What do unicorns, hummus and sleeping kittens have to do with nonprofits? Plenty, in the wry, witty world of Vu Le’s Nonprofit AF.
Le, a nonprofit leader based in South Seattle, started the blog Nonprofit AF in 2013 by marrying serious topics such as equity in the nonprofit sector with pictures of cute animals, references to “Game of Thrones,” the woes of meager meeting snacks and self-deprecating humor. What does the AF stand for? Awesome and fearless? Amazing and fluffy? Or maybe a slang term used for emphasis that your mom might not approve of? You can use your imagination.
Despite making up 10% of private-sector employment in the U.S., nonprofits often don’t get the respect they deserve.
Nonprofits often provide the first line of defense for those at the margins, and they can serve as a laboratory for equity and inclusion practices that other sectors are much slower to adopt. Le’s work is often in the vanguard of those efforts and can provide a model for government and business.
“Nonprofits are like air,” Le said. “We’re invisible. People don’t really appreciate it until they really need it. You don’t appreciate air until it’s gone.”
What started as an inside joke with Le’s colleagues has since exploded into what the Chronicle of Philanthropy called “required reading” for many in the nonprofit sector, due to Le’s signature brand of irreverence, speaking truth to power and tough love.
Defying the perception of do-gooders as humorless scolds, Le’s blog receives an average of 175,000 page views a month, with topics such as, “Are you an overheadhole? Why we need to just stop talking about overhead,” and “The privilege to fail: How the benefits of trust and failure are not equitably distributed.” Le, the executive director of capacity-building organization Rainier Valley Corps, has done over 100 keynote speeches on nonprofit work and was selected as one of the 2019 Nonprofit Times Power and Influence Top 50 and was one of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 40 Under 40 in 2016.
Nonprofit AF also spawned a number of virtual and IRL offshoots, including the Facebook group Nonprofit Happy Hour, which now has over 43,000 members.
Le takes particular aim at the double standards nonprofits are expected to endure to simply exist — one of the biggest and most destructive being the relentless focus on overhead. Unlike the private sector, nonprofits are lauded for having as close to 100% of their funding as possible going to direct services or programming. The further away from the 100% you are, the less you are supposedly doing to serve your mission.
What that calculation ignores is that staff, infrastructure, training and other “extraneous” expenses are all fundamental to successfully serving the community. Yet because of what Le calls the “Nonprofit Hunger Games” of organizations competing against each other for scarce resources, often it’s the groups themselves who perpetuate this “overheadhole” behavior in their marketing and fundraising efforts in order to be competitive for donations.
To use a “Game of Thrones” metaphor, if disdain for overhead is a White Walker in Le’s world, restricted funding is the Night King.
Le describes the burden of “funding sudoku” like this, “It’s like you’re trying to put out a fire, and every three or four steps, someone stops you and says, ‘Hey, I want to make sure the money I am giving you is paying for the water and not the hose.’ ”
He said funders focus on the wrong things. “The accountability should be about the outcomes: Are we actually helping people? Do they say that their lives are being changed?” Instead of burdensome restrictions, funders could focus more on providing unrestricted, multiyear, community-centered support for work led by people of color and other marginalized groups.
“These small, burdensome grants are the ones that communities of color are stuck with,” Le said, “while these large, catalytic grants mostly go to white-led organizations.”
One of Nonprofit AF’s biggest impacts is due to Le’s seminal work, “When you don’t disclose salary range on a job posting, a unicorn loses its wings.” Shared over 200,000 times since 2015, it offers 11 reasons how including salary on job postings helps support wage equality, saves time and resists the legacy of inequitable and outdated hiring practices.
Liahann Bannerman, director of volunteer engagement at United Way of King County and a longtime Nonprofit AF reader and Nonprofit Happy Hour member, said that since the salary article came out, she has seen a shift across the nonprofit sector in regard to job postings.
When a recruiter recently sent her a job posting without a salary to share with her network, Bannerman replied with a link to the article and then got the job posting back — with a salary added. She said Le’s fearlessness in challenging conventional wisdom and typically off-limits targets (like funders) is what the blog does best.
Watching this relatively rapid shift toward equity in one sector’s business norms gives me hope that other changes might be more possible than we sometimes think. Perhaps with a combination of humility, wit, unicorns and willingness to put a mirror up to ourselves, we can move more quickly to an equitable future.