In Silicon Valley, “unicorns” might refer to billion dollar startups, but on Nonprofit With Balls, a humor site about life in the nonprofit industry, that term refers to something more real, and more heroic: nonprofit workers. “These people are underpaid to work on emotionally challenging issues, and all with crappy chairs that they got off Craigslist,” says site founder Vu Le. “We are like unicorns, imaginary creatures here to make the world better.”
Such quips have made Nonprofit With Balls (site logo: a cartoon unicorn juggling lots of balls, of course) a reality check within the philanthropic field. “We need to own our awesomeness more,” says Le, who speaks at numerous conferences around the country and was named one of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 40 Under 40. “The sector draws lots of humble, compassionate people who are less likely to be assertive about our needs and the restrictions put on us. If we want to be effective, we need to start owning our power to shape policy and the system.” To help with that, he recently started Nonprofit Happy Hour, a private Facebook group that has more than 5,500 members. For executive directors, there’s ED Happy Hour, a monthly meetup in more than a dozen cities including New York, Portland, and Ontario.
Some of the site’s more popular posts point out problems like funders awarding annual instead of multiyear grants. As the site points out, before being acquired by Snapchat, Bitmoji, a service that turns images of people into cartoon strips, received $8 million to perfect their not quite world-changing work. But an after-school program that increases its participation rate won’t necessarily see an increase in funding, which could leave the NPO more strapped. Another problem is when donors earmark how their funds should be spent. Le compares this to how a customer might restrict a baker making a cake, only paying for part of it, then limiting what ingredients can be used, and whether or not the baker can apply money toward electrical costs or oven repairs. Plus, any recipe changes would need to be discussed. “We should be committed to the cake, whether it’s good, whether we can make it serve more people efficiently,” he says.
As a veteran nonprofit director, Le experienced many of these struggles firsthand. He currently leads Rainier Valley Corps, a fellowship program to empower leaders of communities of color within the Seattle area. To that end, the site itself was inspired by an experience he had a few years ago. At the time, he managed a small group that provided services to low-income Vietnamese families. A larger, better-funded group wanted free help with their own outreach program. On Nonprofit With Balls, Le calls moves like this trickle-down community engagement, so he said no. “We don’t have enough time to juggle other people’s balls for them,” he says. The site’s name riffs on how many balls unicorns have to keep in the air, with that double entendre about being, er, assertive.
Other industry hiccups that Le has called out include hiring managers who list salaries as “dependent on experience” when there’s a low and high range they could share. This wastes some applicants’ time and allows employers to lowball already super-low-paid employees. Many funding processes are also overly time-consuming or complicated, excluding folks without the resources to suss things out. At the same time, Le encourages unicorns to riff on their strange work world in fun ways, too. He’s sparked popular hashtags like #NonprofitPickupLines. As he’s put it before: “Your eyes are like a federal grant: I can get lost in them forever.”
Occasionally, Le receives an email from a funder or manager who has taken his advice to heart. But the site’s impact is likely bigger than that. He’s unifying a scattered and generally underappreciated workforce. If you want to draw attention to a cause, you need to humanize it. As his herd grows, Le is doing that with the struggles that nonprofit workers themselves face in daily business. That’s the first step to curing bureaucratic nightmares.
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