Building Bridges of the Future

How nonprofits and foundations can adapt and unleash their full potential

Building Bridges of the Future

Nonprofit organizations employ 10% of the US workforce and contribute 6% of the GDP, not to mention the good work that they do changing lives and impacting society.  But according to Vu Le, nonprofit executive director and beloved blogger, so many in the public and private sector don’t give nonprofits the credit they deserve.

Vu served as the closing keynote for the Together SC annual learning summit, held in downtown Greenville in March.  The session served as GPP’s March meeting and brought GPP members together with more than 700 nonprofit and philanthropic leaders across the state.  We heard from Vu that nonprofits and foundations must build bridges to build their power and to strengthen their work for the people they serve.

Vu described seven bridges for nonprofits to build:

A bridge to society at large.  Vu likened nonprofit work to air while for-profits are like food.  Both are essential, but meals are what people post pictures of on social media, not oxygen.  But who documents the work of nonprofits even though we need them to “breathe”?  Vu says we need to tell the stories of nonprofits in the way talk about the private sector.

Bridges between nonprofits and for-profits.  In Vu’s blog, “Dear business people, please stop bizsplaining things to us nonprofit folks,” he described how often folks from the private sector have given him advice from their experience that doesn’t apply to nonprofit work or is impossible to pursue.  As nonprofits become successful, for instance, their expenses may increase, but that doesn’t mean their revenues grow at the same pace.   Vu says change in people’s lives can’t be measured – and can’t generate revenue – in the same way as iPhone sales.    Bridges between nonprofits and businesses can help private sector friends understand nonprofit work and provide guidance and support in a more useful and practical way.

Bridges between nonprofits and funders. Vu shared frustrations that are common among nonprofit staff in working with some foundations and application-driven funders. Why the focus on overhead?  Nonprofits need executive directors, utilities, and rent to do their work.  Why ask about sustainability of funding after a one-year grant?  If funders want a nonprofit to be “sustainable” because they are doing good work, then they need to sustain them with funding. Bridges between nonprofits and funders will build understanding about how to ensure the effective work gets done.

Bridges to the larger nonprofit ecosystem.  Vu believes that we need to stop playing the Nonprofit Hunger Games, resulting in a survival of the fittest.  He says we shouldn’t expect all nonprofits to be good at everything.  Vu helped set up a community alliance in which his organization provides back office support for small nonprofits to allow them to concentrate on the front line work without having to worry about accounting, payroll, and the like.  Relationships between large and small nonprofits strengthen the work.

Bridges between donors and the community. Vu notes that nonprofits tend to tell sad stories about their clients as a way to generate contributions.  But instead of speaking to donors as if our clients are vulnerable and weak “others” and they – the donors – are “saviors,” we need to tie all of our fates together.  Community-centric fundraising notes that we are all in this together, and generating funding for our work makes life better for ALL of us.

Bridge from equality to equity.  First, Vu discussed the difference between equality – which is often considered as “fairness” and treating everyone the same – and equity – which is giving individuals what they need to be successful (and often illustrated with this graphic).  Vu said there are simple things we can do to promote equity.  Considering pay, for instance: if we base staff salaries on what people made in their previous job, we perpetuate inequitable wages.  But posting pay ranges with jobs, we put all candidates on an even footing.  Or considering fundraising and grant applications: So much fundraising is relationship based.  People of color in nonprofits or small, rural nonprofits may not have the same connections to wealthy donors that those staff in larger organizations do.  If foundations “don’t accept unsolicited requests,” how are these less resourced nonprofits to begin their own growth?  All of us in this work should take a close work at our practices to see if they build bridges to equity.

Bridges to understanding our own personal motivations and biases.  Vu said we need to ask ourselves if we are doing this nonprofit and philanthropic work for the community or ourselves?  If we really do the work – and do whatever it takes – we should be uncomfortable.  We might lose things, whether power or status, or friends.  What are we willing to do?  What are we willing to give up?

Vu offered some parting thoughts for both nonprofits and funders.

Nonprofits need to get over their inferiority complex.  Be bolder and take more risks.  Invest in staff and infrastructure.  And reexamine best practices to be sure they are staying sharp and doing what is most impactful.

Funders must start with trust in their relationships with nonprofits.  Provide multi-year generating operating dollars (MYGOD for short) to those nonprofits most aligned with the change they want to see. Get over the notions of “overhead” and “sustainability.” Simplify applications and reporting processes. Rethink “qualifications” for funding. Make big bets on marginalized communities. Be thoughtful about data. Take risks and accept failure. And fund faster, because nonprofits have important work to do.

Many GPP and NPA members have been fans of Vu for a long time, and it was inspiring to hear him speak to our work in person.  We’ll honor Vu this year with our second annual “Get a Beer and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics Day,” in which GPP and NPA members will unite for no purpose other than fun and fellowship.  He first conceived of the event a few years ago on summer solstice.  Mark your calendar for late afternoon Wednesday, June 19th and stay tuned for details!

Thanks and congratulations to co-chairs Monroe Free of Habitat for Humanity, Deb Long of Bon Secours St. Francis Health System; Madeleine McGee of Together SC; and all team members for a fantastic conference.  We’ll look forward to next year’s summit in Columbia!