Meet the foundations we that we are honoring in Los Angeles, CA at 2023 NCRP Impact Awards
“PABLO EISENBERG MEMORIAL PRIZE” FOR PHILANTHROPY CRITICISM:
Vu Le (NonProfit AF)
An Important Voice in this Hour for Philanthropy
With NCRP’s inaugural “Pablo Eisenberg Memorial Prize” for Philanthropy Criticism, we are honored to select NonProfit AF’s Vu Le. An accomplished writer, speaker, and past nonprofit executive director, Vu has become a prominent figure in and critic of the philanthropic sector.
His widely recognized blog, Nonprofit AF is a great place to start anyone’s Tuesday morning, not just for those new to the sector. Each blog takes on the establishment with so much wit and insight, you’d think he’d asked Chat GPT the question “How can the partnerships between funders and nonprofits mirror black cat and golden retriever best friend energy?”
Yet Vu Le’s entries just aren’t the musings of some AI-influenced algorithm but borne of a life in the trenches of the non-profit industrial complex. Title-wise, he is the former Executive Director of both the Vietnamese Friendship Association and RVC, a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities. That means at least two seven-year cycles of standing with and in-between staff, boards, funders and communities at the pay scales of service, not profit.
To tons of followers and admirers in the nonprofit and fundraising world, Vu is simply a dynamic voice who holds philanthropy accountable, challenging long-held narratives about wealth and puts up a mirror to the sector’s intentions, actions and funding. His writing courageously communicates what so many think and know about the sector, but who may not have the right words or platform to express them.
He is, in fact, more than up to the challenge of carrying on the legacy of philanthropic criticism and speaking truth to power like former NCRP Board Chair and sector trailblazer, Pablo Eisenberg.
Advocate for change, expert baby animal pic chooser, pro hummus eater, and lover of unicorns
At a time when many fear that any whiff of criticism might scare off the wealthy from moral and financial obligations to society, Vu Le offers boldly unsnobbish, humorous, and refreshingly accessible contributions and brings attention to the systemic issues that often plague the world of charitable giving.
His relentless commitment to equity and justice consistently emphasizes the importance of addressing systemic inequalities in the distribution of resources.
Yes, one does wonder where his knack for humor originated. Was it natural or from some traumatic 990 experience that he could only face with a joke and skip down some long South Bronx staircase?
No, what is most impressive is the clear line he utilizes to connect his humor with real dirty truths about philanthropy’s status quo. It jumps at you as he is critiquing a list of “25 Fundraising Experts You Should Follow” by pointing out how they are failing to take consideration of the demographics or psychographics of these so-called experts. And its clearly obvious when he asks us to see philanthropic pluralism as an equivalent to a philanthropic “All Lives Matter” statement.
“The problem,” he writes, “is that philanthropy is not some sort of sport or brand of ice cream, where it doesn’t matter if you root for the Patriots or the Seahawks, or if you choose mint chocolate chip or rocky road. Philanthropy’s actions often mean life or death.”
Let that simply sink in – especially if you are not moved to action.
More Than a Punchline
At the heart of lots of Vu’s work is his dedication to amplifying the voices of underrepresented communities. He has consistently advocated for increased representation and decision-making power for those directly affected by the issues philanthropic organizations aim to address.
Vu’s writings and advocacy have highlighted the importance of engaging with marginalized communities in a meaningful and respectful manner. He has challenged the prevalent practice of tokenism in nonprofit workplaces. advocated for greater spending flexibility by shifting to more unrestricted funding, and challenged the very notion of grant opportunities with budget thresholds.
In a philanthropic landscape that has historically favored the wealthy and maintained power imbalances, Vu’s critiques challenge the status quo, forcing many, for at least a moment or two, to consider how true impact may require a more equitable and community-driven approach.
Cynics would find it easy to think of Vu as a flash in the pan, a provocateur that pushes the envelope of a letter that doesn’t have a proper stamp. However, he is more than just here to break up unrecyclable Styrofoam and sprinkle it all over everyone’s philanthropic parade. He offers incredible insightful solutions to funding issues, including lifting how outcome-oriented funding and data-driven decision-making can help grantmakers reevaluate their strategies and maximize their impact on the communities they care so deeply about. His writings, podcasts, and other forms of engagement point to examples of how more collaborative and less hierarchical efforts are key to problem-solving and enabling philanthropic organizations to work together more effectively to address pressing social issues. He provides validation and inspiration to those looking to actively seek input from local leaders closest to the challenges we are all looking to solve without being called crazy, or even worse, idealistically ineffective.
All the while, Vu remains hopeful of the possibilities for genuine partnerships between funders and grantees.
“A black dog and an orange striped cat nuzzling one another. Or the cat just slammed into the dog, I’m not really sure. Let’s assume they’re friends, because that would make this image a lot more relevant for this post, because if dogs and cats can be friends, then maybe funders and nonprofits can be more effective partners.”
He caps this off with one seemingly simple request,
“Suspicion-based philanthropy is over. Trust-based philanthropy needs to be the default model in our sector. People’s lives and well-being depend on it.”
How he manages to factor in both the silly and the salient is a wonder to many a staff, including those here at NCRP.
A Movie in the Works?
Upon reviewing Nonprofit AF’s About Section, Vu keeps things humble. He says he’s passionate about changing the world. He blames a low LSAT score on his reason for entering the nonprofit world. He states that there is so much humor in this world, so he wanted to point it out.
However, what’s clear to us at NCRP is how much of Vu’s contributions to Philanthropy Criticism are both timely and invaluable. His relentless commitment to equity and justice, his dedication to amplifying underrepresented voices, and his advocacy for more effective giving have reshaped the way we think about philanthropy. In honoring Vu Le with an award for Philanthropy Criticism, we acknowledge not only his significant achievements but also his vision for a more equitable and impactful philanthropic sector.
It is fitting then that Vu Lee has received the inaugural “Pablo Eisenberg Memorial Prize.” As NCRP President and CEO Aaron Dorfman said of Eisenberg following his passing late last year “[Pablo] especially never lost his focus on low-income people, continually and intentionally centering his efforts with communities that the sector’s actions often marginalized. He was not afraid to shake things up and challenge powerful leaders, organizations, and friends when he thought they could be more and do more. Including NCRP.”
Through his work, Vu has pushed philanthropy to be more responsive, inclusive, and accountable. He has challenged philanthropic institutions to confront their biases, reevaluate their practices, and strive for greater impact. In doing so, he has inspired a new generation of organizers, advocates, and philanthropists to envision a more just and equitable world.
He is not naïve about the work it takes to unlearn and change habits. But his charm and humor remind us of the immense possibilities that exist to get it right.
“Be ok with making mistakes and not getting everything right the first time. The work of equity is ongoing and iterative.”