Being a Nonprofit with Balls
Recently, a new nonprofit came to meet me at the VFA office, which I appreciated, since I’m a very busy person, and meeting at my office allows me to watch a second episode of “The Daily Show” on hulu.com. This particular advocacy organization was trying to advance education in Seattle, and they wanted to see about collaborating with VFA. “Luke” came on time and was very friendly.
“Two separate people mentioned you, Vu, as someone we should talk to,” he said, beaming. He went on to present his concept, which was not altogether a horrible idea for advancing education. But I had this sinking feeling in my stomach. He was going to ask VFA to pull together a focus group.
“We’re trying to really engage communities of color, so we’re hoping you would do a focus group of 15 or 20 people for us to listen to.”
Every week, VFA gets some sort of request to rally our community members: “Vu, the seawall is breaking! Can you recruit several immigrants and refugees to give input?” The following week: “Vu, the combined sewers are overflowing! We want to get the Vietnamese community’s thoughts!” It is rarely anything fun: “Vu, a delegation is going to Hawaii to study the effects of hula and mild inebriation on nonprofit executives’ burnout rates, and we’d like you to come.”
“To be frank,” I said, “we are at capacity. We have only three full-time staff here at VFA running several programs and projects. I’m afraid that unless there are resources provided, I cannot ask my team to tackle any additional responsibilities.”
Luke looked perplexed and started talking about the importance of the effort he is trying to advance. I told him that if he wants effective collaborations, he should go to his funders and advocate for a more equitable financial support of organizations that are out there on the ground doing direct work so that we can have more capacity for advocacy. He became irritated and extremely defensive.
“Well, Vu,” he said, “I can’t go back to my funders and say ‘Vu won’t play ball unless we give him money.’ I can’t do that.”
Luke must be new to Seattle. In a city known for process and indirectness, it was rather refreshing to hear him talk.
“Play ball? Listen, Luke, we small ethnic nonprofits are knee-deep in balls! We have balls flying at us from every corner, from the City, from the County, from the School District, from organizations like yours. Usually without any funding to support our operations. We can’t juggle your balls for you!”
Kidding, I would never say that; at least, not while sober. What I said was, “The traditional ways of engaging communities of colors do not work. If you want to rally a few people to ‘listen’ to, then I am sure you can succeed in the short term. If you want long-term impact, I am telling you that you and others will need to shift your traditional way of doing and funding things. You can either hire a multicultural team of outreach staff, or you will need to work with cultural organizations; either way, it will take resources because it takes much more effort to reach communities of color.”
He was visibly annoyed. “I am not looking for a handout, Vu,” he said, “you know what, if you just write down how much it’ll cost to pay for a few hours of someone’s time to call up people and how much facilities and food and other expenses will be, we’ll figure out a way to pay for them.”
Luke did not seem to understand. I told him I didn’t have time to sit down and figure out his budget for him. And that even when there are resources, sometimes we have to turn down great projects because they do not align with our strategic plan.
“That really saddens me,” he responded, “and when this effort is huge and successful, and the Vietnamese community’s voice is missing, we’ll both understand why.”
I smiled. There was no point arguing further with him.
“All right,” he said, “how about this? We get lunch, you and I, and you bring just one Vietnamese client. Just one. You know what they say, the journey of ten thousand steps begins with one step, so can you do that? Just one client.”
“Luke,” I said—
“Do you know what it takes to coordinate even something as simple as that? First I have to figure out which clients I know, then I have to call up four of five of them to see if any are interested. If one is interested, I have to find a slot that works with your schedule, my schedule, and this other person’s schedule. Also, I’d be more than glad to have lunch with you, but I am 90% certain that a client will not join, because they work during the day.”
Our time was up. I started feeling a pang of guilt. Perhaps I was a little too harsh. “Listen,” I said, “I want to be sure there is no misunderstanding between us—”
“Oh, there’s not,” he said, smirking, “I heard you loud and clear.”
“I don’t BS,” I said, staring him in the eye, “if you want real community engagement, help change the traditional way of doing things.”
I walked them out and sat down at my computer to write my follow up thank-you email. Was I out of line? Was I taking out some sort of unconscious frustration on Luke? I don’t doubt his or his organization’s intentions. Perhaps he just came at a bad time. Every month, we get a dozen similar requests, usually from well-meaning and well-funded organizations. The VFA staff work ridiculous hours managing programs and several capacity building and other projects. I’ve never worked with a more dedicated team. Is it unreasonable then for me to feel protective and to get annoyed at people like Luke, who seem to think we have unlimited time and that we are selfish when we refuse to “collaborate”?
Luke responded back, and we are having lunch in a couple of weeks. I’ll keep you updated.
Vu Le is the Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), an SVP Investee. His column, “Staff, Retreat!” documents the fun of nonprofit work.