We need to stop treating nonprofits the way society treats poor people


brown-shoes-1150071_960_720During a drink with one of my favorite program officers, I brought up some feedback about how onerous their grant reporting process was. Even though the foundation is really flexible on how the funds can be used, they still ask for exactly how much of each line item the foundation pays for. And their line items don’t line up with ours, so we have to spend significant time translating our budget into theirs. And once the report is submitted, it affects what we report to other foundations, leading to a funding Sudoku that wastes endless hours of my and my team’s time. 

Her response, half-joking and half-serious, was “When you entered the sector, what were you expecting, cake and ice cream?” At that moment, all I wanted to do was weep quietly into my raspberry mojito while Foreigner songs play in my head: “In my liiiiife, there’s been heartache and pain. I don’t knooow, if I can faaaaaaace it again…”

First of all, I am vegan, so I NEVER expect cake and ice cream ANYWHERE. My usual dessert at fundraising events is a blueberry garnish. Second of all, none of us are expecting the work to be easy, but spending 15 hours trying to figure out how much of $1,864 in office supplies and printing the XYZ Foundation paid for last fiscal year is probably not what any of us should be putting our energy into. As I mentioned in previous posts, I’d be happy to supply a full report of what my org’s been spending on; just please don’t make us break down exactly what your 5K paid for, especially when you don’t allow for more than 10% for “indirect,” and no more than $32 to go to food, and you only want accounting for a particular time period that does not align with ours, and ironically you don’t want your money to be used to pay for staff time, which is required to do accounting…

Many leaders, from both nonprofit as well as foundations, have been speaking up against restricted funding for years now—here’s a compelling piece by Paul Shoemaker—and I’m glad to see that it is starting to make some progress. But it is still slow, and it makes me wonder why this is. Why is general operating so difficult for many to accept? Why is it OK for us to be OK with the fact that millions of hours each year are wasted by nonprofits trying to comply with some funders’ unrealistic, and frankly, destructive requirements?

I think the answer may be that there is a strong parallel between how we treat nonprofits, and how society treats low-income people. I don’t think it is intentional. Like implicit racial or gender biases, most people are not even aware that it’s affecting their behaviors. But it’s important for us to examine these parallels, so we can better understand and change them:

The teach-a-man-to-fish paternalism. This philosophy, so ingrained in our culture, is patronizing and often ineffective, sometimes harmful. It assumes one person is a fount of knowledge while the other is an ignorant, empty vessel to be filled with wisdom. It ignores systems and environmental variables. We can teach someone to fish, but if they have no transportation to get to the pond, or if the pond is polluted, or if better-equipped corporations have been destroying aquaculture through over-fishing, then they’re still screwed while we feel good about ourselves. We see the same dynamics in funding via this belief that nonprofits can be self-sustaining if we just teach them to earn their revenues instead of constantly asking for free fish in the form of grants and donations.

The Bootstrap Mentality: This belief that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps has been plaguing our low-income families for decades. It manifests in individuals who have found success to think they actually did it all on their own, blaming poor people for their situations, never mind again the privilege and system issues. In the nonprofit sector, it is seen in people from for-profits having an inflated sense of superiority, thinking “If my for-profit was successful in generating revenues, why can’t these lazy nonprofits also pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” Never mind the fact that over half of for-profits fail and that nonprofits and for-profits are completely different from each other.

The assumption of inability for future planning. There is an assumption that poor people don’t know how to plan for their future. If they do, why are they so poor then? Obviously they suck at planning ahead. The same assumption plays out in our sector. There is a belief among many people that if we give nonprofits too much money, they won’t know what to do with it. A program officer once told me, “I don’t want to give multi-year funding, because I think that will stop nonprofits from being innovative.” Because nothing encourages innovation better than regular bouts of night-terror-inducing, morale-sinking cash-flow emergencies.

The lack of trust in people’s ability to manage money: Society thinks poor people don’t know how to spend the money we give them. That’s why we have to monitor how they do it. Let’s restrict their ability to spend their food stamps on junk food; left to their own devices, they’ll probably just guzzle beer while feeding their kids tons of Hot Cheetos. Same with nonprofits. We need to monitor every penny they spend; otherwise, they’d probably waste money on fancy chairs and blinged-out business cards. And if we can’t protect these irresponsible organizations from themselves, then at least let’s make sure our own money is not being used to fund these things.

The No-Free-Lunch: There have been idiotic proposals by clueless politicians designed to punish the poor for violating whatever ridiculous expectations are set out for them. Like taking away food stamps if their kids don’t get good enough grades or if they’re not volunteering or seeking out employment, despite the fact that there are only so many volunteer and paid positions to go around. In our sector, our funding gets threatened if we don’t comply with various requirements, such as working toward “sustainability.” A colleague mentioned a grant that won’t pay for staff wages and other indirect expenses, and applicants have to demonstrate that they will be completely self-sustaining within a year. That gave us all a good chuckle.

The punishment of success. Ironically, while we expect poor people to work and save up money so they can stop being dependent, we punish them when they succeed at that, removing their benefits if they earn close to an amount where they may actually be able to no longer need the benefits. It’s weirdly paradoxical, demotivating, and insulting. In nonprofits, many funders expect sustainability and yet punish nonprofits for having a strong reserve, which is probably the most important factor for sustainability. You need to be sustainable, but if you are too successful at that, we’re not funding you, or we take away the money we gave you. I remember frantically trying to spend some left-over money because it otherwise would have had to be returned, per the requirement of this funder, even though the reason we had leftover was because we were spending it wisely; that money we saved would have greatly helped our programs if we had been allowed to put it into reserve. 

The avoidance of eye contact. Poor people make the general public sad. That’s why most people avoid eye contact with individuals experiencing homelessness. And in our sector, it leads to some donors and foundations to avoid nonprofits, creating barriers in the form of “safe space” that prevent those doing the work from communicating and collaborating with those funding the work.  

The expectation of gratitude: Every single time I bring up some sort of feedback regarding ineffective, time-wasting funding practices in our sector—such as requiring board chair signatures on grant applications (Why? Whyyyyy?!)—inevitably some people will counter with things like, “So people are giving you their hard-earned money, and you’re whining? You should just be grateful and comply.” It’s the same as poor people being expected to just be happy and appreciative of whatever scraps they manage to get. Not that we shouldn’t be grateful, but gratitude should not be one-sided, and it should not prevent the exchange of feedback. 

Again, I don’t think most people aim to make nonprofit professionals’ work difficult. But the lack of trust, the paternalism, and the occasional disdain for nonprofits do not make our work easier. Yes, there are a few nonprofits that suck, that are irresponsible, that waste money. Just like there are irresponsible poor people who abuse the systems designed to help them. But we have started assuming that those are the default and we treat everyone with suspicion, when in fact they are a very small percentage. Most of us are just trying our best to serve our communities, and we are running against the clock.

None of us ever anticipated that this work would be easy, that it would be cake or ice cream. chocolate-677762_960_720The work we do is often heart-wrenching, filled with late nights at the office, difficult decisions, and guilt that we can’t do enough for so many of our fellow community members who are facing so much injustice. In light of the seriousness of the issues we’re trying to address, being forced to spend hours we don’t have to account for which funders paid for snacks for our kids and which funders paid for insurance, and BS some answers about how we plan to be “sustainable,” and Frankenstein bits of funds together so we can make it through one more payroll cycle, and otherwise defend our work—all of it is frustrating because these useless, time-wasting activities are taking up more than half our time and preventing us from doing the hard work that may actually help people. It is sometimes too much, and we lose good people whom we need to remain in the sector to continue the work.    

So many funding and accounting practices are anchored in a severe and pervasive distrust of nonprofits, the same distrust we heap on individuals with low-income. It goes without saying that these myths and philosophies are destructive, toward both our low-income community members and toward nonprofits. We must begin with trust as the default, or our community loses. We must stop treating our low-income community members the way many in the world have been. And if we are going to effectively address society’s numerous, complex problems—and recent tragedies and violence nationally and internationally highlight just how complex and serious things are—the way we currently view nonprofits must change. The relationships between funders, donors, nonprofits, for-profits, media, and government must change. We must see each other as equal partners with different but complementary roles to play. We must understand where philosophically our requirements come from and how they are affecting our partners, how it helps or hampers their work. We must be able to provide each other honest feedback and push one another to do better for our community. 

Like Foreigner sang in one of their songs, before they changed the lyrics: “I want to know what an effective partnership for social justice is, I want you to show me. I want to feel what an effective partnership for social justice is, I know you can shooooowwww meee…”

Let’s make that happen; let’s stop treating nonprofits the way society treats poor people. And if that’s not yet possible, then maybe let’s try to stop treating poor people the way we treat nonprofits.

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  • John Mulvey

    These issues make me hot blooded; it is urgent that we address them. Many times I’ve gotten double vision reconciling miscellaneous expenses, and I’ve been waiting for easier donor reports to come into my life.

    • Peter Campbell

      I’m not-for-profit blooded. Check it and see!

      • Ea Ksander

        I’ve got a fever of a 501(c)3

        • Carol Clarke

          ha ha!!!

  • D Allen

    Makes you wonder, do these folks REALLY want to help non-profits? Because, if they did, they’d talk to us and ask us, what can we do to make this process more manageable, while still holding you accountable for the funds we give you? My all-time favorite funder in a prior job, was a charitable trust that required just a cover letter and a budget for subsequent requests, after the first summer they funded our interns and we provided ample evidence for how the money was spent, and how their efforts were useful and a wise use of their money. Now, THAT was a funder who was truly helpful and supportive! If only more could be like them…

    • Cloggie

      They’re GIVING you “free” money. How dare you complain about their largesse?! If you were so good with money, you wouldn’t need handouts. /s

      I seriously think that is how a lot of the grantmakers feel to some extent, consciously or unconsciously.

  • Erik Hancock

    I got curious once about the origin of the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and what I found would have been hilarious if we all didn’t take that quote so literally. Instead, I got incredibly sad. Bootstraps were, of course, designed to help you pull your boots on. The phrase about using them to lift yourself up came into common use in the 19th century as a way of describing an absurd or impossible task. In other words: “Hey, that’s stupid-you know, like trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” And now, we use that absurd logic when talking down to poor people, non-profits, and anyone else asking for help from someone standing on higher, firmer ground. Just use those bootstraps; because that’s actually possible… and real…

  • Thank you for saying this! I’d also like it if we stopped treating poor people the way society treats poor people.

    Sadly, money hides a multitude of sins. Your favorite program officer should have seen your feedback as a potentially useful way to improve her organization and the larger system. But instead, as is usually the case, self-improvement is only for poor people.

  • Mehitabel

    I wonder if Monday mornings are the best time for you to make your posts, Vu. Sure, a lot of Monday mornings start with a chuckle when I read this blog, but then there are the days like today when I read your post and immediately want to crawl back into bed, pull the blankets over my head, and cry myself back to sleep. Because this is so on target, and so freaking depressing.

    Personally, I don’t think anyone should be eligible to serve as a program officer in charge of grantmaking until they have ten+ years of hands-on experience trying to keep a cash-starved nonprofit afloat. Few things in my career have driven me crazier than the smug, arrogant, ivory-tower, I-know-what’s-best-for-you mentality of certain purse-string-holding individuals that I’ve had to deal with.

    And yet I have my moments when I think all of those mistrustful funders have a point, because I have been around long enough to be able to point to a whole lot of examples of nonprofits that, through ignorance or something a lot worse than ignorance, have mis-appropriated &/or mis-used their funding. And every time I hear yet another story about someone in a nonprofit who’s been caught committing fraud or something nearly as bad, I have an aneurysm because I know that this someone has just made life harder for the rest of us honest people who are just trying to do a little good in the world.

  • Carol Clarke

    Vu, I can’t help but think you are preaching to the choir. How do we get this information (your powerful articles) to the funders who most need to be aware of it? I am so grateful to have your weekly rants that acknowledge my efforts and obstacles. Thank you, more than I can say.

    • KeepingOn

      some of us are reading, processing, and sharing. We tend to move a bit slowly, but we will get there!

      • Carol Clarke

        Oh, that warms my heart.

    • LongmontKathy

      As an employee of a grantmaking program, I am grateful to Vu for telling it straight.

      • Carol Clarke

        Ever so grateful. What an education for all of us.

  • Lisa Bernstein

    I went to a glittering nut allergy ball in NYC where in one night millions were raised for research – and I realized the way to learn from their success — just arrange for the wealthy to give birth to children living in poverty!

  • Christal Clear

    Well said, all of this. And now, how many of us will share this on social media where funders, who monitor our every breath, might read it?

  • Vu: Your posts are always wonderful, but this one is outstanding, if painful to read. It should be required reading at funder training. Wait. You mean there is almost no funder training? You mean the people who administer government grant programs are mainly civil servants rotated into the job? That private family foundations are run by, well, family members? That “professional” foundation staff are rarely people who have run non-profits? Ohhhh. Deep sigh.

    Keep writing, Vu. We need you!

  • Maureen

    Love, love, love the references to Foreigner and the fact that you supplied us with those original, long lost lyrics. And, love no less the double entendre of using Foreigner as an example. In a sense, poor people and nonprofits alike are often treated like Strangers in a Strange Land or maybe Foreigners in a foreign land? Foundations are from Venus and nonprofits are from Mars, perhaps? 🙂

  • So true. I have worked most of my life between health care, non-profits and government. I have written grants as a non-profit, assessed grant applications as a government program administrator and supported community based non-profits to fill service holes in the community. Each year it became increasingly complicated and often results in small centres having no non-profits due to the perceived liability associated with accepting government grants. At one point I took lessons with the Simply Accounting software because so many of the funders wanted their monies kept in a separate set of accounts. This was an administrative nightmare and something most non-profits are not prepared for

    With that said the warning signs to achieve sustainability have been apparent in Canada since at least the mid 90’s. As a polio survivor I have spend my life adapting to creative and innovative ways to make my world more usable for me. Whenever I approach local non-profits about partnering with community businesses as “partners” they all shake their heads saying it can’t be done. When I approach City Council to tap into some of the experience and knowledge contained in the membership of many of these non-profits (rather than contracting with private consultants like me) what I hear is “Well we did consult with them”. In other words they will consult but see no “value” in the wealth of information. We now live in an age of information and non-profits need to move past this “hat in hand” mentality. They have valuable information and resources but to often lack the confidence to see themselves as viable business partners.

    I really like your philosophy https://terrywiens.com/2014/08/10/change-a-five-stages-process/

  • Uni Cornio

    Thanks, Vu, for making that giant elephant visible in the bedroom. It’s such a mood killer for the funder-recipient relationship. =) It is so time to create user-designed funding systems. The current system is like using a PC. The experience could be much more thoughtfully fluid like using an IOS. We just need one smart foundation to invest in a UX department then one smart media source to cover the story. Could you float that idea at the next funder conference you speak at?

  • Julie Varee

    Amen, my brother.

  • JaneGarthson

    I think this should be in the Guinness Book of Records for most insightful comments in a single blog post. I particularly relate to the “We can teach someone to fish, but if they
    have no transportation to get to the pond, or if the pond is polluted,
    or if better-equipped corporations have been destroying aquaculture
    through over-fishing, then they’re still screwed while we feel good
    about ourselves” comment. Many nonprofits are so focused on direct service they will make no time for advocacy to change the system, or they’ve been bullied into thinking they have no right to advocate (’cause we all know that government policies should be based only on what business and industry associations say).

    So which funder wants to use “Because nothing encourages innovation better than regular bouts of night-terror-inducing, morale-sinking cash-flow emergencies” as their new tag line? Oh, wait; there are hundreds eager to adopt this succinct description of their theory of change.

  • S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

    Vu, absolutely spot on. You forgot to mention most, if not all, funders are “cold as ice” 🙂

    OT: have you tried the new non-dairy Ben & Jerry’s? The nutrition label on the chocolate brownie carton lied. It said there were four servings in the pint container. For some strange reason, I only got one serving LOL.

  • Alplily

    One day, I want to win Powerball and become my own foundation. I would travel around, stopping in to see the work nonprofits are doing, the problems they are trying to solve. And then I would send anonymous, significant, future-altering checks for general support. A gal can dream…

  • Alplily

    What’s funny is that it is often the grants for the smaller amounts that require the board signatures, crazy reports, and budgets…

  • LTJaeger

    Absolutely AWESOME article!!! I want to make it required reading for every elected official in California and the U.S. And ditto for foundations. It’s a spot on description of the internal conversation I frequently have when I’m wasting my time working on stupid reporting requirements. I have NO problem with accountability and reporting, but funders need to keep it meaningful, and remember that the goal is to serve people better, not create obstacle courses in stupid fiscal gymnastics.

  • abstract668

    The most blinged out business cards I have ever seen were those passed around by a FOUNDATION whose funding came from the insurance premiums paid by WORKING PEOPLE. Just sayin’.

    When my son went to a college that has a huge specialization, in the School of Business, in “nonprofit entrepreneurship” or some similar horse-pucky, I told him this, which I truly believe:

    If there were profit in what non-profits do, capitalists would be doing it! The reason it is being done by non-profits is that there is NO PROFIT IT IN!!!!

    He and I were discussing it last week, and he pointed to Tom’s Shoes, which has a huge part of their so-called business plan devoted to helping the “poor”. My son observed that Tom’s Shoes gets you to buy poor-quality shoes with no support, that make your feet hurt, with the promise that they will give a pair of the same poor-quality shoes to a person in Africa, who will then proceed to wear them on unpaved paths, where they will last about one day at the most. (He used a different adjective instead of poor-quality, but you get the idea.)

    Thanks for giving us a place to vent our frustration.

    • If there were profit in what non-profits do, capitalists would be doing it!

      They ARE doing it – non-profits are their tax shelters, and the primary beneficiares are professional middle class grifters who are these “charity executives.” The ones who are NOT benefiting and being uplifted out of poverty are the poor whom all these charities claim to be helping, but aren’t.

  • kimmie0

    I’m just a random guest to your post. My grim chuckle came forward when I wondered if the source of these concerns and micro-management might be attributed to how they obtained the means to become donors in the first place. If wealth is like a stone in every pair of shoes you put on your feet, control of every penny is a way to justify your right to have more of it than most everyone else.

  • Amy Blackburn Downing

    Wow, just wow. As a program officer myself, I am taken aback by the vitriol in some comments about my ilk. How depressing it is this morning to consider that the nonprofits I work with might feel that way about me and my employer and have just been putting on false faces. I believe in honesty and respect. Where’d I put that Xanax…?

    • Mehitabel

      Mine was one of the vitriolic comments, and I’m sorry if I ruined your day. I’ll be the first to admit that not all program officers are like that. I’ve worked with good program officers, too, who have earned my respect and admiration. But there have also been those who have assumed that they know more than I do about my organization and my industry, having never spent a single day working in either. It’s not easy to cope with that.

      • Amy Blackburn Downing

        Thanks, Mehitabel, and you didn’t ruin my day. I’m glad we all have this forum to express ourselves. Vent on!

    • Cloggie

      A lot of your colleagues treat non-profits very poorly but we need the money, so we slap on the false faces and wade through piles of paperwork and restrictions. It shouldn’t be, but that tends to be the nature of the major power imbalance between funders and fundees.

  • Friend of the court

    Excellent post! Given what we know of the health benefits of cake and ice cream, your “friend’s” response to you is more apt than she thought.

  • Dirk Van Velzen

    Good thing there’s no crying in nonprofit work… oh, wait, there is–too much. *sigh* I’d crawl back into bad, but that’s not my jam. Great article, Vu.

  • Lauren Lovett

    you are sagacious — so true — so painfully true…. How do we shift this paradigm?

  • Paul Konigstein

    This post has really resonated. I posted it to LinkedIn Monday and it has already been shared six times, which is four or five more times than my usual post.

  • Tanya Bolduc

    I’m not entirely in agreement with you on this. I want to be, but my experiences working for several not-for-profits, both as staff and in an executive capacity has led me to understand how important financial accountability is. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of not-for-profit spending. Many of the organizations I worked for were heavily funded by government agencies, almost exclusively. They had moved from grassroots funding through membership support to using memberships to generate government financial support. This always happens as a survival mechanism, out of self-preservation and as a way to save a few jobs, even when an organization has become obsolete. This move to government funding or business sponsorship shifts the focus from the membership base and community’s needs to ensuring that your ‘stakeholders’, i.e., the agencies’ or sponsors’ expectations are met. I have seen too many projects that are of little to no benefit (even the detriment) to the community simply to keep cash flowing and remain relevant among competing organizations that require funding. I have seen staff barely paid a living wage and working too many unpaid hours (on threat of fireing) while execs take a much larger chunk of the human resources line of the budget. I have seen money wasted on memberships with useless umbrella organizations whose promises of greater funding don’t pan out. In my personal experiences, I have been reprimanded on several occasions for wasting time on membership needs rather than stakeholder needs, because members are no longer seen as stakeholders. I once attended a communications workship with a specialist in communications for not-for-profits (I worked in communications). He started with the question “Who are your stakeholders?” Everyone replied “Our members and the community we serve.” “Wrong!”, said he. “Your stakeholders are the people who fund you. Anything else is secondary.” He is right. So until that changes, not-for-profits have to be financially accountable as dictated by their stakeholders. That’s reality. It’s not fun, but is fair within the context. Now if only governments and large corporations were similarly held to account. Sigh.

    • Brian W. Scott

      Hi Tanya and all. I’ve worked in a Canadian community on both sides, government funder and closely involved with the not-for-profit sector. Cash flows, operating funding vs. project funding, grants & multi-year funding scenarios – I’m very familiar with the context, and the ‘pull-out-the-hair’ frustrations of NP’s trying to survive and remain vital. I have a big concern with the article and glad Tanya stepped up. The article appears to me to encourage the kind of learned helplessness that IS present in disadvantaged poulations that we work for in many cases, or in ‘community solutions’ to identified needs. The exiistence of NP’s is sometimes amorphous and you know that you need to be sharp, agile, and effective, but most of all aware of your operating environment and all it’s relationships. Too much time (and effort) is wasted in ‘poor me’ discussion in this article, and I’m not bootstrapping! I would suggest reposting this article with the following approach: Make two columns. Post the article in the one to the left, and in the other write at the top: How is (insert your org. here) going to act to change this in our context. I kept thinking of alternative perspectives and positive solutions in every paragraph, I’d think you could too. Now, take the right hand column, and change the name to “Stakeholder Engagement.” Condense, synthesize, and put it in your foundation/purpose documents, on your website, and make it live in all your outreach. Review – and evaluate yearly, as I hope you all are doing with your plans in your timelines. Attach to every fundraising or grant application.

  • mgwmgw

    I have an idea which might solve some, but not all, of the problems listed. Any American who ever earned enough to pay federal income taxes might have had the experience of trying to file tax returns by hand, and might compare this experience with doing the same using tax preparation software. For those who have not tried this comparison, I can tell you that the tax preparation software makes it easier. There is a problem very similar to the mapping of fiscal calendar and to parts of the spending, which has already been solved to some extent with software. It is mapping digital medical records from one hospital or medical speciality or country’s medical records to another. For the subset of the funders who have some level of high tech in their portfolio, such as those who have a website and participate in social media, what if one asked for an in-kind donation of software to do the mapping. Treat the program officer’s requirements and the way your organization already runs as non-negotiable, and make the funder supply the software to map between them. The attempt to write this software may fail, especially when considering the interaction between the record keeping for one funder and the record keeping for another. That is actually good. Funders think what they ask is easy, so ask them to prove it by automating it. Maybe they will succeed. Better, the funders will get together and establish common standards for their reporting, much as college admissions officers are now collaborating about accepting the same essays as each other. Funders assert that this is easy. Funders won’t pay for people to do the work manually. So, they should prove how easy it is by making a computer do the work. This may force an education on the program officer about how hard it is to do what they ask for. Would this work? As another option, there are bunches of software engineers looking to do good. They could work on this problem.

  • One concept to remember: Funders need us to be able to carry out their mission. How can they have an impact on improving communities, solving homelessness, or caring for endangered species if they don’t fund the nonprofits with the boots on the ground actually taking actions to do so?

    We need to be cognizant of this in our conversations, that need is a two-way street: we need their $$ and they n Ed our action to make change in the world. Partners, joined at the hip.

  • D Laurier Beaulieu

    Somehow I keep feeling that Foreigner is not going to cover the outrage I feel when poor folks or non-profits, get screwed over.
    Headstones has a better song.
    yep. thats much better

  • Ariane Brunet

    Good article but it misses a crucial dimension. The donors world is like any economic structure these days, it has its distributors, the middle-man as they say. In the funding world that’s the white middle class nonprofit organizations in the West or the Nationals middle-class organizations in the South. They imitate the donors’ schedules as best they can, they work from 9 to 5 and they want their paid vacation like everyone else.

    Then there’s the so-called “beneficiaries” those who you found in one of those too rare outreach field trip that fits into the Donor’s agenda and, by ricochet the NGOs that serves voluntarily or involuntarily the agenda of big tax free donor funds. The beneficiaries are activists on the ground trying to make social relational changes in their local communities. Often enough, as in the case of violence against women they first were the victims who decided to act on the situation. They work their butt off, desperately need to network with each other but there’s no funding for that! They live in high security risks for many but there’s no provision for that either. They also have families to feed, kids to get to schools, parents to care for, sick relatives, a husband that may or may not appreciate this “side line” they’r doing. There’s rarely enough money for that so they get by. Then they stress and get seriously sick and that’s the end of their journey because there is no health care in poor societies let alone care for agents for change.

    Meantime the NGOs who gets the funding to distribute to those fitting in the “agenda du jour” asks of those local activists to fill in bi-annual reports with Logical Framework Analysis and an audited budget. For most that means that they have to shift priorities for the benefit of the donor. THAT’S the reality. Many have told me that suddenly administering the funds takes up to 60% of their time. That’s significantly means that the reason they organized at the outset has just been ignored, it means we are polluting needs on the ground. It also means we are changing the social relational quality of their relations locally.

    For the NGO and the donor to be sure it fits the requirements of their board they will pay the most trainable activist in organizational management. Taking her or him out of the field, distancing them from their companions and giving them the technical linguo they’ll need to fit in the organizations based on the streets near the UN in New York, the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the European Parliament in Brussels, etc.

    Then it’s back to square one. That’s neo-liberal capitalism at work creating very small elites in capitals of the South and depopulating activism locally. Suddenly the needs of community solidarity is erased and jet-setting is created for a few new middle class privilege ones.

    I’m glad that in the 90s some of us became keenly aware of the dereliction of aid and fought, each in our modest way to ensure that we would learn from activists and not teach activists to become technocrats for the benefit of donors.

    You give money? Go on the ground, pay your respect, write your own dam reports and let the activists do the job they initially got together to do. Let the leaders of their community appreciate how they contribute.

    Oh! And when you fund research on the ground and the object of your study are the people trying to improve their lot have the decency to REPORT BACK TO THE PEOPLE what you took from them in a language they can work with. Because if they wait for you to come back with the UN resolutions, national programs and World Bank contracts they will have either disappeared or gone on ahead without your brilliant inputs.

    Spare the activists, let them do their work and if you contribute know to do it in a way that is as discreet and as useful as possible.


  • Sarah Cunningham

    I have for some time thought that all non-profits should go on strike and refuse to apply for any funds for a period of time. It would be amazing to all of those funder systems to suddenly realize that they are completely dependent on non-profits (and their commitment, expertise, capacity and good will) to get that warm and fuzzy feeling of doing good.
    To me, funder processes are often actually be abusive. The worst effect that I see is the way competitive bidding systems end up wasting incredibly valuable human resources in that they regularly destroy the very complex organic system of relationships that they seek to develop EVERY TIME they pull or push their funding.
    Funders need to grow up and enter into respectful, partnership-based relationship with an eye to working collaborative to actually achieve social change. Now wouldn’t that be nice.

  • DMan

    This is brilliant. I have worked in foundations and in nonprofits and so much of this rings true to my experience on each side of the equation. I am glad to see someone writing so cogently about these critical issues. Plus, it was funny.

  • Mazarine

    Hey Vu, did you see this article?


    Might be time for another piece for you on this-what is measured doesn’t matter!


  • Let’s also start saying NO to funders that make unreasonable requests! I have argued so many times with an Executive Director or board member who wants to accept a donation for our initiative to do something that we aren’t doing and don’t really need to be doing, that’s going to drain our resources and not really be worth it for us, or wants to accept a donation with a ridiculous number of strings.

  • This article should be re-named “Definition of Irony – Upper-Middle Class Professional Grifter Whines While the Poor Don’t Get Helped.”

    Perspective: I am a destitute 50 year old woman and a human trafficking survivor that was rendered unemployable for most of my younger working age life due to an unjust underaged prostitution record (incurred as a direct result of having been trafficked when I was a homeless 12 year old) with untreated major health issues (an obstructed bowel requiring surgery is no mere stomach virus one can “bounce back” from and resume a job search in the face of age discrimination and impending homelessness due to NO INCOME in post-Welfare Reform America).

    For the past several years, I’ve been struggling for my life in unrelieved abject poverty while trying to build “in-demand high tech skills” in hopes of being able to get a job in tech while getting no opportunities due to age discrimination and sexism in addition to the barriers to employment I face as a trafficking survivor, but I have yet to get helped with ANY of my most urgent unmet basic needs from the “Non-Profit” Industrial Complex.

    Able-bodied middle class privileged people like you who have carved out careers for yourselves as charity executives are well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed, getting nice upper-middle class paychecks and health benefits from donations and grants as “charity” executives while the majority of the poor (who really need that money a LOT more than you do) don’t get helped with anything we need, let alone put on our feet and uplifted OUT of poverty. So you don’t get any sympathy from me. Sorry – no, NOT sorry. Charities are nothing but tax shelters for the rich which provide slush funds to middle/upper class privileged professional grifters while the those of us in the most dire need – the poor whom all these charities are supposed to be taking care of – don’t get helped with what we need and uplifted out of soul-crushing life-threatening poverty.

    And my story is not unique. What happened to me when I tried getting help from “all these charities out there” is the rule – NOT the exception.

    Most people are aware of what happened in Haiti after the Red Cross claimed that they built houses for 130,000 destitute Haitians left homeless after the earthquake, for the tens of millions of dollars in donations they got – only to find out that only SIX houses were built for SIX Haitian individuals/families.

    What happened with the non-help for Haiti’s poor internally displaced disaster victims while professional upper-middle class charity executives lived large off of well-meaning people’s donations is not an isolated case with the Non-Profit Industrial Complex and its primary beneficiaries – who are NOT the poor, but the professional middle class.

    The most egregious example is the entire anti-trafficking movement and its cadre of “non-profits”, including “survivor-run” NGO’s where only a tiny handful of trafficking survivors (mostly those rare few who are from the middle class, which is NOT representative of the majority of trafficking victims who are from generational poverty) are cherry-picked by moralistic affluent privileged people dominating the anti-trafficking ‘movement’ and propped up as “survivor-leaders” – they get salaries, healthcare, comfortable houses, cars, college scholarships, etc. while 98% of destitute trafficking survivors never got helped with anything we needed to rebuild our lives or even be able TO survive (which is why THIS survivor – like so many others – is suffering without medical care and economic support, while facing homelessness due to lack of income from illness and being unable to work after several years of joblessness due to age discrimination).

    Maybe if privileged people claiming that they want to “help the poor” – even though we all know they don’t – would just give all that money directly to the poor in the form of a livable guaranteed basic income instead of to all these charities, and push for universal healthcare or at least work to share resources to provide that medical care until that happens, there wouldn’t be anyone dying from unrelieved abject poverty in the US. And maybe – just maybe – there wouldn’t be so many poor women and kids being trafficked into forced prostitution and abject poverty really would be eliminated. But then the over-privileged grifters making bank off of poor oppressed, marginalized people’s misfortunes (while NOT helping us) through the Non-Profit Industrial Complex would have to go get real jobs.

  • Michael Briand

    I echo the sentiments expressed by many of the other posters here. This piece articulates clearly and succinctly my reason for refusing to ask anyone for funding. Actually, the article is too gentle with grant-makers. The truth is, many members of foundation boards are in the business for the ego-gratification they get from “doing good while doing well.” They like the influence, the power, the deference, the dependency, the begging–all the things the Medieval nobility got from the peasantry. Yes, there are good people in organized philanthropy. Most mean well. But they are blind to their own motives. There are good people, for example, who nevertheless are racist, if only in continuing the hold the beliefs and support the policies that perpetuate the effects of racism. Similarly, the institution of philanthropy is as “classist” as our political and economic institutions are racist. Very little in this practice is admirable. Better that we accept our obligations to our fellows and tax ourselves appropriately than suffer the insufferability of “philanthropic professionals.”

  • Cindy_deRosier

    You’ve educated me. Thank you for a well-written, insightful post. I have a feeling that every time I hear Foreigner from now on, I’ll think of non-profits.