For the APAP conference this past weekend, one of the primary plenaries was “A Brutally Honest Conversation about Nonprofit, For-Profits, Government, Philanthropy, and the Arts.” (panel discussion starts about 14 min in) If you are familiar with Non Profit AF blogger Vu Le, you won’t be surprised to learn he was one of the panelists since this is ground he has staked out for years. Joining him was Producer, Artist, Strategist Sharifa Johka, and Keri Mesropov, Chief Talent Officer at TRG Arts.
The conversation started right in on issues of burn out and bad funding practices. Le said arts people are so kind and nice, they can tend to be taken advantage of, but also that when you are burnt out even if you are the most well-intentioned, you can end up perpetuating many of the injustices you hope to eliminate in the world. Le warned the audience there might be difficult language and some cussing and then the panel went straight to a survey asking attendees “What are you F***ing Tired Of?” The word cloud that was generated was enormous.
Le also brought up the problematic choices funders make about what they will support. He said non-profits have been in this situation for so long there is a degree of learned helplessness. He grumbles at foundations that say they need to reserve funding for a rainy day and asks how hard it needs to rain if the latest pandemic didn’t qualify? At one point a gentleman got up and talked about artists starting donor advised funds (DAF) so that they could make the funding decisions. Le commented that while DAFs can be a viable tool, the way the laws governing them are structured is ripe for abuse.
Lest you think from the title of the session that it was full of gripes and complaints, there was that but both panelists and audience members talked about how they were energized by the discussion and the decisions non-profits made during Covid. Le used the examples of non-profit orgs in Seattle that refused grants and asked funders to give it to colleague organizations that needed it more. Johka referenced the “We See You White American Theater” and the conversations and changes that resulted from that challenge to entrenched practices. Even as people complained and stated “we need to stop that shit,” there was a sense that conditions existed where that could realistically happen.
Of course, Vu Le brings a lot of humor to topics in need of serious consideration. Commenters picked up on that energy. One gentleman complained that black and brown people had to dramatize their trauma to be considered relevant whereas “non-black and brown folks can say I just wanna do a work about sounds and color, and its the most brilliant thing.”
Panelists advocated for more cooperative and collective action for non-profits to get what they need to operate. Le cited a group of 180 organizations in WA state got together and told funders they needed to double their funding and make multi-year, general operating grants. He said about a dozen foundations signed the pledge to do so.
I encourage people to watch the video of the session if you have a few moments: