Fundraising is well-intended, but meaning well isn't good enough. Hear Vu Le, one of the most amplified voices in the nonprofit sector, talk with Michelle about how the principles of community-centric fundraising were created and how his family and personal history have shaped his work and his worldview.
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Vu Le (00:03):
Fundraising is well-intended, but the impact of not discussing race and very challenging issues like colonization and slavery means that we are complicit in perpetuating the injustices so many of us are trying to fight. So it is time for us to have these uncomfortable conversations.
Michelle Shireen Muri (00:24):
Do you ever think about where the money that makes nonprofit work possible actually comes from welcome to The Ethical Rainmaker. I'm Michelle Shireen Muri. I've spent the last 15 years in the nonprofit sector and something has always felt a little bit off to me. This is a new podcast, examining the ways we fundraise and work in the nonprofit world.
My guest is Vu Le, my friend and Co-Chair at the newly launched Council for Community Centric Fundraising. Vu also writes the popular blog, nonprofitAF. He challenges the third sector to examine problematic practices that lurk beneath the surface of many foundations and organizations in 2017. He published the article, "How Donor Centrism is Perpetuating Inequity and Injustice." It sent shock waves and ultimately sparked a new movement. Next, he collected nine principles of community-centric fundraising. These principles refocus the work of nonprofits on helping the people they claim to serve instead of centering the wants and needs of major donors. Principle number one is that fundraising must be grounded in race equity and social justice. Other tenants include treating donors as partners, and that we must recognize that healing and liberation require a commitment to economic justice.
Vu is in high demand as a speaker and is one of the most amplified voices in the third sector worldwide. He lives in Seattle, Washington. Vu Le joins me today to talk about how these principles of community centric fundraising came to be, and the movement it has launched. We'll also get to know how his personal history has shaped his work and worldview. Just so you know, we're dealing with some messy issues in this podcast, and there are some un-bleeped curse words. All right, let's get into it on The Ethical Rainmaker.
Michelle Shireen Muri (02:14):
I'm so excited to talk with you today.
Vu Le (02:16):
Hi Michelle. Thank you so much for having me.
Michelle Shireen Muri (02:18):
In our work together as co-chairs of the council for community centric fundraising, we work together frequently and we've also known each other since before you started a blog. I've been looking forward to interviewing you for this podcast, because there are things that I know that I haven't heard you interviewed about, and I was hoping you would share with others. How did you first get involved in the nonprofit sector?
Vu Le (02:40):
I was actually a Pre-Med. I was going to be a good Asian son and become a doctor. And so I signed up to be premed and then I realized it just was not for me. And so I switched over to social work, which did not make my parents very happy at all. Yeah. People who don't really understand what social work is, and there's not a lot of respect for it unfortunately -- even though we really need social workers, especially right now. So I got my master's in social work and then I joined the sector. It was really difficult finding work. So I was in this fellowship program that was trying to bring in more leaders of color from the Vietnamese community into the nonprofit sector. So I got my start by being placed at a Vietnamese organization called the Vietnamese Friendship Association. And that was how I got started in the sector.
Michelle Shireen Muri (03:31):
Oh, wow. I didn't realize that. All right. So that's when we met at a fundraiser, I think, and we started talking about fundraising and then we started having coffees sometimes,
Vu Le (03:45):
Michelle Shireen Muri (03:45):
Yeah, that's right - coffees and vegan ice cream, to talk about fundraising practices and also how fucked up some of them are.
Vu Le (03:51):
Can we swear?
Michelle Shireen Muri (04:02):
Yeah, totally. We can. And have you always been based in Seattle, has your work always been based in SeattleI?
Vu Le (04:02):
I went to school in St. Louis. I was born in Vietnam, moved over here. Spent some time in Philadelphia. Then Seattle then went to Memphis for high school and St. Louis for college and grad school, and then decided to come back to Seattle where my family had been. So most of my work has been in Seattle.
Vu Le (04:20):
Wow. That's a lot of moving though.
Michelle Shireen Muri (04:22):
It has been, but also has shaped the way that I see things. And there are lots of amazing people in our sector from everywhere.
Michelle Shireen Muri (04:29):
That's totally true. So you started at Vietnamese Friendship Association, after your Masters in social work, that's where you were placed and you became the executive director...when?
Vu Le (04:42):
After about a couple of years. We were in a program that was funded by AmeriCorps. I was an AmeriCorps member and there were just so many challenges there. We had to deal with a bunch of stuff that we would just never talk about in my Masters in social work course. For example, all the dynamics around elders or culture. We had a lot of elders who were affected by PTSD from the Vietnam war, and then they carry that trauma onto their work with the community. So it was incredibly challenging. And what happened was that no one wanted to fund the organization because it was just so messy and complex. So as I started raising money for it and we realized we had to have an executive director, no one wanted the job. So I was hired as the ED. And that was fun. Yeah, that was, that was really fun. I was, I was 26. I did not know what I was doing. So I made a lot of mistakes. Lots of mistakes.
Michelle Shireen Muri (05:37):
Right. Well, and I remember at that time you had told me about the different age categories of how different Vietnamese folks were taking the work of VFA and also the different waves of immigration and how that affected that outlook of people who are engaged with the organization.
Vu Le (05:59):
Absolutely. And the effects are still to this day, very prevalent. We still have a lot of elders who are very challenged. We also don't have a strong affinity towards counseling, for example. So there are lots of people who are not getting counseling that they need to overcome this terrible war that many of us are still being affected by. And that affects the work that we do in nonprofits.
Michelle Shireen Muri (06:22):
Right? Absolutely. Yeah. When I think about the Iranian community of which I'm a part, we don't have a whole lot of Iranian organizations, even because there is such a divide both between different times that people came to the U.S. Or different times, they left Iran. What political side they were on, what religious side they were on and the age demographic as well. And so there's not a lot of cohesion and that same aversion to therapy and emotional processing that you and I really value now.
Vu Le (06:57):
Yeah. And I don't think people understand just how this affects the work that we do. For example, the way that we do boards, the way that we do fundraising. And what happens is that a lot of the systems that we expect everyone to conform to are very biased towards a certain type of organization or certain type of doing things that are very, very white. And so organizations that have these cultural elements are getting totally screwed because they have so many more complicated challenges to overcome in order to be able to do these things like raise money.
Michelle Shireen Muri (07:28):
Right. That makes a lot of sense.
Michelle Shireen Muri (07:34):
I'm Michelle Shireen, Muri. The Ethical Rainmaker is brought to you by Freedom Conspiracy, my consulting firm. Take your ethical fundraising to the next level, bring values aligned practices to growth opportunities at hand. Visit freedom-conspiracy.com.
Michelle Shireen Muri (07:52):
So, what was it that inspired you to start that blog?
Vu Le (07:57):
Yeah, I had been talking to fundraisers, especially fundraisers of color. Cause I was working with so many Vietnamese folks, but also lots of folks from other communities as well. And there was a commonality of that many of the systems are just not working for our communities. The way fundraising is done, but also boards, grantmaking capacity, building evaluation, all of these different things. Fundraising though has been so prevalent in our work. Like we all have to do fundraising. It's constantly on our minds, but then talking to people, I realize that the way that we're doing fundraising is in many ways harmful to the work that we're trying to do. And no one is talking about that. Everyone has been talking about how we need to be more grateful, how we need to have better appreciation -donor appreciation- and moves management and the donor pyramid and CRMs. But no one was talking about... What are the negative effects of the way that we're doing this work? And so just talking to them, more and more people, I realized that this is a critical area area that we really have to discuss. Actually I wrote, I wrote that blog post, but before that there was a blog post called "How Donor-Centrism Is Perpetuating Inequity and Injustice," which made a lot of people very upset.
Michelle Shireen Muri (09:15):
I was gonna say, you took a lot of shit for that, didn't you?
Vu Le (09:19):
A lot of people were not ready to hear this. It was fun. We do need to challenge systems a little bit more. Yeah.
Michelle Shireen Muri (09:26):
That's real. And you've been writing the blog for about eight years now and you've basically been on an international speaking tour for the last three. What is it that motivates you to keep going, even though there is so much wrong with the way that we're doing our work?
Vu Le (09:43):
I do meet lots of really amazing people who are doing incredible work everywhere. All over the United States, but also all over the world. Last year, I was able to talk to a human trafficking organization that had a conference in Thailand. And then in New Zealand, there were funders and nonprofits that were working and talking about equity and dealing with the same challenges that we have been over here. So there are just so many amazing people. I always say that we're like, air. The nonprofit sector is like air and all private sector is like food. People can see food, they can see the tangible results. They can snap pictures of food and they can call themselves "foodies." Well, no one appreciates air, no one is out there taking pictures of air and you don't really appreciate air until it's gone. And then you realize, 'Oh shit! I really need air.' And it's just as important as food and water, but we don't appreciate it until it's gone. And that in many ways is like our sector. Right. So I really do appreciate the people in the sector because everyone is like air. You allow the world to breathe.
Michelle Shireen Muri (10:50):
That's gorgeous. That's beautiful. That's a beautiful analogy. Thank you. One of the reasons we're here today, you and I are here today is because you wrote a blog post in May 2017, called The Nine Principles of Community-Centric fundraising on your blog, nonprofitAF.com. Tell me about how you created that piece, the impact that you've experienced since you first published it and what you've been learning, because I know that that really ruffled a lot of feathers and inspired a lot of people?
Vu Le (11:22):
Yeah. That blog post, um, did cause quite a controversy. And the blog was before that was, was about how, the way that we've been doing fundraising has been perpetuating the inequity by furthering things like saviourism and poverty tourism. And I had to come up with just, well, what are the alternatives? You know, what do we want fundraising to look like? And so I wrote this blog post about the nine principles. And those principles came from talking to lots of other leaders of color, especially women of color leaders in fundraising, in the sector who have in many ways been saying these things over and over again, but have not been listened to, which I think is pretty endemic to the entire world. A lot of women of color talk about many of these things and just don't get listened to. So I do feel like I get a little bit more credit than I deserve and [I’ve] just really [been] compiling the stuff that I've been hearing from people and make it into this blog post and getting credit for it.
But these ideas are nothing new. These criticisms have been brought on by other leaders of color, other women, leaders of color, especially for such a long time. So I just want to say that first. And you've been saying these things Michelle, so yeah, we have to think a way of doing fundraising differently. We don't think about things such as how wealth is built or why we need to get people to pay more taxes or how do we talk to donors about racism or how do we end the nonprofit hunger games?
So much of our fundraising practices. It's just like, like all of us are trying to run to this pond with fishes and we just try and get as many fish as we can for our own organization. And we don't care about what that does to the entire ecosystem. Or whether there will be enough fish there.
And every single conference and workshops and books that I've read is all about how to get as much money for your own organization as possible. Not how do we actually work together effectively as an entire sector. And that includes things like maybe doing stuff that are very different and sometimes kind of blasphemous, like, I don't know, not applying for grants because maybe your organization is stable and you want to introduce another mission to a donor or to a grant. These things are not things that we talk about. And are very critical to the work we're trying to do.
Michelle Shireen Muri (13:45):
We're talking with Vu Le about the principles of community centric fundraising right now on The Ethical Rainmaker. You can find Vu's blog at nonprofitAF.com and more on these issues at communitycentricfundraising.org. We're a brand new podcast and we're so excited to delve into these important issues with you. Like what you hear? The best way you can support us is by subscribing, rating the show and sharing with your friends and colleagues. Visit us at theethicalrainmaker.com.
Michelle Shireen Muri (14:16):
Vu, when you started to publish your articles like "How Donor Centrism is Perpetuating Inequity and Injustice." I know you got some pushback. What has the response been like?
Vu Le (14:27):
Yeah, it definitely caused a lot of people to be upset. There was a lot of resistance from fundraisers who have been so used to doing things the way that many of us have been taught, which is to focus on the donors and their experience. And making them feel very appreciated and everything is centered around donors. But I do think that it also inspired a lot of people who have been having similar feelings and thinking in the sector, but who didn't really have the language to talk about it. A few organizations that I knew started using some of the principles. For example, one started - in their "One Day of Giving" campaign, instead of saying, "Hey, give to us during this one day," they actually listed several partner organizations and said, "Please give to our partner organizations."
I also knew of one organization that started having conversations with their donors, their major donors, about race.They mailed out a copy of Ijeoma Oluo's "So You Want to Talk About Race," which is a great book. They mailed it out to their major donors and then had a book club to talk about this. And some of the donors were really shocked as you can imagine. But many of the donors were very thankful because no one had ever invited them to have this conversation or rarely invited them to have these conversations before. So, yeah, and I, I got a lot of feedback from other fundraisers of color who said, and also white fundraisers who said, "I have been thinking that there was something challenging, something - I have been uncomfortable with with the way that we've been doing fundraising and these principles spell out like what I want fundraising to look like and feel like!"
Michelle Shireen Muri (16:09):
Right. That's amazing. That's an incredible impact, isn't it?
Vu Le (16:13):
Yeah. We still have a lot to do. And I'm really excited that there is a movement - that you're on board with launching this movement, of community centric fundraising. I do feel like this is something that would affect the entire sector. We really have to change the way that we do fundraising completely.
Michelle Shireen Muri (16:28):
Yeah. I fully agree. As we wrap up this piece, is there anything that I didn't ask you that you would've liked me to, or is there anything else that you'd like to say?
Vu Le (16:39):
I would say that we are at this crossroad in terms of our sector. And in many ways we have to examine how we are perpetuating the injustice we are fighting. And we've been complicit in it. And we don't realize it. I think all of us mean well when we enter this field. But meaning well is not good enough. We all know this: that there is impact and there's intention. And we've been so focused on our intentions that we don't focus enough on our impact. Fundraising is well-intended, but the impact of not discussing race and very challenging issues like colonization and slavery, means that we are complicit in perpetuating the injustice so many of us are trying to fight. So it is time for us to have these uncomfortable conversations.
Michelle Shireen Muri (17:29):
That's right. I'm in full agreement. So now we're gonna transition a little bit. I happen to know that you're a very nurturing person to all folks around you, not just with your family. You're a great cook. You're a lover of video games as I am too. But I think as someone whose voice is so amplified in our sector, it's important to share more about the other identities that shape your perspective. Between the moment that you were born and this moment, there were things that happened that brought you to the place you are now. What about your personal history inspires you to do this work that you're doing?
Vu Le (18:18):
Thanks, Michelle. I don't get asked these questions a lot. I really appreciate it. I do think that we do...our identities are so tied to our work and they affect our work or our lived experiences shape the way that we think and the way that we do things. And it would be more helpful for all of us to really examine this aspect of our work in ourselves.
So for me, I was born in Vietnam. My father fought against the communists and he was put into re-education camp. And I didn't realize this at the time because I was born way after the Vietnam War ended. So I didn't realize how, how it affected my family. It drove us to being very, very poor. My dad, after re-education camp, you know, he was collecting pine sap on the mountains and my mother, she was peddling bags of grain on her bicycle for miles every day to sell them on the black market because we had to be able to survive. And I didn't realize this at the time because I was so young, but now I think back on it, I just realized there's just so many families who are experiencing that right now. And it really shaped the way that I think about the world, which is that we have a lot of injustice and inequity in the world and we don't even realize it.
Those of us who are able to change our circumstances, have an obligation to figure out how to change the systems, to make it more equitable and just for everyone.
Michelle Shireen Muri (19:50):
Right. That makes a lot of sense. What other identities of yours feed into your decision making or shape your perspective?
Vu Le (19:59):
Yeah, well, we got to the United States because of my older sister actually, who was adopted, she is half black, half Vietnamese. So she was one of the children of the U.S. Soldiers who came over to Vietnam during the war and created these kids who unfortunately have not been accepted in society. That remind people of the war. They look very different. They experience a lot of neglect and abuse and it was really awful. And my oldest sister is half-black, which means she experienced even more discrimination and injustice than others. So it was really awful. Her family didn't want her and my family adopted her and she is my, my sister we've been very close. But it really did shape kind of the way that I see race.
For example, we have, you know, in Vietnam, there's still a lot of discrimination against people with darker skin and there is let's face it - I mean, there's a lot of racism against people who are, like my sister who are half black. And it does make me really think about how the U.S. is, where we have so much racism against black folks, indigenous folks, people of color. And it makes me think about my own sort of privilege as an Asian person. Yes, we have lots of discrimination against Asians, especially right now during this pandemic. But we also have a lot of privileges that we have to acknowledge. And we have a lot of anti-blackness that we oftentimes don't acknowledge, and we need to be able to do that in order to build solidarity with other communities of color, to really be effective in addressing systemic injustice.
Michelle Shireen Muri (21:45):
You're listening to The Ethical Rainmaker and I'm Michelle Shireen Muri. My guest, Vu Le is my Co-Chair at the Council for Community-Centric Fundraising. He writes the blog, nonprofitAF.com. He also founded Rainier Valley Corps (now called RVC,) a social justice nonprofit in Seattle. Before RVC, Vu was executive director at the Vietnamese Friendship Association. Now called Kandelia, this Seattle-based nonprofit serves immigrant and refugee communities find links to all of Vu's work in our show notes of theethicalrainmaker.com. Stay with us as we get a window into Vu's family life and the joys and challenges of raising multicultural children. One thing that our listeners might not know is that you talk about your children often, but your children are actually tri-cultural as well.
Vu Le (22:29):
Yeah, their mom is half black, half white. And so we are, we are Vietnamese and black and white, and it makes for a lot of fun as we try to ensure that they know all of their cultures and heritage and everything. So there's quite a lot, uh, mixed in. Definitely on their Vietnamese side, we try to keep them, I try to speak to them only in Vietnamese. They are going to bilingual schools. On their black side, they have family in Baton Rouge. And we try to make sure that they go down there and visit their families, make sure that they understand that they are also black. And so that they have all the, all the cultures and the heritage of that. And on their white side, we also make sure that they are also aware of and have connections to the white side of their family. So their great-grandparents and their grandparents who are white. But also trying to dig deeper into like, what other heritages are on their white side. I know there's a little bit of Irish and probably Polish and German - that gives us a lot of opportunities to explore cultures as well. That's fun!
Michelle Shireen Muri (23:47):
Yeah, I bet. As a mixed person, myself, I have been so amazed when I learn about some of the parenting and educating that you're doing with your children. For us, my parents came during the revolution and there wasn't a lot of infrastructure in the area that I grew up in for Iranian-white mixed kids, to be able to learn very much about their culture, unless it was coming straight from parents. Parents who were often traumatized around what happened. My parents for example, left in the middle of the night and my mom was never able to see most of her family. She was only able to see them one time before. I don't know, I guess before she decided not to go back, but ultimately there just, wasn't a whole lot of education for us around our heritage. I grew up on Iranian food and we speak Farsi. We're illiterate. My sister and I don't read or write in Farsi, but we do speak. And yeah, just watching you with your kids and getting to see the type of education they have -- so thoughtful, from all of your family, is just pretty incredible.
Vu Le (24:56):
It’s challenging, I left Vietnam when I was eight years old. So I don't actually speak much or write or I can read cause it's phonetic, but I have the vocabulary of a fourth grader. Right. So
Michelle Shireen Muri (25:13):
Yeah, that's like my Farsi,
Vu Le (25:17):
It's really hard. But teaching the kids, learning to speak with them has forced me to learn a bunch of new vocabulary and grammar structures and things. And that's actually increased and improved my Vietnamese as well. So we actually took the kids to Vietnam this past July, and they were able to understand most of what the relatives were saying. And the relatives were very impressed by it. And they were not just impressed by it but they were moved by it because you know, these are kids who were born over here. They're mixed. And so a lot of the relatives don't expect much from them. But the fact that they can actually understand and speak a little bit of it just instantly made them feel like they are not strangers as much. Right.
Michelle Shireen Muri (26:02):
Awwwwww, yeah. That makes a lot of sense. That's such a beautiful experience for them to be able to have both sides of the family. Is there anything else that you'd like listeners of this podcast to know about you, your life, your family, your work, any of it?
Vu Le (26:18):
I feel like, now that I have kids, it makes me really thankful for the work that people do. I send my kids out into the world, right? Right before COVID, they would go to school and they would go to the Boys and Girls Club and there's like a whole community that's trying to take care of them. And I'm just really thankful for that. And like I said, you know, we, we don't think about the work that lots of people do, because it's like air and it's invisible. But as I start interacting with my kids and I send them off to school and I pick them up, I'm just so thankful for everyone who is trying to make the world better because my kids benefit from it. They're safer because of work that so many people in our sector is doing.
Michelle Shireen Muri (27:02):
Oh, that's beautiful. Thank you. So thank you again so much for all the work that you do. It has been an honor to watch you build a platform and amplify the love of, and passion for and critical conversations around the third sector. And obviously I'm so happy to be working alongside you as we build a new platform for community centric fundraising.
Vu Le (27:25):
Thank you, Michelle, for having me.
Michelle Shireen Muri (27:33):
Again, you can find links to Vu's work, his blog and more about community-centric fundraising in our show notes at theethicalrainmaker.com. We are just beginning the work of unpacking these critical issues to help make the nonprofit sector more just and effective. If you like what you've heard, please rate the episode, subscribe and share it with other people you think should hear it. And hey, follow us on Facebook and Instagram while you're at it! We hope you'll join us in two weeks for our next episode, featuring Ananda Valenzuela of Seattle social justice, nonprofit RVC. Ananda talks about their organization's somewhat radical move to give staff raises during a global pandemic and an economic downturn. And just as a side note here at the end of our first episode, I want to say, thank you so much for joining us on this journey. We have so many exciting conversations to come and we'd love to hear from you as well. What issues have you been encountering in the world of nonprofits and fundraising? What questions do you have? We're all in this together. You can email us anytime with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Ethical Rainmaker is sponsored by my consulting collective, Freedom Conspiracy. We're produced and edited in Seattle, Washington by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. Rachelle Pierce runs our socials. Thanks to Trick Candles for this awesome song, "I'm Gold." I'm Michelle Shireen Muri, see you in two weeks!