Are You or Your Nonprofit or Foundation Being an Askhole?

ACE

You may have read my previous article about Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE) ,which is a frustrating phenomenon that each year causes many executive directors (EDs) of grassroot organizations to daydream about abandoning civilization to live with adorable woodland critters, foraging for grubs and berries. (Note to self: Stop writing blog after watching Disney movies with toddler). Today, I want to touch base on a related phenomenon called Askhole Community Engagement (ACE). TDCE and ACE are connected, like two peas in a dysfunctional pod.

So what’s an askhole? Here are some Urban Dictionary definitions. Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.

In the nonprofit field, just like anywhere else, we have a lot of askholes. At the individual level, it could be coworkers or supervisors who ask you for feedback on their performance or quality of work, and then basically disregard everything you say. Or someone who recruits you to join a committee and then scoff at your brilliant suggestions. If you are not going to take my ideas seriously, annual dinner decoration committee, then stop asking me! People would love glowsticks and a fog machine at our annual fundraising dinner!

Askholism is very annoying, but at the community level, it is dangerous. Now that diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency are as popular as quinoa and coconut water, we have a lot of “Let’s ask the communities of color for their input on stuff!” “Yeah, it’ll make them feel important that we’re listening to them!” If I get invited to give my opinion on one more thing that I know from experience is going to go nowhere, I am going to lose it. And by “lose it,” I mean “drink at work.”

All right, listen, it’s very sweet, but we communities of color are getting tired of being “listened” to:

First, it’s insulting to assume we haven’t already done our own “listening.” A year ago, I was asked to join a committee to figure out an effective information delivery system to be implemented among the Vietnamese community during weather and other emergencies. The organization got a grant and wanted to do some focus groups, surveys, and interviews. Problem was, my previous organization three years ago had already done a lot of that research and came up with this beautiful report. They could have called us up before writing this grant, got that information, and focused the grant instead on actually piloting a communication system, which would be a much better use of funding and would waste fewer people’s time. Save yourself some time: check to see if the communities you want to listen to haven’t already listened to themselves.

People are sick of all listening and no action. “Listening” is not an outcome. It is a required component, the first step, to effectively achieving outcomes. And yet, irritatingly, the session itself is touted as some amazing accomplishment. A shiny report or plan may come out, with lots of pictures of the diversity of the attendees present. Then everyone feels good and goes get some organic ice cream. These reports and plans are then usually placed on a shelf, sad and lonely, until people have forgotten about them, and then they rally to do another listening or planning session, which was the original plot for the movie Groundhog Day.

It raises false hopes and makes people jaded. These sessions are often high energy and very kumbaya. They give people a sense that their voices really do matter, that things will change. When there is no follow-through, it is very annoying and disappointing. I’ve seen passionate community members leave inspired after a summit or community forum, only to become jaded later when they see little follow up. Worse than doing nothing is raising people’s hopes and then doing nothing. And we community organizers who bring people to these events bear the wrath of our communities when these things end up being pointless.

Only ideas that organizers and funders agree with are implemented. If you’re just going to cherry pick the ideas that align with your organization or foundation’s priorities, then stop wasting people’s time. If you just need community support for a particular priority that is unchangeable, just be transparent. Don’t give people false hopes when you have no intentions of changing your agenda.

We’ve been giving the same answers for, like, forever. Communities have been asking for these things for years: General operating support, funds for direct service, catalytic grants and not just tiny amounts, funding for grassroot efforts and not just bigger organizations or collective impact efforts, multi-year funding, full-time staffing, capacity building support, leadership support, closer and more equal partnerships with funders, streamlined grantmaking and reporting processes, etc. No matter what topic you plan to address—the environment, homelessness, mental health, economic disparities, education, or whatever—communities will always need these above things in order to carry out whatever priorities are identified at these listening sessions.

Community Engagement can be powerful when the right people—the communities most affected—are doing it, and it is done right and has support. For example, I learned of a community engagement effort rallying Latino parents around education. Parents of a particular low-income school were asked what their top priorities were, and their answer was school uniforms. This is a public school, so the concept of school uniforms was interesting, but that’s what the parents wanted. The school and the District listened and negotiated. Now, all the kids at that school wore uniforms. It was awesome. To come together, to have your voices heard, to have your suggestions implemented—what something like that does for a community’s morale cannot be overstated. They felt hope and they wanted to work harder and to be more engaged civically.

So, in summary, if you or your org or foundation do listening sessions or community forums or summits or whatever, raise people’s hopes, then don’t follow through, or only follow through on the crap you like, you’re an askhole. Luckily, it’s preventable and treatable. Here are some recommendations:

First, admit to times when you and your team have acted like askholes. The first step to not being an askhole is to admit that we are capable of being an askhole (This should be on a t-shirt somewhere). Don’t feel ashamed. We’ve all done it. I’ve been an askhole on many occasions, both personally and professionally. It’s important for us all to reflect on listening processes in the past and analyze where we screwed up. Did we include the right people? Did we follow through? Vow to not make the same mistakes.

Second, before launching some listening forum, check around to see what work has already been done. You may think it’s brilliant to get diverse people to come together to determine a “policy agenda” or “community priorities” or something, but chances are, they’ve already done that, and the plan is just sitting on some shelf waiting for funding. If a plan exists, fund the implementation of that plan instead of another exhausting input process.

Third, be where people are; attend existing community processes. Communities by their nature usually already have gatherings where they discuss concerns and solutions. And most of the time, it is like pulling teeth to drag funders and leaders of large organizations to attend them. It’s frustrating when you don’t attend when people ask you to come to their things, and then you turn around and expect people to show up when you call. Take time to build those relationships.

Fourth, if you insist on doing a listening process, get your org or foundation mentally ready and committed to trust the community’s feedback and act on it. If you are not willing to change your priorities or strategies based on what you hear, there is no point wasting your time or the community’s time. Be prepared to hear stuff you may not want to hear and do stuff you may not want to do. Within reason, of course.

Fifth, get your org or foundation committed to providing funding to act on the feedback you receive. Don’t raise people’s hope if you have no funding set aside and don’t plan to work on securing funding. Funding is what is required to implement ideas, and if there’s no plan to secure support somehow, or at least the commitment to searching for it, again, don’t waste everyone’s time.

With that, I’m going to go research fog machines. I don’t care what the decoration committee says, I’m the ED and I want a thick layer of fog on the ground at my next annual fundraising dinner. And, I want some woodland critters.

Are You or Your Org Guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement

A while ago, I was talking to a friend, another Executive Director, and he said, “Have you noticed that everyone is getting paid to engage us communities of color except us communities of color?” Sigh. Yes, I have noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a term to describe it. Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). 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.

In Seattle, if you’re a person of color and you walk down a dark alley late at night and you feel like you’re being followed, it’s probably someone trying to do some community engagement.

“Psst…hey buddy—Go Hawks!—you want to attend a summit? It’s about economic inequity. We need your voice.” “Daddy, I’m scared!” “Stay calm, Timmy; don’t look him in the eye.” “Come on, help a guy out! Here, you each get some compostable sticky dots to vote on our top three priorities! You can vote on different priorities, or, if you like, you put more than one dot on—” “Run, Timmy!”

This is why you should never take your kid down a dark alley in Seattle.

Needs Assessment, Ownership and Community Engagement

There are several reasons why TDCE happens. First, the nonprofit sector has all sorts of unwritten rules designed to be successfully navigated only by mainstream organizations (See “The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind.”) Second, 90% of funding in the nonprofit world is relationship-based, which screws over marginalized communities, who have much fewer relationships with funders and decision-makers. Third, due to existing definitions, many organizations led by marginalized groups “don’t have the capacity.” They’re “small and disorganized,” they are “not ready to be leaders in these efforts.” Fourth, community engagement has been seen as the icing on the cake, and not an essential ingredient, so it is always last to be considered. Fifth, many funders and decision-makers focus on sexy short-term gains, not effective long-term investments.

Look, I’m not saying anyone is intentionally trying to discriminate against certain communities. Everyone is well-intentioned. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency have risen to the front of people’s minds. Organizations are scrambling to talk about these issues, to diversify their board, to get community input. That is all great and all, but it has only been leading to marginalized communities being irritated and frustrated. Every single week, we leaders of color get asked to provide input, to join an advisory committee, attend a summit, to fill out a survey. Because of this well-intentioned mandate to engage with communities, we get bombarded with requests to do stuff for free.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is pretty dangerous, for several reasons. When people who are most affected by issues are not funded and trusted to lead the efforts to address them:

It perpetuates the Capacity Paradox. The Capacity Paradox is when an organization cannot get significant funding because it has limited capacity, so it cannot develop its capacity, which leads it to not being able to get significant funding, which means it can’t develop its capacity. This greatly affects organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities. And then they can’t be as involved, which leads to ineffective efforts to tackle issues. (See “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift.”)

It’s annoying as hell. In every single issue, I keep seeing larger, well-connected organizations getting significant funding but are not effective at engagement. So they pester us smaller ethnic-led orgs to help. I was asked by a collective impact backbone org to be involved with planning a summit to engage communities of color. I advised them not to do it, and told them that I’ve been to far too many summits that suck (See: “Community Engagement 101: Why most summits suck.”) Next thing I knew, they organized the summit anyway, asked my organization to help with outreach, and asked me personally to translate their outreach material into Vietnamese! All for free, of course! (“Run, Timmy!!”)

It’s intrinsically wrong. We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting. Or a bunch of idiots who don’t know anything about science leading a committee on climate change and asking scientists to come testify about global warming. These scenarios are ridiculous, which is why they happen in Congress.

Most importantly, it doesn’t work and is even counterproductive. If TDCE actually works, then we’d have little to argue about. But it does not. Well-intentioned but useless and sometimes even harmful stuff get voted on and implemented. For example, at a meeting I was invited to someone said, “We need to put 100% of funding into early learning instead of splitting it among early learning and youth development” and I had to remind them that “Many immigrant and refugee kids get here when they’re older than 5, so they’d be screwed if you only invest in early learning. We need to support the entire continuum of kids’ development.” (See “Youth Development, why it is just as important as early learning“) Unfortunately, by the time a mainstream organization finally gets to that community feedback forum or summit to get feedback on their well-intentioned but crappy plan or policy, it is too late.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement sucks and is insulting. The sector needs to stop only supporting major organizations and hope that magically the people disproportionately affected whom we don’t fund will join in. Or at the very least, we should stop whining about it when they don’t. We organizations led by marginalized communities are tired and irritated at excuses like “We can’t invest in you guys because you’re too small,” coupled with the constant requests for us to be involved. Don’t just give three drops of water to your rainbow carrots, wonder why they aren’t growing, and then whine about the lack of color in your salad.

As I said, everyone is well-intentioned. But Trickle-Down Community Engagement is harmful, and we need to all be aware of it and put a stop to it:

Funders: Review your investments for every priority. Are the issues you are trying to address disproportionately affecting some groups? Are those groups getting equitably funded and supported or are you just giving them token funding? Are they leading the effort or just playing bit parts on the side? If you are funding mainstream organizations to address challenges affecting marginalized communities, look at their budget request to see how much of it is to be shared with partner organizations that are led by affected communities. Stop being fooled by well-intentioned mainstream efforts that claim to represent marginalized communities but that are only tokenizing and using them. I’ve seen a well-funded coalition list over 80 diverse organizations as member, but on closer examination, several of these groups aren’t aware that they are members, or they no longer even exist!

Donors: See above paragraph. In addition, know that organizations led by marginalized communities tend to be smaller, so they need your support more. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same relationship with you or the same marketing and development capacity as bigger and better known organizations. Seek them out. Your support matters.

Mainstream organizations: Sorry, it seems like I’ve been beating up on you a lot. That’s not my intentions. You guys do awesome stuff and play critical roles. But review your projects and budgets, and examine your role and the dynamics you are contributing to. Are you building in funding to share with community partners, or are you just asking people to do stuff for free in the name of “community engagement”? Are you siphoning funding to address issues that other nonprofits should be tackling but they don’t yet have the capacity? Are you mentoring smaller nonprofits through strategic partnerships? Are you serving as an advocate for these groups, since you have better relationships with funders?

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. All of us can be so naïve, signing on to coalitions without researching first, lending our names to summits without due diligence, doing outreach and translation for free. 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.

Equity, diversity, inclusion, community engagement, etc. those are all good, but they can also be irritating, misleading, and even harmful if not done right. Trickle-Down Community Engagement is an example of good-intention poorly executed. If we want marginalized communities to be engaged, we need to fund and support them directly to be engaged. Community Engagement cannot be the icing on the chocolate cake of equity and social justice. It is the chocolate!

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