Vu Le on the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector

Nonprofit leader, humor blogger, and truth-teller. It’s a unique job description, but a perfect fit for Vu Le. Le is the executive director of Seattle-based social justice organization Rainier Valley Corps and the author of NonprofitAF.com, a blog that mixes pop culture and pictures of baby animals with candid insight into the current state of nonprofits.

In advance of his plenary on “Equity, Community, Art, and the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector” at Chorus America’s Conference in Chicago, Le answered some questions about why he thinks nonprofits matter more today than ever—and why we need to change outdated philosophies and practices in order to unleash our full potential.

CA: Your blog tackles important issues in the nonprofit field—and it’s incredibly funny. Why is it important to use humor when writing about the nonprofit sector?

VL: Humor allows people to let their guards down, and this helps us all to be more receptive to certain messages. Plus, the work that we do is often very serious, so I think it’s important to balance it out by recognizing the joy that is also present.

CA: Why do you believe nonprofits are needed more now than ever? And how do you think arts nonprofits in particular can play a role in addressing the challenges that we are all facing today? Where do you see the nonprofit field evolving in a positive way to meet these new challenges?

VL: The social and political climate has been challenging lately. Communities are under threat; people are being deported. There’s a lot of work for us to do, and because most nonprofits are not political, we can be a bridge between diverse viewpoints. Art especially can be extremely effective in bringing people together, allowing them to bond over common experiences, allowing us all to see the beauty in the world and in one another.

I’m glad to see nonprofits starting to own our influence more and becoming more collaborative. We’re providing more feedback to funders, for example, and challenging established norms. And I’m seeing more organizations highlighting one another’s missions in their communications.

CA: Conversely, where do you think our field needs to work a little harder to catch up? What outdated nonprofit practices concern you the most?   

VL: We need to focus more on race, equity, diversity, and inclusion.  In many ways, we’re ahead of other sectors, but we still have some ways to go here, especially as our communities diversify. To do that well, we definitely need to reexamine a few areas of outdated thinking and practices. They are distracting and preventing us from doing deeper work around equity.

Many of us are still freaking out about “overhead,” for example. Overhead is not a thing, and this intense focus on minimizing overhead is actually really destructive. It’s like we’re scrambling to put out fires, and people stop us every few steps and ask, “How much are you spending on the hose, versus the water? I want my donations to only pay for the water you’re using to put out the fires.” We need to stop talking about overhead at all and change the message to focus on outcomes.

We also need to be more assertive and take more risks. We need to push back against funders’ and society’s ridiculous expectations such as that we’ll do everything on a shoestring, instead of just grumbling about these expectations with one another in private. And we have to end the Nonprofit Hunger Games, where we fight with one another for resources and influence, and work better together.

CA: You have written a great deal about how the nonprofit community and foundations can work together more effectively. You point to the need for trust, and the way that the current power dynamic influences those relationships. How can nonprofits work to build healthier relationships with funders?

VL: We nonprofits need to see ourselves as equal partners with foundations, not as supplicants, and we must be more honest. We lie to foundations all the time, such as about overhead rates or about challenges. We use accounting tricks to say our overhead rate is less than 15 percent, instead of saying that we need rent and electricity and qualified staff to run effective programs and asking people to take a holistic view of the work.

This furthers funders’ and donors’ misconceptions about what it takes to do the work, so they invest less money on things that we actually need. If we are more honest, sure we might lose a funder or two. But from my experience, most funders would welcome more authentic, honest feedback. 

CA: Your blog post “Your crappy chair is not a badge of honor,” explains why the scarcity mindset can be such a problem for the nonprofit world. (This post has become an office favorite at Chorus America, by the way.) When does taking pride in doing a lot with a little cross the line and become dangerous for an organization? What are the telltale signs of that happening?

VL: It’s easy to get into the survival mentality. Unfortunately, it never stops with just a crappy chair. The scarcity mindset becomes ingrained, and soon you’re not paying staff well, you’re not investing in professional development, you’re wasting time repairing printers. This leads to burnout and lower-quality programs and services, and the people we serve ultimately pay the price.

If you have high staff turnover, that may be a sign. If you work hard but your organization still doesn’t grow, that may be another sign. If someone spontaneously enters your organization into an office makeover contest, that’s definitely an indication!

CA: What are some ways that nonprofits can challenge themselves to break out of that scarcity mindset? This is tough because, well, we all do do a lot with a little.

VL: This is very hard to do. Even I get caught up in this mindset. To break out of it, it’s important to recognize when it happens, and learn to assess short-term benefits with long-term ones. It’s easy to focus on the short-term—by paying staff less, you have more money to run programs over time. But if you take the long view, staff quitting means you will waste time and money in a hiring process and in training replacements, not to mention in rebuilding team morale that’s been lowered by the staff departure. Analyze everything with a long-term lens.

CA: You’ve written frankly about the problem of burnout in the nonprofit field—and as an executive director who is also a writer, speaker, and father, you may have some personal experience with this topic. What advice would you give nonprofit staff dealing with burnout? How do you yourself practice self-care?

VL: Burnout is caused by personal as well as organizational factors. It’s important to understand that organizations can greatly prevent burnout by compensating staff fairly and creating a culture of trust, autonomy, and teamwork. Personally, though, we all have to find what brings us energy, not what we think should bring us energy. For some people, getting up early to do yoga works for them. That would totally not work for me. Spending time with my family, watching mindless television, and cooking are ways that I practice self-care. Find what works for you. Oh, and get lots of sleep.

CA: In addition to writing and speaking about the nonprofit field in general, you are also the executive director at Seattle nonprofit Rainier Valley Corps. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that Rainier Valley Corps does? How does the work you do as an executive director inform the work you do as a speaker and blogger—and vice versa?

VL: Rainier Valley Corps promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities. RVC was formed because we don’t have enough leaders of color in our sector; only 18 percent of nonprofit professionals are POC. Also, organizations led by communities of color continue to struggle finding funding and building their capacity, despite doing incredible work. We have a holistic capacity-building program that includes a two-year fellowship for nonprofit leaders of color in Seattle, culturally responsive capacity-building coaching, and operations support where RVC will just handle financial management, HR, and other back-office duties so nonprofits can focus on their work.

By “culturally responsive,” I mean doing capacity-building work in a way that takes into consideration cultural factors, such as homeland politics, historical trauma, the role of elders, gender dynamics, religions, etc. For example, when doing board development work, we have to understand that many board members are elders who have gone through a lot of wartime, migration, and other trauma. Being on a board then is not just a hobby to them; it’s a sense of identity and a way to heal.

The work greatly informs the blog. A lot of the material for the blog comes from my day-to-day work. And the blog helps to amplify RVC’s name and work, which helps with fundraising.

Both RVC and NAF are focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion. They sometimes sound like buzzwords, but I think our sector can only be effective when it deals with the complexities of systemic injustice. This requires us to talk about race, which voices are missing, and how we bring resources to the communities and people most affected by injustice.

CA: You were born in Vietnam and moved to the U.S. at the age of eight. Do you think your background has influenced your choice to work in the nonprofit sector?

VL: Absolutely. In many ways, I entered the sector because I’ve seen both the struggles my family went through, and also the amazing spirit of kindness and generosity exhibited by people in our sector. Nonprofits have helped my family during some of the most difficult years of our lives, when we left Vietnam and lost everything. For this, I will always be grateful to the people in our sector, and doing this work is a way for me to pay back all the people who helped my family and the countless other families like mine.

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