Vu Le, author of the book “Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build EPIC Partnerships” and executive director of the Rainier Valley Corps nonprofit, was the keynote speaker at the Unicorns Unite event on August 12, co-sponsored by YNPN. His speech was both an indictment and a celebration of the nonprofit industry.
Here are 4 takeaways from his presentation:
Vu calls the current state of affairs among nonprofits The Hunger Games. We compete for resources and donors, and we hoard what we find. We don’t recognize that our missions overlap and intertwine.
Instead of fighting each other for money, we should work together to fix the larger system. Alliances are the key to working together effectively. Sharing skills, tools, and resources is better for everyone. Vu has started a collaboration where a group of nonprofits combine their accounting, human resources, and health insurance, enabling them all to work lighter and put more money toward their missions.
Raising money today is all about catering to donors. Any development professional can tell you that. But Vu disagrees with that philosophy. Instead of protecting them from harsh realities and meeting their every request, we should be educating them about the challenges and issues our society faces. We should be talking about justice rather than compassion and charity.
Our donor-centric fundraising approach actually prevents our supporters from thinking about the deeper issues. We need to give our donors more credit. Most of them won’t walk away if we push back a little. They want to know what’s happening in their community or country. They appreciate our expertise. They want to know their money is being used for the best purposes possible. So tell them what those issues are. And don’t be afraid to say no to money if you are fundamentally at odds with a donor’s priorities.
Unfortunately, nonprofits are not trusted with the resources to do the work donors want us to be doing. Vu gives an example: “We gave you $10,000? Why didn’t you fix poverty?”
By doling out resources piecemeal like this, funders ensure that nonprofits are never able to achieve big results. They worry about the hose-to-water ratio when we’re on the ground fighting a fire. That shouldn’t matter, as long as the fire gets put out.
Because of this lack of trust, morale is at an all-time low in the nonprofit industry. We are constantly scrambling for funds, forced to spend thousands of hours writing grants, have to explain how our programs are sustainable. The donors are the ones who should make them sustainable.
Vu says that we need to learn from conservative political organizations, who raise money for 30 years at a time, all for general operating funds. This has allowed them to make huge gains toward their mission. If other nonprofits were funded in that way, what leaps and bounds might we have made toward abolishing poverty or racism?
Owning Our Power
“We are all amazing,” Vu says. “And I don’t think you realize that.”
Nonprofits aren’t represented in the media, and we’re often overlooked in society. Vu compares the industry to the air; no one notices the air until they need it.
We need to do a better job showcasing our awesomeness to the world, Vu says. And we need to believe in our own power. We work miracles every day, with so little funding. That’s something to brag about.
“You are unicorns,” Vu says. “You are amazing unicorns and you stab inequity in the face with your horns of justice.”