We need to stop treating nonprofits the way society treats poor people

brown-shoes-1150071_960_720During a drink with one of my favorite program officers, I brought up some feedback about how onerous their grant reporting process was. Even though the foundation is really flexible on how the funds can be used, they still ask for exactly how much of each line item the foundation pays for. And their line items don’t line up with ours, so we have to spend significant time translating our budget into theirs. And once the report is submitted, it affects what we report to other foundations, leading to a funding Sudoku that wastes endless hours of my and my team’s time.

Her response, half-joking and half-serious, was “When you entered the sector, what were you expecting, cake and ice cream?” At that moment, all I wanted to do was weep quietly into my raspberry mojito while Foreigner songs play in my head: “In my liiiiife, there’s been heartache and pain. I don’t knooow, if I can faaaaaaace it again…”

First of all, I am vegan, so I NEVER expect cake and ice cream ANYWHERE. My usual dessert at fundraising events is a blueberry garnish. Second of all, none of us are expecting the work to be easy, but spending 15 hours trying to figure out how much of $1,864 in office supplies and printing the XYZ Foundation paid for last fiscal year is probably not what any of us should be putting our energy into. As I mentioned in previous posts, I’d be happy to supply a full report of what my org’s been spending on; just please don’t make us break down exactly what your 5K paid for, especially when you don’t allow for more than 10% for “indirect,” and no more than $32 to go to food, and you only want accounting for a particular time period that does not align with ours, and ironically you don’t want your money to be used to pay for staff time, which is required to do accounting…

Many leaders, from both nonprofit as well as foundations, have been speaking up against restricted funding for years now—here’s a compelling piece by Paul Shoemaker—and I’m glad to see that it is starting to make some progress. But it is still slow, and it makes me wonder why this is. Why is general operating so difficult for many to accept? Why is it OK for us to be OK with the fact that millions of hours each year are wasted by nonprofits trying to comply with some funders’ unrealistic, and frankly, destructive requirements?

I think the answer may be that there is a strong parallel between how we treat nonprofits, and how society treats low-income people. I don’t think it is intentional. Like implicit racial or gender biases, most people are not even aware that it’s affecting their behaviors. But it’s important for us to examine these parallels, so we can better understand and change them:

The teach-a-man-to-fish paternalism. This philosophy, so ingrained in our culture, is patronizing and often ineffective, sometimes harmful. It assumes one person is a fount of knowledge while the other is an ignorant, empty vessel to be filled with wisdom. It ignores systems and environmental variables. We can teach someone to fish, but if they have no transportation to get to the pond, or if the pond is polluted, or if better-equipped corporations have been destroying aquaculture through over-fishing, then they’re still screwed while we feel good about ourselves. We see the same dynamics in funding via this belief that nonprofits can be self-sustaining if we just teach them to earn their revenues instead of constantly asking for free fish in the form of grants and donations.

The Bootstrap Mentality: This belief that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps has been plaguing our low-income families for decades. It manifests in individuals who have found success to think they actually did it all on their own, blaming poor people for their situations, never mind again the privilege and system issues. In the nonprofit sector, it is seen in people from for-profits having an inflated sense of superiority, thinking “If my for-profit was successful in generating revenues, why can’t these lazy nonprofits also pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” Never mind the fact that over half of for-profits fail and that nonprofits and for-profits are completely differentfrom each other.

The assumption of inability for future planning. There is an assumption that poor people don’t know how to plan for their future. If they do, why are they so poor then? Obviously they suck at planning ahead. The same assumption plays out in our sector. There is a belief among many people that if we give nonprofits too much money, they won’t know what to do with it. A program officer once told me, “I don’t want to give multi-year funding, because I think that will stop nonprofits from being innovative.” Because nothing encourages innovation better than regular bouts of night-terror-inducing, morale-sinking cash-flow emergencies.

The lack of trust in people’s ability to manage money: Society thinks poor people don’t know how to spend the money we give them. That’s why we have to monitor how they do it. Let’s restrict their ability to spend their food stamps on junk food; left to their own devices, they’ll probably just guzzle beer while feeding their kids tons of Hot Cheetos. Same with nonprofits. We need to monitor every penny they spend; otherwise, they’d probably waste money on fancy chairs and blinged-out business cards. And if we can’t protect these irresponsible organizations from themselves, then at least let’s make sure our own money is not being used to fund these things.

The No-Free-Lunch: There have been idiotic proposals by clueless politicians designed to punish the poor for violating whatever ridiculous expectations are set out for them. Like taking away food stamps if their kids don’t get good enough grades or if they’re not volunteering or seeking out employment, despite the fact that there are only so many volunteer and paid positions to go around. In our sector, our funding gets threatened if we don’t comply with various requirements, such as working toward “sustainability.” A colleague mentioned a grant that won’t pay for staff wages and other indirect expenses, and applicants have to demonstrate that they will be completely self-sustaining within a year. That gave us all a good chuckle.

The punishment of success. Ironically, while we expect poor people to work and save up money so they can stop being dependent, we punish them when they succeed at that, removing their benefits if they earn close to an amount where they may actually be able to no longer need the benefits. It’s weirdly paradoxical, demotivating, and insulting. In nonprofits, many funders expect sustainability and yet punish nonprofits for having a strong reserve, which is probably the most important factor for sustainability. You need to be sustainable, but if you are too successful at that, we’re not funding you, or we take away the money we gave you. I remember frantically trying to spend some left-over money because it otherwise would have had to be returned, per the requirement of this funder, even though the reason we had leftover was because we were spending it wisely; that money we saved would have greatly helped our programs if we had been allowed to put it into reserve.

The avoidance of eye contact. Poor people make the general public sad. That’s why most people avoid eye contact with individuals experiencing homelessness. And in our sector, it leads to some donors and foundations to avoid nonprofits, creating barriers in the form of “safe space” that prevent those doing the work from communicating and collaborating with those funding the work.

The expectation of gratitude: Every single time I bring up some sort of feedback regarding ineffective, time-wasting funding practices in our sector—such as requiring board chair signatures on grant applications (Why? Whyyyyy?!)—inevitably some people will counter with things like, “So people are giving you their hard-earned money, and you’re whining? You should just be grateful and comply.” It’s the same as poor people being expected to just be happy and appreciative of whatever scraps they manage to get. Not that we shouldn’t be grateful, but gratitude should not be one-sided, and it should not prevent the exchange of feedback.

Again, I don’t think most people aim to make nonprofit professionals’ work difficult. But the lack of trust, the paternalism, and the occasional disdain for nonprofits do not make our work easier. Yes, there are a few nonprofits that suck, that are irresponsible, that waste money. Just like there are irresponsible poor people who abuse the systems designed to help them. But we have started assuming that those are the default and we treat everyone with suspicion, when in fact they are a very small percentage. Most of us are just trying our best to serve our communities, and we are running against the clock.

None of us ever anticipated that this work would be easy, that it would be cake or ice cream. chocolate-677762_960_720The work we do is often heart-wrenching, filled with late nights at the office, difficult decisions, and guilt that we can’t do enough for so many of our fellow community members who are facing so much injustice. In light of the seriousness of the issues we’re trying to address, being forced to spend hours we don’t have to account for which funders paid for snacks for our kids and which funders paid for insurance, and BS some answers about how we plan to be “sustainable,” and Frankenstein bits of funds together so we can make it through one more payroll cycle, and otherwise defend our work—all of it is frustrating because these useless, time-wasting activities are taking up more than half our time and preventing us from doing the hard work that may actually help people. It is sometimes too much, and we lose good people whom we need to remain in the sector to continue the work.

So many funding and accounting practices are anchored in a severe and pervasive distrust of nonprofits, the same distrust we heap on individuals with low-income. It goes without saying that these myths and philosophies are destructive, toward both our low-income community members and toward nonprofits. We must begin with trust as the default, or our community loses. We must stop treating our low-income community members the way many in the world have been. And if we are going to effectively address society’s numerous, complex problems—and recent tragedies and violence nationally and internationally highlight just how complex and serious things are—the way we currently view nonprofits must change. The relationships between funders, donors, nonprofits, for-profits, media, and government must change. We must see each other as equal partners with different but complementary roles to play. We must understand where philosophically our requirements come from and how they are affecting our partners, how it helps or hampers their work. We must be able to provide each other honest feedback and push one another to do better for our community.

Like Foreigner sang in one of their songs, before they changed the lyrics: “I want to know what an effective partnership for social justice is, I want you to show me. I want to feel what an effective partnership for social justice is, I know you can shooooowwww meee…”

Let’s make that happen; let’s stop treating nonprofits the way society treats poor people. And if that’s not yet possible, then maybe let’s try to stop treating poor people the way we treat nonprofits.