Mr. Lee brings a highly developed sense of comedy to some of the arcane rules and practices that box in nonprofits and hinder their work to help those in need, using humor to tackle touchy topics like restricted giving and implicit bias in hiring — an issue addressed by his organization, which trains people of color for careers in nonprofit leadership.
In this segment of the Business of Giving, Mr. Le discusses how donors' and nonprofit leaders' good intentions can end up harming the people and communities they aim to serve, showing how critical is is "for us to get the people who are most affected by injustice to be leading in the efforts to address it." And when you engage people by asking for their opinions, he adds, you'd better be ready to act on what they say — "Otherwise, you're just an ask-hole."
Listen to the full conversation below, and/or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.
Denver: The work that we do in the nonprofit sector is very serious work. I mean very, very serious. And as a result, we take ourselves a little too seriously at times…in fact, almost all of the time. One person who recognized that we need to laugh a little at ourselves and some of the predicaments of the sector… while also making some serious points along the way through his humor… is my next guest. He is Vu Le, the Executive Director of the Seattle-based Rainier Valley Corps, and the author of the wildly popular blog Nonprofit With Balls. Good evening, Vu, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Vu: Good evening, Denver. Thank you for having me.
Denver: I am sure that the first question you were frequently asked by many people about your blog is: Where did the name Nonprofit With Balls come from? But since we want people to stick around and listen a little bit, I’m going to make that the last question this evening. But reading your blog, which posts each and every Monday morning, has really become almost obligatory reading for so many people who work at nonprofit organizations.
Vu: It is for my staff.
Denver: There you go. Tell us about it, and what you’re trying to achieve with it.
Vu: I think, like you said, we have a lot of serious issues, and we don’t really focus on all the cool things that people are doing. We actually have a lot of hilarious people in the sector, but oftentimes what we see in the media are the really heavy things — poverty and homelessness –and I think it shortchanges the people in our sector who are diverse, who are funny and talented. And there are amazing artists and comedians, and I just wanted to feature some of the lighter things in the work that we do.
Denver: Well, you go on some absolutely great riffs on so many different subjects that we have to deal with — whether we lead or work for a nonprofit organization. One of them has to do with restricted giving by donors. First, tell us how restricted giving works, and then some of the difficulties that it presents to a nonprofit organization.
Vu: Restricted giving is when you give someone some money, either grants or donations, and you say, “Well, with this money that I’m giving you, you can only spend it a certain way. I don’t want my money to be used on rent, or electricity, or something like that.” It causes us to spend a lot of time trying to Frankenstein bits of money first of all, and then trying to determine who is paying for which part… of which program… under which phase of the moon. And I think a lot of us in this sector are spending way too much time doing that, and it can get frustrating and distracting from the work that we do.
The metaphor I would use is: Imagine we had a bakery, and a customer goes in and says, “How much does it cost for this cake? I want to buy a cake for 20 gluten-free veterans.” And we say, “Well, it’s going to cost $100 to serve 20 gluten-free veterans.” And they say, “Well, that’s great! OK, here’s $20 because I don’t believe in buying 100% of any cake. You have to go and find five other customers.” And we say, “OK. We’ll find four or five other customers who care about gluten-free veterans, and then I will make this cake.” “OK. Well, here’s my $20, but with this $20, I don’t want you to buy more than one egg and one stick of butter, and I don’t want you to spend any of this money on vanilla because that does not align with my priorities. I don’t want you to spend any of this money on electricity for the oven because that does not directly benefit gluten-free veterans.”
So we spend all of our time just trying to figure out who is paying for the eggs… and who is paying for the butter. And then the oven thermometer may be broken, and no one wants to pay for that because it doesn’t directly benefit gluten-free veterans. At the end of it, it’s the veterans who get screwed because they’re going to get this cake– that may not be as good– because we’re spending all of our time not baking, but trying to figure out who’s paying for what. And then they get fruit again for dessert, and no one should be eating fruit for dessert.
Denver: You know, that is a ridiculous story. But I can’t even begin to tell you how true it rings. When you bake that cake without the vanilla and the butter, they don’t like the cake, and they won’t buy another cake from you, right?
Vu: And then they say, “You don’t have baking capacities. So we’re not going to buy another cake from you.”
Denver: Yes. It’s less strange than it really seems, but that’s exactly what goes on so often. You’re not a big fan of being beat up or seeing others take it on the chin because nonprofits are spending money on overhead… instead of helping those people in need. How would you frame that issue?
Vu: I think this whole argument on overhead is a distraction. It’s a red herring. It’s actually really destructive to the work that we’re trying to do. “Overhead” are critical things that we need. We can’t do our work without rent… and chairs that work… and computer programs. I get really frustrated because some of the stuff that’s considered overhead are things that we are required by law to do. For example, financial management. That’s overhead. Some funders want an audit. That costs like $10,000 for many nonprofits. That’s also overhead. Or, we have to do an evaluation to figure out what outcomes we are achieving. We have to hire people to do consulting around evaluation work, or we have to spend some time collecting data– survey data– or do focus groups on how this program has helped people. That’s also overhead. We also have to get money to pay our staff. So, we have to spend money on fundraising so we can keep our programs going. That’s also overhead. We have to supervise our staff so they know what they’re doing and they feel supported. That’s also overhead. You have to report to funders. That’s also overhead. All of this stuff that’s required that we need to do, that’s all overhead. And so all of us are now trying to figure out how to do all of this work without spending as much on overhead.
Denver: Especially people. We don’t want to spend money on people.
Vu: There is a disdain in this sector about spending money on people. I actually talked to funders who say, “I want to support your program, but I don’t want to pay people’s wages.” And I’m thinking, “Who do you think is going to run this program? Do you think elves or unicorns are going to just appear and run the program?” Ninety-nine percent of the stuff that’s being done by the nonprofit sector is done by people, so we should be spending a lot more money on people in the sector.
Denver: That may explain a bit. But when people go to your site, they’re going to find it is absolutely littered with unicorns.
Vu: There’s a funny story. I got my Masters in Social Work, and no one would hire me. This is after I disappointed my parents and brought shame to my ancestors by going into social work. And I could not find a job because I had no experience. But I found this freelance writing gig– writing for a company that produces card games that was aimed towards girls from the ages of 5 to 12. They have these magical unicorns. You would go and buy a card, and then you would take these cards, and you go to the website that they created. You enter in the code into this website that you find on the card, and you unlock a magical pony. And you take that unicorn around, and you talk to other unicorns. You go on these little quests, and you grow things, and you learn about friendship and compassion and stuff. And I wrote some of the dialogue for these horses.
It made me realize that we’re the ones who are going around teaching people about friendship and community. We’re the ones growing things in the community. We’re the unicorns that we’ve been seeking. That’s us. And sometimes, like I said, funders and donors expect us to do things– using magic and wishes, and not funding. I think that’s kind of where the unicorn thing is. We’re always expected to be magical, to make the world better with limited funding.
Denver: That’s right. I think this whole thing about overhead has led to this truly dishonest conversation between organizations and funders. Because what we do to cobble our numbers…which we’re kind of making up along the way anyway… to keep our administrative costs down, and to keep our fundraising costs down… is absolutely bizarre. I think the more enlightened people in the donor community realize that what we’re saying is not true– that the administrative costs have to be higher– but we’re forced to play this stupid, silly game.
Vu: Yes. I think I saw a report that says that most businesses– their overhead is about 35%, 40%. How are we expected to do things with a lower number than that? And you’re right. There is no standardized sort of way to determine what is overhead and what is not. So then, we start allocating things to programs, and many of us just use arcane, voodoo magic–using Excel to figure out and lower the indirect rate, and things like that. I don’t think it’s very good for our sector, because we’re just competing with one another in this sort of race to the bottom, right?
We need to be investing in more overhead. We need to be investing in our staff who are qualified, and make sure that they’re happy because that is directly related to what they can accomplish… and the quality of the programs we can deliver… by having more and better overhead to a certain degree. I’m not saying everyone should be going out and giving Swarovski-encrusted business cards or anything… Within reason! But half of us are sitting on crappy chairs that we get from a bank that moved or something. I was thinking about reality TV shows. One of the ideas that I had was “The Amazing Free Supplies Race” where a bank decides to move, and it sends an email to all these nonprofits: “Free Supplies!” And all these nonprofits rush to get the free supplies.
We should not be spending our time—I remember when I was at my last nonprofit, the Vietnamese Friendship Association, and we were trying to get supplies because we were trying to save money. We got all these desks that were heavy, wooden desks. So my colleague and I, we went and got them. We spent probably the entire week assembling desks. One of them fell on my shin, and I had a bruise for like a year. We spent the entire week trying to save about $1,000. That time could’ve been spent on fundraising and working on programs. We have to get out of this scarcity mindset, but a lot of it is imposed on us.
Denver: No question about that. Tell us about writing your blog. Where do you get your ideas? When do you it? Where do you do it?
Vu: I run a nonprofit full time. I’m the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, and I’ve been doing this for a while now. There’s just so much stuff; there’s just so much material for us. I would love something like these reality TV shows…we don’t have a sitcom about nonprofits. The closest is probably Parks and Rec, which I thought was brilliant. But I think that we need more of it. Because we have hilarious stuff; we have suspenseful things. We’ve got to file that 990 on time! Stuff like that. But wherever I go, there’s just lots of material, and I put it on my phone. I have this running list of topics I want to tackle. It’s actually reached about 500 things I want to write about.
Denver: Well, you’re loaded then. Do you find pressure in writing a blog every week? I think it’s always difficult to write consistently. But you have an audience now who isn’t looking for the merits of your content to say: “What a great point that is!” They almost expect to be able to laugh or chuckle, and I would imagine that’s not easy.
Vu: It is challenging, but it’s also really fun because I get a lot of great feedback from readers– both from the for-profits and from the nonprofit side, but also from funders and foundations.
Denver: Well, tell us about some of that feedback. I’m sure you have a ton of readers, and I’m sure you get emails from them. Any of them interesting, and any of them really moved you?
Vu: Yes. There’s quite a few. I get emails from people who say, “Thank you. I thought I was the only one who thought that way!” And from many nonprofits… that are really small. There may be like one or two people there. Who do you talk to about many of these challenges that you’re facing when you’re handling everything? I get good feedback from people who say, “Thanks for making me feel less alone.” I really appreciate that because it inspires me to keep going.
Sometimes I write about things that I find to be inequitable, such as the fact that we don’t disclose salary ranges on job listings. That just seems to be the standard thing to do. But we don’t think about the fact that women and people of color get punished when they negotiate because of implicit biases and other things. So, we can put a stop to that by just listing the salary range. Or, why do we require a BA for every single job listing for positions that are non-specialized?
Denver: Makes no sense whatsoever. It almost seems like it’s an effort to eliminate about 90% of the potential applicants. You know, and I know, most of these jobs don’t need a BA, particularly today, when you can self-educate online.
Vu: Yes. I am a strong believer in furthering your education. I think everyone should be doing it. But formal education is one way to do that. It’s ironic because so many of us are addressing education and equity in this sector. Yet sometimes we perpetuate it without knowing the inequity that we are fighting. So when I write these things, sometimes I get unsubscribers – “How dare you attack formal education? I’m never going to read you again, your rants and stuff.”
Denver: I’m very sorry about sending that, but I’ve got to tell you: If you’re not getting unsubscribers, you’re not doing your job. You really have to offend some of the people some of the time.
Vu: Yes. I think as long as there’s a net gain, then I’m pretty good!
Denver: Let us turn to the work of the Rainier Valley Corps, which we’ve touched on. Tell us in greater detail exactly what your organization does.
Vu: We find talented, emerging leaders of color who really want to work in the nonprofit setting. We provide them with training, a living stipend, healthcare, educational bonus, and we send them to work full time at small organizations that are led by communities of color. These leaders help them with grant writing …or with any sort of capacity-building… and help them build their programs. For many of these smaller ethnic organizations, it’s very difficult for them to be able to access funding, to have the influence out there with funders and donors. Sometimes they don’t have any full-time staff at all, and they do amazing work. They’re doing incredible work, and oftentimes they are the only organizations that are able to mobilize their communities. Yet they get ignored because of various definitions and criteria that we have.
So, by having our fellows there working with them to build the infrastructure and their programs, they can do a better job serving their communities. Then, the leaders also get skills, and we hope that they’ll stay in the sector and rise up through the ranks and become leaders. But I’m also really excited about the fact that as we build these leaders up, and we develop the capacity of these organizations led by community of color, they can start working together to address systemic issues out there.
Denver: The dearth of people of color holding leadership roles in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector is really quite startling. What does the picture currently look like?
Vu: About 18% of nonprofit professionals are people of color. About 10% of EDs and CEOs and, I think, 5% of foundation leaders are people of color. I think this is alarming. I kind of liken it to having a congressional hearing on women’s health… and there’s like nine dudes.
Denver: Yes. I see it all the time.
Vu: I’m sure they’re well-meaning. But at the same time, there’s something that’s intrinsically wrong about that. It’s not to doubt people’s motivations or their good intentions; I think we have wonderful people in the sector. But good intentions… that’s just not enough for us to have good policies and programs. I’ve seen so many well-intentioned people creating policies that are harmful for many of the communities that they are trying to help. I think that it’s really critical for us to get the people who are most affected by injustice to be leading in the efforts to address it.. And right now, that’s not the case. We have some amazing people in the sector, but oftentimes, they’re overlooked, first of all. Then overall, we don’t have enough people going into the sector or staying in the sector. And right now, for some reason, in Seattle, a lot of my friends are leaving the sector to become real estate agents.
Denver: That’s strange.
Vu: It’s really not, if you know the real estate situation in Seattle and in New York.
Denver: We’re at the top. It’s what that usually means.
Denver: I also think it’s more of a supply problem sometimes than a demand problem. Because people who really excel, everybody wants them. But perhaps there’s just not the volume… because we’re not supporting them at the lower ranks where we begin to help develop them within the sector. Would that be right?
Vu: I think we have this sort of belief that there are just people of color– like magical unicorns of color out there–and if we just do a better job recruiting them and outreaching to them, they’ll come and join our boards and things like that. That’s not true. If we really want that to happen, we have to be investing in pipelines of talents, and so on. Otherwise, the people who keep getting asked to join boards and committees—they’re getting tired.
Denver: Same people.
Vu: The same people… who are brilliant leaders and brilliant, attractive people. That’s what I get asked all the time… to join committees.
Denver: And the other thing you get asked all the time is to come to our summit or conference, and that’s the way they kind of reach out and embrace communities of color. You’re not a big fan of attending all these summits and conferences, are you?
Vu: Well, I think it really depends on how it’s being run. What is the intention? And what is the intentionality around implementing suggestions that communities have? In Seattle, I joked that if you’re walking down a dark alley at night, and you feel like someone is following you, it’s probably someone trying to invite you to a community engagement summit. And then he’s like, “Hey, buddy. Do you want to come to this equity summit? We got some sticky dots for you.”2354 `
And then they get there, and they put their sticky dots on the wall and put there “I’m going to vote on these priorities,” which will then get cherry picked and ignored. So, what is the incentive for people to be engaged civically if all the things that they care about and they vote on just totally get steam rolled? And then funders– or whoever is in charge– is going to pick the things that align with their strategies… preset agenda sometimes. What’s the incentive? It’s actually very demoralizing.
Then you become jaded, and then you don’t want to come to another thing. You don’t want to add your opinion because: what’s the point? So I would encourage people: If you are going to be asking for people’s opinions, be ready to implement some of it at least. Otherwise, you’re just an ask-hole.
Denver: I think another thing that occurs, too, is that the mainstream philanthropic sector– they’re the ones who control the purse strings– when they’re reaching out and trying to bring in people of color to their organization, they have a set of rules. And those rules are about 100 years old. It’s basically: where you went to school, and what your resume looks like, and what your cover letter looks like, and all those various and sundry things. There doesn’t ever seem to be an effort to align the people they’re trying to reach with at least a little bit of a change of the rules. It’s the same rules that they’ve always utilized, and there isn’t a meshing all the time.
Vu: My friends at Fakequity.com, they invented the term “fakequity” which is basically when we talk about equity, and then we don’t actually act on it. But we feel really good about ourselves because we talked about it… as if talking about equity is the main thing… is an outcome in itself. It’s not. It is a means to actually achieving equity. It’s a first step. But you actually have to start moving resources and changing practices. We talk about the lack of leaders of color on boards for example, but then we go to a board meeting, and what do we have? We have Robert’s Rules. Who the hell is “Robert?”
Denver: Right. How stiff can you get!
So let’s get to the close here. The name of your blog – Nonprofit With Balls – now, how in the world did you come up with that name?
Vu: Well, I think most people think that it’s referring to juggling balls, all the balls that we juggle as…
Denver: That’s not what most people think.
Vu: Well, that’s what it’s supposed to be about. We juggle boards and foundations and donors and volunteers and clients and all of this stuff. But there is actually a story behind this. This started because there was this one guy who came to my organization and he said, “Vu, I hear that you’re really great at reaching out to communities of color. Do you mind organizing a focus group of 20 of your parents so that I can come in and listen to them? Because we’re doing this listening tool, and we want to listen to a thousand parents of color about their concerns around education.” And I said, “Look, dude. We don’t have time. I’m sorry. I have three staff, including me. I don’t have time to organize a focus group for you. If you really want to engage with communities of color, then do it equitably by giving them funding, building funding into your budget.”
And he got really offended. He got defensive, and he goes, “So what you want me to do is go back to my funders and my board and say that Vu is not going to play ball unless you throw money at him?” And I said, “Dude, we have enough balls, OK? We have balls from the city, from the state, from the county, from the school district, from other organizations. We have balls in our faces every day. We don’t have time to juggle your balls for you, OK?” He left kind of upset, and I sat down, and I thought “nonprofit with balls.” We have balls already. We don’t need to juggle other people’s balls for them. Hence, the name of the blog.
Denver: Well, there’s a double entendre. You probably never thought when you started that billions of people would be reading it.
Vu: Yeah. If I could go back in time, I might not select this.
Denver: I think it’s actually worked pretty well for you though, to tell you the truth. Well, Vu Le, the Executive Director of the Rainier Valley Corps, and the author of Nonprofit With Balls blog, thanks for being here this evening. If listeners want to read the blog or maybe send a few bucks your way to help support the work of your organization, what would you have them do?
Vu: Please go to rainiervalleycorps.org, and click on the donate button.
Denver: That sounds great. Well, it was a great pleasure, Vu, to have you on the program.
Vu: Thank you so much, Denver.