Vu Le remembers when he entered the nonprofit world. He had just earned his masters in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, and a reality hit him.
“I could not find a job because I had no experience,” Le said. It’s a familiar story in Washington state, home to roughly 2.5 public charities per 1,000 people.
One option was AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service corps placing young volunteers at nonprofit groups addressing poverty. However, while it offered training, mentorship and a nonprofit network with the VISTA volunteer’s year of service, AmeriCorps’ stipend currently hovers around $11,770 a year, in calibration with the federal poverty line.
“The challenge with that is only the people who have a safety net through their parents at home and with their families can enroll in AmeriCorps VISTA,” Le said.
Meanwhile, foundations and think tanks have also recognized a disparity between nonprofit staff and the people they serve. According to a 2012 National Urban Fellows report, just 8 percent of nonprofit executive directors in the U.S. were people of color. In contrast, nonprofits served communities that are 58 percent people of color, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation survey.
A decade after entering the nonprofit workforce in 2005, Le would find a way to tackle these intertwined issues in Southeast Seattle as executive director of Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), which addresses the lack of diversity in nonprofit leadership, as well as the low pay among young professionals discouraging them to enter the nonprofit sector.
On May 14, RVC — the foundation he built with a coalition of South Seattle-based organizations — awarded more than $208,000 to 10 community organizations based in Rainier Valley, affording them each a fellow of color for a year to learn the nonprofit ropes. Each fellow receives a $20,800 annual salary (nearly $10,000 higher than the AmeriCorps VISTA stipend) and attends monthly trainings incorporating identity, culture and community dynamics into nonprofit practice.
The fellows start their service and training in September. Meanwhile, RVC is busy recruiting applicants for the fellowship before the application deadline on June 15.
RVC grant recipients who will benefit from fellow service include Families of Color Seattle, Filipino Community Center, Got Green?, Rainier Beach Action Coalition and Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. Half of the RVC grantees are East African-led service organizations: East African Community Services, Eritrean Association of Greater Seattle, Ethiopian Community Center, Horn of Africa Services and Somali Community Services of Seattle.
Sahra Farah is one of the founders of Somali Community Services of Seattle (SCSS), established in 1995 and officially incorporated in 1997 to help Somali immigrants and refugees get language help, find jobs and adjust to U.S. life. As SCSS’s director now, Farah hopes that the group’s new fellow will want to stay past their year of service and one day, become a director of the organization.
Her reality right now, though, is stretching limited program capacity to reach an estimated 5,000 people in King County with culturally-based and linguistically appropriate services.
“They need a lot of help, especially if they have a lot of language barriers,” she said.
SCSS employs two full-time staff, including Farah, and enlists six core volunteers to assist with a range of programs — from counseling and housing assistance, to job search help and computer classes, to elder nutrition programs, after-school tutoring for youth and more.
Though most of their services reach Somali immigrant families within King County, Farah had someone from Spokane pop into their headquarters the other night, and as I am speaking to her on the phone, she mentions that “now, we have a lady who came in [to ask] how to open the computer.”
With her hands full, Farah said five to eight employees staffing SCSS would be ideal, but fundraising for more staff capacity has always been a challenge.
“What we need is help to support us in how to do funding.”
Le hears her. It’s a dilemma familiar to him.
After acquiring his master’s degree, he enrolled in an AmeriCorps-funded program through the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies (NAVASA). Called Dan Than Corps (translation: “Be the change”), the program developed nonprofit leaders and placed them at community-based organizations throughout the country to build capacity and improve services to Vietnamese Americans.
In 2005, Le landed at Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), a refugee and immigrant-serving organization in Seattle. The organization was established in 1978 to help Vietnamese refugees adjust to U.S. life after the Vietnam War.
“VFA was pretty small back then [in 2005], but it had been around for 25 years,” said Le, who was appointed as VFA’s executive director in 2007 and served in this role through 2014.
“[T]he challenge for many of these community of color-led organizations was that, even if they had been around for a long time, oftentimes, there’s this mainstream dominant-culture, way of the nonprofit.”
Le believes this nonprofit culture puts many community of color-led nonprofits at a competitive disadvantage.
Networking with funders, developing a board of directors, writing a strategic plan, marketing your work and even writing a grant in some cases: “for many cultures, this is something that’s brand new to them,” said Le.
If you have this disadvantage, “you’re not going to be able to have the best donor cultivation strategy or marketing strategy … or the ability to get a track record, which is really what funders require to be able to get data and research to prove that your program is effective.”
And this burden is layered on top of chronic understaffing, which can pull organizations into a dangerous cycle. If an organization doesn’t get that $50,000 grant to hire another full-time staff member because they don’t have capacity to hire staff, this can mean “they don’t get the money to build the staff to build their capacity,” said Le. This can go on for years, even decades.
The solution that many foundations try to impose, he said, is a mainstream model of capacity-building that runs “completely different culturally” than many organizations of color in need. They might give groups $5,000 or $10,000 to hire an outside consultant to do a strategic plan or send board and staff to 10 or 12 trainings, he said.
“Well, that’s all good, but if you don’t have anyone to implement all the stuff you learned, or to carry out the strategic plan, it doesn’t go anywhere,” Le explained.
This can put community organizations in fundraising survival mode, and push the mission of communities working together against racism and poverty on the back burner, Le believes.
“We have to think about how do we work closer together to eradicate injustices and inequity, and not how do we survive another fiscal year,” he said. “So that’s why we have to get our leaders to think bigger and [about] what is their role in that.
“We can’t do that unless we have a strong grounding in who we are.”
“We just say, ‘Do a strategic plan.’ We don’t say ‘[Do] a strategic plan … that would have to involve going around and talking to the community members.'”
In September, RVC fellows’ first training session aims to help establish this ground. It will entail learning the history of Rainier Valley, leadership self-evaluation and personal biography. Fellows will also acquire storytelling tools to advocate for their organizations and communities. The monthly sessions running through August 2016 cover basic management and fundraising ground — board development, staff management, donor stewardship and strategic planning — but fellows will also get to dive into an entire category dedicated to community and cultural dynamics, undergirded by the U.S history of power, privilege and oppression, complex interpersonal dynamics in community work and intercultural communication.
For Le, this curriculum adds some missing pieces to the conversation on how to build nonprofits. He calls it “trailblazing.”
“[Community-based organizations] have not talked at all about how going through war affects you and how you do your work, or what happens when communities have tensions that stem from their homeland,” Le said. “We don’t talk about this stuff, we just say, ‘Do a strategic plan.’ We don’t say, “[Do] a strategic plan for a community organization that would have to involve going around and talking to the community members.’ If they don’t talk to one another and they have some things that need to be healed, how do we go about doing a strategic plan for the community or a community action plan?”
This is the rich cultural terrain that the RVC fellows get to investigate and learn from head-on at the partner organizations they’ll be placed at. Though RVC is starting small with their 10-fellow pilot, they hope that they will get another year funded (current investors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United Way, Boeing, The Seattle Foundation, the Satterberg Foundation, the Loom Foundation and the City of Seattle).
Farah is grateful for the funding — and recognizes that it’s difficult to recruit young people in her community for nonprofit jobs that often barely pay enough to make rent.
To these young people, she says: “Hang in there and be strong.”
Which means a lot from someone who’s endured 20 years in the nonprofit sector so her organization could survive.
But a $20,800 a year salary — versus a $10,000 to $12,000 annual stipend — can make a big difference.
Rainier Valley Corps will hold four fellowship informational sessions on Monday, June 8 from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.; from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Vietnamese Friendship Association office at 3829B South Edmunds Street in Seattle’s Columbia City.