Baked Goods and the Nonprofit World - A Loving Review of Vu Le, He Who Hath Balls

Hi loves! Sarai here - this is the first of what I hope to be MANY from our newest Lean Nonprofit Genius and all-around champ, Jerrica Becken. What’s that, Jerrica? You’re taking a hard pass on blogging forever instead of me? Dang it. Oh well - I’ll take what I can get, because this is pure gold. I think you, reader of my heart, will love it too. Enjoy!

Without further ado, I present to you, Jerrica:

Good morrow fellow nonprofit aficionados! You don’t know me, but I am one of the newest additions to Lean Nonprofit and am excited to be part of this rad organization. Pleased to meet you. My name is Jerrica and I have a funny feeling that we’re going to be friends.

Last week I had the great pleasure of accompanying Sarai to the 2016 Young Nonprofit Professionals Network National Conference in Portland #YNPN16 (phew), where she dropped some mad nonprofit knowledge and shared the up-and-coming awesomeness from Lean Nonprofit. The YNPN conference (it’s called Activate! Summit, we’re going to go with this since it rolls of the tongue a little easier) features nonprofit professionals from all over the country who have come to our neck of the woods to share their infinite wisdom on topics ranging from the “Dynamics of Oppression” and “Opening the Door to Equity” to “Building a Gratitude Strategy” and “Fail[ing] Forward”. But what I want to talk about today is the keynote speaker, who wholly and completely rocked my world. I might never be the same.

His name: Vu Le. His game: Executive Director of Rainer Valley Corps and writer behind He also has a thing about unicorns. His newest fan: me.  

Vu was the keynote speaker at Activate! and discussed a topic which affects us all…”What the Bleep is Social Good?” His speech addressed several myths that we face in the nonprofit sector including the overhead myth (which is a personal thorn in my side) and the sustainability myth, in addition to how we, as professionals in this sector, are expected to change the world and purvey “social good” all while running on full steam, trying the latest groveling techniques out on donors to get at the limited resources available for our cause, and accepting less than market value for our work.  

The thing I liked best about Vu was his incredible ability to take convoluted topics that are often next to impossible to explain to donors or stakeholders, and turn them into relatable and repeatable real-world analogies. The second best thing I liked about him was his slide presentation, which was heavy on pictures of cute baby animals. But I digress. During this metaphor madness sprinkled with photos of tiny hedgehogs and bunnies, Vu broke down the two myths about the nonprofit sector that often stump us as we try to gain support for anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The Overhead Myth…dun dun duuuuuuh! I imagine you’re pretty familiar with this one as websites like Guidestar and Charity Navigator have been around foreva, and the criticism of overhead as an indicator of organizational success isn't exactly new. But sometimes trying to explain to a potential supporter that the ability to turn your lights on and off is essential to you functioning as a viable nonprofit and is not an indicator of your fiscal responsibility and/or capacity to uphold your mission without bursting in flames out of pure frustration can be tough. Enter Vu and his gluten-free veterans in need of a cake.

So bear with me. Let's pretend you're a bakery owner in our fair city of Eugene. Which obviously means you provide gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, vegetarian products. Vegan upon request. Obviously. Someone comes to you with a cake order for gluten-free veterans. And you, being your kind-hearted, spread-the-social-good self, obligingly agree. But (and this is a big ol' "but") the customer only wants to pay for 1 cup of sugar, half a stick of vegan butter and a dash of salt. Which means you need to find four or five more people to cover the rest of the cost of the cake. problem.  

Oh but there's more! The customer doesn't like chocolate – say goodbye to your Death By Chocolate gluten-free go-to. And they only support nut-based dairy alternatives, so no soy milk for you or anyone else who wants to participate in the cake-sharing. Also, those eggs better be from cage-free, vegetarian-fed chickens. Are you starting to catch the drift?

So after you've found four to five other people to pay for the cage-free eggs, the almond milk, the buckwheat flour, the vanilla (organic please) and all the other necessities for a badass cake worthy of these veterans, you present the final product to the customer...who claims that it's tasteless and too dense. Why? Oh probably because you had a thousand other demands to meet from the four other customers paying for 20% of the cake.  

In order to create a delicious cake masterpiece (or a fantastic new program at your nonprofit) you need all the ingredients. And a donor who is willing to pay for everything but overhead is like a bakery customer who is willing to pay for a whole cake...minus the eggs. Overhead myth meet your coup de gras.  

Next the sustainability myth. Say that same customer at that same gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, vegetarian bakery is only willing to buy a cake for veterans if you can prove, right then and there, that you will still be in business in 5 years when they want to buy another cake...I mean...really?

Vu's main point from these appetite-inducing analogies is that we can't keep expecting the nonprofit sector to perform phenomenal tasks and produce change if we repeatedly ask them to do it with their hands tied behind their backs while balancing on a stability let's just give them the dough (see what I did there, he he) and let them work their magic.

Now I'm not advocating for being fiscally irresponsible nor am I saying that nonprofits shouldn't be transparent. What I am saying is we can't limit our funding of a program or project to the elements we think are doing the most good (the programming or the outreach) while refusing to pay for the infrastructure that supports them (the people, the facility, the *ahem* overhead). Nor should we expect them to have every single detail of how that program or project will produce outcomes over the next 5 years figured out. I mean, is that really reasonable.  

In summary, Vu was basically the coolest human ever and I want to be his best friend. He had many wise things to say about how we need to change in our sector if we're going to share the social goodness. This blog only cover one or two of them but I hope to share more with you soon. However, the main takeaway and what I urge you to consider is how you can either talk about overhead (insert baked goods here) or how you think about it. This is a conversation that we're still having...but should it be? I'm gonna say hell to the no.

Sarai JohnsonComment