Learning how to “Disrupt for Good” at 2018 NC Center for Nonprofits Conference

On paper, seeing the word “disruption” doesn’t usually elicit good feelings. Something has been taken off course. A plan has gone off the rails. As a former teacher, we crafted classroom management plans to mitigate such occurrences. But, at the NC Center for Nonprofits statewide conference in November, the idea of “disruption” took center stage, especially in the remarks of this year’s keynote speaker: Vu Le.

Vu Le standing on the stage at the NC Center for Nonprofits 2018 conference. Behind him is a screen with a photo of an adorable baby animal.
Vu Le during his keynote address at 2018 NC Center for Nonprofits Conference (photo credit: HIGOL)

Hilarious, provocative, and smart, Vu is the blogger behind Nonprofit AF (formerly Nonprofit with Balls). This online publication has earned him celebrity status in much of the nonprofit sector. His other points of pride include: Executive Director of Rainer Valley Corps in Seattle; consultant as to how the sector and its funding partners can accomplish their work in more equitable, inclusive, and just ways; a father of two; husband; vegan, and Pisces.

After more than a century of working to address and remedy community needs, the nonprofit sector doesn’t yet have its overarching success story. Individual organizations and coalitions have made incredible strides in achieving their missions. But, the identified gaps that prompted each nonprofit’s singular formation are largely still around. In fact, many of these gaps have grown wider and deeper due to changing demographics and stagnant policies.

“Power Play: Disruption for Good” was the theme of the 2018 North Carolina Center for Nonprofits conference.

At the NC Center for Nonprofits conference, Vu spoke directly to disruption in the philanthropic space. During his breakout, he introduced us to the notion of community-centric fundraising. He explained that such an approach could move the entire sector closer to fulfilling the visions we craft for the world we want.

Before we dive into the practice of community-centric fundraising, it’s important to take a step back and understand how nonprofits have historically approached raising the monetary resources necessary to carry out their missions. Initially, nonprofits crafted their messaging to be all about how the organization benefited from its supporters (organization-centric fundraising). This approach didn’t connect funders with the work, creating feelings of slight and dismissal (and rightly so!). Then, the sector made a thoughtful shift to sharing with donors how their contributions made a difference and impact. Because of their support, the nonprofit increased programs, expanded services, and served a greater benefit to the community.

What could possibly be the downside of this donor-centric fundraising approach? As a donor to multiple nonprofit organizations (yes, including Me Fine!), I do want to know how my dollars helped. But, I’m keenly aware that my gift alone isn’t what is going to alter the game or create a new playing field. Even if I had several more zeroes rounding out my bank account, I alone cannot change the tides to eliminate the systemic barriers preventing everyone from being able to live a full, enriched life. My resources will be pooled with others for the collective good. So, if it’s not just about the organization, and it’s not just about me, why not share how the broader community is moving the needle together?

Vu challenged those of us in the session to be on the frontlines of disrupting the was we donors and funders. He noted that we can still “be nice, even to ATMs.” It’s not about being nice to donors for the sake of making a second or third ask. It’s about treating donors and funders with dignity and respect. It’s about engaging them as partners. The causes championed by the nonprofit sector cannot be solved in a vacuum. It requires a more holistic, community-centric approach to eliminate social imbalances and inequities. It’s not about our individual mission; it’s about the collective good.

How does community-centric fundraising upend current development norms? Vu and other fundraisers of color crafted 9 Principles of Community-Centric Fundraising to offer a different take from the ingrained donor-centric model. Some of these proposals seem almost counter-intuitive to our professional training and expectations. Wait, sometimes I should advocate funding opportunities of other nonprofits or community-based organizations rather than my own? Hold up: I should push back on donors? Why should fundraising work be centered in Race, Equity, and Social Justice? This organization’s work has nothing to do with that type of work!

The truth is that all nonprofit work connects back to Race, Equity, and Social Justice. Intentional and unintentional decisions are what has led to holes that nonprofits seek to fill and resurface. Throughout the history of the United States, individuals in power used race as a proxy to determine who would benefit and who would be left out. Yes, other identifiers, including gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language, citizen status, and others have also been used. However, across the board, race remains the number one determinant in a person’s outcome in America 2018, whether we’re talking about wealth and income; educational attainment; housing; jobs/employment; or access to healthcare.

In the vein of equity, we as nonprofit professionals have the opportunity to “see and treat one another not as competitors (for the most part), but as critical partners with the common mission of strengthening the community.” We can operate from the mindset of abundance, not of scarcity. This is far more than a mere one-time collaboration. This is an intentional commitment to lift up each other each and every day; to recognize and see ourselves as individual parts of a broader machine designed to create better outcomes across the board.

The ethos of the Me Fine Foundation mirrors this holistic approach. When it comes to serving critically ill children and families, there have to be supports available in the short and long-term. Providing assistance for pressing financial matters, whether housing payments, utility bills, gas, groceries, parking expenses, are ways to meet families’ needs in the short-term. This financial support could also take on a more long-term view; however, the emotional and pyschosocial support programs we fund in our partner hospitals speaks to this investment more strongly.

But, it’s not just Me Fine donors who try to help families navigating illness. The Ronald McDonald House of Durham & Wake and in Chapel Hill; SECU Family House; Love Is Bald; Alex’s Lemonade Stand; Be Loud Sophie; Fight Like Paxton; Headbands of Hope’ Just tRYAN It; Meg’s Smile; Zach’s Toy Chest; Super Cooper’s Little Red Wagon; Arts For Life; The Monday Life.

Shall I go on?

Additionally, countless other nonprofits touch on issues that directly impact the lives of families we support. Access to affordable housing; workers’ rights; children’s healthcare; environmental justice; public transportation; predatory lending. These intersect with our work daily. Under the principles of community-centric fundraising, we at Me Fine need to be lifting up the leaders and organizations who focus on these efforts. We want to empower and educate our donors to see the connections across multiple causes.

In reflection of what I took away from this session and shift in thinking, I also want us at Me Fine to do a better job in recognizing and appreciating the value of people’s time. Since its inception in 2004, Me Fine has relied heavily on the kindness of family members, friends, and neighbors to drum up the resources for families. The organization of today has more infrastructure than it did back then; but, the willingness of individuals to lend their expertise, open their networks, or roll up their sleeves to assist continues. Time is a finite resource, and whether a person is a volunteer or paid staff, their time matters.

I’m excited to see how we at Me Fine can incorporate community-centric fundraising into how we operate moving forward. All of us benefit from strong, resilient communities. Expect to hear more from us on how you are helping to build and shape those communities as well as learn about other organizations who are doing the same.

Written by Katie Todd, Development Director with the Me Fine Foundation.