Hi everyone. This week is Thanksgiving in the US, a holiday revolving around food and spending time with the people closest to us, the people we love despite their continuing to have no understanding of what we do. It’s capacity building, Dad, holistic organizational capacity building combined with equitable leadership development, I’ve told you a hundred times, gaw!
Thanksgiving is coming up this week, and all of us in the US will likely be reflecting on things for which we are each thankful. That’s great. Gratitude has been scientifically proven to lead to all sorts of benefits, from reducing stress, to improving sleep, to making people around us less likely to poison our hummus.
Hi everyone. It is Thanksgiving in the US this week, a time for us all to slow down, stuff our faces with food, and try to avoid getting into drunken arguments with our older brother, who is a successful real estate investor who is always like “blah blah I’m so successful, when are you going to find a real job, derp derpity derp you ridiculous hippie with your Tofurky blah blah derp derp get a haircut.”
OK, he doesn’t ever say that, but I know he’s thinking it.
It is also a time for us to reflect on the things for which we are grateful. It has been a rough year in the US and the world, and it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We have our work cut out for us. But I want to just take a moment today to express my gratitude to our sector and everyone in it. Here are some things I am thankful for, in no particular order:
We have kind and brilliant people: Nonprofit work is difficult AF, with the overhead BS and the clueless public looking down on us, among hundreds of challenges. It takes a certain type of badass to do it. That’s you. You’re an amazing unicorn who brings balance to the world. You’re a Jedi unicorn, and I’m so glad you exist. This work, as hard as it is, is also fun. That’s because many of you, in addition to being kind and smart, are also hilarious! I love our sector because we have the best people ever.
We provide jobs and strengthen the economy: We are the third largest sector, we employ ten percent of the workforce, and we contribute 900 billion to the economy every year. (Here’s more data). Millions of jobs are created, and as many families are supported by these jobs, because of our sector. I know we have a lot of things we need to improve on (cough, stop asking for salary history, cough), but I am thankful every day that I get to do this for a living, that I get to do what I love while being able to support my family.
We handle stuff no one wants to do: So much of our work is because our government fails to do its job. Sometimes I daydream about a society where people would look out for one another, maybe paying more taxes so that the entire community would benefit. And then we nonprofits would be put out of business, and some of us would be able to pursue our dreams of opening a vegan food truck or something. Unfortunately, that is not yet the world we live in. So I am grateful for our sector coming in and filling out the gaps in society that leave so many of our neighbors behind.
We restore and build community: My family came over to the US when I was 8. We lost many things. The worst part though—besides getting haircuts from our dad because we were poor—was that our community was gone. I remember how lonely those first few years were. Many nonprofits stepped in to help my family. We got food and warm clothing and cooking utensils. But we also started regaining the feeling of belonging to a community that cared about us. With so many forces out there trying to tear families apart, I am deeply grateful for nonprofits and the work you all do to build and restore community.
We amplify voices that may not always be heard: Being a kid for whom English is a second language, I remember what it was like to not have a voice, to be taunted for being different and made to feel unwanted. You always feel like you live in the shadows, and eventually you might start to believe that you belong there. So many of you work hard to lift up the voices of people who may feel like they don’t matter or that society does not want them. We are not perfect at this, but we try. I am thankful every day for those who try.
We stand defiantly against injustice: This past year I’ve been so inspired by advocacy organizations and activists who stand firm against injustice. While people are getting deported and torches are lit in hateful marches, so many in our sector have been mobilizing to challenge bigotry and hatred in all its forms. You educate, you change laws, you protect people. Sometimes it feels like it is too much, like the tides are too strong. I am thankful for all of you who say “Screw the tides!” and jump in the water.
We bring hope: Since last Thanksgiving, many communities have been short on hope. It’s hard to have hope when you live in fear like so many of our neighbors have to do each day. The generalized anxiety has been pervasive. During these times, what has lifted me and so many others is knowing that good people like you are out there. I know that hope, like community, is not an outcome many of us put on our logic models or theory of change, but this is one of the most important things we do as a sector.
I wrote a while ago that nonprofits are like air, and for-profits are like food. Everyone can see food, take pictures of it, call themselves “foodies.” Even though air is all around us, no one acknowledges it unless for some reason it is not there. No one calls themselves an “airie.” We nonprofits are often not seen or appreciated until our services are needed.
This week, I hope that while you take time to be thankful for all your blessings, you also take a moment to feel appreciated for the work that you do every day, even if your family has no idea what you do or even looks down on your work, even if you rarely hear thank you from the people you serve, even if you will never see the difference you may be making. You strengthen the economy, lift up families, restore hope and community, amplify voices, and make our world better. You’re a badass Jedi unicorn, and I appreciate you. Please try to get some rest this week.
Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NAF by scrolling to the top right of this page (maybe scroll down a little) and enter in your email address (If you’re on the phone, it may be at the bottom). Also, join the NAF Facebook community for daily hilarity.
Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.
Donate, or give agrant, to Vu’s organization, Rainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.
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!
Last week I received a severe drubbing from a program officer for unintentionally breaching protocols with her foundation while seeking funding for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which I chair. I’ll explain the whole thing later in my book “Unicorns, Equity, and General Operating Funds: Quest of the Nonprofit Warriors.” (It’s a working title). Suffice to say, I apologized profusely and left the lunch meeting feeling very much like crap.
On the way back to the office, I walked by Panha, an elderly Cambodian woman who sells fish and vegetables on the sidewalk. Seven days a week she is out under a makeshift tarp awning, sitting on a short stool, her eyes framed by crows’ feet and greying hair. “Yellow mushrooms yet?” I asked. She shook her head. “Not yet!” For the past several weeks I have been waiting for the chanterelle mushrooms that Panha’s friend harvests for her to sell. Despite the heavy rain, still no signs of them. “You buy leaf?” she asked. Panha speaks broken English and does not know the vocabulary for many of the vegetables laid out in front of her. All the greens—kale, collards, bok choy—are “leaf” to her. She pointed at some greens that I did not recognize. “What can I do with them?” I asked, knowing what the answer will be, since she does not have vocabulary like sautee, braise, steam, etc.
“Make soup!” she said, and we both cracked up. It has become an inside joke between us.
In my cubicle, I composed a short email reiterating my apologies to the program officer, then started working on some grants that were due, thinking of how nice it would be to have four solid days off for Thanksgiving. I was still feeling pretty crappy.
Then I thought about Panha sitting out there in the rain and cold, like my mother may have once sat long ago, selling her wares at the market, which we transported for miles on her bicycle. It made me realize what an ingrate I was being. I started thinking about the things for which I am thankful. They range from small things (wine, The Walking Dead), to big things, like friends and family and good health and shelter. I am thankful for all these blessings.
But I am also very thankful for my work. In all the daily craziness, I forget sometimes how lucky I am to be able to wake up each day and be engaged in meaningful work. Three decades ago I was a kid growing up in a small mountain village in Vietnam. The War had recently ended and my parents would struggle to feed us. In my fractured memories of that time are images of our wood-burning stove, the dirt floor, the smell of pine and red earth, and the monsoon rain that battered our rusty, leaking tin roof.
It was luck, or Fate, or maybe Karma, that brought us to the US. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if we had not made it here. I was a frail and timid little kid. I did not know anything of the War or what it did to our family. Now I realize that my father’s role as a soldier on the losing side of this War would ensure that none of us kids would be able to make it into college. We would end up repairing bicycles or farming a tiny plot of land or, if we were lucky and clever enough to navigate the network of corrupt officials, maybe opening a small business. All noble occupations, and we might have even been happy.
But I like the work that I am doing now. I don’t think many people in the world get to do what they find fulfilling. This work, strengthening a nonprofit, advancing a community, is challenging and often crazy driving. We face obstacles constantly. There are days when I get bad news from a funder, or an elder lectures me for an hour on what I did wrong, or our cashflow is awful because a reimbursement-based grant payment is delayed and we might not be able to make payroll.
But there are also days like this Saturday, when I dropped by our SES program to find 80 kids experiencing Thanksgiving for the first time in their life. It was also moving to see two VFA board members there, serving these kids their inaugural portion of turkey. Later in the same day, at a different location, our Youth Jobs Initiative program brought in guest speakers with different occupations to inspire a different set of our bright kids who face so many barriers.
The work is constantly challenging, oftentimes aggravating, and infinitely rewarding. I get to meet and collaborate with awesome, dedicated people all the time. I have the best and most amazing team in the world. And my actions, perhaps in just a small way, may be helping to make a difference in the world, to make it better. For the chance to do that, I am very thankful.
I took a break from grantwriting and ran downstairs to get Panha some Vietnamese coffee. She loves Vietnamese coffee, steaming hot, with condensed milk. The rain still fell, and she was huddled under her blue tarp awning when I approached her. “Oh, thank you, honey,” she said, her eyes lighting up when I handed her the coffee. I asked her how business was going. “Not good,” she said, “raining, raining too much. Nobody buy.” The winter would be worse for Panha. But she is always in good spirit. “You buy pumpkin?” she said, gesturing at some green squash. What can I do with it, I asked.
“Make soup!” she said, and we laughed, and I went back to my office.