Vu Le is a unicorn. In the nonprofit world, that is.
Born in Vietnam and currently based in Seattle, Le is admittedly an anomaly. As one of the few leaders of color in the sector – only 18% of nonprofit professionals are people of color—Le's on a mission to change this statistic.
Gleaning lessons from his time as Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association for the past nine years, Le’s latest venture is Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), a startup that aims to give emerging leaders of color the training and opportunities they need to succeed.
Le is also a blogger at Nonprofits With Balls and Blue Avocado where he waxes poetic about everything from the problem with accountability to ideas for nonprofit reality shows---all with a healthy dose of humor and honesty.
In this condensed and edited interview below, Le talks about why funding dynamics are contributing to burnout and lack of diversity, and how we can start empowering leaders of color.
Let’s get straight to it: Why do we as a sector not put our money where our mouth is and support communities-of-color-led organizations as much as we could be?
The funder relationship has become very adversarial, with funders on one side and nonprofits on the other. One is terrified to give feedback, the other is providing all sorts of micro-management and restrictions.These organizations don’t really fit the standard definitions of what a nonprofit should be. Many of them are started by immigrants and refugees to support people who are coming over. They have the language and cultural backgrounds to do that, but often don’t have any experience with how to write a grant, do strategic planning, etc. Asking community members for money may be something they do naturally, but it doesn’t always align with the mainstream way of doing things.
For example, a community-of-color-led organization serves 500-1000 people per month. It’s all volunteer run. They managed to rally their community to buy a huge building and turned it into a community center. So they have this amazing space and they serve thousands of people every month, but they can’t get any grants because funders look at them and say, “You don’t have a full-time staff. You’re all volunteers. You don’t have the capacity.”
Recently they decided to hire a part-time Executive Director because they felt like they had to. But they’re struggling to fit into this mainstream mold. Why are we making them conform to a certain way of doing things? Just fund them.
How is this funding barrier affecting the sector’s ability to retain its people?
Burnout happens because most of us are spending about 75% of our time defining our work and not doing it. I have to spend a lot of my time fundraising, which is an important thing I need to do. But why are we spending so much of our time convincing people that our work is important? And then when we do get the funding it’s restricted, and we need to do this financial reporting Sudoku.
We’re focusing on time-wasting activities like figuring out which funder bought which supplies. The work isn’t burning people out. What’s driving people out of the field is the fact that there’s so many barriers preventing us from actually doing our work: one year grants, tiny amounts of money, constantly having to report on stuff, constantly catering to donors and funders, etc.
This is the kind of stuff that people in other sectors don’t worry about. If you think about it, teachers and other public servant types get to do their job. Do we tell a teacher, “Hey you need to spend 50% of your time raising money for your position or supplies for your classroom?” We don’t.
The funder relationship has become very adversarial, with funders on one side and nonprofits on the other. One is terrified to give feedback, the other is providing all sorts of micro-management and restrictions. This isn’t a true partnership.
Ideally, funders would focus on outcomes and impact and leave us alone so we could do our work. We’re like the plumbers of society and the funders are trying to figure out how much Draino we’re using. But how about they focus on whether or not we fixed the pipes, which is what they hired us to do?
How does this funding dynamic feed into the lack of leaders of color in the field?
We have two paradoxes we deal with. One is that ethnic organizations cannot play the game as well. They don’t understand how to build their capacity and funders aren’t going to invest significant amounts of funding in them. And if you don’t invest significant amounts of money, then they can’t build capacity. They can’t hire staff, so we don’t have enough leaders of color being hired. These orgs are stuck in this catch-22. So we have to break them out of this. Even if they do go to workshops and trainings, they don’t have the infrastructure to implement anything they’ve learned. The critical missing piece is staffing.
How does RVC plan on doing this?
RVC is going to be this multicultural cohort of passionate, emerging leaders. Right now they’re just wandering the field, trying to find their place. Young leaders of color aren’t encouraged to go into idealistic professions. We’re encouraged to become doctors or lawyers or some combo of doctor and lawyer. So the ones like me who go into the field are like unicorns who are shunned by our communities and families and are a disappointment to our ancestors. We have little support. I got my Master’s but had no connections or networks to get a job. We have all these leaders of color who are retiring soon and there’s no pipeline of new leaders going into the field. That’s something that should scare everyone.
But also out there are these ethnic organizations trying to understand the nonprofit game. So if RVC can step in, train these leaders and organizations to help build their capacity, then we can start working together as a community to push for policy and systems change.
That’s the vision for RVC. Our first corps will start in September this year. We have to learn how to work within the system and change it at the same time.
How did the idea for RVC come about?
Trickle down community engagement, where larger nonprofits get funding to engage communities of color instead of the communities themselves getting the funding, needs to stop right now. Nine years ago, I got my Master’s in social work and I was all idealistic. I wanted to change the world but I couldn’t find a job. So I found this organization in D.C. called the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies (NAVASA), whose mission is to build the capacity of Vietnamese-based orgs across the U.S. They got a grant from AmeriCorps and created a program that was basically like AmeriCorps for the Vietnamese community.
They recruited 10 of us in each cohort, trained us in capacity building and other stuff, then deployed us to small nonprofits to work full-time while getting mentorship from these really experienced consultants from D.C.
I was in the second cohort and was the first full-time staff at Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA). When I stepped in, they had a tiny budget, no staffing, and were operating out of a 150 square-foot office. They’d been around for 25 years but had never gotten a grant over $10,000 because they didn’t understand how to apply for grants or do strategic planning.
My work over the past nine years was to build this organization up. It’s since reached nearly a million in budget size and is an influential organization in the community. So now VFA has become this case study in what could happen when you invest effectively in capacity building.
We want to replicate this with RVC.
Why do we need more leaders of color in the sector?
Almost every single issue is disproportionately affecting communities of color. The most important reason for engaging them is that it’s intrinsically right.
It’s also the right thing to do in terms of efficacy. Because when you have people who don’t share the same background or lived experience advocating for you, it creates all sorts of policies and systems that aren’t effective. We see this repeatedly. People are very well meaning. But just because you’re well meaning doesn’t mean that you’ll create some good policies and programs.
What are some concrete things the sector at large can do to empower leaders and communities of color?
Trickle down community engagement, where larger nonprofits get funding to engage communities of color instead of the communities themselves getting the funding, needs to stop right now.
We also need to put a stop to “askholism.” Basically all these foundations and nonprofits are asking people from communities of color to show up to summits, join advisory committees, fill out surveys, and put sticky dots to vote on stuff, etc. But then they’re ignored or their ideas are cherry picked. Don’t ask the community stuff unless you’re willing to go with what they recommend and fund it and work on it. Stop wasting their time.
We all need to speak up more. We’re so terrified of funders that we don’t. Oftentimes we might obscure information about what’s going well and what’s not because we’re trying to please our funders. We can’t bite the hands that feed us. But we really can’t be doing this anymore.
We also need to start funding people in the field who do the work instead of funding things like workshops and toolkits. The editor of Blue Avocado, Jan Masaoka, has a great metaphor. Which is, people have been funding tools, hammers, saws, and all this stuff for years. We need carpenters. If we don’t have carpenters, the tools are completely useless.
Did you enjoy this post? There's plenty more where this came from! Subscribe here for updates.
By Celeste Hamilton Dennis