the-ground relationship building year-long, and not just during summit time, along with funding for translations, interpretations, childcare, food, and transportation for community members when you have events.
Budget for funding for ethnic nonprofits to collaborate with you to do your work. If you value the outreach work these CBOs do, build it into the budget.
Do your research to ensure you’re not repeating something that another organization has done and published a report on. It’s frustrating to have to answer the same questions over and over again.
If you are going to have a summit, do all the above, and also commit your team ahead of time to actually accept and follow-through on whatever action steps are decided at the summit, if that’s the will of the community, even if you may not like them. So often the only things that get implemented are whatever aligns with the summit organizers’ preconceived agenda. Well, that’s just stupid and tokenizing and a waste of people’s time. If you’re going to get community members’ input, trust and act on their recommendations.
Funders: Fund on-going, on-the-ground relationship-building work, and fund communities-of-color-led nonprofits to do it.
Gatherings are enticing, since you can reach more people in a shorter amount of time. When it works, it can be awesome, like a Vitamix blender, which can make delicious hummus and can puree a digital camera. Lately, it’s been sucking, a lazy and superficial way of engaging communities of color. So many of the community members I interact with are so skeptical of any more “coffee chat with so-and-so important person” or “summit to discuss our concerns about the education system” that they’d just laugh in my face if I ask them to come to one more thing. I don’t want them to laugh in my face. I get plenty of that from my family for being in this line of work.
(*This is a pseudonym. There is no Department of Critical Services at the City of Seattle)
For more on community engagement, check out “Being a Nonprofit with Balls” parts 1, 2, and 3, which launched this blog and gave it its title.