If you're familiar with the website Nonprofit With Balls (a blog by nonprofit Executive Director Vu Le), then you know it's always funny, irreverent, and eclectic. It's also sometimes brilliant, and I think the recent post Hey foundation trustees, come get a beer with us is a great example of all these qualities.
...We nonprofits work with program officers, and despite many of them being really nice and down-to-earth people, the power differential can make them intimidating and scary. Foundation trustees, being even higher up in the chain of command, are terrifying, made even more so because they also have an aura of mysteriousness. This is how we nonprofit professionals imagine a meeting of foundation trustees:
In the darkness of a forest, a group of cloaked figures surround a fire, chanting in unison. The chanting reaches a crescendo, and a hearty cry of “SUSTAINABILITY!” marks the end of the ritual. A lone uncloaked figure approaches the flames. The others turn their gaze toward him, their faces obscured in the darkness. “Brother Timothy, what news from the field?” asks one...
...OK, that may be a slight exaggeration. But honestly, that’s how many of us in the field see foundation trustees: Mysterious figures with really cool cloaks holding secret meetings in the forest at night, probably under a full moon....
...If we want our sector to be more effective in addressing the problems we’re trying to solve, then these power dynamics—between foundation staff and trustees, between nonprofit staff and program officers—have to be better. They current dynamics have perpetuated a highly adversarial system full of suspicion and mistrust among everyone...
...Trustees: Recognize the tremendous amount of power you wield, and how that affects your staff, as well as the entire nonprofit sector. And come get a beer with us nonprofit folks. We rarely see you at conferences or meetings or summits or focus groups, and so we start building this image of you as aloof and mysterious and out of touch with reality, to put it bluntly. But why is there this wall between us? Are we not trying to solve the same issues in society, but we each have different roles to play? Can we just get a beer together and get to know one another without the layers of formality?
I honestly think that we’d get a lot more stuff done for the world if we’d just have a beer together more often... That’s why I’m declaring July 8th, 2016 “Get a Beer and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics” Day. Any combination of nonprofit professionals, program officers, and foundation trustees should use this day to get a beer together. No agenda. Just get a beer. (Or coffee or ice cream, if you don’t drink). First round on me. You can even wear your cloak, if you have one.
Now, here at JFN we're all about making a safe space for funders to networkwith one another. Connecting nonprofits with grantmakers for any reason really isn't what we do. But, speaking only for myself, I think this idea of "Get a Beer and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics Day" is a pretty good one. Wouldn't it improve communication and trust for funders and the professionals from the nonprofits they fund to get to know one another better as people? Wouldn't it be nice on the human level?
One might wish that Vu hadn't chosen a Friday night to declare as the day, but what the heck: who says it has to be beer at a bar? Why not a Shabbat dinner, for Jews who observe? And for those who don't make Shabbat a part of their practice, why not a beer indeed?
Funders: what do you think? Would you consider inviting someone from a grantee organization for beers or Shabbat dinner on July 8th? Let us know if you do it! And tweet about your experience to @jfunders. We want to hear how it goes.
Update: As Vu points out on Twitter, if you start your happy hour early enough, there's no reason to have to choose.
@sethchalmer Seth I think you can get a beer earlier in the day and be available for Shabbat, right?! My happy hour starts at 2pm— Vu (@Nonprofitwballs) June 21, 2016