Exploring the fun and frustrations of not-for-profit work: Q&A with Vu Le

February 7, 2019

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is the author of the extremely successful blog Nonprofit AF. A US-based writer drawing from 12 years of working in the not-for-profit sector, he creates humorous posts about the sector, but with a serious point.

Ahead of his trip to New Zealand to deliver his keynote speech at the Philanthropy Summit 2019, we asked the blogger a few questions about his experiences and what he’s looking forward to about the Summit.


What was your first job in the not-for-profit sector?

I had just got my Master of Social Work and could not find a job anywhere due to my lack of experience. Luckily, I got accepted into an AmeriCorps programme, a federally-funded programme that provides job experience to new professionals. My host site was a small not-for-profit called the Vietnamese Friendship Association; it provided academic, family engagement, and youth employment opportunities to immigrants and refugees. I didn’t realise it before I was placed there, but I would be the only staff, so I ended up doing everything. It was stressful, but I learned all sorts of skills that way. My first impression was, ‘Wow this is a lot of work’, and also, ‘Wow people in this sector are so dedicated and creative’.


You’ve worked in not-for-profits for over 12 years. What’s one of your first memories of working in the sector?

I drove a really old and beat-up car to work, and it kept getting broken into, which was ironic because there was never anything worth stealing. One day, I came back from a meeting late at night and the back window was broken and someone had ransacked through the glove compartment. I couldn’t afford to have my window replaced, so a colleague and I got some Plexiglas—a type of sturdy clear plastic—cut it into shape, and taped it up. I drove around with the car like that for months.


What’s one of the most invaluable lessons you’ve learned working in the sector?

We must trust that the people who have first-hand experience, who are on the ground, who have suffered the most injustice, will always have the best solutions over those who have observed or studied these problems without having lived through them. Unfortunately, this is not the case in our sector, where so many resources, voice, and power go to the people who do not have lived experience. This just helps to further perpetuate the injustice we’re trying to address.


You’ve written various blogs on funder relationships. What’s the key to a good relationship between funder and not-for-profit?

Trust has to be the grounding value in any relationship that hopes to be successful. Unfortunately, there is a lack of trust, and it manifests in restricted funding, one-year grants, burdensome grant processes, endless reports, and the constant need for not-for-profits to prove that we have integrity. I have written about this before: we not-for-profits are treated the way society treats poor people: with suspicion. In the US, we give low-income individuals and families money to help them, but they can’t spend it on certain stuff, like diapers for their babies. We don’t trust they will make good decisions. Restricted funding is similarly indicative of a lack of trust. We need to be able to work through that so we can both focus on the work.

A funder called The Whitman Institute created a model called Trust-Based Philanthropy, which starts with the default belief that not-for-profits are trustworthy until they prove otherwise, not vice-versa. They have created nine key principles, including providing multi-year general operating funds, soliciting and acting on feedback, and open and transparent communication. Another principle is to simplify grant application and reporting processes.

This model has started gaining some traction. One of my organisation’s funders has been using this model. He called me up one day and said, “Vu, we really like what your organisation is doing. Can you find a grant proposal that you wrote and just forward it to me? Don’t worry about changing the name of the foundation or anything, just send it over.” I hung up the phone, searched through my email, found a grant [proposal] I had submitted, and forwarded it to him. It literally took five minutes, and we received $40,000. It was one of the best grant experiences I’ve had. Sure, the money was extremely helpful, but even better was the feeling of genuine trust and partnership.


What do you think funders need to do to make not-for-profits more sustainable?

It depends on what we mean by sustainability. If we mean how do we ensure not-for-profits have the tools and resources they need to do their work, then simple: provide multi-year, general operating grants so they have the stability to do their work and build infrastructure.

If we mean, ‘How do we help not-for-profits become self-sufficient so they’re not so dependent on funding?’, then I say that does not exist and we need to get over it. Most not-for-profits will never ever be completely self-sustaining, and it’s a destructive illusion to expect that they would be. It just wastes everyone’s time as it forces not-for-profits to jump from one funder to another, constantly fundraising instead of being able to focus on their work.

And why should we be expected to be self-sustaining? In many ways, we are cleaning up the messes caused by failures of government and the market. It’s like someone caused a mess, we volunteered to clean it up, and the person who caused the mess is like “How are you going to pay for this mop that you’re using to clean up the mess I made?” I always say that if grantmakers want to help not-for-profits be more sustainable, then they should sustain them.

When you think of New Zealand, what are the first three things that come to mind? Quick…go…

Lord of the Rings. Also, Flight of the Conchords! I’m also a big fan of Taika Waititi and love his hilarious and heartfelt movies.


And what are you looking forward to about coming to New Zealand and the Philanthropy Summit?

I’ve never been to New Zealand before. Everyone I know who’s ever been to New Zealand tells me how awesome it is. I’m also looking forward to having these conversations about funding, philanthropy, sustainability, and more. I know what I say is sometimes controversial, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I think it is critical for us as a sector to have these conversations.


Vu Le will be a highlight not to be missed at the Philanthropy Summit 2019: The Future of Trust. Book your tickets now at philanthropysummit.org.nz. 15–17 May, Te Papa, Wellington


Article originally published in Philanthropy News, December 2018