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Hey Nonprofits, Change is Not the Boss of You!


Vu Le, executive director, Rainier Valley Corps, was Liberty Bank Foundation’s 2018 conference keynote speaker, and he brought down the house with his spot-on commentary on “Star Trek and the Future of the Nonprofit Sector.” His key message? In the face of difficult conditions and continuous change, nonprofits deliver enormous value deserving of respect. “The problems facing the nonprofit sector have never been greater,” he said. “At the same time, we are the ones putting out the fires of injustice and filling the gaps where the government has failed to act.”

He noted that nonprofits put $900 billion into the economy and employ ten percent of the population. “We’re like air, though,” said Vu. “We’re all around but nobody notices until there’s a need.” It’s time that nonprofits be recognized as a force for good, AND a force to be reckoned with. Vu made many comparisons between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors and pointed out the impossible standards to which nonprofits are held:

  • It is not unusual that for-profit companies allocate 30 to 40 percent of revenue to overhead, while a nonprofit’s 10 percent overhead is questioned.
  • Businesses budget for general operations, while many funders only want to make grants for programs (but not the manpower and materials needed to carry them out).
  • There is no recognition that when nonprofits succeed, they need more financing. For example, a company that sells more phones gains more in profits; while a nonprofit attracting more clients needs to ask for more from funders.

“Funders underestimate the complexity of our [nonprofits’] work,” he said. “We perform miracles with Frankenstein organizations.” Vu stated that a shift in thinking is required for nonprofits to not only be respected, but enabled to efficiently pursue their missions.

  • There needs to be more grantmaking based on trust. Funders need to reevaluate how much information they really need, especially from grantees with whom they have had a long relationship.
  • Grantmaking needs to focus on community, not a specific geographic area. “Funding specifically for children in this town, but not in that town, does not make sense. There are no “other people’s kids.”
  • Nonprofits can benefit from accessing centralized back office support. This can free staff to focus on the work, not ancillary duties. (“Captain Picard is not expected to spend half of his time on QuickBooks,” said Vu.)
  • Nonprofits should consider joint fundraising, not fighting each other for the same scraps.
  • Nonprofits should be able to access a pool of mutual support to solve problems not related to the mission; for example, a cash-flow problem.

Vu told the audience, “Let’s own our power. Collaborate on systems change. Invest in your staff and overhead. Be transparent with funders and donors.” Most of all he suggested that nonprofits to broaden their view from individual missions to the worth and success of the entire sector.

Like what Vu has to say? Read more at his website.

Kudos also to the forward thinking shared by workshop leaders: Julia Campbell, on engaging with Millennials; Frances Kunreuther, on nonprofit leadership of the future; and Anne Yurasek on how nonprofits can create strategic alliances.

Bottom line, it was an invigorating day propelling our nonprofits–and us!–to move forward with confidence.