The myth of double-dipping, and the destructiveness of restricted funding


salsa-840249_960_720I’ve written before about double-dipping being one of the worst accusations you can leverage against a nonprofit. It makes for an effective insult: “Your ED is so dumb, he went on eHarmony hoping to meet a logic model.” “Oh yeah? Well your org is so unethical, it reported that one funder paid for some food for a community gathering, but then also told another funder that they paid for the same food!” (#nonprofitinsults, in case you’re bored and want to start a new trend on Twitter)

I don’t want to keep harping on this subject, but it deserves to be harped on from time to time. Last week, I had a meeting with my team to talk about our finances. Specifically, we are spinning off into our own 501c3, and some of our funders want information on how the money they gave us has been spent before we transition. For the next hour, we dove into it, and I want to capture the gist of the conversation here, mainly because I think it will make an excellent scene when I begin working on “Nonprofit: The Musical” in earnest.

Me: OK, so two of our funds are restrictive. Some just want a report on how we spent their money. And some are general operating.

Team member 1: Yes. One foundation, for example, does not want any funds at all to go to admin staff.

Me: That’s the same one that does not want us to spend more than $1,000 on food for community events, and more than $500 in travel expenses

Team member 2: It looks like we reported to one foundation that we spent some of their funds on our Program Director’s salary, but we also reported some of that to another foundation.

Team member 1: So it looks like we’re double-dipping.


Me: Calm down. We are not double-dipping. We still need to raise more money before we reach our goals.  

Team member 1: We are working with a financial consultant to adjust our numbers; we can refile our reports. You’ll need to talk to program officers to explain to them that because we are a start-up, under the fiscal sponsorship of another organization, we are still developing our financial systems, and that’s why we need to refile our report.

Team member 2: We need to revise our budget, and make it horizontal, to break out who is paying for what.

Team member 1: Good idea. ABC Foundation won’t pay for existing staff, only new ones. And they don’t want us to spend more than 10% of their funds on admin.

Me: Right, and this is the one that also wants a breakdown of each line item and how much of their money we spent.

Team member 1: Yeah, but they have different line-item categories, so we’re going to need to combine some categories and separate out others in order to translate from our budget to theirs.

Team member 2: This may be why there’s been some confusion. Our biggest expense is salaries for our fellows. Most foundations think this is a program expense, but one considers that a personnel expense, and does not want to fund staffing.

Me: XYZ is most flexible, so we should allocate expenses to the most restricted grants first, then allocate some of the balance to XYZ.

Team member 1: We’re going to need to spend some time developing a matrix of which funder is paying for what, and revise our projections based on those restrictions.

Me: Sure, but the foundations have different timelines, so we have to take that into consideration. Our fiscal year ends in June, but many foundations are on a calendar year. XYZ ends in December. ABC’s fiscal year ends in October, so they only want report on what their money paid for up until October.

Team member 2: Doomed…

The meeting went on. If this were Nonprofit, The Musical, we would break into a rousing jazz number called “Funding Sodoku.” Sample lyrics: We don’t want to get screwed/so we play funding Sodoku/It is such an lengthy trip!/(But do you want to double-dip?!)/ No that would make us very blue!/And what’s why we play funding Sodoku (I’m still working on it) This wouldapple-840082_960_720 then be followed by a mournful solo ballad sung by the ED called “Please Have Mercy On Our Time and Sanity.” 

Look, I am not against financial transparency and accountability. But restricted funding has nothing to do with transparency and accountability. Quite the opposite: it has become a destructive force in our sector:

It wastes time: Hundreds of thousands of hours each year are wasted by nonprofits figuring out which funder is paying for what. Here, again, I present the Baker’s Dilemma. If you have a few minutes, print it out and try to solve the puzzle. How much time did it take you? It’s a relatively simple puzzle, so some people can do it in five minutes, others take longer. Extrapolate the time you spent on this puzzle to the millions of nonprofit professionals across the sector and we can start to see the extent of time wasted. Sadly, actual nonprofit funding Sodoku is way more complicated than this puzzle.

It distracts from the actual work: Right before the conversation above, my team had a great conversation regarding RVC’s role in supporting communities of color to be more civically engaged. What was our role? Who else is doing the work? How do we mobilize our first cohort of amazing emerging nonprofit leaders of color? It was an exciting conversation. For the past year and a half, we have been in this start-up mode, squirreling away free used furniture, hiring people, and developing systems. It was nice to be reminded of the big picture, that the reason why my organization was founded, and why we’ve been working so hard, was to find and support leaders of color who will engage communities of color to help change inequitable systems and policies. Everyone was energized, and we made plans to continue this conversation and make this the theme at our next Quarterly Community Gathering. This was why all of us got drawn to this work, and also what compels foundations and donors want us to focus on.

It hampers nonprofits’ ability to adapt, and it prevents innovation: Restricted funds force us to become psychics guessing on and committing to programmatic and operational elements months before they actually happen. But things do not always work out even for the best plans. There are myriad factors at play, including other funders. One time, the entire state of Washington lost funding from No Child Left Behind, which devastated and closed many effective programs statewide (and some ineffective ones, too, which was good). If it weren’t for flexible general operating funds, my org too would have had to close a program that to this day continues to serve hundreds of low-income kids. And innovation cannot happen if people are not allowed the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. 

It burns people out: In my career, I’ve had days when I worked 12 or 16 hours. One time, I worked from 9am until midnight, and actually got locked into my office building. I had to break out through a window that faced a busy street, praying I wouldn’t get caught by the police. I didn’t mind, because I was on fire work-wise that day. The more I do this work, the more evidence I gather that the work we do is not what burns people out. It is the constant having to justify our work that burns people out. Spending an entire Saturday at a retreat to determine our goals and actions, or providing services to our community members, is not as exhausting as three hours trying to figure out, among other things, how much of $892 we spent on supplies was paid for by the XZY foundation, whose fiscal year ends in March, and who does not want more than 15% of their funds to go to supplies.

It is inequitable: Restricting funding is not just annoying, it runs counter to many values that we hold as a sector, especially the value of Equity. Funding Sudoku may be easier for larger nonprofits that have Finance Directors or CFOs, but for most of us, we don’t have full-time people devoted to this area of work. Many organizations that are led by communities of color, LGBTQ, disabled, or rural communities tend to be smaller, and the burden of financial management is greater on these organizations. Add that to the fact that many funders refuse to pay for, or limit what can be spent on, accounting and other admin expenses, and it becomes a logistical nightmare.  

I know with Wounded Warrior in the news, what nonprofits spend our funds on, as well as what percentage go to overhead, are once again in question. This is a topic for another post, but yet again one bad apple spoils it for the rest of us. The article mentions Semper Fi Fund’s 8% overhead, a contrast to WWP’s ludicrous wastefulness. But 8% is a ridiculous, dangerous, and unrealistically low percentage for overhead.

The distrust, suspicion, and micromanagement of how nonprofits spend our funds need to end. Trust me, most of us are not flying first-class anywhere or staying at 5-star hotels; heck, if I get my own bathroom at my $80 AirBnB room when I travel for work, I’m ecstatic. Here are some hard truths that funders who restrict funds may need to come to terms with:

You are supporting everything: We don’t have separate accounts for just your funds. Your money goes into one bank account, like water into one bucket, from which we nourish the beautiful flowers of justice. It’s all mixed. Accounting can tell you that yes, the 3 ounces of water you gave supported just the tulips of programming and not the disgusting weeds of admin and fundraising, but come on, since the water is all mixed together, every plant got a bit of your funding. Yup, you’re totally paying for part of the wine we bought wholesale for the donor reception.

The report we give you are illusions: We sometimes use arcane financial magic, adding a wing of bat and an eye of newt, and hundreds of hours, to make all the numbers align, but it is all an illusion made to make you feel better. As stated above, you’re paying for a part of everything. What we report to you is just whatever makes the rest of the numbers balance out, in relations to the other dozens of restrictions.

There is no such thing as double-dipping. It is a made-up disease that forces a harmful cure in the form of time-wasting and aggravation. This is not to say there are not sucky, irresponsible nonprofits. There certainly are, and they suck, and they end up in the news and make people think all of us are like that. Most of us, though, are scrambling continually for funds. How can we be “double-dipping” on anything when many of us freak out practically every month about making the next payroll? 

The concepts of double-dipping and restricted funds are archaic, destructive, and inequitable. If our sector is to move forward, let’s dispense with them. This does not mean at all that we dispense with accountability and transparency. If anything, it will only improve these areas, since we’ll have more time to focus on better financial management as a whole. Here are my recommendations to funders, please feel free to add others or to disagree:

Provide general operating funds: This is the most effective form of funding, and the most efficient, and also the most equitable. Give nonprofits the flexibility to focus on outcomes and results. If all funders give general operating funds and focus on outcomes, it would save hundreds of thousands of hours that could be put to better use providing services. It may also, honestly, prevent a lot of us from rage-quitting the sector. 

Ask for reports on the organization’s finances as a whole: Most of us are glad to provide financial reports to anyone, and our tax filings are public. We keep receipts and categorize and record every expense. I’d be happy to send you financial reports on my org as a whole every single month. We have to prepare them for our monthly board meetings anyway. It’s when you restrict what your particular funds are used for—“No more than $48 of the funds we give you may be used to buy stamps for your annual appeal”—and then ask for confirmation, that’s when we start tearing out our hair and clawing at our faces. 

Pay for anything you ask for: Financial management is expensive. Some funders want detailed data and yet don’t want to pay for staff time and other related admin expenses. In my experience, financial reviews cost $3,000 to $5,000 each year, and audits usually cost at least $10,000, even for small nonprofits. Who exactly are paying for these, if no one wants to pay for them? If you require something, help pay for it. Same goes for evaluation reports and other requirements.

Don’t make nonprofits return unused funds: Here is a horrifying dilemma: Nonprofits are expected to be efficient with spending, but if we’re too efficient, we may have to return unused funds, even if we achieve the results and outcomes agreed upon. All the while, funders keep pushing for sustainability. How can nonprofits be sustainable if we can’t build up reserves? One year, my previous org had funds left on a grant because we managed to find equipment on sale (yay!). We asked to see if this could be saved up to start next year’s program, and was told no, we either spend it on more supplies, or give it back (boo!). So we bought 25 pads of easel paper (yay?). They were useful, but it would have been a lot more helpful if we were able to save the funds in a reserve.

If you don’t trust an organization and its leaders to use your money wisely, don’t fund them: Just like if you don’t trust a job applicant to do their job effectively, don’t hire them. Otherwise, you hire them on, micromanage them, and it makes for a terrible relationship where everyone is unhappy. If you don’t trust a nonprofit to spend your funds wisely, then don’t fund it. But first, determine if your definition of “wisely” makes sense.

I know everyone means well, and no funders are intentionally trying to make things difficult on us nonprofits, but it’s time we discontinue the inequitable and destructive practice of restricting funding. Let me know your thoughts. I want to end this with a note of sincere appreciation for the funders who provide general operating funds and who ask for holistic financial reports. In the darkness of restricted funding, you are the Light of Earendil the Evenstar, which helped Frodo on his journey to destroy the Ring of Power and save the world from evil. If this were Nonprofit, The Musical, I would break into a song called “Thank You for Watering the Plants of Equity and Justice.”

If you liked this post, you may like “General operating, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies,” as well as “Nonprofit funding: Ordering a cake and restricting it too.” And before you suggest individual donations as the panacea, please read “Why individual donations strategies often do not work for communities of color.”

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31 thoughts on “The myth of double-dipping, and the destructiveness of restricted funding

  1. Generic Reader

    Couldn’t agree more with this statement: “Pay for anything you ask for: Financial management is expensive.” This point alone demonstrates the lunacy of insisting on accounting along strict funding lines while refusing to support administration costs.

    That said, in my experience, setting up restricted revenue lines *when the funds come in* instead of trying to retroactively do some forensic footwork, saves so much time. I’ve worked in some charities whose “accounting” records honestly resembled a bee’s hive wrapped in a bird’s nest, wrapped in a who-knows-what. Then the staff panics and spends literally hundreds of hours of tracing to try to figure out where the money was allocated, often when a funder needs to demonstrate to their board their due diligence (and asks for an accounting of their grant along restricted budget lines).

    I agree that granting agencies need to be aware of the financial support necessary to properly assign, track and subsequently account for restricted program expenses. But charities also do themselves a disservice by accepting a restricted grant, with *clear budget allocations specified*, then refuse to commit the time requirement to make sure proper expense allocations are set up. Most accounting software programs (e.g. QuickBooks) allow for funder and revenue allocation according to whatever streams the funder wants to see. If a charity thinks that this initial setup requirement is too onerous, it is incumbent on the charity to act ethically and refuse the funding and its attendant strings.

    This is an example, frankly, of what happens when organisations lack the infrastructure to support restricted granting–which suggests to me that what’s busted is the chase for the grant. Just because the grant is there, it doesn’t mean it should be pursued. There are likely better avenues to pursue for funding.

    1. Meredith

      “Just because the grant is there, it doesn’t mean it should be pursued. There are likely better avenues to pursue for funding.”

      The vast majority of grants we’ve seen have been so restricted that we have avoided pursuing them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there are better avenues out there for funding.

      In our case, we’re just choosing between the lesser of the evils—choosing to give our time away to the pursuit of program goals over giving our time away to the pursuit of funding goals. Either way, it’s not an ideal solution and certainly not a long-term one.

      Vu’s right; our collective foundations for philanthropy and social good are rickety, at best. We can and should be doing better. We do ourselves no service by pretending there are no significant tradeoffs to be made in sticking with the status quo and in placing the majority of the responsibility on those with the least capacity for absorbing it.

  2. Hildie Lipson

    This made my day. Thank you. We just had this very discussion in our office a couple of weeks ago. The word “sodoku” featured prominently.

  3. mbutown

    I once worked for an organization that was awarded funding to buy furniture and paint a room. We got the painter to do the job for less, so we asked the funder if we could paint a second room with the remaining money. “Nope. You didn’t ask to paint THAT room. You asked to paint the other.” We thanked our painter for the discount, returned the money and watched the paint chip and peel in room two.

  4. Michelle Winters

    I managed several federal grants for a few years and I could not believe how much time was wasted trying to make all the expenses fit into little neat tidy budget columns. Also all the time that went into reporting. And spend down. Our agency made the decision last year to hand back the federal grants because we were so limited in the work we could do, everything had to be branded with the funder’s name and logo as primary, and mainly, the additional costs to our agency were too great. This is because the grant required certain things of us without providing funding or guidance on how to achieve these things. I believe if we had been given the same amount of funding but were less restricted, we could have done the same work and served half again as many individuals.

    The worst part was that new restrictions were constantly levied against us and even the program officers at the federal office weren’t 100% clear on the rules. At one point I had emails from 3 different program officers all contradicting each other on a federal background check rule for our volunteers. If we messed up, we could lose all our funding. But they weren’t even clear on what we were supposed to do.

    The other thing that is ridiculous about restricted funds is that people who are sitting in offices funding a wide variety of programs are making decisions about exactly how you spend your program money. Rather than saying, this is how much we will grant you to do this work, they instead say this is how much we will grant you and regardless of what your actual work is, here is what you’re gonna do.

    1. House0fTheBlueLights

      I am dealing with a grant like this right now. It requires daily check ins with their own Facebook-like monstrosity, quarterly site visits and 10 CE webinars (with test to prove you were there) and who apparently pay their staff to read every news site in my town so they can harass us with questions about problems in our sector and with organizations LIKE the organizations we work with and what do we know about the difficulties they are having and will this affect our program.

      The amount of the funding? $2,000, non-renewable. If I’d known this going in I would never have even applied.

  5. dadolwch

    I’ve never understood how funders think a nonprofit is supposed to function with 99.99% of funding being designated for program services only. Is it any wonder that so many nonprofits can barely function at the bare minimum, much less adopt standard business practices that require us to pay an auditor $10,000 a year, among other things? And don’t get me started on trying to make project budgets align in both your donor database and general ledger.

  6. Alia Khan

    Spot on. The most infuriating part is that so much of the services that non-profits provide communities are really public goods that should be funded by public (i.e., government) funds. Instead, champions of “small government” have been so successful convincing folks in the U.S. that all of this can and should be funded through charitable giving and go on to extol the virtues of our country’s incredible generosity…But charitable giving is no way to ensure the democratic use of public funds, much less provide social safety nets that ensure basic needs are met (which is a human right by all but U.S. standards…) And while I can and do play the game of kow-towing (sp?) to funders, part of me has always wanted to know how much of their “charitable” funds were actually accumulated through the large scale leveraging of consumer spending, government-sponsored trade and intellectual property protections, the loosening of environmental and labor regulations, tax breaks, etc…–all things that should mean that that money is actually “public” money…

    1. Patrick Taylor

      In general, the people who claim that the charitable sector can take over essential human services the government funds have no idea how the charitable sector works, how big it is, or how totally unrealistic it is to expect that it could somehow make up the difference if government funding went away. The math doesn’t work at a basic level.

  7. Jenn Dean

    I’m a grantwriting consultant, and recently helped a tiny non profit in CA (that is incredibly effective at serving a geographically restricted population, mind you) fill out some really onerous financial forms (showing all kinds of data for 3 whole prior years) all because the foundation uses a collective impact model. The nonprofit had a tiny staff, and were in the midst of preparing for their annual fundraising event, which is lucrative for them. The ED worked so hard to get the forms filled out, spending countless hours each night tracking down data from years ago–with the help of their finance person, who worked part time. They were then turned down for the grant. The only saving grace is the data they collected is slightly useful in other contexts for other grants.

    1. LornaV

      Been there. But fear not, Jenn, there is cosmic justice. There is a specially toasty place in hell for that foundation.

  8. Meredith

    Agreed on all this. So much of what we consider “accountability” devolves into a method of box-checking that completely misses the big picture. An obsession with data, while not bad, is often badly applied and taken to a level of granularity that necessarily impedes progress in the aggregate. The paradox inherent in this dynamic is pretty disastrous in that, in my experience, it leads to significantly worse outcomes. If we could escape from our current illusion of what makes for accountability and focus together on our goals and drivers, everyone would be much better served.

  9. Canadian

    I just filled out a survey where the funder actually asked if it was a good idea to return the ‘unspent’ grants (this is for a capital funding program, mind, and, please someone tell me when and on what planet a capital program came in under budget – why are they even asking this?). What project manager in their right mind would think this was a good idea? The whole way that funders operate (I am writing this from Canada, where it is different I know, but very similar in the mindsets) is so top down, patriarchal and infantilizing that I sometimes don’t know where to turn. It is perhaps the infantalizing that I abhor the most. The notion that I don’t know what I am doing and that the only way to prevent against that is to put restrictions on how I spend the money and then make me write reports that are beyond onerous and don’t match ANY OTHER ones (why can’t they simply sync all the reports up? how hard would that be?) is not only disrespectful, it is also counter productive in the way that is noted in the blog. (Anyway, there’s my morning snit. Thanks for letting me get it off my chest- I think it was the survey that got me going. BTW, I think the endless surveys we have to do now are also a time suck and deserve an entry)

  10. Dawn Veillette Diana

    Once again, Vu, you clearly state the frustrations of the non-profit sector. You’re like Jon Stewart for non-profits!

  11. Becca

    Vu, have you ever thought of writing a book, or doing some sort of speaking series to educate funders? (You know, in all of your spare time – clearly the hours you spend sleeping are an unnecessary overhead expense).

    Seriously, everything you write is so spot on. I don’t know whose neck I need to (metaphorically!) strangle to prove that it’s a greater waste of my time to spend three hours correcting a mistake than it is to save $0.05. And yet this is what I spend so much of my day doing.

  12. Paul Balluff

    Great article! Any suggestions on how to communicate that to funders effectively? And have you experienced any case where the funders changed their minds?

  13. Uni Cornio

    Speak! In my experience, government funders are the worst with the micromanagement and 0-10% overheads. We’re their outsourced cheap labor. They direct, we row, etc. A lot of funders also don’t seem to think that evaluation is a separate field of expertise in its own right with people who get graduate degrees to do it well. They ask us to evaluate with the expertise we don’t have or overhead personnel they won’t let us hire with their funds. There needs to be serious innovation. I just heard of a group of funders now working on a shared profile type of proposal writing, which can save nonprofits lots of time. Relationship building needs to be become its own deliverable. So does evaluation. Cohort or collective impact funding models need to budget collaboration time. So many points of necessary disruption!

  14. CTThompson

    Vu – I love your writing and fully agree with you. I am curious about your thoughts regarding restricting funding for internal capacity building, staff appreciation and other things hard working nonprofit leaders aren’t good at allocating money to.

  15. spetch

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything in this post, except this: “Just like if you don’t trust a job applicant to do their job effectively, don’t hire them. Otherwise, you hire them on, micromanage them, and it makes for a terrible relationship where everyone is unhappy.” The vast majority of nonprofit professionals I’ve worked with come into the sector with gobs of enthusiasm and very little financial training. Knowing how to read a balance sheet isn’t something that magically occurs to people – it’s something we train them on (or more often, don’t). I’ve seen too many training budgets devoted 100% to expanding staff’s topical knowledge in their field without any requirement that they develop management skills, and for this reason we end up with people in manager and director level positions who have incredible depth of experience in their program area but no preparation for many of the basic tasks they’ll spend most of their time on. Yes, restricted funding is ridiculous, and there’s also a dearth of financial literacy in this field that keeps us from being able to effectively advocate for ourselves. Let’s change that.

    1. Vu Le

      I don’t think we disagree much. I think trusting a candidate to do their job also includes trusting that they will learn and develop new skills, provided they believe in the mission and are given opportunities for professional development.

      If we continue this analogy, restricted funding is, instead, like hiring someone you are suspicious would steal office supplies, so you ask them to list down every single piece of supply they ever use and when they used them, making sure they also log in and return the items when they had three leftover paperclips; then you before they leave each day, you ask them to empty their pockets to make sure they’re not stealing staples and paper clips. Then you send them to workshops so they improve their supply recording skills and learn how to be more efficient with staple usage. Then you get annoyed when they’re spending 10 hours each week on following the supply management protocols you’ve created.

      1. spetch

        Ha! Yep. Having had to inventory our paper clip usage for a funder in a report, I feel this pain! I just think the argument is also sometimes used as a deflection from accountability over truly poor fiscal management by people who really haven’t established that trust, and overall that undermines our credibility as a sector when we try to advocate for change. Which is 100% not what’s happening here because you know your stuff, and we need more people like you speaking up. Thanks for ranting and indulging my side rant. 🙂

  16. Kathryn

    I couldn’t even read this entry… started having PTSD flashbacks to meetings from last week and feeling sick about upcoming meetings that will pretty much go exactly this way!

  17. Patrick Taylor

    I work in the foundation world, and I don’t see restricted giving going away any time soon. If anything, I’m seeing funders getting even more directive with their funds, driven in part by the whole concept of impact investment and strategic philanthropy.

    I do think that foundations can and should a), at least consider moving grants to long-term, strategically aligned partners as general operating support, b), fund the grantees’ standard overhead rate, and not this 10-15% nonsense, and c)offer as few restrictions as possible, and accept reports at the highest possible granularity. Foundation should also be sure that they are never, ever asking grantees to justify their existence, ie do a whole lotta work so that a program officer or grants officer can prove how smart they are. That seems achievable in the current climate of the foundation world, and would still allow foundations to feel like they are being strategic and driving impact etc. etc.

    The overhead thing drives me especially nuts, because most foundation staff have nicer offices, higher salaries, and better perks than the schlubs they fund who they are haggling about overhead with.

    1. LornaV

      Thank you so much for this, Patrick. If you will promote with your peers the perspectives you have laid out here it will really help move things in the right direction.

      Regarding your comment about overhead and salaries: when I am asked to do contract work for foundations I am asked my rate. My response: I’ll charge the same as what you make, which is what, exactly? Stunned silence on the other end of the line. Let’s face it, I am as, or more, knowledgeable, experienced and skilled than most staff working in foundations so why should I be paid any differently? I refuse to be treated as a second-class citizen just because I work in the charitable sector.

  18. betty barcode

    Your “Baker’s Dilemma” is genius. It’d be even more realistic if you added in the cost of the pastry chef’s labor and further stipulated that none of the family members wanted their contributions to go towards her wages.

  19. LornaV

    Oh, the funders I want to send this to! My finger is trembling as it hovers over the “send” button.

  20. Jim Pollicita

    I could not agree more! The application of “business thinking” and “business practices” to the nonprofit world has had some salubrious effects; for example, we are much more conscious and active measuring outcomes of our efforts. The MIS-application of business thinking and practices, however, ignores the fundamental differences between business and non-profit organizations; that is, the whole notion of financial profit. We do not have enough fluent business/social service code switchers, people who “get” both orientations. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

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