The case for nonprofit partying


WDPIn a month, we’ll be having World Dance Party, a giant multicultural dance party and potluck. It’s free and usually draws over 200 people of all ages and backgrounds. Of all the projects VFA takes on, this one is unique. There is no fundraising, no programming. No one will present on cultural competency. There will be no surveys or focus groups. No one will be asked to put dots on a flip chart. People will eat and dance. That’s it.

So what the heck is the point? Fun. The point is fun. We as a society are stressed as all-get-out, and those of us in nonprofits are probably even worse for wear. The pay could be higher, the workload lower. We spend all our times calculating, with every meeting, every event needing to have some sort of agenda. No wonder we are burning out, with some of us considering running off to raise llamas in the Andes.

World Dance Party started two years ago, when I was invited to an Aging Your Way event held by Senior Services. I had no idea why I was invited; despite my rapidly greying hair, I’m actually not a senior. But it was a good way to avoid work and get free food, so I sat in a room with 50 other people as we envisioned a community in which we would like to grow old. Most of us do not think about our own aging, preferring to be in denial about the cadence of time and the looming approach of the Inevitable. But during those four hours, we confronted the existential and realized there can be joy and hope in growing older, no matter what our popular culture leads us to believe.

“We should have a time bank where we could help each other out using our talents,” said one voice. “We should have more handicap-accessible spaces,” said another. One by one, people stood up to shout their ideas. More gardens. More bike lanes. A multicultural heritage festival. Then, a man rose to his feet, an Asian man, his shabby clothing and unkempt hair indicating that he worked for a small nonprofit. “We should have a giant multicultural dance party, where elders and kids and people of varying backgrounds can get together and teach each other different dances. Seniors can teach youth Disco. Kids can teach seniors to Pop-and-Lock. Salsa! Merengue! Bollywood! Everyone brings a dish to share. Booze. There will also be booze for those of age!”

“Well, those ideas are just brilliant,” said the facilitator, “Now, we’re going to break into groups to actually work on implementing them.” If that man who suggested the multicultural dance party knew he would have to do actual work and organize it, he probably would have remained silent, munching on his pita and hummus.

We have put on seven World Dance Parties now, several organizations working together to coordinate each one. Each event has drawn 150 to 250 people of all ages and ethnicities. We have had dances from multiple countries, from the Horah to Bhangra to Eastcoast Swing to Tinikling. At each World Dance Party, I get a vision of what our society should be like: diverse, everyone interacts with everyone, joy radiating from every face, a giant plastic bucket of cheese puffs on the potluck table. At one point, I stood back to observe the crowd, sipping on a beer. 150 people were holding hands, engaged in an Israeli dance, while others in the room were talking and laughing. Kids were dancing with older adults. Asians were learning West African dances. It was moving. That’s the kind of community I would like to grow old in.

I wasn’t the only one who was awed by the magic in the room. A lady who was also standing back to take in the scene came up to me. “Isn’t this wonderful?” she asked, gazing at the crowd, who had now moved into a line dance called the Wobble, “we should send this out to the universe, this energy, this pure happiness. If you and I were rich, if we each owned a yacht, could we be any happier than we are tonight?”

I thought about it for a second. Then I turned to her, slightly misty-eyed, and said, “How the heck would I know?!” I work for a nonprofit, I said. How would I ever know what it’s like to own a yacht? I mean, how much do those things cost anyway? $5,000? $10,000? I’ll never have that much money! Oh, God, I’m going to die without having paid off my student loans!

OK, maybe I had one too many beers. My new friend’s point was well-taken. Seldom do we see such joy. Our organizations work to fill critical needs; rarely does a nonprofit mission statement include the words “to increase happiness.” We do not prioritize it. Oftentimes we feel guilty, as if providing happiness is less important than basic needs. A party is frivolous, we think. But isn’t happiness ultimately what our work is about? I would say that bringing people a sense of community, of joy, of humor, of connection to their neighbors, is just as important. That is why VFA will always help organize events like WDP.


A few months ago, we posted an announcement on our website, selling off the naming rights to our cubicles:

Let’s face it, life is short, and all of us are on a quest for immortality. People with the means can have their names on buildings and stadiums: Carnegie Hall, the Trump Tower, the Monsanto Lab for Frankensteined Produce, etc. Naming buildings costs millions, which none of us have. However, with only $1,000, you can have your name on Executive Director Vu Le’s cubicle forever. That’s sixteen square feet of immortality, and every time someone passes by, they’ll be reminded of your greatness.

Well, I’m happy to announce that we have sold off our first cubicle, thanks to the generous donations of two amazing SVP partners. The ribbon cutting for the “Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth Cubicle for Youth and Community Engagement” will happen at VFA’s first annual Halloween party on October 30th at 6pm at the VFA office, and all friends of Emily and Julie are welcome to come and witness this historic event. If you are interested in immortalizing yourself or a loved one by having your name emblazoned on a cubicle, please let me know. Hurry! These cubicles are selling like hotcakes! (If hotcakes sell at approximate one cake every three months.)