News and analysis
January 05, 2016

Vu Le: Speaking Truth to Power — Humorously

Matthew Ryan Williams for The Chronicle

Vu Le, 34

Executive Director, Rainier Valley Corps
Creator, Nonprofit With Balls blog
Seattle

Mondays are tough. But Vu Le uses startling honesty and whip-smart humor to ease nonprofit worker bees into the week. 

The titles of his Monday missives on Nonprofit With Balls get right to the point:

"Are you or your org guilty of trickle-down community engagement?"

"Seven annoying things funders say, and what we wish they would say instead."

"Can we all just admit there is no such thing as nonprofit sustainability?"

"Yo mama is a double-dipper: funders’ micromanaging of nonprofits must stop."

"Weaponized data: how the obsession with data has been hurting marginalized communities."

My favorite, and the sum of all philanthropic wisdom: "Capacity Building 9.0: Fund people to do stuff, get out of their way."

Vu Le’s critique is centered on this irony: The foundations most interested in equity, diversity, inclusiveness, and social justice all too often pursue those objectives in ways that perpetuate the ills they seek to remedy, by excluding the grass-roots, community-based nonprofits most likely to be effective. 

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Lengthy application processes, complicated financial-reporting forms, evidence of long-term sustainability, multiple appendices, complicated logic models, and bewilderingly complex metrics rule out all but the largest and most professionalized nonprofits that are always first in the grant line. 

But the big groups have no standing with the communities they purportedly serve. So they recruit much smaller and poorer but authentically community-based groups and expect them to put aside their critical daily work to attend endless summits, input-gathering sessions, and collective-impact collaborations. Without compensation, of course, since marginal groups surely regard the benevolent attention of their organizational betters to be reward enough. What begins as an effort to support disadvantaged communities ends up only disadvantaging them further.

How does Vu Le get away with this brutal truth-telling? He’s very, very funny. He punctuates the serious posts with immensely creative, whimsical flights of fancy about nonprofit-themed game shows, sit-coms, children’s books, dating advice, and cocktails. He draws nonprofit management lessons from "The Walking Dead," "The Hunger Games," and the Seattle Seahawks. 

His effervescent world is haunted by nightmares of the dreaded annual event and graced by dreams of unrestricted, general operating support. But he never flinches from the brutal truth as he sees it, an incredibly courageous stance for a young person at midcareer in a field in which opinion is typically smothered by the philanthropic practice of omerta.  

We should all let him make our Mondays hurt a little less.

Mr. Schambra is director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute.