Ever since Star Trek debuted in the mid-1960s, each successive TV or movie installment–and there have been a lot of them–has followed pretty much the same plot. Take a swashbuckling (or perhaps erudite) space captain, and put him (or her) in charge of an impossibly well-staffed and tricked out starship. The mission from that point is vaguely scientific and humanitarian: to boldly bop around that galaxy and, you know, learn stuff.
Vu Le likes that premise–especially the underlying logic for how it’s all made possible: Starfleet, a massive fictitious space agency, generally provides funding and works out the logistics of assembling crews and outfitting vessels for interstellar travel.
But Le is more than just some Trekkie. He’s the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a philanthropic capacity-builder for nonprofit organizations led by and serving communities of color around the Seattle area. He also runs the popular nonprofit sector commentary site Nonprofit AF. For him, Star Trek isn’t just an entertainment franchise. It’s a model for how earthly nonprofits might coordinate to accomplish more together.
After all, many groups suffer under the oppressive nature of the overhead myth–a belief among donors that those organizations that put very little into operational costs are somehow more efficient. As a result, many receive restricted grant funding and, at grassroots level especially, just don’t have the budget to hire the sort of accounting, human resources, and other specialized staff that any business-related organization requires.
“The nonprofit sector as it exists can be compared to Star Trek, but without many Starfleet-like organizations to coordinate everyone,” Le wrote in a column published in late 2017 in Nonprofit Quarterly. Still, many groups share the same mission–in show parlance, a “Prime Directive”–to, say, advance social justice work. Le’s solution: It’s time to build so-called Community Alliance model that shares back-end support services such financial management and human resources, fundraising duties, and helps related groups work in tandem to make even more progress.
It might appear that Le was inspired to share his idea because of yet another television spin-off, Star Trek: Discovery, which debuted last fall on CBS. In truth, though, he’s been testing it already. Part of RVC’s mission has always been to train and match new fellows with small and mid-size community groups for two years, during which they can improve their effectiveness and impact.
In January 2017, RVC began piloting a centralized back-office program that offers financial management, human resources, payroll and legal services for a small fee based on a percentage of the group’s overall expenses. (The minimum cost is $1,200 per year.)
As part of that effort, RVC has also hired an in-house nonprofit counselor and capacity-building coach, who works among groups to assist with different in-house priorities, be it boosting fundraising, better strategic planning, or board development. Sometimes that means connecting one group to other field experts or organizations that can also lend a hand. “We do so in a way that centers relationships and trust-building, ensuring that we are responding to their needs and identified priorities, not forcing our own views on them,” adds Ananda Valenzuela, RVC’s managing director in an email to Fast Company.
That’s important because many groups realize they may have problems internally, but can afford to hire the talent necessary to address each and every issue. When it comes time to award grants, many funders then skip over them for not playing the game right. “[These groups] get punished for not knowing these things,” Le says.
In Le’s opinion, other industry solutions, like philanthropic programs to teach current executives many of these skills through boot camps, are doomed to fail because the overworked trainees return without the time to practice or actually deploy the skills they’ve learned. Funders seem more willing to pay small sums to these internal trainings than allow groups to outsource the operations to an outside professional, or pay the equivalent of several years of training budgets up front, so that a nonprofit can actually hire the associated staff necessary to take on more work.
“The capacity building model has been built on a very flawed philosophy, which is basically let’s teach these people how to fish, and let’s give them very tiny amounts of money to actually do it,” he says.
At the same time, many groups waste energy applying for tricky, time-consuming and low-value grants. Le, along with many other industry experts worked together on an effort to curtail that. It’s called Grant Advisor, a Yelp-like service that reviews how easy it is to work with funders, and hopefully helps them revise bad processes. Others involved include California Association of Nonprofits, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, and GreatNonprofits, a nonprofit review service developer. RVC executives are exploring the concept of acting sort of like a funding intermediary; in the future, the group might be interested in securing large general operating funds that could be equitably distributed to partner organizations.
So far, five Seattle-area organizations have joined RVC’s Starfleet-like effort, taking advantage of the operations support program. A total of 15 currently employ fellows or take advantage of other services the group provides. Funders including the Gates Foundation, City of Seattle, Seattle Foundation, and Boeing, among others have bought into the concept. In 2017, RVC doubled its annual budget to about $1.2 million annually in order to offer more broad support.
One of the early nonprofits to take advantage of these services is Families of Color Seattle. The group, which started in 2013, hopes to “build a strong community by supporting families of color through parenting programs, resource sharing and fostering meaningful connections,” says founder and executive director Amy Pak in an email to Fast Company.
At first, FOCS had no full-time staff and Pak was severely underpaid for her efforts. In 2015 the group joined RVC’s fellowship program and later adopted the community alliance model to outsource accounting, human resources, and legal tasks while gaining tutelage in how to win grants.
The collaboration is proving successful. FCOS recently earned a three-year $300,000 grant that enables it to pay four full-time employees and substantially grow its aid work. “[This] has been life-saving for me as a newer Executive Director, mother of two children, and a thought leader that is more of a visionary than a budget numbers manager,” Pak adds. Over the last several years, the group has also increased its board size. It currently employs over 25 parents as part-time teaching assistants and serves over 2000 families in the King County, Washington, region.
As Le noted in his Nonprofit Quarterly column, the idea of nonprofits alliances isn’t necessarily new. Other groups like Boston-based TSNE MissionWorks, the philanthropy accelerators like Los Angeles-based Community Partners and Tides, which works globally, all have their own variations, some of which includes financially sponsoring promising ideas and shared workspaces.
RVC plans to stay local but prove the Community Alliance model is worth transporting elsewhere. “[W]e believe communities are best served by leaders from within their own communities, but hope to serve as a model that others can learn from and would love to support others in developing similar efforts,” adds Valenzuela, the managing director at RVC.
Not everything from Starfleet would be applicable—Le’s not into the militaristic aspect, for instance. And no one would probably want matching colorful uniforms. Instead, RVC is operating way off camera. “If we do our job, then the organizations are successful,” he says. “Families of Color would be like the Enterprise, out there doing good work, instead of worrying about all these other things, which are important, but we can handle a lot of that for them.”