#68: Doing the right thing
A Q&A with NonprofitAF founder, Vu Le
This week’s Q&A is with one of my favourite writers in the non-profit space. Someone who brings a much-needed no BS and humorous energy to the sector—as evidenced by the name of his famous blog, nonprofitAF.com. I am of course talking about Vu Le.
Vu is the former executive director of RVC, a Seattle non-profit that promotes social justice by supporting leaders of colour, strengthening organizations led by communities of colour, and fostering collaboration among diverse communities. Vu is also a founding board member of Community-Centric Fundraising, which aims to ground fundraising in racial and economic justice.
Justice is a key theme in Vu’s writing and work. If you peel back the layers of irreverence and humour, you’ll usually find it at the core. This interview is no exception.
Tell us the story behind NonprofitAF. What inspired you to write the first post?
I was leading a small nonprofit in 2012 or so when one of our funders asked if I wanted to write a blog post from a grantee’s perspective for the foundation’s website. Although this funder is wonderful, due to power dynamics it’s not easy to say no, so I said yes. But I wanted to write from a humorous point of view, as there’s been enough serious and academic stuff out there. It caught on, and eventually, it spun out into its own site.
Your blog states that your early foray into the non-profit sector taught you to “take the work seriously, but not ourselves” and that “there’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world.” Can you unpack these two statements for us?
We’re dealing with serious issues like poverty, racism, child abuse, white supremacy, etc. The work is hard and often heartbreaking. At the same time, nonprofit professionals are some of the funniest and most joyful people out there. We have to be. Otherwise, we would be pulled down by the weight of all the injustice we’re trying to address. The sector itself is also full of idiosyncrasies. Think about it, galas are hilarious! So is the ridiculousness of most grant applications! We can, and should, laugh at it all. Or we end up crying all the time!
You’ve written hundreds of blogs and aim to publish weekly. What has writing taught you about life, work, and yourself?
Writing has taught me to be more observant and to find connections among seemingly disparate things. It’s taught me how to be a better communicator, as well as how people absorb information. I get feedback that the silly metaphors I use help people grasp complex or boring concepts. For example, when people don’t want to pay for “overhead expenses,” it’s like someone telling a firefighter they’re only going to pay for the water, not the hose that’s used to put out fires. I also learned that words are powerful and can lead to change.
You’ve just compiled your NonprofitAF blogs into a book. Kudos! What’s next in store for Vu Le?
I am not sure, maybe I’ll work on a show or a musical!
Let’s zoom out now. What’s keeping you up at night?
What’s keeping me up at night is that everything is burning. Climate change, the gutting of abortions, the suppression of voting rights, violence against transgender people. And yet nonprofits still do not have the trust and resources to do our jobs. We must still deal with constant bullshit like funders each requiring unique snowflake grant applications when they could just accept a proposal that’s already been written. We need to unlock nonprofits’ full potential to address change by allowing them the resources and trust they need to do their work. Funders and donors should increase the amount of money they’re giving out. Everyone needs to focus on the outcomes, not distracting things like “overhead.” And we all need to be unapologetic about fighting racism, fascism, etc.
We should try to choose doing the right things, even if it feels uncomfortable. Especially if it feels uncomfortable. Uncomfortable might mean we’re on the right path.
One of my favourite posts of yours was about “Doing the right thing” over “Doing things right.” You argue that the non-profit sector should be striving for the former but often defaults to the latter for ease or lack of reflection. Is “doing things right” more prevalent in the non-profit sector? How can we build our “doing the right thing” muscle?
I think it is more prevalent because our sector is unfairly held up to a higher standard than other sectors. For instance, a CEO of a company that makes pillows or shoddy submarines or that turns a social media platform into a playground for Nazis can be paid millions and no one cares, but a CEO of a nonprofit that’s helping end poverty or something making a tenth of that and the general public starts hissing.
To develop our habit to do the right things over just doing things right, we need to be constantly vigilant and aware of all the times we’re put into crossroads where we have to choose between following the rules (“doing things right”) and advancing equity and justice (“doing the right thing”). We must ask ourselves who would be most affected by our decisions, and how our privilege shapes those decisions. And when put into those situations, we should try to choose doing the right things, even if it feels uncomfortable. Especially if it feels uncomfortable. Uncomfortable might mean we’re on the right path.
We should also learn from civil rights leaders throughout history, as they were often forced into these situations, and they often chose doing the right thing, which often meant civil disobedience, being jailed, and sometimes being beaten or murdered. We have to be as thoughtful in our work as they were.
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What, if at all, do you wish the tech sector understood better about the non-profit sector and vice versa?
I ask my peers in tech to have some humility. Most of us in nonprofits would never presume to go to a tech startup and start giving advice about what it should do. And yet, it is so common for tech folks to come up to nonprofits, assume they understand our work, and start offering advice and suggestions. Learn before you start proposing solutions. One time, I was at a conference, and this one person who worked in tech suggested a solution to solving homelessness: creating an app so that people experiencing homelessness could find the nearest homeless shelter and other resources. Another time, another tech dude mentioned creating a website so immigrant and refugee parents could participate in their kids’ education and mobilize to effect change. When someone pointed out that many immigrant and refugee parents don’t have computers, the guy said, “Well, they can still access the website on their phone.”
How can the tech and non-profit sectors come closer together?
Maybe we need more conversations. Folks from these sectors should hang out more! I do think there are things we can learn from one another, as well as strong potential for some kickass collaborations. I do appreciate the tech sector’s embrace of failure. That’s something nonprofits need to do more. How do we solve some of society’s most entrenched problems if we don’t try and iterate? We can only do that if we get similar amounts in investments though. Right now we’re trying to solve the world’s problems with a tiny fraction of what tech companies get.
Which three books or other media have impacted you most as a leader and why?
Alice Wong’s Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life shines a brilliant, moving, and often hilarious light on disability, immigrant life, and activism.
The Ethical Rainmaker is a podcast by Michelle Muri, who interviews amazing leaders and dives into complex issues often not discussed in the field of fundraising, such as the problematic history of wealth, or white women’s role in perpetuating and addressing white supremacy.
The awesome contributors to Community-Centric Fundraising’s The Hub have always pushed my thinking.
Thanks so much for reading,