Is it just as hard to give out money as it is to seek it?

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, if you’re interested in being involved with the Crappy Funding Practices movement, please join a special meeting we’re hosting on May 14th at 10am Pacific Time, where we’ll update you on what’s been going on, and present the different options for you to plug into. Register here. See you then!

A few years ago, I was in Oxford, speaking on a panel at a conference with colleague Jessamyn Shams-Lau, who is the lead author of Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build Epic Partnerships; we were there to promote the book and discuss how nonprofit leaders and funders could work more effectively together. during the Q&A, a program officer pushed back, hinting that we panelists were unfairly critical of funders, and declaring that giving out funds is just as difficult seeking it. Several funders in room, and a few nonprofit leaders, nodded in agreement.

At another time, in Seattle, a funder said to me “Vu, one day you’ll work for a foundation; I predict you’ll see how challenging it is to make grants. It’s just as difficult as applying for them.” Work for a foundation? I am tempted by the prospect of access to unlimited pistachios, La Croix, and dry-erase markers—trust me, I’ve been to some of y’all’s offices—though at this point, I am not sure any foundation in its right mind would hire me.

If we repeat things often enough, we start to believe them to be true, even when they are not. For example, we say things like “80% of philanthropic dollars come from individual donors” (False!) or “general operating dollars means no accountability” (Ridiculous!) or “you can’t thank someone too much!” (You absolutely can!) or “unlike his online persona, Vu is really awkward in-person; do not invite him to your house parties, he will stand in the corner and rant at your guests about Donor-Advised Funds” (True, but hurtful!)

Over the years, it seems the sentiment “Giving out money is just as difficult as applying for grants” has been proliferated and the sentiment internalized among many funders and even nonprofit leaders, and like many of the philosophies we take for granted, has been very annoying and displays a lack of awareness of privilege and power dynamics and negatively harms the work.

Before my foundation colleagues pelt me with pistachio shells, I am not saying that grantmaking is a piece of cake. I see how hard some of you work. Foundation staff also face burnout, especially those who are trying to do their work thoughtfully and with an equity lens in mind. And there are challenges you’re dealing with that many nonprofit leaders may not encounter with the same frequency, such as appealing to the egos of family members who sit on the board of trustees and who may have the content knowledge and temperament of toddlers.

However, it is disingenuous to say that giving out money is just as hard as seeking it. Unless you’re at a foundation that must annually raise money to give out, funders probably don’t wake up in cold sweat, worrying about whether the next payroll can be run. You probably don’t have as many panic attacks regarding having to lay off one or more of your team members if fundraising goals are not being met. You’re probably not constantly in survival mode because you have few guarantees on which, if any, of your sources of revenues will renew next year. You’re probably not duct-taping your chairs and using computers that are still running on Windows 95. You’re probably not forced to bite your tongue as frequently for fear of having funding rescinded that would jeopardize entire programs and staff teams. At least, not as much as nonprofits.

It is these fear, instability, uncertainty, and power imbalance that make working at a nonprofit difficult. Funders, especially the ones with endowments, don’t have to deal with these things with the same degree of frequency or intensity. Plus, foundation staff are on average better compensated, including having better benefits such as paid-time-off and retirement contributions.

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.