Q&A with nonprofit executive, writer and speaker Vu Le
Vu Le is executive director of Seattle, Wash.-based Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit that is already having an impact a little more than four years after its founding. But he’s also a writer and speaker who is increasingly having a national impact on the entire nonprofit world.
Through his humorous, sometimes biting, blog posts at NonprofitAF.com — with titles like, “When you host an unpaid internship, a unicorn loses its pancreas,” “How I used leadership and organizational development skills to survive four nights at a haunted hotel” and “Yo mama is a double-dipper: funders’ micromanaging of nonprofits must stop” — Le delivers messages that nonprofits need to hear, and sometimes may even find hard to hear.
Le will be the keynote speaker at the NH Center for Nonprofits annual Nonprofit Leadership Summit, Friday, Sept. 21, at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord.
His topic: “Own Your Awesomeness: Unlocking the Full Potential of Nonprofits and Our Partners to Do Good.” For more information, visit nhnonprofits.org.
Q. Why should nonprofits lighten up?
A. I think my message has been we all need to lighten up, but nonprofits do need to focus on a few key areas, and we need to be better at reaching out to for-profit companies and explain to them what we do better.
Q. In what way?
A. It’s called “bizsplaining.” It’s when a for-profit comes to a nonprofit and assumes we don’t really know what we’re doing, that we’d better off if we just acted more like for-profit businesses. It’s condescending — we’re seen as the little brother of for-profits. Sometimes it’s conscious, but most of the time it’s not.
It’s something I will talk about in my keynote speech: Imagine if Apple needed to run like a nonprofit, with all the restrictions and limited resources nonprofits have to deal with every day, and they’re asked to perform miracles.
For instance, I buy an iPhone. I say, “How much is that? $800? OK, fine, here you go. But, I don’t want more than $100 to be used to pay for your employees’ wages. I want most of my money to go to computer chips and other materials. I also don’t want you to use more than $70 on your rent, insurance, electricity or R&D because I don’t want to buy from a company that has more than 10 percent in overhead. And after a year, you need to report to me exactly what my $800, not all of the money you received, only what I paid for.
Then there’s the idea of sustainability: “What happens after I buy my iPhone? How will you keep your operations going after I buy it and I’m no longer here? How do you guarantee that you will be here selling iPhones to other customers? What is your plan to not be so dependent on customers?
And of course, there are the outcomes. “You sold 300 million units of iPhones and made a gazillion dollars? That’s great, but that’s an output, not an outcome. What impact did you make? Did you measure how owning an iPhone has transformed the lives of customers? Did they access more educational opportunities? Did you do a pre-and-post-purchase survey and have a comparison group of people who did not use an iPhone? Also, can you disaggregate these results into race, ethnicity, gender, age, and geography?”
Q. That is a pretty tall order.
A. Those are just some of the challenges we face, and my point is that, if you didn’t know that’s what it’s like, then you really shouldn’t be giving advice. And the real point is that despite all those and other challenges, nonprofits continue to survive and do their important, difficult work.
Q. But there are lessons that nonprofits have and should take from for-profits, aren’t there?
A. This doesn’t mean that nonprofits can’t learn from for-profits, but I think we should all agree that we can learn from each other. We appreciate their support and encouragement and know they mean well, but before you start bizsplaining things to us, spend some time actually listening and learning.
Q. You also talk about the vast disparity in the resources available to nonprofits as opposed to for-profits.
A. I like to give two examples. One is Bitmoji, an app that turns pictures of people into cartoons. The company that developed the app, Bitstrips, got $8 million in funding — $8 million — to develop that app. An app that turns people into cartoons. Then there’s my favorite — Juicero, which got something like $150 million in funding to develop a crappy 400 machine connected to Wi-Fi that made juice no better than two hands squeezing its box of fruit.
None of us will ever get $8 million or $150 million to solve some of the most intractable problems in society, like homelessness, poverty, drug addiction — you name it, nonprofits are doing it.
Q. What can nonprofits do about it?
A. First, we’re trained to be very nice about it. We’re trained to be careful because we rely on donations and believe that this is other people’s money. We need to change that notion. Why are so many nonprofits begging for money to take care of something that the rest of the society should be providing as an obligation? We expect nonprofits to perform, but we tie their hands so they can’t do the work.
Think about this belief that resources are scarce, that there’s only so much money to go around. That’s not true. Most endowments only give out 5 percent of their endowments each year. Why? It’s like if there’s a fire and you only use 5 percent of the water to put it out, even if you know it’s not enough. If we don’t use those resources more, the fire becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Q. But there is still the belief that resources are limited, whether they are or not. What then?
A. We have been trained to be very hypercompetitive, for example, for donor money, resources, time in the media. We need to see how we can work with one another – it’s an ecosystem out there. If you’re in education, then you do need to care about housing, poverty, homelessness and unemployment, for example. All these issues are interrelated, but even when they don’t have the same missions, they should work with one another.
The way we do fundraising, for example. We’re trained to get as much money as possible. Maybe we need to be more thoughtful, maybe we should introduce donors to other organizations that may need the money more, whose mission is more critical.
Right now, we focus on the short term, but we need to look at the long term of attacking these problems. If you have a homeless shelter, you want it to be around as long as possible. That’s good in many ways, helping a lot of people, but we really should concentrate on doing such a good job that we go out of business. We need to think broadly, climb to the top of the ladder and take a broader view of the issues.
Q. What about government’s role in all this?
A. There’s no possible way to solve all of society’s issues by relying only on nonprofits. We need to be way more assertive to our politicians and demand greater services and support from them and to get them to understand where we’re coming form, and also engaging with citizens because they’re the people who elect the people in power.
Government does a lot of good when it’s functioning and we have the right people in place. Think of polio eradication or water sanitation – these are things that cannot be addressed by the resources of a few nonprofits.
Q. You’re well known for using humor in teaching and communicating about nonprofits. Why humor?
A. It’s more fun for people to read when there’s humor, and it’s more fun for me to write when there’s humor. It’s a lot more enjoyable for everyone.
Q. What is the mission of your nonprofit, Rainier Valley Corps?
A. Our mission is to support leaders of color and support organizations led by and serving communities of color. We’re kind of like the Peace Corps. We find people in communities of color who are interested in doing nonprofit work and find full-time paid work for them in nonprofits to give them experience and support. We’re building a pipeline for leaders of color.
We also offer back office support for these organizations. Many of them don’t have the time or the resources to take care of HR, accounting. We handle their payroll, HR, tax filing, so they can focus on their work.