Are you or your org guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement?


plants-906447_640pdIn Seattle, if you’re a person of color and you walk down a dark alley late at night and you feel like you’re being followed, it’s probably someone trying to do some community engagement: “Psst…hey buddy—Go Hawks!—you want to attend a summit? It’s about economic inequity. We need your voice.” “Daddy, I’m scared!” “Stay calm, Timmy; don’t look him in the eye.” “Come on, help a guy out! Here, you each get some compostable sticky dots to vote on our top three priorities! You can vote on different priorities, or, if you like, you put more than one dot on—” “Run, Timmy!”

This is why you should never take your kid down a dark alley in Seattle.

A while ago I was talking to a friend (another Executive Director, since all my regular friends have abandoned me because I make jokes about compostable sticky dots), and he said, “Have you noticed that everyone is getting paid to engage us communities of color except us communities of color?”

Sigh. Yes, I have noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a term to describe it: Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.

There are several reasons why TDCE happens. First, the nonprofit sector has all sorts of unwritten rules designed to be successfully navigated only by mainstream organizations (See “The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind.”) Second, 90% of funding in the nonprofit world is relationship-based, which screws over marginalized communities, who have much fewer relationships with funders and decision-makers. Third, due to existing definitions, many organizations led by marginalized groups “don’t have the capacity.” They’re “small and disorganized,” they are “not ready to be leaders in these efforts.” Fourth, community engagement has been seen as the icing on the cake, and not an essential ingredient, so it is always last to be considered. Fifth, many funders and decision-makers focus on sexy short-term gains, not effective long-term investments.

Look, I’m not saying anyone is intentionally trying to discriminate against certain communities. Everyone is well-intentioned. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency have risen to the front of people’s minds. Organizations are scrambling to talk about these issues, to diversify their board, to get community input. That is great and all, but it has only been leading to marginalized communities being irritated and frustrated. Every single week, we leaders of color get asked to provide input, to join an advisory committee, attend a summit, to fill out a survey. Because of this well-intentioned mandate to engage with communities, we get bombarded with requests to do stuff for free.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is pretty dangerous, for several reasons. When people who are most affected by issues are not funded and trusted to lead the efforts to address them:

It perpetuates the Capacity Paradox. The Capacity Paradox is when an organization cannot get significant funding because it has limited capacity, so it cannot develop its capacity, which leads it to not being able to get significant funding, which means it can’t develop its capacity. This greatly affects organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities. And then they can’t be as involved, which leads to ineffective efforts to tackle issues. (See “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift.”)

It’s annoying as hell. In every single issue, I keep seeing larger, well-connected organizations getting significant funding but are not effective at engagement. So they pester us smaller ethnic orgs to help. I was asked by a collective impact backbone org to be involved with planning a summit to engage communities of color. I advised them not to do it, and told them that I’ve been to far too many summits that suck (See: “Community Engagement 101: Why most summits suck.”) Next thing I knew, they organized the summit anyway, asked my organization to help with outreach, and asked me personally to translate their outreach material into Vietnamese! All for free, of course! (“Run, Timmy!!”)

It’s intrinsically wrong. We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting. Or a bunch of idiots who don’t know anything about science leading a committee on climate change and asking scientists to come testify about global warming. These scenarios are ridiculous, which is why they happen in Congress.

Most importantly, it doesn’t work and is even counterproductive. If TDCE actually works, then we’d have little to argue about. But it does not. When the people who are most affected are not well represented at the table, well-intentioned but useless and sometimes even harmful stuff get voted on and implemented. For example, at a meeting I was invited to someone said, “We need to put 100% of funding into early learning instead of splitting it among early learning and youth development” and I had to remind them that “Many immigrant and refugee kids get here when they’re older than 5, so they’d be screwed if you only invest in early learning. We need to support the entire continuum of kids’ development.” (See “Youth Development, why it is just as important as early learning“)  Unfortunately, by the time a mainstream organization finally gets to that community feedback forum or summit to get feedback on their well-intentioned but crappy plan or policy, it is too late.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement sucks and is insulting. The sector needs to stop only supporting major organizations and hope that magically the people carrots-76653_640pddisproportionately affected whom we don’t fund will join in. Or at the very least, we should stop whining about it when they don’t. We organizations led by marginalized communities are tired and irritated at excuses like “We can’t invest in you guys because you’re too small,” coupled with the constant requests for us to be involved. Don’t just give three drops of water to your rainbow carrots, wonder why they aren’t growing, and then whine about the lack of color in your salad.

As I said, everyone is well-intentioned. But Trickle-Down Community Engagement is harmful, and we need to all be aware of it and put a stop to it:

Funders: Review your investments for every priority. Are the issues you are trying to address disproportionately affecting some groups? Are those groups getting equitably funded and supported or are you just giving them token funding? Are they leading the effort or just playing bit parts on the side? If you are funding mainstream organizations to address challenges affecting marginalized communities, look at their budget request to see how much of it is to be shared with partner organizations that are led by affected communities. Stop being fooled by well-intentioned mainstream efforts that claim to represent marginalized communities but that are only tokenizing and using them. I’ve seen a well-funded coalition list over 80 diverse organizations as member, but on closer examination, several of these groups aren’t aware that they are members, or they no longer even exist!

Donors: See above paragraph. In addition, know that organizations led by marginalized communities tend to be smaller, so they need your support more. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same relationship with you or the same marketing and development capacity as bigger and better known organizations. Seek them out. Your support matters.

Mainstream organizations: Sorry, it seems like I’ve been beating up on you a lot. That’s not my intentions. You guys do awesome stuff and play critical roles. But review your projects and budgets, and examine your role and the dynamics you are contributing to. Are you building in funding to share with community partners, or are you just asking people to do stuff for free in the name of “community engagement”? Are you siphoning funding to address issues that other nonprofits should be tackling but they don’t yet have the capacity? Are you mentoring smaller nonprofits through strategic partnerships? Are you serving as an advocate for these groups, since you have better relationships with funders?

Organizations led by marginalized communities: Learn when to say yes and when to say no. I’ve seen too many small nonprofits agree to do outreach, to be partners, to even run programs for tiny amounts of funding. I’ve done it myself. My last organization, when it was much smaller, partnered with a bigger org who could not reach students of color. They asked us to organize a 2-hour workshop for over 100 diverse kids each month for a year. You know how much we got to do that? $2500 total, and we had to itemize and have receipts for every pencil we bought! The big organization who “partnered” with us got all the credit, of course. All of us can be so naïve, signing on to coalitions without researching first, lending our names to summits without due diligence, doing outreach and translation for free. It just perpetuates a terrible and ineffective system that continues to leave our communities behind. Learn to say no, to give feedback firmly, and to build strategic relationships.

Equity, diversity, inclusion, community engagement, etc. those are all good, but they can also be irritating, misleading, and even harmful if not done right. Trickle-Down Community Engagement is an example of good-intention poorly executed. If we want marginalized communities to be engaged, we need to fund and support them directly to be engaged. Community Engagement cannot be the icing on the chocolate cake of equity and social justice. It is the chocolate!

Go Hawks!

Read Part 2: Are you, your nonprofit, or your foundation being an askhole?

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40 thoughts on “Are you or your org guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement?

  1. Amina

    Point put a crossed well. I hope the current funding at the table,large organizations will remember Mr. vu advise. will wait and see.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Shannon. Oh no, which sentences?! That does sometimes happen, but I can’t find the gaps. Let me know where they are and I’ll fix them.

  2. Suzanne Hoban

    I just wanted to take this time to say thank you. Because of you, my sister bought me a Veggetti for Christmas. It has been transformative. Yeah, yeah – your blogs posts are OK, but the Veggetti – well, THAT’s making an impact.

  3. Pat Ryan

    “Don’t just give three drops of water to your rainbow carrots, wonder why they aren’t growing, and then whine about the lack of color in your salad.” I think that’s your best one yet. You made some very good points – hopefully some of the right people will read them and have a “duh” moment.

  4. Karin Gerstenhaber

    Hi, Vu. I recently came across this photo that sums it up. Melinda Gates posted it on Twitter last year. She found it in front of a school in Zimbabwe.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Karin. That’s a great quote. Someone also said, “Stop talking about us without us,” which happens pretty frequently.

  5. Tim Schottman

    Particularly good Vu! I’m saving to pull out and remind myself for future community engagement. Love the rainbow carrot comment, what does it mean when they get cooked and lose their color?

  6. Patricia Garza

    I definitely see your point here Vu. I work for a larger organization and we are about to embark on a community engagement project. Just as you suggest here we have put funds aside to truly partner with various community orgs and never assume that they should do their valuable work for free! It really is about a mutually beneficial partnership to impact the greater good! Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Patricia. Yes, I’m all for mutually beneficial partnerships. Everyone has an important role to play, including the large organizations.

  7. Melinda Ludwiczak

    Great post. We ran into this issue at the City of Minneapolis – embarking on a city-wide arts planning process striving to engage as many constituents as possible. Many reps on planning groups were there on work time through their city department or non profit – mostly us white folks. People of color – mostly independent artists – not attached to an agency or organization organized themselves through social media and demanded the city pay them for their time to sit in committee work. The city staffer was able to squeeze out funds for stipends from a foundation. So glad they did that and demanded we respect their time and effort. Opened my eyes.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks for sharing, Melinda. I’m glad those artists of color asserted themselves. Again, I don’t think people are mal-intentioned. The dynamics are just what they are, and we need to change them.

  8. William Moreno

    I would appreciate it if “the field” would stop labeling me/us as a marginalized community. That nomenclature puts everyone on the defensive and is certainly not the way I would categorize any org “of color” (another term I loathe). It’s really a second class perspective – not every brown/yellow/black person was born under a cabbage leaf or views themselves as disenfranchised.

    1. parkwood1920

      No we weren’t, but ALL Black and Brown people deal with systemic racism and other forms of oppression. You don’t have to be poor to be a target of racist violence. Furthermore, every so-called middle-class or wealthy person of color owes their success to the struggles of Black/Brown poor people. You know, those of us who were “born under a cabbage leaf.”

  9. g myers

    Vu is being very polite in his satirical way of something that is actually insulting, demeaning and reeks of arrogance.

  10. Mona T. Han

    Thank you, Vu, for a very candid, insightful, and timely topic. Can’t agree more! One more thing to add is bypassing community-based organizations altogether, and hiring bi-linguals from multi-ethnic communities (FT or PT) to collect and claim community engagement. Its very frustrating!

  11. Chris Kleinjans

    Woah, thanks for this, the pretty ironclad logic you presented really made me realize my head was screwed on partially sideways regarding this. In my case it wasn’t so much my previous organization was a monster big, but it was a big fish in a small pond, and we erred on many things you described when going about doing CE. And you’re right, it was never intentional, but it certainly wasn’t meeting everyone at a level field.

  12. Daryl Wells

    Great article capturing the many frustrations of trying to do meaningful work as a minority ‘stakeholder’. I’ve actually been told that I have too much international experience to work for a nonprofit whose sole mission is ‘global awareness’. So sick of the nonprofit industry functioning as a finishing school for moneyed elites. [This practice also keeps non-profit salaries in the gutter, as full time positions are used as charitable work for privileged whites with spouses or families that can support them as part of the cause.

  13. Roy Gathercoal

    I would suggest the organizational form itself is part of the problem. Creating an organization as a tool to do something quietly imports the values embedded in the organizational structure. Values such as quantification, efficiency, interchangeability and commoditization of people, among others. Thing is, creating an organization is not the only way to get things done–it is often a really poor way of utilizing resources.

    Yet it is about the only way to get funding. As a result most of our funding of not-for-profit efforts goes wasted. Not entirely, for some good occasionally comes of it. But not nearly the effects you would expect from the levels of resources being fed into the beast.

    Then, of course, it is the fault of those on whose behalf (summoned or not) the organization is working. “IF only they were all organizations, all this would work fine!

    We need to seriously look at alternative ways of doing things together, including with structured social movements, collectives and small-structure collaborations, and fund these. Then look for outcomes that cannot necessarily be easily quantified, for some of the most important things cannot be counted.

  14. Jennie Larry Johnson

    Yea! The sleeper has awaken. The truth is finally coming out. I am an independent grant writer that has been serving start-up and emerging grassroots nonprofits and faith-based organizations since 2001. Every since implementation of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, I have watched donor and grant support to community-based organizations decrease progressively while at the same time watching grants and donations to umbrella and larger nonprofits increase up to three fold. It has been heartbreaking for me to watch a number of effective and well-known nonprofits shutter their windows and lock their doors because they can’t afford to pay their rent or staff during a period where I am regularly invited to “networking” events at the largest and best hotels sponsored by larger nonprofit umbrella organizations. As you point out, what donors and funders must realize is that smaller nonprofits run lean and mean. This enables them to stretch dollars further to accomplish more with less. They may not be able to document their successes as well as the larger organizations because they are too busy out there racking them up. (In addition, they usually don’t have any money left to pay fancy third-party evaluators to gloss over what was ACTUALLY accomplished with the few dollars they received.) What has to be understood about grassroots nonprofits is that they KNOW the people (or their family members) that come to them for help. This provides them with greater insight into exactly where that person is and what he or she actually needs at that point. This drives fraud from the system. In fact, disadvantaged people often complain that they are immediately thrown off guard when they are expected to go to fancy offices to ask for help from college graduates that can hardly understand what they are saying or asking for when they know these organizations are grant funded with public dollars. This generates immediate distrust and can encourage fraud and continued dependence. (The organization can obviously afford to help, right?) In addition, donors and funders should take note that umbrella organizations are designed to cover several layers of administrative overhead. This bleeds off funds before the money has a chance to get to the streets. By playing a series of numbers games (operations v. administrative expenses), larger nonprofits can make it APPEAR the money is going toward services when, in fact, as little as $.30 out of every dollar really goes toward ACTUALLY touching real people. It’s very sad. I certainly hope that your article will act as the catalyst needed for donors and funders to get more information about what a nonprofit actually accomplished before giving. This should lead them to realize that they can maximize the impact of the dollars they give by putting the money where it’s needed most: on the streets with grassroots organizations. The rule of thumb could be…is this organization actually located within the community they claim they serve and how many members of their designated “target population” do they actually employ. Thanks again for putting the truth out there. I certainly hope it leads to change.

  15. Diane Ragsdale


    I have only recently been turned on to your blog (through Nina Simon) and it’s fantastic. I’ve enjoyed every post. Thanks for the smart insights made all the more digestable because of your terrific humor and writing style.

    You are spot on with this post and it occurs to me that the same trickle-down phenomenon may be at work with “innovation” … Over the past five years (as innovation has come front and center as a priority for a lot of arts funders) I have noticed a tendency to make grants to behemoths to “try to innovate” rather than making grants to smaller, stealthier organizations who are already innovating to improve, extend, or partner with someone to scale what they are doing. Instead, big guys get grants and then copy what small guys have been doing … or get small guys to join their innovation team (or at least that’s how it seems on my more cynical days).

    Curious if you agree?

    On my more hopeful days I feel like perhaps this tendency to funnel a majority of funds to large orgs (no matter the funding priority) may be shifting? Do you see some progress on this front, as well?

    Thanks, again for the posts! Really love them.


  16. Carol Miller

    I call it the poverty-industrial-complex and feel it every day in frontier New Mexico where I live. My tag line is “Who is Getting Rich Making New Mexicans Poor?” After 40+ years working in public health, trying to stop the cancer-like growth of the cradle-to-prison-pipeline, no top dealer has ever been arrested. The victims are in prison and the victors are buying yachts.

  17. JamaicaDislocata

    Sooo basically I read this article while clapping, and putting my fist to my mouth like I was watching some sort of sporting event. The truth has definitely been spoken. Thanks for thinking your thoughts, and sharing you words. They resonate.

  18. Nicky L

    Vu, this post is so spot on! I work for a Member of Congress, and I’ve been reading through some of your posts to learn more about how we can improve our outreach and engagement efforts. It’s sort of a different context than foundation/non-profit advocacy, but there are so many important lessons that you illuminate that have been useful.

  19. Chris Corrigan

    And don’t even get me started on “engagement-washing” You know, like greenwashing…”Oh yeah we ran 7 events and 276 people came. Of course all they did was compost sticky dots and wonder who was in charge, but dammit, pass the sign in sheet and get their names. The funder will be happy.

  20. [.Gian-Luca.]

    “These scenarios are ridiculous, which is why they happen in Congress.”

    I can’t clap hard enough for this. The clapping would just not suffice.

  21. Brad

    I have witnessed the same phenomenon in HIV/AIDS services – doing countless needs assessments, polling clients, advisory/community meetings, etc. but not effectively changing anything, just completing the “to do” checklist to keep the funding flowing. More troubling is how wasteful all of this is for prevention purposes. As Pat Robertson said, all good movements become institutions, then they become rackets.

  22. winslow57

    RE: “Marginalized Communities”. Sometimes we use terms like this until we gradually wake up and see how stupid they sound, or how empty and meaningless most buzzwords become. “Marginalized communities” always makes me think of our Marginal Ways, East and West, and margarine. So I get pleasantly distracted for a millisecond. But could we drop “marginalized communities” and be more descriptive, as you do when describing so vividly the torture of ridiculous grant applications? Maybe it would take longer, but perhaps we could refer to “marginalized communities” like this: “groups of people who have for way too long put up with all types of racism white supremacy other isms other-ing and unspeakable unfairness been treated like they have no idea how to remedy issues and left out of every decision making process all the while forced to observe how dealing with such mountainous heaps of such B.S. has done nothing but make the Domineering Culture more powerful and ironically in many cases more self-congratulatory which is like having drops of lemon juice in put our eyes and staring at the sun for 6 hours while being forced to listen to Best of Lynyrd Skynyrd through painfully tight headphones .” Maybe this term could also be spiced up every so often, just to preserve the freshness.

  23. Elena Herrada

    This article must have been written about Southwest Solutions in Detroit, Are they all the way out in Seattle now? NWSolutions?

  24. Linda Bennett

    I am living in Portland. Important as we move forward. But right now, for a moment at least, I kinda want some of those compostable post-it notes!

  25. nan

    I wish that people would start doing
    stories about their friends or
    relationship and not be so dividing. I am very fortunate to have close friends.
    I would never define them as “a person of color” and they would not label me.
    When we get to the point of seeing people as human beans not labels, then and
    only then will we understand life. And if one more person labels me as mixed
    race or some such name I will scream.

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