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Season 2, Episode 17

Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt are joined by special guest Vu Le, of the blog NonprofitAF.com, in a lively discussion about community-centered fundraising for nonprofits. Vu Le shares his controversial views on how fundraising practices should change to become grounded in social equity.

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This episode was recorded as part of a live webinar held Monday, December 6, 2021. To participate in future webinars, register at ToolkitTalks.com.

Amy Eisenstein:
Today, we have a very special guest we’re super excited about. I’m going to read an extraordinarily brief bio. It doesn’t even come close to doing him justice. But Vu Le writes the blog Nonprofit AF. If you do not read it, it is a weekly must. It shows up in my inbox every Monday morning, and I’ve been reading it for years and following him for years. He’s the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by supporting leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

And as always, we’re going to let you do most of the question asking today. So go ahead and open up your Q&A box. Don’t put them in the chat box, that goes by too quick. So do go ahead, if you have a question for Vu, go ahead and open up your Q&A box. But I am going to let Andrea start with the question asking. We are so thrilled to have you here. So, Andrea, let’s get started with some questions on community-centric fundraising.

Community-Centric Fundraising

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Thank you, Amy, and welcome to all of you for whom this is the first time in our Monday Toolkit Talks. We hope it is not the last and that you too will become a repeat offender, we have many of them. Vu, we are tickled to have you here today, and I just want to start out by giving you a chance to define for people what you mean when you talk about “community-centric fundraising.”

Vu Le:
Awesome. Hi, Amy. Hi, Andrea. Thank you, first of all, for having me here. And before I answer any questions, I do want to say a few disclaimers. Well first of all, I use he/him pronouns. I’m in Seattle, which is on Duwamish and Coast Salish land. And yeah, just a few disclaimers, I tend to say things that rile people up a bit sometimes, and I don’t think of myself as an expert in anything, and some of the things that I say may make people uncomfortable. And I hope that that’s okay, because I don’t feel like we can address inequity effectively if we’re always in our comfort zone. And I do think that fundraising has not really grappled with the pervasive effects of white supremacy and racism and really just things that are pervasive and ongoing, and we don’t really deal with them so much.

So community-centric fundraising is to challenge established fundraising practices and philosophies. And right now what I and a lot of leaders, especially leaders of color, see fundraising the way that we’ve been doing this is focus on two things. One is centering the comfort of rich, mostly white, donors and getting as much money for your own organization as possible. Screw everyone else. And that has really been, in many ways, really toxic. So community-centric fundraising is about challenging that. It’s about grounding fundraising in racial equity, economic justice. It’s about talking to our donors about where their wealth came from. And a lot of wealth came from slavery and stolen indigenous land, worker exploitation, and avoidance of paying taxes. And also, we’re trying to end the hunger game so nonprofits are not just fighting with one another for these dollars either, and are instead mutually supportive of one another.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful explanation. And I just want to say that one of the reasons we invited you here, one of the many reasons, is so that you can help us be uncomfortable and help us and our audience have this conversation. So we’re perfectly happy for you to take us outside of our comfort zone. All right, Andrea. Yes, what do you want to say?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes. So I want to say first of all, to the people who are here, those of you who came with a question that is not particularly about community-centric fundraising, you should put it in the Q&A box just as Lucy has done, and we will take a few minutes to try to answer your questions. So keep those coming. We want to give Vu ample opportunity to talk and to answer your questions as well. But we don’t want to disappoint the people who came with specific questions like Lucy’s. But let’s stick with Vu for a little bit, and then we’ll pivot over to a couple of these non-community-centric questions as well. So you’ve been at this quite a while now, Vu, this is not new for you. And we’re wondering, how far have you come? What are you excited by? What do you feel proud of? And where do you feel like you’re stuck?

Vu Le:
Yeah. Well, the movement was started in July 2020. But the reality is that we’ve been saying these things for decades now, especially women of color have been saying things for decades, and oftentimes get punished for it and get demoted or fired because they say things like the way that we’ve been doing fundraising has been perpetuating white saviorism and poverty tourism. So when the movement was launched in July 2020, we were expecting maybe 100 or so people might join the kickoff event. 2,800 people did.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Wow.

Vu Le:
We crashed several websites during that time. It has then started spreading around the US and has been taking a foothold in different countries as well. So I’m really glad to see that people are starting to say, “Yeah, we do need to talk about this.” I think for a long time, everyone has been talking about equity, diversity, and inclusion, and we can talk about whether it’s been effective. But everyone has been talking about it except fundraisers. Fundraisers haven’t. Fundraisers tend to think, “My role is to get as much money for my own organization as possible, and then have other people talk about race and so on. It’s not really the role of fundraisers.”

And now this is being challenged, and I’m really excited to see that a lot of people are embracing this concept. The frustrating things, I would say, is that there’s also been a lot of pushback. Although, I kind of see that as a sign of progress. I get more emails from angry people who are like, “How dare you say that I’m telling donors that they’re hoarding money. What about this little old lady who donates $20? Is she hoarding money that she got from slavery?” Et cetera. It parallels a lot of this all lives matter or not all men type of arguments, and I think it’s time we talk about it.

Inequitable Gift Restrictions

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think that’s so true. So listen, one of the fun things about this Toolkit Talks and about our podcast is that occasionally Andrea and I disagree. And Andrea, I’m going to push back. We’re going to save Lucy’s question for another time. We’ve got Vu for one hour and we’re going to keep this conversation just on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Lucy, email us or come next week, and we will definitely go back to talking about campaigns. So Vu, is there anything else you want to talk about before we go to some of the questions that have come in? Renata is asking. Well, let me dive in. Renata’s asking, “How does one go about diplomatically telling a funder we cannot accept certain restrictions on their gift, especially if it is an inequitable request?”

Vu Le:
Yeah. I think we need to really rethink our relationship with funders and how we’ve been treating working with them. We’ve been very differential to funders. And I think a lot of it is because we have these sort of philosophies in our minds about, “Well, this is their money and they’re giving us some of their money, et cetera.” I really don’t think that that is the case. When so much of wealth, again, has been built on inequitable systems like slavery and colonization and tax avoidance, then it’s really not their money. So for a lot of wealthy people who take this funding that they should have paid in taxes and they put into a donor advice fund or they put it into their family foundation or whatever, it is not their money. So it is ridiculous for us to put up with their bullshit regarding some of their ridiculous bullshit requests.

All right, and there’s a lot of them. We still deal with all sorts of requests such as, “Oh, you must write a quarterly report for this $5,000 we give you. Or you must use our own budget template or whatever. Or you must answer this question, but with a thousand words.” For decades, we’ve put up with this and I find that to be insulting and demeaning to us who are doing this work. Because the question is really about how do we do this in such a way that it does not offend them? How do we not offend these people who are so generous with their money? Well, we have to turn that around. If someone stole your bicycle and they give you a handlebar back, you don’t go, “Oh, thank you for this handlebar.”

You say, “Where the hell is the rest of my damn bicycle?” This is what we need to be doing in the sector here. So I want us to stop tiptoeing around with these funders. And I’m not naive. I know that there are power dynamics, that yes, they can remove funding. So a couple things I would encourage. One is if you do have a good relationship with these funders, go ahead and give them the feedback. And I think that we have this assumption that a lot of funders are fragile baby birds who cannot take feedback very well because we’re terrified of giving them feedback. We’re terrified of how they could take it. But I think that a lot of them actually really need this information. They need this information in order to do their work effectively, and if we’re lying to them all the time, then they’re not going to change.

And I know it can be scary to do that, but I think we need to do more of it when we can. The other thing is that we have to start building collective power in order to give feedback collectively. For example, in Seattle, 180 executive directors got together and wrote an open letter to the funders in the state and said, “There’s a pandemic going on, you need to increase the amount of money you’re giving out. It needs to be multi-year general operating dollars, and it needs to go to communities of color letter organizations and needs to be general operating and it needs to fund things that we care about, like advocacy and things like that.” So they sent that out. We need to be doing more of that. We have to mobilize a lot more.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes. I think that that’s a perfect example of what organizations can do collectively. It’s much more powerful coming from hundreds or thousands of organizations. I think Renata, obviously you’re not going to go up to your funder and say, “This is bullshit,” or probably not. But I think educating them and explaining why the request is inequitable or challenging or doesn’t work for your organization, I think being honest and provide feedback in a way that they’re going to potentially hear it. If you go in with guns blazing, they may not hear it. They may just say, “All right, get out.” So we want to have the conversation. I don’t know, Vu, if you disagree with me completely. Maybe you want to go in guns blazing —

Vu Le:
Sometimes some of us have to go in with guns blazing. Those of us who have more privileges and that can buffer us, then yeah. I am guns blazing, but I have more privilege than a lot of folks in the sector. So I think- Yeah.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I think you can say that because you have a big platform and people listen to you. An individual at a small nonprofit who’s just trying to go day to day may not be able to go in guns blazing because they may not be able to continue their work. So I think that there is somewhere along the spectrum. I’m glad that you’re able to go in guns blazing and collaborate and coordinate. For individual nonprofits, probably harder if they’re one offs. They can educate. I don’t know. All right, should we move on to the next question? Andrea, do you want to jump in with anything?

DEI Issues in Capital Campaigns

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah, I want to jump in with a big topic that’s related to us. Vu, as you know, Amy and I run Capital Campaign Toolkit, which is an organization that is set up specifically to provide a support system for organizations going into capital campaigns. And as I’m sure you know, capital campaigns are the top heavy version of fundraising, that all of these campaigns are successful or not successful by raising money from, let’s say, 20 donors to raise half their goal. That’s a standard pattern for capital campaign fundraising. Now some of that money comes from foundations, but the bulk of that money comes, in one way or another, from individuals, sometimes it’s family foundations. But this money comes from individuals and there are several things that come up for us as we try to wrangle with how we handle being in the capital campaign business and how we try to make our peace with that when we hear you talk about the importance of applying issues of effective social practice and diversity and equity in fundraising. What advice do you have for us? How do we reconcile these things?

Vu Le:
Thanks, Andrea. This is a rough area. I don’t have a lot of experience in capital campaigns. It sounds like something that I would not really enjoy very much because I think the recognition levels of putting rich, mostly white people’s names on buildings, making them feel special, when the reality is that they really should have just paid more taxes and returned some stolen indigenous land and make some reparation for slavery and things like that. So I can imagine how difficult it is to begin to imagine this, but I’m hardened by the fact that we’re having these conversations, because in the past we haven’t. All the trainings and workshops around fundraising that I had attended for a decade and a half were all about how do we keep donors happy? How do we get them to give more money than they had been giving the year before, et cetera.

All of our conversations have been about that. And now the conversation has been shifting to what kind of gifts do we accept? How do we deal with a sexist or racist donor? How do we talk to them about wealth disparity? These are conversations that are really wonderful, and I think this is where we should be heading. So I don’t really have the answer for you, except that I feel like if we can just all be in agreement that we do need to start having these conversations, that we do need to start thinking about how do we recognize donors, while maybe at the same time encouraging them to think about different ways of being and doing? And yeah, maybe for the next several years, we still put their names on building to recognize them and so on.

But simultaneously, we can invite them to workshops about where they’re examining their wealth. I know a friend of mine who’s a major donor went to a workshop and discovered that her family’s wealth literally came from stealing a native family’s land. And when she made that realization, she decided that when she gets her inheritance, she’s going to give 100% of this money back to the native community because it’s not her family’s money. So it should not be her money either. So we have to start moving our donors in that direction, and it’s going to take us inviting them to these conversations. And sometimes, you’re blessing and releasing them when we can’t afford to. I know not all of us can afford to do that.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well recently, you wrote about Brussels sprouts. And I love this image. You wrote that getting people to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly in the fundraising field, is like getting kids to like Brussels sprouts. You have to get them to eat it a few times. And I love that idea, that I wonder how many of us, all of us on this call, could actually come up with some ways to get our donors talking. And I’m wondering what sorts of formats you might imagine that a development director, a board member, might try to actually have these conversations?

Vu Le:
Yeah. Well look, science says that you got to feed a toddler some new food five to 10 times before they would like it. And oftentimes, we give up after two or three times. We’re like, “Okay, well I tried it and my toddler hates broccoli or Brussels sprouts or whatever. And so I guess that’s it. I’m not going to try it anymore.” Well no, we had to keep trying several times, and it’s the same with equity, diversity and inclusion. It’s that oftentimes you feel like we brought this up to the board and the ED and they still are not responding. I get colleagues who are frustrated, like one who emailed me and said, “All we wanted was to put our pronouns in email signatures, and the upper management just did not want to do that.” They were like, “This is too political.” Right, because adding he and him to your signature is so political. And so of course, they’re really frustrated. And I think, yeah, that sounds really frustrating.

But again, they may have to hear it from me, from you, from an article they read, from a show, et cetera, several times before they do this. Now we just have to find the balance of how much energy that we have to keep feeding people the Brussels sprouts of equity. And sometimes you got to pass the spoon onto someone else who has more patience than you do. The other thing I would say is that we’ve been way too nice in this sector. A lot of people who have power in the sector really should not have any if they are not willing to change and to make the world better by adopting practices that marginalized communities have said, “This would be helpful to us, would bring about equity.” Then those people who are preventing progress, they need to go. All right, we’ve been putting up with them for way too long. If your board member is preventing progress at your organization, figure out a way to remove them from your board.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I think that that’s a really good point, is that you find allies on your board who are willing to stand up and say, “This is not behavior we’re going to tolerate anymore,” or implement policies that are going to invite those types of board members to transition off. So the question is, to me, who are the allies… I say this all the time with fundraising, who are the allies, who are your moles? Don’t go to the board as a whole, start with one person and get them to speak up at a meeting and then go to a second person and get them to at least agree with the first person that stood up. And then sometimes we have these mob mentalities and one angry person gets up and speaks and says something, and then everybody nods in agreement, or doesn’t say anything. So before the meeting, depending on what you’re going to be talking about, identify your allies, encourage them to stand up, tell them that they have other allies on the board. I think that that is a really good point. All right, we’ve got lots and lots of questions coming in.

Creating a More Diverse Board and Board Giving

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Let me jump to Lorraine’s question here, because someone else has then picked it up. What does the nominating committee and the rest of the board members, what do they need to do to create a more diverse board of directors and avoid tokenism? Any suggestions about that?

Vu Le:
Yeah. First of all, really redefine a lot of your practices. A lot of board practices are really crappy and inequitable. 100% board giving is incredibly white and culturally insensitive. But I remember leading an organization that was all 100% Vietnamese board members because it was a Vietnamese serving organization. And we had funders punishing us and refusing to fund us because we’re like, “Your board members don’t give 100% or whatever.” I tried everything. I went up to my board members and I said, “Please give $5. I will give you $10. You just donate $5 back. You make a net profit of $5 and I can claim that we have $5 of board giving.” This is what it does, that we start doing these things because this is just how things have always been done.

We don’t start to think how inequitable they are. This idea that we need to get board members who are wealthy or connected to wealth, this is why board members are so glaringly white is because we are so focused on money as the most important contribution to boards or from board members. And we really got to reexamine that. All right, if you don’t value lived experience, if you don’t value the people who’ve experienced homelessness or housing crises or whatever, and you value people who can give more money, then you’re becoming less and less relevant. So that’s really important, is reexamine many of your policies, again, get rid of some board members. If you try to work with them and they’re not… They should not be on there. They’re destructive. I feel like a lot of boards and board members are toxic to our work and we have not been honest with ourselves enough about it.

So if you are going to get in the way, then you need to leave because we have more important things to do. And the other thing I would say is if you’re going to recruit one or even two board members from diverse communities, they’re likely going to be tokenized. So you have to recruit a block of three or four of them at the same time. That way, they actually form a voting block and have enough power. If you bring one person on or two, they’ll be isolated. Oftentimes, they’ll be isolated and their voice and opinions.. I had that happen. I’m very opinionated. And I remember being the only person of color on a nine person board. And no matter how much I said or whatever I said as a very loud person, it still got dismissed because I was the lone voice on there. So bring on three board members at a time, have a moratorium on bringing on any more white board members or any more men or whatever, until you have three board members from that community that you can bring on at the same time.

Amy Eisenstein:
So, Vu, I think that’s a great suggestion about bringing on blocks of board members, multiple at a time, to combat some of this tokenism. Obviously, I’ve been in the fundraising world for a long time, as we all have. I subscribe to some of this. Get your board members to be involved, to participate, to give. Now I am a very firm believer in everybody gives what they can, and sometimes it’s a dollar. And talk more a little bit about why that is a problem, that everybody’s participating. Or maybe we need to be counting service. Is that what you would say?

Vu Le:
Why a dollar though? Why money? Why do we use money as this overarching variable? Why don’t we ever have something like 100% of our board members mentor someone, or 100% of our board members volunteer at least one minute, just one minute, in our programs? But no, it has to be about money. And this is the root of the issue is that we are so focused on money as the primary and most important form of input, and this causes a variety of different problems all the time. I understand the give and get policy, I hate them. I don’t like the give and get policy because, again, it centers money in here. Why don’t we have a volunteer or get a volunteer policy? No, it’s always about money.

It’s never about time. It’s never about service. It’s never about lived experience. It’s always about money, and it’s actually culturally insensitive. Again, I went out to the board members that I asked to give money. They were like, “No, we would never give money.” I was like, “Why? Why can’t you just give a dollar?” The same thing that I’ve been told? Why not just give $1? They’re like, “No.” Because symbolically for them, they’re like, “This is an organization that was formed to help the community, and you’re asking me, the community, to pitch in a dollar.” Now it was insulting to them to give a cash donation because symbolically, it was offensive. But they were always buying food, they were always taking me out to lunch and insisting on paying. They will always bring snacks that they bought with their own money to the staff because food is a very important part of Vietnamese and many other cultures.

But the symbolic $1 was something they would never do. So I think a lot of our best practices are basically white practices, and we don’t stop to think about them, like handwritten thank-you notes. We’re like, “Well, everyone should write handwritten thank you notes to your donors.” Well, that’s not how a lot of communities thank people. In Vietnamese culture, you don’t thank people with handwritten thank-you notes. You just don’t. It’s weird. No one does that. You thank them, again, with food. So to insist that we all thank the same way, we just re entrench these very white practices in our fundraising.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
This sound simplistic, Vu, but it seems to me that the real power of what you’re doing is to raise these topics in a way that people can start talking about them. And that when people do start talking about them, sometimes you find out surprising things. You find out that they’re not as stuck in a particular mindset as they might have thought they were. So let me give you a quick example, which is a capital campaign that I’ve worked on now for some time early on in the campaign planning. It’s a building campaign, and I gave them the standard fundraising practice of naming spaces for the largest donors, you know what that practice is. I said, “Here’s the way the standard campaign does it.” They said, “Our mission is very much rooted in equity and inclusion, and we’re not sure that’s the right approach for us.” And she said, “We want to have a board meeting and we’re going to talk about it at our board about whether we really want to give donors the opportunity to name spaces.”

I said, “Fine.” They go to their board, they start having a conversation with their board. Eventually, they come back to me, they said, “You know what, Kihlstedt? We’re not going to do it that way. We’re just not.” I said, “All right.” Well fast forward three years, or three and a half years, they raised about $13 million, the building is on the verge of being built. They’ve raised money from large donors all over their community. Has anyone complained that they can’t put their name on a space? No. Not one donor has complained. When they’ve asked, they’ve said, “We’ve decided we’re not going to name spaces in honor of people because of their money.” And everyone said, “Oh yes, we understand that.” So having the conversation, my point is this. That you have begun a conversation that then gives people an opportunity to have these conversations within their organizations, and sometimes the results are surprise. Things you thought were entrenched behavior are actually being foisted on them by the fundraising world, not the other way around.

Vu Le:
Thanks Andrea, I think that’s a really good example. I feel like in many ways we’ve been underestimating our donors and our funders. To be honest, we treat them kind of like toddlers. Give them a cookie for doing certain things. If we’re actually going to be equal partners with the people we’re working with, then we have to be honest with them, we have to give them a chance to voice their opinions and push back and disagree and get into fist fights verbally with us over a coffee or whatever. This is what we need to do. And we don’t, we have been so afraid of offending donors because maybe 1% or 2% or 5% are these assholes who do get very fragile. And what we do is that we treat everyone as if they’re fragile, and we got to move away from that.

Handling Donors Who Disagree with DEI

Amy Eisenstein:
All right. I want to go to Mimi’s question. Mimi’s saying, “How would you respond to a major donor who is not giving this year because he disagrees with your organization’s use of anti-racism rhetoric?” She’s quoting, “I too want a society free of racism and also a society where everybody rides bikes.” Well okay, we can read the question. But basically, a donor is objecting to an organization using anti-racism rhetoric. What would you say to that donor?

Vu Le:
I would say, stand in your values and do not waiver, because this is what happens, that we do waiver to these donors, these all lives matter type donors who are so far behind on the conversations around race and equity. And for a long time, we’ve indulged these people. We say, “Let’s go have a conversation with them.” By this time, a lot of us just don’t have the patience for these people. They are akin to climate change deniers or anti-vaxers. We don’t have time for them, these white supremacy deniers out there. And we’ve let them control our sector for a long time. And again, we have the same sort of assumptions that cause us to not have these conversations with them because we’re afraid of them, because some of them are like this.

But by catering and indulging in these clueless, ignorant people, then we are in some ways letting go of the opportunity to engage with others who are aligned with our values. Remember when Girl Scouts, I think girl Scouts of Washington, or one of the chapters, they had a donor who said, “You know what? I will give you $100,000, but you have to promise not to serve transgender girls because I just don’t believe in that.” And I think the Girl Scouts said, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to take your money then. You don’t align with our values.” They went onto social media and told their community, “Look, we had this donor and they said this and blah, blah, blah. Can you help us raise $100,000?” They raised $300,000. So do not sacrifice the opportunities you have to cater to a few racist, ignorant people.

Amy Eisenstein:
There you have it. That’s exactly right. I worked at a domestic violence shelter and there was a guy who was giving us probably our largest donation, and he was totally abusive to the staff. And after a few months, years, we said, “All right, that’s it. He’s our largest donor, but we’re at a domestic violence shelter and he is literally verbally abusing us all the time.” So we told him, “We’re done. We cannot take your money anymore,” and we sent him packing. And there was a conversation on the board, but ultimately that’s what we had to do. And in the long run, everybody was happier and we raised just as much money. All right, Sarah’s asked a question about a shift in metrics that fundraisers are evaluated by that can elevate a more equitable approach. The focus on ROI seems rather permanent, so how do we get organizations to apply or view a different ROI when the formula is dependent on staffing capacity and top donor returns?

Vu Le:
I know. I think this is a big conversation that we need to have. So one of the parts is that we’ve been adopting all this corporate speak all the time. We are not corporations. We’re not for-profits. We need to stop you using crappy terms like ROI and stuff. Okay, what we’re doing is different because the more that we keep adopting the business terms, the more we try to be like them. And the reality is that we’re not like them. We are filling out the gaps left behind by government and in many ways by the rest of society. We are cleaning up society’s messes. If we were in a perfect world, we would not have jobs. Many of us would not have jobs, and that is something we should all be striving for in a way. So this type of ROI and stuff, I feel like so many of us have gotten so focused on raising money as the primary thing that we’re supposed to be doing and that’s the main metric is how much money we raise, that we’ve lost our vision of why we’re even raising this money for.

We raise this money to create a more just and equitable world. We’re not raising this money to create jobs for ourselves or to grow our organizations or to expand our programs or whatever. But for many of us, as fundraisers, we’ve forgotten that. And so one of the biggest arguments that people say against community-centric fundraising is, “Well, what if I use this thing and it raises less money?” An example we use, what if there’s a university, and it raises $700 million a year. But that university is full of racist policies. It’s staff and students of color are unhappy. It’s catering to rich, mostly white donors, and putting their names on buildings, et cetera. And then next year, the fundraisers at that university say, “You know what? We need to live into our value. Let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about inequity. Let’s figure out how we can give more scholarships to our indigenous and black and POC students, et cetera.”

And because of that, some racist ass donors are like, “You know what? Now that you’re talking about race and CRT or whatever, I’m not going to give as much.” And so instead of $7 million that year, it raised, let’s say $600 million. Now, any fundraising guru would tell you, “Oh wow, something is wrong there. One year we raised $700 million, the next year $600 million? No something bad is happening.” No, I think something great is happening. This is why we should be doing this. You’re creating equity. Why raise $700 million? To do what? To create more inequity? What is that? We’ve lost our way, in some ways, many of us as fundraisers. We need to get back to why we’re raising money. It makes no sense to perpetuate the very inequity we are raising money to fight in the first place. So the metric cannot just be about raising money anymore. It’s more complex now, and a lot of it is going to be… We’re going to have to figure that out.

Amy Eisenstein:
It is.

Overcoming Ingrained Behavior

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I want to go back to the Brussels sprouts things. I like that because I think that for some of us, and I’m old, I’m old, so for some of us who have been around for a long time, even though our hearts have been in the right places in many ways, the practices we have learned and have used from many years have become pretty well ingrained in us and we haven’t thought about them in this same way that you’ve thought about them. So I’d like to push a little on creating opportunities for people who, when given the opportunity to behave differently and better, would do so if they could come to that in a way that they could see what they have done and what the system is without feeling as though they’re going to be castigated for behaving the way it was perfectly fine to behave 30 years ago, for example.

I think there are a fair number of us who would like to do better, and who aren’t comfortable with the language of it, who don’t naturally and easily have that new language because it is new for us and perhaps we don’t shift as quickly as someone in their twenties or thirties would. And I’m not trying to make excuses, I’m really not. I think there are a lot of people like that. So while I totally appreciate the way in which you put it out there, I’m a fan, I totally appreciate it, I also think that for some people, it makes some hide because we feel like we’re going to be castigated for making a mistake.

Vu Le:
Yeah. Thanks, Andrea. That is I absolutely real, and I really appreciate this point. I think, again, there are several things that we have to discuss. One is that we’ve made talking about race something that is deeply uncomfortable and full of tension, and if you make a mistake then you are automatically a bad person. But that’s not true. When you make a mistake, you are just a human being. I make mistakes all the time. So we have to let go of this sort of tension. I’m a big fan of Jay Smooth’s philosophy of talking about race, Jay Smooth, which is he was talking about how we need to stop thinking of talking about race like getting our racism tonsils removed. We attend one workshop on undoing racism, and it’s like we got our racist tonsils removed and we can never be racist again or whatever.

He recommends we move towards a dental hygiene model talking about race, where we look in the mirror every single day and we brush and floss daily. And when someone says, “Hey, you got a little bit of racism stuck in your teeth,” we don’t go, “How dare you say that. I’m offended. I’m not a bad person. How would you say that about me?” Instead, you go, “Oh, thank you for pointing that out. I really appreciate that. I’m going to go look in the mirror. I’m going to brush and floss.” This is what we do. We got to do that every day because we’re all going to make mistakes. Now, if we can all do that, then we can set an example for our donors that it’s okay for them to not know everything. It’s okay for them to make mistakes and to bring up stuff.

And at the same time, we have to be okay with really pushing and making people uncomfortable. I think for a long time, our sector has been this white moderates that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr pointed out. From his letter from a Birmingham jail, he said that the biggest barrier towards justice are not the people burning crosses and wearing hoods. It’s the white moderates standing on the side saying, “I really appreciate your goals and I agree with them. But how do we do this way that’s more civil and respectful, et cetera.” That’s who Dr. King said were the biggest barrier to injustice, and I feel like in many ways our sector has become one giant white moderate sector of very well-meaning people who center comfort more than justice, and we have to get out of that. And we as fundraisers have to stop reinforcing that white moderation through our fundraising practices.

Equitable Donations

Amy Eisenstein:
All right, let’s go to John’s question. John says, “Let’s say we have someone who wants to contribute a million dollars to our organization. How do we go about finding out whether or not their money is equity pure?” And I’m going to add, do we go about finding whether or not their money is equity pure?

Vu Le:
Thanks, Amy. This is, again, a complicated conversation that we need to have, and I’m glad that we’re having these conversations again. It is more complicated than that because is anything equity pure? I don’t think so. And again, if someone stole your bicycle and they’re giving you one handlebar bike, “How dare you, this was stolen.” Well yeah, I need to get the rest of my bicycle back. But in the meanwhile, I’m going to go ahead and take this handlebar because that’s one piece of the bike you stole from me. So I think in some ways, there’s complicated things that we have to discuss. Like my last organization, we had a funder that we discovered was funding anti LGBTQ organizations. They were funding hate groups. They were funding groups that the Southern Poverty Center were designating as hate groups.

And we’re like, “They’re funding us too, which we are the completely opposite of these hate groups.” So it was very confusing and we thought, “Do we take their money? Do we keep, do we just send them a strongly worded letter?” And what I discovered was that their boards were made up of family members who had opposing politics. And some board members were like, “We’re going to support Vu’s organization.” Others were like, “We’re going to support these hate groups.” And we could have just said, “You know what, we’re not taking this money.” But what would that do? Maybe it would just enable more money to go to the hate groups. So I don’t think it’s as simple as what is equity pure?
Because the reality is that nothing is really pure in here. So this is the challenge and also the exciting future for our sector. I love these questions. I don’t have the answers for them, but I love the fact that we’re having these questions brought up.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, me too. And I think there has to be some sort of balance. Somebody’s giving you a million dollars. It’s not that you’re not going to question, but how deep are you going to dig to do that? You’re going to be putting it to good use and then have an honest conversation with your donors and saying that you’re exploring these issues and you want to make sure that the work that you’re doing and that the money you’re getting and expending is as equitable as possible and just be loud and proud about these conversations and not shy away from them. All right. Vu, I don’t know if you’re scrolling through the questions. If there’s one that’s jumping out at you that you want to answer, I don’t want to dominate the picking of the questions.

Vu Le:
Oh, there’s so many really good questions. I’ll let you pick, Amy.

Amy Eisenstein:
All right. Andrea, is there one that’s jumping out at you?

Time and Training Devoted to DEI

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah, just the last one. What responsibility do organizations have to spend time and money to train their staff members to better understand equity issues, and what might that look like? That’s my add on to that.

Vu Le:
Yeah, I think it’s absolutely a responsibility. Fundraisers have really not been trained around equity, diversity, and inclusion, except on how to get people of color to give more, for example or how to diversify your board so that they can give more so that we can connect it. It’s all about getting people to give more basically. And now we are moving beyond that. And I feel like a lot of fundraisers may be behind. If you don’t have a conversation about things that are a lot more challenging, how do we talk to our donors about reparation? Are we okay with not getting as much money and so on? These are things that are coming down the pipeline that I think are really exciting. It’s a really hopeful picture. I know it’s easy for me to yell at people about all the things that go wrong, but I’m actually extremely excited because in many respects, fundraising has not been joyful.

We train ourselves to believe that fundraising is joyful and et cetera, but it hasn’t been for a lot of us. It’s been appeasing to donors and people and sucking up to people and so on and avoiding talking to them about inequity and injustice that they are benefiting to and perpetuating. That is not joyful. And for a lot of leaders of color, especially fundraisers of color, this is why we don’t have a lot of fundraisers of color in the sector. Can you imagine the dissonance and the mental and emotional energy it takes to go to a white person, a donor, and say, “Hey, please give money to help address this problem that you and your ancestors have been causing, and I am trained to write you a handwritten thank you letter to thank you for doing something that you should never have had the privilege to do in the first place.

So we do need to have these trainings, and this is where it’s going. But I feel like when we can do that, we can find a really joyful space where fundraising can be really rewarding again. Like the workshop that my friend attended where she discovered her family’s wealth came from the stolen indigenous land, when she made the decision to give it back, she feels so much lighter. Can you imagine the person who did that workshop helping a donor feel lighter and helping to bring justice to the world? That’s where we need to be. We as fundraisers need to embrace our roles as agents of justice, not as engines to bring in resources so that other people in our sector can be agents of justice. We too are agents of justice.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So there have been a couple of questions, Vu, that relate to this. The most recent one is Ashley has asked, “For people in development departments of nonprofits, what are some first steps you would suggest we take to be community-centric in our efforts to fundraise with our organizations?” And then a related question is how do you measure success as a development director if you’re not just looking at money, at financial returns?

Vu Le:
Yeah. Thank you, everyone. I would recommend that you go to the communitycentricfundraising.org website. Here is, I’m going to put in the chat, a four page lists of action items that are aligned with community-centric fundraising. It’s going to be overwhelming looking at all them, but pick out a few things that would be helpful for you. And some of them are very easy, like give a shout out to another organization in your newsletter. Why are we only talking about our own work when our work is interdependent with so many other organizations? You can go ahead and talk about another organization’s mission because let’s look out for one another. So that’s an easy thing to do. There are more difficult things to do, like having conversations around race with your donors. But people are starting to do that too.

A group over here sent out Ijeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race, to their major donors and asked them to come to a conversation about this. So you can do this. As for the metric, yes. Yes, raising money should be a metric, but it should not be the ultimate metric by which everything else is measured. Your metrics should also include how are you addressing equity? How many donors have you invited and are attending these conversations about race? How many other organizations are you lifting up? These are things that we have to… And they seem a little squishier, but the reality is that this is what we should be doing, and it’s exciting.

Amy Eisenstein:
Vu, I want to give you a moment before we start to take a last question or two to promote your blog and community centered fundraising. Suzanne’s saying, “It’s my first time hearing you speak. Are there other opportunities to hear you?” So why don’t you promote your blog and your work for a minute or two?

Vu Le:
Oh, thanks Suzanne. Thanks everyone. Yeah, I write a blog every week called Nonprofit AF, it stands for Nonprofit and Fearless.

Amy Eisenstein:
Or something else, right?

Vu Le:
Right. So please go there and subscribe. I do a lot of speaking. I’m not very good at advertising any of them though, so you might just… I’m going to try in 2022 to probably do a better job just letting people know where I’ll be talking and so on. But please go and join the Slack channel for community-centric fundraising. You can do that, let me find the link to the Slack channel. It’s somewhere. I don’t know, I’ll figure it out.

Amy Eisenstein:
How do people sign up for the community centered fundraising newsletter, where’s that?

Vu Le:
Yeah. Go to communitycentricfundraising.org.

Amy Eisenstein:
So communitycentricfundraising, not centered, which is what I keep saying. Centricfundraising dot org.

Vu Le:
Yeah, yeah. We didn’t want it to be about fundraising in a community center. So it has to be community.

Amy Eisenstein:
Okay. Thank you. Yep, okay. And what’s the URL for them signing up for Nonprofit AF?

Vu Le:
Oh, nonprofitaf.com.

Amy Eisenstein:
Okay. Simple.

Post-Pandemic DEI in the Nonprofit Sector

Amy Eisenstein:
All right, Vu. So let’s shift a minute and talk about how the pandemic has changed our sector. What you’re seeing, what philosophies and practices we’re hoping to keep, get rid of, what are you seeing in the last 18, 20 months as the pandemic drags on and on, and what are you looking forward to in 2022?

Vu Le:
Yeah. Thank you, everyone. I put the Slack channel, the link, so please join. There’s 4,000 CCF practitioners, and it’s a growing movement. So I’m really glad that people are starting do this. So yeah, the pandemic has revealed a whole bunch of stuff that I really don’t want us to learn the wrong lessons from it. I feel like a lot of funders have loosened up their restrictions and things, 800 of them pledged saying that they will make our lives easier by streamlining reports and so on during the pandemic. And I think, “Okay, this is really great.” But now that as the pandemic is somewhat tapering off a bit as people get vaccinated, it’s the same old crappy practices. I don’t want us to get back to that crappy normal that we had. It was inequitable.

Many of the things that we thought were unchangeable, we need to start changing. This is the time for us to really just reexamine every system that we have. For example, boards, again. These boards are oftentimes really ineffective, if not downright toxic to our work. And for a long time, we were just like, “Well, this is the only system we have.” No, it is not. You don’t have to use the same stuff. You don’t have to use Robert’s rules. Who is Robert? Why are we using his rules? They were written in 1856. 1856 was when Robert’s rules was written. We still use them without any change as our communities diversify. Our hiring practices are still crappy. Many of them are still crappy. Disclose salary ranges on your job posting. We don’t have to talk about that anymore. There’s so much research that shows that if you don’t disclose salary ranges on your job posting, you are perpetuating inequity by widening racial and gender wage gaps, and I will call your ass out on Twitter by name.

All right, I will call your organization out by name on Twitter if you don’t disclose salary ranges. Anyone who finds a job posting without salary ranges, you can DM me on Twitter and I will call out the foundation or the organization by name on Twitter. Okay? I’ve been doing this. So things like that. We still have stuff like you must have a BA or a Master’s preferred. Why? We don’t need that. Okay. Unless there’s a very specialized position like counseling or CPAs or lawyers or whatever, you do not need a BA all right. I’ve been an executive director for 13 years, and I can tell you, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to be an effective ED.

You just need a high threshold for pain and chaos. All right, so many of these things that we think are… There’s a lot of things we got to change. And philanthropy as well. I’m tired of the way that philanthropy has been hoarding money, hoarding 95% of the funding, giving out 5%, and making us do all this dog and pony show at the whims of funders. I’m tired of it. I don’t believe in grant applications. I think all of us should have one application, like a business would have one business plan, all of us should have one nonprofit plan. And if any funder wants to fund us, we just send them the plan. That’s it. They don’t get their own specialized answers and shit like that.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
That’s the way college applications work now, right?

Amy Eisenstein:
I was going to say, my son is busy applying to colleges, and most colleges take the common application. He fills out one application, and then maybe answers one additional question for each college. But it’s just one application, it’s the same for every, and I think that that’s the movement, Vu. One common application for every grant funder. What do you think? Would they do it?

Vu Le:
They tried it several times. But because they have this need to be unique and special and to appear smart, what they did was they had a common application and then every one of them would require 12 additional attachments unique to them. So it totally nullified that thing. This is why I think that Trust Based Philanthropy is a movement that I’m a big fan of. And one of their recommended practices is that you just accept a grant that’s already been written for someone else. That’s it. And I remember a foundation calling me up-

Amy Eisenstein:
What’s it called?

Vu Le:
Trustbasedphilanthropy.org. Trust based. And so I remember one funder just called me up and said, “Vu, we want to support you and we know you’re very busy. So can you just find a grant that you wrote for someone else and just forward it to us? Don’t even worry about changing the name of that other foundation, just forward the whole thing to us.”

Amy Eisenstein:
That is awesome.

Vu Le:
Yeah.

Wrapping Up

Amy Eisenstein:
I think that’s the perfect place to end. Unfortunately, we are running out of time. But I want to remind everybody that this recorded conversation, if you want to share it with your executive director, if you want to share it with your board members, they can listen anytime. It’s going to be on our podcast in the next couple of days, called All About Capital Campaigns. Now obviously, we didn’t talk about capital campaigns today, but that’s the name of the podcast. And so if you go to any podcasting app, go to All About Capital Campaigns, and you will hear the recording probably in the next two days, and we’ll have all of this. Vu, there’s so many questions we didn’t get to. We could have had you on here for hours. Why don’t you share one parting thought? What is the key takeaway that you want to leave with our listeners?

Vu Le:
Thank you, Amy and Andrea, for inviting me here. I know I tend to be very opinionated, and so I appreciate you all, and thank you everyone for joining us today. Suzanne, yes, I will call out anyone who does not. This is one of my pet peeves, all right, about people not disclosing salary ranges. I just want to leave with just, look, there’s a lot going on and we are in a crisis. But I really do feel like the silver lining through this crisis, if there is one, is that we have an opportunity to remake our sector, to reimagine it. And I want us to boldly go there because we’re amazing and our sector is amazing, and we need to unlock our full potential. We got to flip some tables over. Let’s do it.

Amy Eisenstein:
All right, Vu. So my commitment to you, our commitment to you, is in the next month, Andrea and I are going to come up with a list of as many as we can, Capital Campaign practices, that we’re going to flip or turn around or upside down that are more equitable and really take your words to heart and try and apply it to as much of the work as we can that we do, and we’d love your feedback. So we’ll see what everybody thinks of what you come up with. How about that, Andrea?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I think it’s a great idea, Amy.

Vu Le:
Oh everyone, sorry. Anne was asking a question about where… Tomorrow, if you’re free, I’ll be talking with Lucy Bernholz and Carmen Rojas at the Marguerite Casey Foundation about giving and philanthropy. And it’s free. I think you get a free book too if you sign up.

Amy Eisenstein:
Do you have the link?

Vu Le:
Yep, right there in the chat.

Amy Eisenstein:
Oh, you put it. Okay, excellent. All right, thanks everybody for joining us. Vu, thank you so much for having this conversation, even if it’s uncomfortable, and I think it’s so critical and we would like to have you back again and again so we can take our Brussels sprouts and get more comfortable and implement some of these really important, necessary changes to our sector.

Vu Le:
Thank you, everyone.

Amy Eisenstein:
All right, thanks everybody.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Thank you, Vu. Thanks everybody. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next week.

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