Foundations, stop playing the reckless game of Funding-Chicken

[Image description: A chicken with reddish feathers an a yellow beak, starting directly at the camera, looking very quizzical. Image by Hannah Oliver on Unsplash.com]

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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It’s time to expand our perspectives and conversations in fundraising

[Image description: Two hands, outstretched, holding a baseball-sized ball made of US money, including a $100-bill. This is the first image that came up when I typed in “fundraising.” Image by HeatherPague on Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, a couple of quick announcements. Thank you to the 1400+ colleagues who attended last week’s webinar “What’s Broken in the Foundation and Donor Landscape?” put on by CalNonprofits, Community-Centric Fundraising, Nonprofit AF, Institute for Policy Studies, and Inequality.org. We discussed wealth hoarding, tax avoidance, and the problems with Donor-Advised Funds. You can see the full video here.

Next week, 10/5 at 11am PT, we have the second part of the series, focused on solutions, including potential policy changes. Speakers include Farhad Ebrahimi, Founder and President of the Chorus Foundation; Ellen Dorsey, Executive Director of Wallace Global Fund; Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland). The legendary Jan Masaoka of CalNonprofits will be the moderator. It will be good! Register here.

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Over the past few weeks, it’s been nice to see the Community-Centric Fundraising movement growing. The Slack channel has been increasing in numbers, along with the Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram (I am not sure what Tik Tok is, but I think we have that too).

What I am especially thankful for is the content Hub on the CCF website, which produces new thought-provoking articles, podcasts, and videos each week, curated by colleague Stacy Nguyen. Last week, I read “8 ways to make fundraising more accessible for people with disabilities” by Elizabeth Ralston. One of the tips was “Include a physical description when you first introduce yourself […] this can really help a person with low vision have an image of who is speaking and in turn make them feel included as part of the festivities.” This was something I had never considered before. Thanks to what I learned, I have started describing myself in virtual events: “Mid-age Asian man with short unkempt black hair, thick black glasses, wearing a blue button-down shirt, and surrounded by a pervasive aura of vegan sexiness.”

We need to be honest with ourselves (and no, not about the pervasive aura of vegan sexiness). The conversations we’ve been having in the field of fundraising need to change. They are dominated by topics along the lines of how to retain donors, show more gratitude, increase planned giving, write better grants, which CRM is the best, etc. Often these can be boiled down to the overarching topic of “Tactics to help you raise more money for your organization.”

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“There Can Only Be One” Syndrome and how people of color can also uphold white supremacy and injustice

[Image description: Silhouette of a person standing on a mountain top in maybe a martial arts pose, arms and legs both outstretched. It looks like sunset or sunrise, as rays of sunlight are streaming down, illuminating the clouds and more mountains in the background. This is as close to an image of Highlander the TV show and movie that I could get without being sued. Image by Mohamed Hassan on Pixabay.com]
[Update: After this post’s publication, colleagues pointed out that the term “Highlander Syndrome” is confusing and may negatively affect the work of the amazing Highlander Research and Education Center, so I am temporarily renaming it to “There Can Only Be One” Syndrome, OBO Syndrome for short. Apologies to the Highlander Center, but also it gave me a chance to hear about your incredible work!].

Hi everyone, a couple of announcements before we tackle this week’s topic. Please check out this critical SSIR article written by the team at RVC and me about Transformational Capacity Building. The way our sector has been doing capacity building has been grounded in white philosophies and practices. Thus it has not been working effectively for communities-of-color-led organizations. It is time for a new model and set of practices. The article is long, because we go into details and provide lots of examples, but check it out, because it’s awesome as hell.

Also, Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) is now on Slack. We need a way for folks to begin connecting with one another to discuss how to make fundraising more equitable, form local CCF groups, and share successes and failures as we experiment and iterate. Slack was voted as the top preference at the CCF meeting last week. I honestly have little experience using it (*cough* I was rooting for Myspace, but was outnumbered by younger people). I’m going to learn. CCF is a movement; we’re going to learn stuff together! Anyway, join, it’ll be fun! (Slack does not preclude other platforms from being used in the future; it’s just a start)

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After the kids went to sleep one day, my partner and I put up “Ugly Delicious,” a show where celebrity chef David Chang explores different types of food and talks to various chefs and restaurant owners. In one episode, he explores Viet-Cajun, the combination of Vietnamese and Cajun. It was great, until he interviewed a Vietnamese shrimp fisherman whose family came over decades ago, who worked hard, overcame racism (including the KKK attacking shrimping boats), and became successful. When Chef Chang asked his opinion on more recent immigrants and whether he could empathize with them, the dude said something along the lines of “Well, we worked hard, but a lot of immigrants these days just want handouts.”

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25 proverbs, rewritten for nonprofit and philanthropy

[Image description: An adorable baby horse, light brown with a streak of white on the face. This foal is outside, with a field of grass in the blurry background. Look at their fluffy mane. Aw, now I want a pony. Image by Blaer of Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, quick announcement: If you are interested in forming a community-centric fundraising local affinity group in your area, please register to join me and some other folks this Thursday, 8/20 at 12pm PT. Meanwhile, check out some new content on the CCF Hub, including “Reparations: How we white relatives must try to pay back the unpayable debt” by Hilary Giovale, “Nonprofit Industrial Complex 101: a primer on how it upholds inequity and flattens resistance” by Sidra Morgan-Montoya, “Why I decided to give up complicity in order to be an anti-racist volunteer manager” by Laura Pilati, and more.

We’ve had a string of serious posts here on Nonprofit AF. This week we’ll mix it up a bit. Proverbs! As a wise man once said: “Proverbs are the roux that binds the gravy of existence.” Or something. I totally made that up. Anyway, here are a bunch of famous proverbs that have been re-written to be more applicable to our sector. Feel free to add your own in the comment section, and on twitter using #NonprofitProverbs.

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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.

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