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Politics & Current Affairs

Harmful Nonprofits Thrive With “Trickle-Down Community Engagement”

The nonprofit sector is unfairly geared toward large, mainstream organizations that take in the most money but don’t adequately engage with the people most affected by a problem.

Vu Le, Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps and a self-proclaimed nonprofit humor writer, has a great piece up on his blog all about a concept he calls “Trickle-Down Community Engagement” (TDCE). What, pray tell, does he mean by that? 

“This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.”

As someone who has worked extensively with/for nonprofits, Le’s article hits at the heartstrings. He describes symptoms of TDCE: powerful organizations not led by people they proclaim to support, muddled goals that don’t get accomplished, and “outreach” being defined as getting local community leaders to contribute for free.

There are many reasons why TDCE happens. Le points to how the nonprofit sector is unfairly geared toward large, mainstream organizations — umbrella organizations, most often. These groups take advantage of economies of scale to maintain relationships with funders. They also too often fail to make an impact on the community level or work counterproductive to their stated goals. Their leaders — who are more often than not making an absolute killing — tend to dedicate themselves to accomplishing “sexy short-term goals” rather than striving for lasting positive effects.

Facing a preponderance of evidence that the American nonprofit industrial complex is broken, Le remains optimistic that things can change for the better. He stresses the importance of funders and donors to vet the institutions they invest in. If your goal is to get a building wing named after you, keep giving to those top-heavy juggernauts. If you want your money to actually reach the artists, researchers, homeless people, etc., perhaps you should consider seeking out organizations who may not have the resources to seek you out. This runs contrary to the TDCE model that employs people more intent to take your money than properly redistribute it. Of course, there’s also the opportunity for inefficient or unethical mainstream organizations to reform themselves. Let’s just say Le is more of an optimist on that matter than I am.

Finally, Le also has advice for organizations led by marginalized communities:

“Learn when to say yes and when to say no. I’ve seen too many small nonprofits agree to do outreach, to be partners, to even run programs for tiny amounts of funding. I’ve done it myself. My last organization, when it was much smaller, partnered with a bigger org who could not reach students of color. They asked us to organize a 2-hour workshop for over 100 diverse kids each month for a year. You know how much we got to do that? $2500 total, and we had to itemize and have receipts for every pencil we bought! The big organization who ‘partnered’ with us got all the credit, of course… It just perpetuates a terrible and ineffective system that continues to leave our communities behind. Learn to say no, to give feedback firmly, and to build strategic relationships.”

It’s a terrific article filled with smart insights, big ideas for change, and even a little hope. Read it (I’ve linked it again below) and let us know what you think.

Read more at Nonprofit with Balls

Photo credit: Melinda Gates (via Twitter)


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