ery day nonprofits put precious money and hours into a Franken-stein-style effort to gather bits of cash, navigate restricted funding, and customize proposals and reports. We must stop wasting
each other’s time with petty concerns like overhead. All grants
should be made to support general operating costs. Everyone
needs to focus on outcomes and results, not which grant maker
is paying for pencils, who paid for insurance, and whether those
things add up to less than 10 percent of a grant award.
The hundreds of millions of hours we lose each year playing
funding Sudoku and tailoring grant proposals and reports should
instead go to working on our missions. There are models for how
to do this differently, including the Whitman Institute’s nine
principles of trust-based grant making and the Peery Foundation’s focus on putting grantees first.
Fund marginalized communities directly and in significant amounts. Grant makers talk about equity a lot, yet they still
tend to support large, established organizations with which they
have relationships. These organizations play an important role
and provide critical services, but a basic tenet of equity is that
the people most affected by injustice should be leading efforts to
The coming storm threatens particular groups of people
the most: Muslims, immigrants and refugees, people of color,
women, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities. We must
invest in organizations led by these people, not simply continue
to go with whoever writes the best grant proposals or has the best
funding relationships. And we must invest more than just token
Embrace and fund community mobilizing and advocacy.
Advocacy, with all its complexity and messiness, is often treated
in our field like a luxury. But all nonprofits, direct-service or not,
must take a role in advocating on the issues that affect our communities. This is more urgent and important than ever.
I’ve talked to enough foundation executives to sense that many
are uncomfortable with advocacy work, especially to promote
social justice. I was told by program officers on more than one
occasion this year to remove the words “redlining” and “racism”
from grant proposals I wrote, even though those are exactly what
my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, and many other nonprofits are fighting against. Foundations need to stop discouraging
advocacy work and start spending on it. Increase funding for
existing advocacy efforts, and help direct-service providers get
involved in system change.
Greatly increase funding for leadership development, especially of leaders of color. If we have any hope of mobilizing for
a just and inclusive society, we must develop the kind of leaders
we need. The long-lamented fact that less than 1 percent of grant
making goes into leadership development is even less acceptable
now, in light of what many of our communities are dealing with.
For all the hand-wringing about our lack of diversity, people
of color — who represent 30 percent of the U.S. work force —
make up only 18 percent of nonprofit employees, according to
Community Wealth Partners. At foundations, just 8. 4 percent
of presidents and CEOs and 17 percent of executive staff overall
are people of color, the diversity coalition D5 found in its 2016
“State of the Work” report. These numbers will only change if
foundations significantly increase their investment in leadership
development, immediately. Our society is shifting demographically and in its collective values. There is a lot of fear and anger
out there, and demagogues and authoritarian leaders prey on
it. We can only counter it by developing leaders who believe in
inclusion and social justice.
Listen to the people most affected by injustice. It’s been exhausting to those of us who work with people suffering injustices
to propose solutions and see them shot down time and again. The
arguments often go like this: You don’t have the data; you don’t
have the track record; you’re not big enough; you’re not scalable;
you don’t align with the strategies we crafted after spending two
years on strategic planning.
The assumption that marginalized communities do not know
what’s good for them is infantilizing and deeply inequitable. And
it’s not working. Moving forward, we need to trust that communities know the solutions to the problems they endure every day,
and then we need to fund those solutions.
Support efforts to promote civil discourse. Our society has
never been more polarized. We cannot have a functioning community when people with differing opinions and solutions refuse
to communicate with one another. More and more, people enter
their echo chamber and refuse to leave, in the process demonizing others and destroying any hope of civil dialogue.
Foundations can play a critical role in bringing collegial discourse back. Fund conversations between diverse communities.
Fund programs that teach kids (and adults) how to share perspectives and disagree without rancor. Fund happy hours where
people who see one another as The Enemy might find common
Many foundations see such activities as fluffy outputs, not impactful outcomes. But given the mutual fear, hatred, and demo-nization and its bearing on our political climate, we all need to
appreciate and promote the intrinsic value of civil conversation.
Support responsible media and journalism. We have reached
a sad era in which national elections are little more than real-ity-TV shows. Our media often fixate not on substance, but on
whichever stories promise the most entertainment, the most
sensation, the highest ratings and click counts. This gave rise to
a candidate who has no policy expertise but who knows how to
manipulate the public’s thirst for provocation and spectacle.
Foundations can play a part in reversing this. Fund journalism
of integrity and substance. Fund journalism programs and news
outlets led by people who are too often ignored by the media.
Fund nonprofits working to return integrity to our press.
Be more flexible and take more risks. The destructiveness
of “strategic philanthropy” has now been acknowledged by
many grant makers, even those who pushed the idea. Social
injustice by its very nature is volatile and unpredictable, forcing
our communities to constantly adapt to survive. Nonprofits are
also used to negotiating an uneven landscape and the adaptation that demands. Foundations, however, have been slow to
change, to take risks, to accept failure. We can no longer operate
that way. Equity requires us to take risks, tolerate mistakes, and
learn as we go.
This election should prompt the nonprofit world to re-examine
philosophies and processes we have taken as immutable. Too
many people are hurting now, and facing the prospect of even
greater injustice, for us to waste a moment on the old ways of
Nonprofits like mine, which works to develop leaders of color
and strengthen organizations of color so they can be civically engaged, are resolved to work harder than ever. But we need grant
makers to become our true partners. That means dropping old
policies and practices that get in the way of progress. n
Vu Le is executive director of Rainier Valley Corps and writes the
blog Nonprofit With Balls.
The new presidency threatens
to undo all the progress nonprofits
have worked so hard to make.
Read more opinions
on Trump and