The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildlings, and White Walkers


wallLast week I wrote about the Sustainability Question and how it is symptomatic of an ineffective funding system where funders and nonprofits are not equal partners but more like frenemies. This apparently resonated with many readers, at least 138, since that’s how many people shared it on Facebook, and only 26 of those were from me mandating staff to do it. “Yeah, Vu, high-five!” said a colleague at a meeting, and we high-fived, which was tricky, since I was holding my 5-month-old baby Viet. We are doing a nanny-share with another Executive Director, but even with the split costs, we could only afford it four days a week, so on Fridays, we two EDs tote our babies around.

The post sparked some great conversations, especially around the challenges of communication between funders and nonprofits. “I call it the Wall of Philanthrophy,” said one of my ED friends. She painted the image of a physical wall between funders and nonprofits. “There is a tiny window in the wall, and every once a while it opens just a little bit, and maybe there is an exchange of ideas, but then it quickly closes, and it’s solid wall again.”

This reminds me of the Wall in the Game of Thrones. It is 700 feet tall, 300-mile-long wall made of solid ice to keep out the Wildlings, people who are regarded as primitive, cruel savages who have poor hygiene. The Wildlings live North of the Wall, a barren, desolate, cutthroat, and eternally wintery landscape that has very few good restaurants. Every once a while they try to cross the Wall and get South into the warm Seven Kingdoms, which are more civilized and you can go to the bathroom for more than two minutes without fear of frostbites and gangrene. While a Wildling or two sneak past the Wall here and there, in a thousand years not a single assault on the guarded Wall has succeeded.

Another unhygienic wildling asking for general operating

Another unhygienic wildling asking for general operating

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like nonprofit organizations and staff are like the Wildlings trying constantly to make it past the Wall. “Sound the alarms! There is a group of Wildlings at the base of the Wall, and they are chanting ‘General Operating Funds! General Operating Funds!’ Quick, prepare the hot oil!”

This Philanthropic Wall manifests itself in many ways:

  • After the site visit, we hardly see funders at programs and special events
  • Nonprofits are rarely invited to conferences and other important gatherings of funders
  • It takes anywhere from a week to nine years to get a hold of some funders, often when we are trying to get support for time-critical projects
  • Funders almost always refuse to join committees for projects initiated by nonprofits
  • Not a single funder accepted my invitation to 80’s-themed trivioke night, a combination of trivia and karaoke.

I don’t think I will be able to scale this wall in my lifetime, which is why I’ve been training my son Viet when I have him on Fridays, hoping that one day he will follow his father’s footsteps into nonprofit and continue the work. Instead of children’s stories, I’ve been reading strategic plans and annual reports to him. “One day, son, all funding will be general operating. I probably won’t be around to see that. Learn and grow strong and help to make that happen.”

Every once a while, though, there is a glimmer of hope. An Executive Director friend of mine said she was invited to a conference of funders to present her organization’s work. “Really?!” I said, nearly choking on a pluot, “you’re attending a conference of funders? No way!”

“Yeah,” she said, “but they made it amply clear that I am not to approach any of them to solicit funds. Actually, it was hinted that I shouldn’t talk much at all. In fact, I have to wear this scarlet N on my nametag to mark me as a Nonprofit.”

We nonprofits can understand why people feel that the distance between funders and nonprofits is necessary. After all, there are so many nonprofits, and funders should be fair and should not be playing favorites. However, the quest for objectivity and impartiality has led to an unhealthy adversarial system that has been harmful to the field. How can conferences to talk about funding structure and collective impact and other important stuff be effective when the people doing the direct service work and thus have first-hand knowledge of client and community needs are only marginally part of the conversation?

Plus, when there are insurmountable barriers to communication with funders, it just means that the nonprofits with the strongest relationships and connections make it through, finding support for their own projects. So many great ideas never get off the ground because many nonprofits leaders do not have the behind-the-scene connections with funders, and on the other hand, so many crappy ideas do get funded because someone knows someone who knows someone.

Funders have more power, and thus must take a larger share of the responsibility for perpetuating an ineffective system where we nonprofits spend much of our time trying to figure out how to survive instead of innovate. We have been at the base of the Wall chanting things like “general operating funds!” and “overhead is necessary” and “standardize your budget forms!” for a long time now, with little result.

But we nonprofits are not off the hook either. Like the Wildling tribes, we are constantly in competition for survival, which tends to happen when resources are scarce. We have to work together and support one another while simultaneously delivering common messages and proposed solutions. We can’t just keep grumbling at the base of the wall. We must unite.

white walkersWe must ALL unite. In the Game of Thrones the Wall wasn’t originally built to keep out Wildlings. They were just unlucky enough to be caught on that side when the Wall was built thousands of years ago to defend against the White Walkers, who are kind of like scary-as-hell evil ice mummies who could turn dead people and animals into evil ice zombies and the army of mummies/zombies went and killed everyone, Wildlings and civilized people alike, until they were driven back to their cold, wintery home and the Wall was built to keep them there. Winter is coming, it lasts whole generations, and the White Walkers are stirring once again.

The point is, there are greater threats out there—poverty, racism, violence, loneliness, war, inequity, oppression, homophobia, injustice, unaffordable childcare, hunger, illness, death, etc., the White Walkers of our nonfictional world—and we should be working together to defeat those things, not focusing so much of our time building and maintaining walls around ourselves and each other. Funders and nonprofits must communicate better and work in partnership more effectively.

How about we start by carpooling to the next trivioke night?


Related Posts:

Collective Impact: Resistance is Futile

Site Visits: Uncomfortable, Yet Terrifying

The Most Crotch-Kickingly Craptastic Grant Application Notice Ever

Nonprofit Funding: Ordering a Cake and Restricting it Too

  • What a great post/concept/observation! My day is complete and I haven’t even started it yet. I am going to switch from granola to Game of Thrones for breakfast, for sure. I will come back and read this the next time I get demoralized trying to write a grant application for a funder who only wants to fund New Innovative Projects instead of what we are doing well already.

    • Vu

      Aw, thanks, Anne, what a nice comment. Games of Thrones is awesome. There is much that we nonprofit Wildlings can learn from it.

  • Cliff

    Hot oil? That must mean they’re hosting a stir-fry dinner. Yum! 😉 Seriously: I think that the Wall is *sometimes* an illusion projected by grantseekers. Anyone ever feared contact with an intimidating program officer? Or, wondered whether a “bad” question would tar your org as unworthy? In the Seattle area, the Puget Sound Grantwriters Association [] increases communication between funders and grantseekers through an annual conference and events (one of which involves a kind of Speed Dating between funders and grantseekers). We learn that Program Officer A wants communication, but he lacks time to do justice to the concept (much less, attend events of previously funded orgs). And, Program Officer B, who is known to be open to calls/emails, wonders why she *isn’t* contacted more. Yes, the troublesome culture of funder-grantseeker relationships needs work. Maybe you needed to restrict the trivioke to 1980s Big Hair Bands?

    • Vu

      Cliff, thank you for providing insights on funders’ perspectives. It’s very helpful. I agree, we nonprofits do need to be more solution-focused. I think if funders and nonprofits communicate more, we can improve the funder/fundee relationships. Big Hair Bands Trivioke night sounds great 🙂

  • I didn’t think I could like your blog more. Game of Thrones? Swoon.

    • Vu

      Aw, thanks, Mary. I changed the title, to make it more obviously a reference to Game of Thrones. There is much we Wildlings can learn from GOT.

      • Very true! (And when is the next damned book going to be out? C’mon George RR!)

      • Vu

        Uh, yes, totally. Books! Come out with a new book already! Maybe I should start reading them.

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  • Ana Cervantes

    I only recently became aware of your blog -thanks to a post on Tom Cott’s clipping service, “You’ve Cott Mail”- and I am totally in love. So much of what you write about here transfers, with very little effort, to the arts — which is my world, since I’m an independent concert pianist and teacher. ¡¡BRAVO!!