The nonprofit rut, and what we can do about it

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, I am writing from Nairobi Kenya, where I am listening to local leaders and engaging in reflections about global aid and the many challenges around it. It has been nice to physically avoid the dumpster fire that is much of US politics, especially over the past few months as most of our politicians have been offering their full-throated support of Israel’s gen0cide of Palestinians. I’ve also been disappointed with our sector, where, with a few courageous exceptions, we’ve mostly been silent as Israel massacres thousands of children and civilians using our tax dollars.

To be honest, I think I’ve reached a point now where I am starting to lose faith in our unicorn magic, and I’m more bitter and jaded and have been randomly mumbling under my breath about the hopelessness and futility of it all. I’ve become an old man yelling at clouds. Is our sector effective? Surely, with so many kind, compassionate, justice-minded individuals in the trenches, we must be. Everywhere there are signs of good, vital work being done.

So why does it always still feel so Sisyphean? Why do we keep having the same conversations, the same challenges, the same grumblings when we get together and can speak our minds freely?

  • “My organization still does poverty tours where we bring wealthy donors to gawk at our clients”
  • “Our food pantry is celebrating our 50th anniversary, but I really wish we’d just solve poverty and go out of business already”
  • “Foreign NGOs have been causing destruction to local communities by forcing their agendas while ignoring the political contexts that allow poverty and injustice to proliferate in the first place”
  • “This asshole foundation requires a 12-page narrative and 8 attachments including a bespoke budget (in Word!) for a one-year $10,000 grant that can’t be spent on staff wages!”

These are the same complaints grumblings I heard two decades ago. I’m sure those who have even more experience have heard them for longer. At what point are we just all sick of all of this? At what point does the dam finally break and we ride at dawn or whatever? I would like to ride at dawn!

I see the students forming encampments to protest gen0cide and demand their universities divest from supporting Israel, and it brings me hope. These protests are spreading all over the world. Our sector should be taking cues from these courageous actions.

Instead, we’re in a rut. Our sector is in a rut. A quick search online reveals that a rut is “a long, deep track made by the repeated passage of the wheels of vehicles” and “a habit or pattern of behaviour that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.”

That feels like where we are, and where we have been. The wagon we’re on has been going back and forth on the same road so frequently that it’s made some deep grooves and the wheels are kind of stuck there on that track, and now it’s extremely hard to change direction. We’re so used to the same strategies, the same behaviors, the same challenges, the same thinking, the same solutions.

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.