“Cut through all the BS”: An in-depth conversation with Vu Le of Nonprofit AF about the future of social impact work

Vu Le is a writer, speaker, and former executive director of Rooted in Vibrant Communities and is speaking at the upcoming CCVO Connections Conference - Building Community Prosperity.

Why It Matters

Even as COVID cases decline, many vulnerable communities continue to experience the negative impacts of the pandemic on everything from employment to healthcare. Charities and non-profits are vital to a just COVID-19 recovery — but such a recovery will take support, including more philanthropic funding.

This story is in partnership with the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO) leading into their 2021 Connections Conference.

10 years ago, Vu Le — speaker, writer and former executive director of Rooted in Vibrant Communities (RVC) — started his blog, ‘Nonprofit AF’, unpacking some of the non-profit sector’s deepest issues, and what its leaders can do to help fix it. With more than 28,000 followers on Twitter, Le dives into topics like the subtle and not-so-subtle ways white supremacy appears in non-profits and philanthropy, and why pitch-based funding competitions are harmful.

Throughout the pandemic, non-profits and charities have been on the frontlines, supporting vulnerable communities — and this will be no different as we move towards recovery. Ahead of Le’s keynote (titled “Time to Flip Some Tables: Cutting through the BS to Build a Prosperous Community”) at the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO) on November 9 and 10, Future of Good sat down with him for an in-depth Q&A. In it,  Le lays out what needs to happen for non-profits and charities to lead a just and equitable COVID-19 recovery to ensure community prosperity — from increasing philanthropic spending to up-ending organizational hierarchies. 

Nickie Shobeiry: How did you decide to start speaking so openly about issues in the non-profit and charitable sectors? 

Vu Le: We’re not really honest in the sector because we’re so fearful of everything — we’re fearful of funders and losing donors. We’re even fearful of community members getting mad at us for the things that we do. If we can’t be honest with one another, then we can’t make the change that we want to see in the sector. 

Nickie: Were there any challenges that came up as a result of your openness? 

Vu: A lot of white men were very fragile about some of the stuff I pointed out about wealth and equity, or the fact that 90 percent of philanthropic dollars go to white-led organizations, or that 90 percent of foundation leaders are white men or white [people in general]. There’s a funder fragility around there, but oftentimes, people will just generally appreciate the candor.

Nickie: What’s your personal mission in the non-profit and charitable sector?

Vu: I just want to be helpful to the community where I can. I also feel like I owe other people who’ve helped me and my family when we arrived in the United States from Vietnam. It was all these non-profits and other people in the sector who helped me and my family, and I want to pay it forward. I got my Master’s in social work because of that.

Nickie: The pandemic has shown us just how important charities and non-profits are, and how they can help build an equitable and just recovery. What does that kind of recovery look like to you?

Vu: The pandemic has given us opportunities to really examine a lot of the inequities in our sector. I think if we’re going to recover, then we have to really examine these inequities — for example, the lack of minimum wage increase in the United States, or the lack of affordable health care. 

The same with our sector — I want us [non-profits and charities] to be able to have the resources that we need to do our work effectively. As people were starving and dying [during the pandemic], foundations were actually increasing in their endowment because of their investments. Rich people are getting even richer, including foundations, and then they’re only giving 5 percent3.5 percent in Canada. They’re just hoarding for a rainy day, when it’s raining. It’s pouring. It’s like a monsoon right now. 

Nickie: What kind of cultural shift has to happen for foundations to give more funding to charities and non-profits? 

Vu: We need to diversify boards. Everyone needs to examine: do we have people with lived experience? Do they have the power and the autonomy to drive the actions and strategies (to improve) the sector? It’s not just foundations, but non-profits as well — we still have a serious diversity issue around board governance. 

Nickie: What steps can non-profits take to fix that?

Vu: They can start analyzing their own diversity. They also need to do some serious soul-searching (to ask): why are people not joining them? It’s probably because they are very, very white in the first place. We have this thing called ‘best practices’ in the sector — but most ‘best practices’ are basically white practices. And then we wonder why a lot of communities are like, ‘that doesn’t resonate with us.’

Also, being OK with getting rid of some people. Sometimes, we need to add some people onto the board who reflect our communities, but those people are not going to come when you have stodgy people who really should have left years ago. It’s frustrating for people of colour to be on a board [where you] have to spend all this energy arguing with people, when what we really want to do is drive change.

Nickie: Do you think the pandemic has been a ‘wake-up call’ for the sector? Will we see some of these changes happen, as we move towards recovery?

Vu: I’m cautiously optimistic. I feel like there are some funders that are doing amazing work, but a lot of them are still doing the same stuff. 

Like 880 of them sign a pledge, saying that they will make our lives easier by streamlining applications, converting restricted funds to unrestricted, and so on — which is great. That should have been the case always. We did not need a pandemic for them to do the right thing — to fund more effectively. But now that the pandemic is starting to subside a little bit, a lot of them are just going back to the same ridiculousness. I’ve started a hashtag called #CrappyFundingPractices to call out foundations by name. 

I feel like we have an opportunity to make some radical changes, and we are just getting very seduced to go back to the same inequitable normal that we had in the past.

Nickie: How about your own work — did you learn anything from the pandemic that you’re using today? 

Vu: During the pandemic, I helped to launch the Community Centric Fundraising Movement. At first, we were like, ‘maybe we should wait until after things calm down.’ But we decided, no, we’re just going to launch it, because [if] we just keep waiting for things to get better — then it [won’t]. 

The lesson for me is there’s really never a perfect time for anything. If we wait for the perfect timing, we’re going to wait forever, because injustice doesn’t really stop. 

Nickie: You’ve been a leader in lots of different spaces, including as the former executive director of RVC. How have you built positive cultures within your teams?

Vu: Moving forward, there’s an opportunity for us to really rethink leadership — how it’s defined, who gets to be seen as a leader. I am hesitant to say what [I did], because in many ways, I didn’t do much, except using my own positional power to give the organization permission to explore different forms of leadership. 

As I left RVC, instead of finding someone to replace me, the existing staff took 25 percent of the ED job and became four co-executive directors. This sounds really weird, because we’re not used to this sort of model. It’s not to say that hierarchies are always bad, but I think we need to give ourselves permission to explore different forms of leadership and power-sharing as well.

Nickie: With that in mind, what is your vision for building a prosperous non-profit community as we come out of the pandemic? 

Vu: I want our sector to cut through all the BS so that we can really, really use our power to push for some systemic changes, like universal basic income and universal health care. For so long, we’ve just been responding to the symptoms of all of these different issues — which is really critical, we should keep helping people — and at the same time, we need to figure out, how do we stop all of these forms of injustice from happening, so that we ourselves are not as needed?