#166 Nonprofit Challenges and Solutions with Vu Le, Founder of NonprofitAF

Feb 11, 2024

Vu Le joins us to share his wisdom about the best and worst in philanthropy. Vu discusses "main character syndrome," and highlights how funders often exhibit this behavior, and how to avoid this challenge and many others. 


Episode Highlights:

  • Overcoming “main character syndrome”
  • How to support grant proposals that will give room for honest answers from nonprofits


Vu Le Bio:

Vu Le writes the blog NonprofitAF.com. He is the former executive director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by supporting leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities. Vu is a founding board member of Community-Centric Fundraising, a movement that aims to ground fundraising practices in racial equity and social justice. Vu was born in Vietnam. He and his family came to the US when Vu was eight. He spent several years in Seattle, attending elementary and middle school, before moving to Memphis, Tennessee for high school and St. Louis for college and graduate school. He has a BA in Psychology and a Masters in Social work. He is a vegan, a father of two kids (ages ten and seven), and a staunch defender of the Oxford Comma.



Twitter: https://twitter.com/NonprofitAF 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nonprofitAF/ 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vu-le-b395a69/ 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nonprofitaf/ 

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Vu, thank you for being on my podcast. This is going to be fun. I don't… We don't know each other that well yet, and I'm looking forward to getting to know you better because everything you have online just makes me laugh, and you do focus specifically on donor bloopers and how we can improve. 

You do it in such a great way, so I'm hoping you can help me kick off season three, and we can talk about your experiences with donors. And you talked to many other nonprofits, too, about, you know, the bloopers and how we can do better. Like I said before. 

So, let's talk about it, but before we get into all that, Vu, can you talk to me about Who you are? Tell my listeners who you are and why you've come into this space that's so important to help nonprofits and support non.

Hi, Sybil. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast; yeah, I'm Vu. I have been a nonprofit leader for a few years, and yeah, I have been. Let me see an executive director for about 13 years across several organizations. I've been a fundraiser. I've worked with lots of donors and lots of foundations. A few years ago, I started a blog called Nonprofit with Balls. It was changed to be Nonprofit AF to be less provocative.

What does AF stand for? I was looking for that on your website.

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. AF Stands for And Fearless. It's nonprofit and fearless. Right. So, it's just been pointing out all the, I guess you call it, bloopers in the sector. I would like to call them; I don't know, egregious, horrifying errors sometimes so. Yeah, and there are lots of them. 

I think there are many well-meaning people in the sector, but many challenges and barriers prevent nonprofits from doing their work effectively. So, I would like to point them out.

Yeah, let's talk about some of them on your own. In the blog right now, you talk about main character syndrome, but there's a lot of other stuff. Let's unpack It, man.

Yes, main character syndrome. What I learned from the young people, right, it's like they're the main characters. They're people who believe that they are the protagonists of life and the universe. And everyone else is just like a side character, and we see that often in funders. 

You know, funders believe that they are the main characters, and they behave in such a way where it's like, you know, they are the main character. Everyone else has to cater to their wins, and the world revolves around them. It manifests in things such as grant applications being extremely burdensome or funders having ridiculous demands of nonprofits. 

And sometimes, I don't think we can blame a lot of funders or donors because many nonprofits have been trained to treat donors like protagonists and heroes. And so, we see a lot of it. It may cause a lot of challenges everywhere.

Talk to me about how you think you know. How can a donor not do that? Do not be the victim of the main character syndrome.

Yeah, well, it takes lots of self-awareness, right? Because if you are someone who has a lot of money and a lot of power. Then what happens is that people around you will treat you as if you were smarter, more attractive, and more intelligent. I always joke that if you're a founder or donor, you are 27% more attractive than the average person. Because no one will tell you otherwise, you start believing in your hype, so self-awareness is Important.

You also have to surround yourself with people who tell you that you're an *******. Like, hey, that was an *******. Like asking for a quarterly report on a $5000 grant. Or any grant of any size. No, no amount. Requires A quarterly report. OK, so. If you are asking. For that, somebody to tell you that you're being an *******. And it would be best if you cut it out. 

So those are like two things: self-awareness and having people who can tell you the truth. And then also you have to start unlearning a whole bunch of stuff you've been taught, like best practices or whatever. 

For example, I think about strategic philanthropy. This idea is that if you are a funder or a donor, you automatically have a right to determine what the nonprofit partners should focus on, and that's what some funders are like. You know, this year, we're only going to focus on early learning because we're the protagonist and this. It is what we care about this year, right, instead of going and asking nonprofit and community leaders, and you know, it's like, what? What do you care about? Like, what? What is going on in your community? What do we need? To support you, and they could. Be like, well, this year we need support like voting rights. OK, that's what our community cares about. 

But the reality is that that's not what happens. Funders believe that because they have money, they get to determine strategy, and we call it strategic philanthropy, that people with money need to be strategic. And the people who unleash the term. A while ago, strategic philanthropy in the sector has written an apology—letters like apologizing and unleashing this harmful concept onto the sector.

So interesting. So, my husband heard you speak once and returned, telling me about this. And I'd love you to flesh it out more. You had this analogy. I think it would be called about funding, where you were talking about somebody who, let's say, had a fire truck and water coming out of the hose. And the funders are like, we're going to fund the water coming out of the hose. I'm not going to say it right, but not everything else. 

Talk to me more about that analogy because that had a good impression on him. He's a funder, too, so he appreciated that. I hope you remember that one because it was really good.

Oh, absolutely. That's one of my trademark analogies. 

Ah, that's your trademark analogy. Go for it.

It speaks to this sort of obsession people have with overhead, right? Many funders and donors are like, we don't want to fund over it. We want to fund just like monies go directly. It's programming to the people that you serve. We don't want any of this money to go to garbage expenses. Like your staff salaries or your utilities or insurance or whatever. Right. 

And then now you're like uses like nonprofits or like Firefighters are trying to put out the fires of injustice, but every three or four steps someone I don't know or fun to stop them and says hey, I want to make sure that the money I'm giving you to put out these fires is spent on the water, not the hose. What is your hose-to-water ratio? 

And for a long time, all of these nonprofits, these firefighters, have been trained to say, oh, no, no, don't worry. Someone else is paying for the hose. You're only paying for the water. And anyway, our host-to-water ratio is only 15%, and no more than 15% goes to garbage expenses like the hose, which is the sector's sort of perception of overhead, which is complete. ********, right? No firefighters should be dealing with questions like this, and nonpower shouldn't have to be dealing with answering naming questions like this. 

So, when you ask nonproblems like your overhead rates or indirect expenses, you're wasting their time. You're preventing them from putting out the fires. That's what you're doing. So, we just don't have. It's time for these sorts of shenanigans among funders and donors anymore.

Thanks for that. 

Another blog post you have is answers on grant proposals. If nonprofits were brutally honest, some would be hard to read. Being from someone from the funder world where I want to be supportive, I'm like, oh, I think I might have done some of this stuff. You're telling me about. 

Can we talk about that a little more? The nonprofits' answers on grant proposals were brutally honest.

Right. Well, we need to talk about it—the sort of power dynamics between funders and grantees. Because of the power dynamic so present, no problems are trained to lie to funders and donors all the time, right? We have been trained to tell you what you want to hear. So, I wrote a blog post where, if we were honest, these are the answers we would give if you asked us these things on grant applications, right? 

So, some questions, such as, will you sustain this program when this money we give you runs out? That is one of the most foolish questions ever. And I don't want anyone ever to ask this again because it is insulting and makes no sense. The reality is that nonprofits exist because we are filling out the gaps left behind by the government, market forces, and the rest of society. If the government was functioning fully and corporations were paying their fair share of taxes and their employees' fair wages, many nonprofits would not exist. We exist because of these gaps. 

So, until that happens, we will keep doing our work. So, the sustainability question is ridiculous, right? So, asking, like, are you going to sustain this program? That makes no sense. We're going to keep fundraising. OK, we'll just keep asking other people for money, or we won't sustain this program. 

Or sometimes funders are like, will you leverage this funding that we give you to leverage additional funding? What are you? I'm going to do, like, honestly. Why are we leveraging any of the funding? We got **** to do. Like we're running programs. You are funders and donors. Your job is to fund, you know, all the other donors and funders while you go and leverage the. It makes no sense. We are busy people trying to do stuff.

So, these questions are inane. Many of them, and we're just like; we're just going to put up with it because that's what we're going to do because of you. Know what we need. The money, you know, some of the questions. They are laughable. Like, how are you going to transform the community with this grant that we give you? How will the community be transformed? Dude, this is a $5,000 grant. It will pay for about a week's worth of rent. OK, that's how it's not going to transform the community.

Yeah, that's, yeah. Keep going. Keep Going; I don't want to stop you. 

There's a whole bunch of them, and like, there's three parts, and they each have ten questions that Thunders asked. And they're each quite ridiculous. 

Yeah, I just point these out, and sometimes it's like how you will align with our strategies again, like why we align with your strategies. You should be aligned with our strategies. Like, you know, stuff like that.

Yeah, I'm Interested. As I said, it's interesting to think about exactly where, where, and how nonprofits probably think about some of this work. 

And talk to me a little bit about where when it goes right. Have you seen, I mean, sure, you've seen examples of where it goes, right? What happens there? Do you have some recommendations for our funders on your website, too? But I want, I want to hear it straight from you.

Oh, absolutely. There are lots of funders doing amazing work. I am a big fan of the trust-based philanthropy project, and all the funders aligned with that and the idea of grounding this work and trust, not suspicion. It is great. 

And I've seen some funders accepting a grant proposal written for someone else. Because of the main character syndrome, every funder thinks they deserve their special, unique snowflake grant applications, right? 

And so, one funder would say, "Oh, I want you to talk about your evaluation strategy. But in 750 characters and another fund, I want you to talk about your brand and evaluation strategy. But in only 500 characters and iambic pentameter. For whatever it is, you know, like. Why? It's the same answers, but you think you deserve your special snowflake answers, your special snowflake character limits, and your special snowflake application. 

So, some funders are like, you know, I'm just going to dispense with all that and just accept a grant proposal that has been written. Already someone else. 

So, I remember one funder calling me up. I was in my car between meetings, and they just called me up and said Well, we love what you're doing at your organization, trying to bring more leaders in—color into the sector. And we wanted to see if we could align. So, could you just send us an application that you will for someone else, just send it to us? Don't worry about changing the name of that other foundation or anything; just forward the whole package to us. 

So, I hung up the phone. A single teardrop rolled down my face poetically, and then I searched through my emails on my phone. And I found this. Grants I had spent 30 hours writing had a 10-page narrative, 12 attachments, a bespoke budget, a work plan, and a list of the blood type of every board member. I don't know for some reason. And I just forwarded the whole thing to this Thunder, and it was like 3 minutes of my time, and we got $200,000 and an amazing relationship with this Thunder because of it because that's what trust looks like. You're saving me time, and you got this. Every nonprofit should just have one grant application for the information you need. Can you imagine if, like, if this applies to, I don't know, for-profits? Imagine like? 

Sybil, if you decide to open. I don't know, a cupcake shop or something, right? You would create a business plan. When you do the market analysis and the revenue projection, you will shop it around to different banks or investors. 

But can you imagine if every bank is like we want your market now since, but we only want 500 characters and another bank's like, oh, this is the great market house, but we. Want in 800 characters? We want a special, special, unique snowflake business proposal. If that makes no sense, why does it make sense in the nonprofit sector? 

So, I'm glad to see that some founders, other good things that are happening, for example, are funders and dispensing with the whole, whether we're doing the evaluation, which is like asking nonprofits to write again a unique snowflake evaluation reports that usually won't be read Right at all.

Instead, they should just accept, so some funders accept annual reports. And like financial documents that are holistic, right? Instead of asking for their unique Snowflake financial report that breaks down what their money was being spent on, which is a delusion, it's delusional to believe that numbers should be breaking down on how much your $5000 was spent. How many paper clips did it buy? 

OK, some funders are like, we're just going to accept annual reports and financial documents holistically. Some funders will just gather their grantees together, buy them lunch, and then have the grantees share what lessons they learned. Like, that's so much more effective and useful.

Yeah. So, this is just a great conversation. So, keep going. What are some other good examples? Anything more you want to share?

Oh, there are tons. Some funders have been focused, for example, on listening to communities. I think funders have been saying things like, oh, we want to listen for a long time. And communities got sick. Of it like, you know, we're getting tired of being listened to. What we need is not listening. We need money. 

And so, some funders have been. But some funders have been. It is really helpful in actually responding to community needs. Over the past several years, I've been funding what communities have been asking for, including more funding for voter registration, for example, or more funding going to leadership or capacity building, intermediate organizations, or whatever the communities have been asking for. I've also been appreciating a lot of funders who have a target. Equity approach, but they're like, we're funding black LED organization, or we're funding indigenous organizations, that's what we're going to focus on ensuring that more money is going to these communities and removing all the barriers. And the hoops that people have to jump through to get this. 

So, I appreciate that sort of ending of this, this sort of delusion, that there could be a level playing field. You know, so much of our work in this sector is under this deluded belief that we can have a level playing field. Right. And it manifests. 

And, like, if you assume that the field will be leveled, then you can have. People will compete in this hunger game where whoever writes the best grant proposal gets the. Instead of understanding the equity implications and saying, well, the communities are most affected by systemic injustice. They probably don't. You have full-time grant writers, right? 

So, it's our responsibility to find and ensure these communities get the funding they need. So, I am very appreciative of those founders doing that there.

Vu, can you talk to me about… First, we had a great conversation just now. Just about all your advice to us donors. About what not to do and what to do. But I'd love to hear more about what you were doing in the nonprofit sector to support them because it's cool.

I was the former Ed of RBC, an organization trying to bring more leaders of color into the workforce.

The nonprofit sector also builds the capacity of organizations led by communities of Color. What we've been doing has not been working very well, and I think one of the reasons is that we have this sort of teaching a person to fish. Mentality: when it comes to capacity building, we expect everyone to know. Finance, fishing and evaluation, fishing and fundraising, and HR fishing, And all this stuff when the reality is that most organizations are like carpenters, right? So, we've been forcing carpenters to learn how to fish, and then we start complaining about why not enough houses are being built in the community. 

So, what we want to do instead is just, if you know us. If someone has done a very effective Carpenter, we just give them the fish so they can focus on carpentry. So, my organization, this alliance model where we brought in a bunch of organizations led by the community. Color would be under the fiscal umbrella of RBC, and then RC would handle all the HR finances and provide coaching and support. Fellows are full-time Fellows who work at these organizations.

Well, it's great. So interesting about RBC. Can You also talk to me about Nonprofit AF?

Yeah, no problem. Nonprofit AF is my blog. It's nonprofitaf.com, and yeah, I've been. I've been writing about the sector for over a decade now. I am just pointing out things many people want to say but may not feel comfortable with. 

For example, why do so many people become ******** when they join boards? There's a phenomenon that very nice people just suddenly become ******** when they join a board. And it's very weird. So, you know, I was writing about that. There's also dating advice for nonprofit professionals—stuff like that.

It's fun. I'm so funny. Why do you think that? Folks become jerks when they go on a board. Talk to me more about it.

Well, I think there are a lot of things that are encouraging that sort of behavior. For example, we have just the power dynamics where we believe that board members are the. Loss of the CEO and the staff for the EDN staff, right? Which makes no sense. Why would the people with 1% of the information get to determine the strategies and supervise that people will have significantly more information than they do? 

So, we're training people to believe too, to believe that, and then we have very few mechanisms because of the power dynamics; the CEO can't just be like, hey, you're being an ******* right now because the board could fire the Ed. 

And so there are few feedback loops to board when they're ineffective or mean. And so those are probably two of the primary reasons. But I think that the board in itself, the board model is pretty archaic if you think about it, you know, we have a lot of things that we just kind of pass down as traditions that are not legally required. There's no legal requirement for boards to meet monthly. There's no legal requirement for board members. To, you know, supervise the Ed or whatever, like a lot of these things we just passed down. For example, Roberts. Rules like who is Robert? Why are we still using his rules? Robert was Henry Martin Robert, a U.S. Army officer who 1876 took the US Congress's parliamentary procedures and then put those into a book. And then we've been using these rules for the past 145 years. 

So, I kind of liken Roberts's rules to Taco Tuesday. You know, you can have tacos on Tuesday, but it's a suggestion. You don't have to use Roberts's rules. You can use other rules. There's no legal requirement, and you can have tacos on Wednesdays.

I love that they extended me. As you know, the fundamental reason to have a board is to on the good side is to ensure that the nonprofit tries to ensure at least that the nonprofit has a diversity of community members in putting into the direction so that, like, not one or one like the wealthy person is dictating. 

There's all these rules around. That, and the IRS looks at that carefully, and at the same time, there's no rule that the board meets like you. It is said every month. Or, you know, it gets so micromanaging into the details when the executive director and the staff are trying to do the work on the ground, assuming you have paid staff. It's a super, super interesting book.

Anything else you have to share with my listeners? Where we go, everybody check the show notes for the links to everything we referred here because I think you'll enjoy his website, blog, and everything. Anything else you want? To add, as we were talking.

Oh, there are tons of things, I do think.

Go for it. Go for tons of things. Keep going.

I mean, we'll get deep into things like right now. We're recording this when it's the week of MLK, Junior Day, right? And I think about what he said about the sort of white moderates being the biggest threat to justice; right in his letter from a Birmingham jail, he wrote that the biggest threat to justice is not the people marching and wearing hoods and burning crosses. It's like the white moderate. Like the very nice people who are like, we love what we love equity, but can you be? More Sybil, you know. Can you be a little bit nicer when you're asking for it? Like filing the right paperwork. And not cuss so much and stuff like that, right? The white mark. 

And I think that—our entire sector. It has become one giant white moderate sector and philanthropy itself, and donors and funders have been this Sort of… This is like a paragon of white moderation. Right. We think that by donating some money, we're doing good for the world, and we have been reinforced in this line of thinking; we're Not powers are like, oh, you're a hero because of you. We were able to serve 50 kids because of this.

We have been trained to say this to donors. We've been trained to write the word you. You make sure you use the words you don't use. We like we did it, you know, like use you. You, the donor, are the hero. You help all these people. We've been trained on all of them—this and so on. Of course, we're into this white moderation when people are like, yeah, I did it. I'm a hero. I donated some money to nonprofits. 

I'm great when most of you should be paying more taxes. Like, that's. Most of you and your family foundations should be paying more taxes. If people of means just pay their fair share of taxes. Suppose corporations are not exploiting their workers. If we all make reparations for slavery and stolen indigenous land, then we wouldn't be in this sort of white moderate space that we have been in. For, for so, for. It's been so long, and we've been deluding ourselves into thinking we're making a difference. 

And so I love our sector, and at the same time, we have some serious like mid-life crisis identity issues that we need to work out.

You're unpacking so many hard truths; there's a lot there. I've also been thinking a lot about this regarding The fundamental question: how do we truly do good? A world with all. Of the inequity that's there. And I think the original idea of the non of the non-profit sector is filling in the gaps. As you said earlier, the public sector can't for various reasons. Over time, it feels like. We might be leaning more and more into this charitable sector, not paying taxes to have the common good, and not putting as many taxes as we should be to create that safety net, especially in the US. And so that's like a big question. 

And gosh, I. I want to see it. You and talk about this even more because. And we don't have time to unpack it all in this one short podcast episode. But I'm thinking about the blunt of the issue, and I appreciate the hard truths you're pushing forward. 

We all need to think about these pieces. Anything else? So, you want to bring it up because there might be more. You said there's a Ton. So go ahead, keep going.

No, no, I'm very opinionated, and I can.

No, really, no.

We must improve many things in the sector, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate what we are doing. Many amazing things happen because of nonprofits, donors, and funders working together on a host of issues, for example, marriage equality. I think every single achievement in society, in terms of social and civic achievements, is because of many of us working towards it for years. 

So, I appreciate the people in the sector and always say that our sector is much like it. There, right, whereas other sectors are like food, where people can see food and take pictures. They call themselves foodies or whatever. Meanwhile, the nonprofit sector is a lot like air, and no one appreciates it, even though they benefit from it daily. They don't appreciate it because it's often invisible. 

So, a lot of people don't think about it. For example, senior centers. Until they grow old or have parents who are growing old, they're like, what do we? I guess senior centers exist, and they're doing amazing work, but until then, you just don't see them; you don't appreciate them. And I think that's the entire sector right now.

So, I would say one thing to all the nonprofit leaders who are listening: you are amazing, and I appreciate you. You are the heir, allowing our communities to breathe to donors and funders. I think many of you are doing amazing work. And please keep doing that. And at the same time, there's a whole lot of things. Please address your main character syndrome. This is sort of like Snowflake mentality, where you need it. To have your special. Application and reports and all this stuff like you don't, and I think the work will be much more effective and fun if you can just get through all of the BS you've been taught.

Thanks so much. That was a great summary of all your thoughts there. All right, we got to stay in touch, and I want you to have a great rest of your day. But let's stay in touch and talk about the hard truths.

Thank you, Sybil.