I’m a duck, you’re a duck, we are all ducks


duck-715568_640Hi everyone, this week my organization, Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), launches its first cohort of nonprofit leaders of color with a 4-day orientation retreat. The ten leaders in our first cohort are brilliant; they represent the future of our sector. I’ll discuss this project and the lessons we are learning in future posts, but for this week, let’s talk about ducks. By the way, we have been working all year to get to this point, and I am excited and terrified and happy and apprehensive and thrilled and nervous, which is to say I’m not sure how coherent today’s post is going to be. It may be ramblier than normal.  

If you’ve been a follower of this blog for a while, you may be thinking, “Ducks? What are you talking about? I thought we’re all unicorns.” Yes, yes we are all unicorns. We are magical unicorns who make the world better by using our horns of equity to stab injustice in the face. But we’re also ducks. Just bear with me.

In the last few months, I’ve been thinking about a bunch of things. Mainly, “Powdered alcohol has been invented? NOOOO! That was my idea two decades ago! Argh, I could have been rich by now!”

But I’ve also been thinking about the community-centric fundraising model, and why we each do the work we do. This has been triggered in part by the increasing individual donor cultivation I’ve been doing. It is humbling to sit down with a donor and ask people to invest a large chunk of hard-earned money so we can do our work. Donors have been kind and gracious and generous, and my team and I are genuinely grateful for every gift. 

The othering of the people we serve

However, recently I have started noticing that many of us have unconsciously created an unhealthy dynamic between our clients and our donors and funders. Without realizing it, we often reinforce this image of donors as nice people standing at a lake throwing bread at hungry ducks in the water. “Your bread helped 50 ducks,” we say, “Because of you, 50 ducks are now not going to die of starvation.” During fundraising events we may bring up clients to tell compelling, sometimes harrowing stories. We see see video images of hungry kids in other countries tugging at our sense of pity and compassion.

The problem with this is that it often “otherizes” our fellow community members. This is a new concept that I just learned about, and it’s been weighing on my mind as much as the instant-whisky powder that could have made me a millionaire. How much do we as nonprofits, who stand in the middle between foundations/donors and communities, how much do we unconsciously perpetuate the notion that the people we serve are “others”?  

Honestly, there’s been a lot of otherizing going around in society in general. For example, kids-708447_640education has been very contentious here in Seattle, deeply divided between schools with wealthier families and schools where most of the kids are on free-and-reduced-price lunch. Some schools can raise 300K in one night; others work for months to get a grand or two in a book sale. One school, with 95% low-income kids, emailed an organization I chair, the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, and asked for $75 dollars to pay for food for a parents information night. Subtle suggestions of “Hey, parents from wealthier families, why don’t you share some of your money with less-resourced schools?” have often been met with, “Sorry, we are investing in our own kids.”

I want to tell these parents, “Hey, guess what? Your kids are going to grow up, and they’re going to marry OTHER kids. So maybe you should invest in these other kids as well.”

This is an important shift that I hope to see more of in our sector, getting people to understand that we are in one community, that none of us are standing on the edge of the lake feeding ducks. All of us are ducks sharing one lake, and our fates are tied to one another’s. Considering the challenges we are facing as a community, it is more critical than ever that we get people to understand how the well-being of people who look completely different, or who are geographically far away, or who speak other languages, affects their own well-being.  

The nature of selfishness

To build a strong community, which I think is the vision that all of us in this field share, we each have to examine our own motivations for doing this work. Recently I was talking to some colleagues in the field about why they entered the sector. “This is stressful work,” said one, and I’m paraphrasing, “but I have to remember that I’m not doing this for me. We have to be selfless and think of others. This is not about me. This is about the community.” Another colleague agreed.

I had to chime in and say that I don’t think selfishness is all that bad. I am totally doing this work for me. I have a kid and another one on the way. I want my kids to grow up in a safe neighborhood. I want to be able to walk down the street and see art and hear music. I want trees and pandas to exist in the world so I can visit them. Trees and pandas are awesome. I want the world to be safe and diverse and vibrant because I personally am planning to grow old in it and enjoy the hell out of it before I die in it probably from a teleportation machine malfunction on my way to visit Mars.waiting-71011_640

In the context of our work, I think self-interest is a force for good and we need to remind ourselves and our donors that all of us have personal stakes in what everyone else in the world is experiencing. We all personally benefit when other people’s kids do well (because our kids marry each other), when our elders are taken care of (because we are all going to grow old), when our environment thrives (because we all breathe and drink water); when people in other countries are successful (because we like to travel and eat stuff); when there are fair laws, when people have stable jobs and housing, when there are lots of art and poetry and music, etc. When we help other people, we also each personally benefit, and this enlightened self-interest is what will allow us to build our ideal world, not the patronizing notion of selflessness and old-school charity.

I’m a duck, you’re a duck

I’ve been thinking about the dynamics between foundations and nonprofits, between donors and nonprofits, and between nonprofits and other nonprofits. And honestly, despite the many counterexamples, sometimes it gets really discouraging just how contentious, adversarial, and generally unhealthy these relationships oftentimes are. So discouraging that I wish I had a tablespoon or two of powdered rum to mix into my soy latte…

As our challenges multiply and the illusion of resource scarcity increases its grip on our communities, I see more and more turfiness and other symptoms of a survival mindset. And we nonprofits often perpetuate this sort of mindset without realizing it. In order to survive, we divide ourselves into “us” and “them.” We must examine areas where we are doing this and cut it out. And we must examine whether we see and treat our clients as “others” and whether we are inadvertently passing on this mentality to donors, volunteers, even to our clients

The success of our world depends on us all believing that we are all interconnected. And if there’s one sector that can get everyone to understand and buy into the idea that our well-being is tied to one-another’s, it is us. Only when we get people to realize that we are all ducks, are we all unicorns.

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  • We at Cause Effective use the term “enlightened self-interest” to talk about that sense that the donor must understand how it’s in their interest – maybe not their direct self-interest right this second, but their larger sense of themselves as part of an interconnected culture – before you’ll get a true investment gift (as opposed to a “pity” gift – or even lower on the priority list, a quid pro quo gift).

    • I love Vu’s point that doing this kind of work is in our own self-interest. I think the non-profit sector could benefit from a lot less selflessness. Who’s doing this work? Your self! Why? It’s fun, it matters, and it makes the world better. Whose world? Your self’s world!

  • Eva Hassett

    I’d love to be part of more discussion about the point you make at the end about nonprofits and competition and how it perpetuates/underlines the duck situation. I really want to engage in more dialogue around this in my environment but it is uphill. Foundations seem only to approach it from the ‘can’t you all merge, reduce duplication and make my life easier?’ perspective. And competition for founders is real. Yet I believe there is much opportunity.

  • Carolyn Nelson-Goedert

    Otherness is most strongly displayed when individuals and organizations are willing to work in a community for grant funding, but look at you in horror if you ask if they venture into the same neighborhoods for pleasure and with family members.

  • Gregory Davis

    I am making it a habit to open my talks by referencing those in attendance as “fellow earthlings”. Congrats on RVC…you know what they say about dreams come true….

  • Daphne Schneider

    The way I’ve long thought about the need to support other people’s kids is this: they will grow up and be my doctor and lawyer and bartender and hair stylist and bus driver and accountant. I need them to ALL be great at what they do – yes, enlightened self-interest.

  • Amanda

    Thank you for this post and for RVC!! whooohooooo!!

  • Jessica Schneider

    Many years ago I was the Director of Development for a homeless shelter. I had the idea of doing a holiday dinner with the residents, including a giving tree in our office where donors and community members could choose a resident from the tree and buy them a small gift. My idea culminated with the board of the shelter cooking dinner for the residents and handing out the gifts. The board was horrified when I went to their table and asked them to please sit with the residents of the shelter, not all board members lumped together at one table. I didn’t work there for very long.

    • S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

      Good thing you no longer work there, because it sounds like you might have inflicted grievous bodily harm on some of those board members 🙂

  • Shannon

    Thanks for this perspective. I think I fall into otherizing in my funding requests, while there are genuine points to be made about the overall societal benefit of the work my agency does (shelter/housing for homeless families).

    Also, this sentence made my Monday, and possibly my week: “We are magical unicorns who make the world better by using our horns of equity to stab injustice in the face.”

  • Carol

    I appreciate this blog (well, most of your blog entries!). I was lucky to have learning fundraising from a mentor who believed fundraising is about building community around a cause…I remember listening to him talk about how wealthy people need community just as much as everyone else, and if we do not approach fundraising from a community building perspective we are doing everyone – donors and clients – a disservice. It has informed my whole approach to fundraising – and my experience of it – for years to come and I am so glad for it. Thank you for your wonderful Monday morning posts!

  • Rachel PV

    Thanks for calling attention to this. The tendency to “Other” people not like oneself is a problem anthropologists have been grappling with for over a century. Definitely a problem inherent to the funding structure of the nonprofit sector. I’m trained as an anthropologist and working in nonprofits has me falling into the trap of Othering clients because of the way the system is set up. Hope we can all push back together.

  • Sylvia Fuerstenberg

    Yes we do this work so that we, and our children, can live in the world where everyone has a place that is valued. There really are no “other” this is a false barrier. Well said Vu

  • Nikki Ringenberg

    YES! Especially after I listened to Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk about identity and injustice on the way in this morning.

  • Linda Bixby

    Excellent post, Vu. Thank you for continually raising the level of discussion and promoting mindfulness about what we are doing and why. This post was really meaningful to me.

  • Tarn

    Excellent post, thank you for sharing with us! Othering is a constant struggle in my nonprofit food bank. One thing that frustrates me is that our partners are so tiered, based on their contributions (or lack thereof), that I can’t imagine them ever working together, though I know the desire is there on both sides. I’m in programming, so I work with our partner nonprofits, many of whom are volunteer-run. When our agency has a fundraising event, I want to share it with our partner agency folks. As major stakeholders of our organization, I assume they want to know our activities, and our events that raise more funds leading to them receiving more grant and/or food assistance. I would want to require them to attend or donate or purchase a table, but we wouldn’t be who we are without them, and vice versa. They may want to participate in one way or another when given the opportunity. When I suggest inviting them, however, I run into concerns from management that either they will feel bad that we are running an event that is larger than their scope or, my favorite, that “Well, this event isn’t really for them,” which, I beg to differ! This is exactly who it is for! But we are saving the fancy seats at the fancy events for the fancy funders, thus keeping them entirely separate from the people who are working to provide the actual services being funded. It seems pretty silly, when you think about it.

  • Ron Ein

    As usual, so many memories of similar concerns in my career. When I arrived in Seattle, in 1994, I heard lots of “Coalition,” “network,” and the like, but rarely saw agency work agendas change to reflect all that talk. When I read your sub-head “selfishness” I misread “shellfishness.” Too often we are too focused on our agency’s core and miss the connections with all the other issues that affect our clients’ lives. As you wrote, selfishness can be a fine motivator for us when we see the connections, that larger view of society of which our work is a part. No one is an island “sufficient unto itself” no matter how many gates we put around our community.

  • Sarah Glass

    I have seen the “othering” go hand-in-hand with ‘exoticizing” of clients/populations all too often – especially in the marketing and development work of nonprofits. I’ll never forget working at a free program for families experiencing homelessness, and squelching the pure rage building inside of me as the development director would ‘tour’ donors through the program – unannounced and unsolicited – whispering to the donor about the clients in the room. It felt like she was taking them on a zoo tour and might as well have said “yes, these are *real* homeless people!” I understand the importance of including donors in the process, but there’s absolutely a right and wrong way to do that. I’m hyper-conscious of this as a development professional now. Icky icky!!

  • Carina Andrea Tomietto

    Love how you get your message across. So funny!

  • verucaamish

    The school example is such a relevant one. My kid was in an elementary school that was incredibly diverse but with a core of upper middle class parents (of which I am one) who could fundraise. We raised about $150K for “enrichment” programs like P.E., science, and music. Our middle school is overwhelming Chicano (75% of parents are LEP Spanish speakers) with a small parent fundraising base. The staff is crazy awesome and the administration writes their butts off for grant money but “extras” are nonexistent. And up until last week the afterschool program was completely unstructured because of lack of staff (and funding thereof). Being on the inside of those fundraising machines you are talking of, the messaging is that the school is using every single resource and needs the fundraising. I don’t think parents could even think of raising money for another school because of the scarcity mentality.