Why pitch-based funding competitions are harmful and we need to stop having them

Written by Vu Le

Last week, I was on Clubhouse in a conversation called “If Nonprofits Were Brutally Honest with Funders” (with colleagues Dr. Rahsaan Harris, Kris Putnam-Walkerly, and Julie Morris). After my remarks about power dynamics, the injustices upon which much of philanthropy is based, and how so little funding goes to organizations led by marginalized communities, listeners were invited to join in. The first person said something about how people of color should learn to “pitch” better so that funders and donors could understand their ideas. (Another person said being nice and getting people to empathize and bringing them ice cream to eat and puppies to snuggle with would work better in soliciting funding than my “angry complaints,” but that’s for another post).

The idea of “pitching” is not new. We have been trained to do “elevator pitches” that are supposed to be pithy yet moving, sincere yet polished, inspiring yet grounded, all in 20 seconds. We pitch to donors, funders, politicians, partner orgs, volunteers. Grants, meanwhile, are basically just long pitches. We do a lot of pitching.

The most extreme manifestation of this idea of “pitching” are the “Shark Tank”-style funding opportunities where leaders go on stage to give short presentations about their organizations’ work to a live audience, after which, depending on how they do and how the “judges” and people watching their presentations react, they could walk away with one of several small grant prizes.

Like many philosophies and practices in our sector that we’ve accepted as normal, pitch-based funding opportunities can seem fine, fun, and helpful. Often, participants get mentorship and training on public speaking and obtain some experience. A colleague who participated in one of these competitions told me she got to know other participants and it was not at all competitive; people supported one another and everyone had a great time. These competitions can be done with a spirit of camaraderie and public awareness and not the cutthroat events they could potentially become. Plus, they are certainly more interesting for everyone than the traditional, tedious grantmaking process.

However, just because something CAN be done well doesn’t mean it SHOULD be done at all. After attending many of these pitch events, talking to folks who have gone through them, and weighing the pros and cons, I think they are more harmful than helpful to our sector and we should phase them out completely. Here are several reasons why:

They entrench existing power dynamics between funders/donors and nonprofits: Why is it always nonprofits that are pitching to funders and donors? Why is it never the other way around? Simple: Because one party has money, and in our society that means they by default get to call the shots. But is this what we want to reinforce? Why should people who have money have so much power, and the people who are actually doing the work of running programs and services have to jump through hoops? How can we become equal partners in this work if we keep reinforcing the asymmetric power differentials that are already pervasive everywhere else?

They’re inequitable, rewarding the organizations that can play the game best: Grant applications are usually inequitable because the organizations that can write the “best” proposals usually win, and they tend to be mainstream, white-led orgs. Pitch-based competitions have the same challenges: Those who win tend to be the best presenters, the most charismatic, and the ones with the missions that most tug at heart-strings. Participants from marginalized backgrounds, who may not be as fluent in English as others, or who may not have as much presentation skills, or whose missions are harder to explain or get people to care about, are often left behind. Also, who can participate as judges and audience members? Mostly well-off white people and others of privilege.

They perpetuate competitiveness among different interrelated missions: Sure, when done thoughtfully, they can be friendly competitions. But they are competitions nonetheless. There is already so much jostling in our sector for resources: grants, donations, media coverage, even talent. We need to do a much better job understanding that all our missions are interrelated and we should be supporting one another. Funders complain about nonprofits not collaborating enough, especially to work on systemic issues, and yet every day they force nonprofits to compete with one another through their funding processes, including these pitch competitions, which my colleague Mari Kim likens to Squid Game, but less interesting.

They turn the work of equity and justice into spectacles: A major reason so many of us were upset at the proposed show on CBS called “The Activist” is that it reduces critical causes into entertainment. These pitch-based competitions are basically just smaller, local versions of that show. There are already enough ingrained expectations in our sector that we manipulate our messaging to make our work emotionally resonant and easily digestible to people with money. We shouldn’t have to also simultaneously develop skills to entertain them too, as that only conditions people to pay attention to stuff that rouses their interests, not what would most be needed to build a just and equitable world (that stuff tends to be less entertaining).

They reinforce ignorance among the public: Oftentimes, the people “judging” the competitions as well as those in attendance may have never worked at nonprofits addressing these causes or had any first-hand experience in these issues at all. And yet they get the microphone and ask ridiculous questions or make comments that further the public’s misperceptions of nonprofits. One colleague told me she failed to get funding because one “judge,” a dude from the tech sector, asked how her mission was going to be self-sustaining (Most nonprofits will never be self-sustaining and it is a delusion to think they will ever be). Questions on sustainability, overhead, scaling, etc. betray a complete lack of understanding of how nonprofits actually run and reinforce harmful misinformation, making nonprofits’ work even more difficult.

They are time-consuming and distracting: These competitions require significant investment in time and energy. Meeting with mentors, practicing, rehearsals, etc. This competition hosted by Morgan Stanley for funding to address children’s mental health, for example, requires participants to attend six weeks of trainings on pitching and other stuff. The people working hard to ensure children have mental health support do not need training on public speaking or making pitches or whatever. They need money! That’s something we need funders and donors to understand: Stop wasting our time on nonsensical stuff and making us jump through flaming hoops for your entertainment or edification and just provide money.

They are insulting and patronizing: As one colleague put it regarding a competition in her community: “nonprofit staff are forced to perform for self-described ‘sharks,’ who regularly insult and belittle staff for failing to be sufficiently entrepreneurial. Be prepared to dance, monkey, dance.” If it’s not overtly insulting, it’s often patronizing. “If nonprofits develop their speaking and pitching skills, they can approach other funders; you know, teach someone to fish, etc.” This is a condescending attitude that is too prevalent among funders and donors. Do not create ridiculous and inequitable processes and think you’re doing nonprofits a favor by helping them develop skills in navigating the ridiculousness and inequity.

For these and other reasons, I’d like for us to move away from pitch-based competitions altogether. Let’s phase them out completely. I know there are counter-arguments we can make, but almost any and every benefit of pitch-based competitions (getting to know other nonprofits, exposing the public to important causes, developing presentation skills) can be done in other, better ways.

Let’s be more thoughtful and fund in more equitable ways. The whole concept of “pitching” is problematic and it goes way beyond these competitions. As colleague Yvonne Moore of Moore Philanthropy said during that Clubhouse discussion, and I paraphrase: “We [communities of color and other marginalized communities] are really good at pitches. People just don’t hear us.”

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.