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What are we willing to give up to end the Nonprofit Hunger Games?

By Vu Le
April 29, 2020

A hand rising out of a large body of water. The rest of the person is completely submerged and not visible in the image. A shoreline is in the distant background.
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Reprinted from Nonprofit AF.

I know the past few weeks I’ve been pushing hard and being very critical of our sector, especially of foundations. And also, not being very funny. The urgency of this moment means we and the people we serve can no longer afford for us to put up with ineffective or destructive philosophies and practices. Besides deaths from the virus itself, there will be significant increase in global poverty. Starvation threaten to kill millions more in the years ahead. Our sector must dispense with all the bullshit that has been keeping us down, and rise in response.

So, I’ll continue pushing even harder in the coming months, as we need to reexamine everything we have taken as granted or immutable: the way we do fundraising, the default board model, data and evaluation, the relationship with philanthropy, the need to get political, etc.

However, I also want to recognize some bright spots in our sector, glimmers of hope that shine even brighter during challenging times. The Peery FoundationLibra FoundationWallace Global FundGroundswell FundDouty FoundationWoods Fund Chicago, among others, have significantly increased their giving levels to meet this crisis. Last week, Gina Crane (@notajogger), Director of Communications and Learning at the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation in the UK, tweeted out: “At @EsmeeFairbairn we’ve just offered out £14m in a day in unrestricted grants for UK organisations we fund–no applications, no reports. It feels like the least we can do.”

This is awesome. I’m grateful that so many funding partners are pushing to get rid of many of the hurdles that we see so clearly now are completely superficial and unnecessary—hurdles like grant applications, deadlines, reports, restricted funding, 5% annual payout rates, long decision processes, etc.

As great as that tweet was, a follow-up from Gina was even better, mentioning a “grantee who has already responded to say they might not take it as there are other organisations who need it more.” This echoes another foundation in my state who gave out $50,000 unsolicited and unrestricted grants to nonprofits, especially those led by marginalized communities, in response to COVID-19. They too reported that a few organizations turned down the grants, asking instead that the funds go to other orgs.

Nonprofits, without being asked, giving up funding and requesting grants go to other missions? This is astounding and incredibly generous. It is also, let’s be honest, contrary to what we’ve been taught in this sector, and what has been rewarded. We have been playing the Nonprofit Hunger Games, where we fight with one another for resources that we have been falsely conditioned to believe are scarce. Focused on our own mission’s survival, we hoard funding, information, and credit. An executive director colleague lamented to me that his board got mad at him because he had the audacity to help another organization advance its work. “They are our competitors!” he was told, his board chair pounding a clenched fist on the desk while lighting flashed and rain pummeled the window pane (or at least, that’s how I imagined it).

In these trying times, I am moved to see my colleagues not buying into these deeply held and destructive philosophies that have kept our sector down for so long. This generosity of spirit reflects the extraordinary compassion and thoughtfulness we’ve seen in our community: Medical professionals risking and sometimes losing their lives to provide care; restaurants, facing crises themselves, preparing meals for those experiencing homelessness; folks on Twitter Venmo’ing cash to strangers who are facing hardship.

Things are rough everywhere. And unfortunately, we have barely been able to consider the aftermath of the pandemic. For us and our community to be OK, we have to look out for one another, and this means we don’t just think about what we can do, but what we are willing to give up, which is much harder (I wrote about it earlier here). Here are a few key things nonprofits, in looking out for one another, must consciously think about giving up:

Financial resources: Amidst all the difficulties faced by so many nonprofits, there are organizations that are doing fine. In fact, the crisis has caused a swelling of funds to certain nonprofits. I hear of a few now who have met their annual fundraising goal, several months ahead of schedule. While many arts organizations are suffering and possibly facing permanent closure, some larger more well-connected ones are being strongly supported by their base of donors. This is great. And if this is your organization, think about what resources you can give up to help other organizations who are struggling. Don’t apply for some grants; and like the organizations mentioned earlier, decline unsolicited grants or donations and ask for the funds to go to orgs you know are doing good work but are having a hard time.

Relationships: Our sector is built on relationships. They determine everything, which means that they are often more valuable than money. Figure out which ones you can transfer to the people and organizations who could benefit from them, even if it does mean you may ultimately lose those relationships; for instance, by introducing a donor to another mission, the donor may shift their support. It also means being thoughtful in speaking up against those in power, and thus possibly burning some bridges. An ED colleague, for example, after many attempts at coaching and training, gave up a long-time board member and major donor for continually fighting the organization’s efforts to be anti-racist. This may help other organizations in the future. Doing the right thing sometimes involves giving up relationships we value.

A sense of certainty: When there is so much chaos, we tend to gravitate toward actions that allow us to have a sense of certainty and stability. If we know that funding will come tomorrow, we would be more generous today, but we don’t know, and so we hoard and we avoid taking risks. This is also a reason why many foundations cling to the 5% minimum payout rule. We have to be willing to give up some sense of certainty. If you decline a $50,000 grant to help another struggling organization, you don’t know if at the end of the fiscal year you may have a deficit. If a foundation triples its payout rate, there is no guarantee that the market will recover enough in the future for it to build back its assets. Giving up the sense of certainty, then, is one of the most generous of acts.

I know this is in many ways the complete opposite of how we have been trained in this field. But the world has changed, and inequities and injustice are and will continue to be magnified. Those most affected are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color; people with disabilities; women; LGBTQ folks; older adults; low-income folks. And this is reflected in the dynamics among nonprofits: The organizations facing the gravest threats to their survival and ability to serve their communities are smaller grassroots organizations led by and serving marginalized communities.

The only way we can get through this global crisis with our humanity intact is to unlearn many of the things we have been taught. Those of us as individuals with privilege or as leaders of organizations with privilege must be thoughtful about what resources we have been taking and consider what we are willing to give up to strengthen our community. Let us end the Nonprofit Hunger Games. I am thankful for the organizations and foundations paving the way.

Tags: Management and administration; Fundraising; Social sector