Love Letters: Vu Le

Photo above of Vu with his unicorns pinched from here.

We’re a special type of beast, those of us working in not for profits. When I look around me at people doing what I do, I see exceptionally talented and passionate people who are trying to inch the world forward towards its natural moral arc. Many are satisfied in their jobs and know they are making the world a better place. The act of giving their time to a rewarding cause is enough, and it gives them something easy to talk about when they meet someone new. They’re happy where they are.

Some, like a few people I know, got woken from their slumber when they saw this video and are starting to think and talk about how we can make the “pie” bigger, and then stop talking about the pie. These are the people who are asking questions like Why is turnover in our sector so high? Where are 98% of our staff stressed? Why have we let the for-profit world demonise the term “overhead”? Why are so many charities doing work that is the role of the government? How does the socio-economic makeup of our society and our networks determine who’s heard about, supported and funded?

A very small percentage of brave “non-profit unicorns” are blogging and speaking about this, and one of my favourites is Vu Le. I’ll leave it to Vu to introduce himself.

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the Executive Director of Rainier ValleyCorps, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Vu is piercingly astute, and absolutely hilarious. On top of his hectically busy schedule and family life, Vu posts every week on Non Profit AF. He writes eloquently about all sorts of areas of the not for profit world – equity and diversity, cultural competency, funding from both the recipient and the donor’s side, NFP culture, community engagement, and the importance of risk and failure in our industry.

Due to the very tight restrictions placed on charities, and the beliefs that permeate our society about how we should spend the money we’re given, it’s easy to see how this is a minefield. Vu’s ability to inject irony, sarcasm and observational humour into his posts are a masterclass in making the tough subjects approachable.

While Vu writes about the NFP climate in the States, it’s safe to say his thoughts and suggestions for our industry are relevant for anyone working in, volunteering in or fascinated by the charity sector.  

If I met Vu today, here’s what I would say.

You have taught me that there is more to this NFP industry than meets the eye – that we cannot ever be above learning from others, feedback, risk and failure. You have brought new terms into my lexicon – cultural competency and engagement, donor privilege, popularity-based grants, funder fragility, and the damaging difference between equality and equity. In a world where egos can remain unchecked, and certain things slide under the radar because just because we “work at a charity”, you have the guts to call this unhealthy and sometimes unethical behaviour out.

You are not only insightful enough to see past the individuals and symptoms to the systemic problems that we face, but you also talk about this in an approachable way that everyone can understand. This is a rare talent and I am so thankful that you share this so generously with us.

In a sector where there we are trying to do our best and often fall short, you imagine things differently, and you write about how we could get there. Your suggestions are powerful in their simplicity, and you live what you write about.

I hope that in the future I can speak and write about this industry I love, with as much candour and eloquence as you.

If you’re interested in Vu’s work, here are three of my favourite posts. Last weeks’ took my breath away – if you donate to any organisation, I suggest you read it. Right now. This will make you laugh: NFP terms translated for those outside the industry. And for those who’ve seen that equity diagram with the kids behind the fence and wondered if there was more to it… check out Vu’s post about the courage to be unfair.