Funders, do you have Main Character Syndrome and are engaging in crappy funding practices? We’re coming for you!

Written by Vu Le

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how no funder deserves their own unique snowflake financial or outcomes report from grantees, and that they should just accept nonprofits’ annual report and comprehensive financial statements. A colleague pointed out that these burdensome and nonsensical requirements are a result of many funders having a “Main Character Syndrome” (MCS).

MCS, according to my quick consultation with fellow cool young people, is basically where someone thinks they are the main character in the universe, and that everyone else is just a support character in their fascinating and enthralling story. And they act like it. This phenomenon helps to explain many things that happen in our sector, such as the egotistical executive director who needs to take credit for everything. Or the board member/donor who demands to be treated like royalty and who gets offended at the slightest injury to their image or sensibilities.

In funders Main Character Syndrome may explain a lot of the challenges we’ve been dealing with. For instance, if you DON’T need to feel like the special main protagonist, then why not just accept a grant application that has already been written? Why does it need to conform to your whims? “Please answer this same question that you answer all the time in other grant applications, but for us, because we are as unique and beautiful and rare as the ghost orchid, you must use fewer than 500 characters.”

Over the years we’ve been talking about a common grant application. Several places have tried to implement it, and it has mostly failed. In one case, the funders could not agree to a common set of questions. In another case, the funders agreed to the common application, with the caveat that each funder could also require multiple additional unique attachments, which rendered the whole exercise pointless.

Here, I’ve created a special tool for funders. I’m calling it the Main Character Role Actualization in Philanthropy (MCRAP) checklist. It’s like the MCAT, which is the test people take on their journey to becoming in a doctor in the US, but instead of measuring people’s preparedness to go to medical school to be a physician and heal people, the MCRAP measures foundations’ egotistical nature and proclivities for wasting nonprofits’ time and preventing them from doing their work.

If your foundation scores high on the MCRAP, it’s not entirely your fault. The field has conditioned you to be this way. Because of the power imbalance between funders and nonprofits, you are constantly treated like the main character—who is always smarter, more charismatic, more talented, and 27% more attractive than support characters. Why wouldn’t you act like the main character when everyone else is acting like you are?

Also, because of that same power dynamics, nonprofit colleagues are seldom honest with you. Which means you rarely get feedback on how your main-character tendencies are annoying and harmful. Think of powerful people who are surrounded by yes-people. Like a billionaire who buys a successful social media company, who is orbited by staff and advisors too terrified to tell him that renaming the social media platform to sound like a porn site is a bad idea. In similar veins, nonprofits are too terrified to tell you that many, or most, of your foundation’s practices, as well as funders’ collective shenanigans in general (such as “strategic philanthropy”), are silly if not toxic.

Of course, not all funders are like this. There are great funder allies and who are just as frustrated as nonprofit leaders are by all of these time-wasting and toxic philanthropic practices. Thank you for working on the inside to change things.

Still, Main Character Syndrome among funders is definitely an issue that is preventing nonprofits, as well as funders, from being as effective as they can be. I hope funders will start to be more aware of it, be honest with themselves about how it manifests, solicit feedback from their grantees about how they can be better partners, and act to minimize the need to be the main character in the epic ongoing saga of equity and justice.

Read full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.