Over the past few months I’ve been making my way through the Targeted Universalism primer. In Step 1, I defined my goal statement for the project.
Everyone should have access to food that is free. The food should be nutritious and appropriate to them. The food should be accessible within a 15 minutes walk.
In Step 2, I learned that 23 million people in the u.s. have to travel more than 15 minutes to find a grocery store. Access to appropriate foods depends on the area where you live. And 849K people in Washington state (35.2M nationally) don’t have the food they need to thrive.
In Step 3, the goal is to group and then disaggregate people into smaller categories. This creates a granular assessment of how each group fares with food access. We then compare that group’s performance to how the general population performs. If this were real life, by the end of the process each group would design its own targeted strategy.
The primer lists a few examples of groups that may apply to this review, so I’ll start there. Those are
rural or urban populations
racial, ethnic, or religious minorities
people with disabilities
We can’t use assumptions about a person or a category that they might be in. Any time you make an assumption about a group, you risk helping them in a way that won’t help or they don’t want. For example, many organizations speak to serving Latine populations. They may identify this group as needing extra language support. But the Latine category would include me, and I speak english as my primary language. In another scenario, I could be the only Latine person in your focus group. I’m not going to be able to speak to the needs of all Latine people. To use another identity example, I as a cis queer man in a city may not end up in the same targeted group as a trans person in a rural area.
As the primer notes, “Black children growing up in an affluent suburb may have different needs or confront different challenges than Black children growing up in a low-income urban neighborhood or inner-ring suburb that has suffered decades of disinvestment and poverty.” You can use broader demographics as a starting point for discussion. Rarely will they be the final groups that need targeted strategies.
For the purposes of Targeted Universalism, race and ethnicity are a good place to start. There will be a wide variety of needs within any one group. A few could be differences in education, ability, geography, even the hours they work in a day. Remember, race and ethnicity matter because we live in a society of built white supremacy. These artificial divisions created almost all the gaps that Targeted Universalism can solve.
how many groups is too many?
Group specificity exists to identify a strategy that meets the needs of that group. My recommendation is to create as many groups as remedies needed. For instance, some groups could be
“People who are most comfortable communicating in Spanish”
“People who have food allergies”
“People who don’t have a car”
“People who can’t drive”
Consider the last two examples as a guide for combining groups with context. If our goal was to remedy joblessness, a person with a license but no car could borrow or buy a car to get to work. But that same car would not solve the problems of a person who isn’t able to drive.
For food access, a person who can’t drive and a person who doesn’t have a car may be similar enough to use the same strategy. They both may rely on walking or public transit to receive food.
conclusion: what I would do next
Once we create the categories, it’s time to understand them. We’d calculate their relative food access compared to the baseline. We would also want to vet the information we’ve collected. Join discussions with people from the affected groups. “What data rings true for your experience? What does not make sense? What does this data leave out about you?” This will help create more targeted strategies.
I would also lead a community canvas to identify even more access barriers. Even after we start to create strategies, we’d have to stay in contact with the community. New barriers may arise, or an existing barrier may have been misunderstood.
Disaggregating in this step helps us understand the complex issues each group faces. One individual may receive many strategies based on the groups they’re in. That puts them in a much better place than if we tried a one-size-fits-all strategy.
There are two more Targeted Universalism steps left to go! I’ll address them next.
Organizations built in systems of racism are difficult to transform into something anti-racist. It’s so easy to remain stuck in what’s come before. Some systems are so dysfunctional that they won’t reform without dedication and resources. The ideal organization might not exist yet. Chances are that I won’t be able to create one, either. I carry with me all the lessons I’ve learned throughout my life and career. The same would be true for all my colleagues, co-founders, advisors. That awareness can help us spot easy patterns and avoid them whenever possible.
With all that in mind, I want to try creating a new organization that serves a public good. I can be intentional about my goals and work with people who align with these intentions. I’ll start by researching different organization types in the united states. Each type I’ll review ostensibly exists to serve the public good.
Caveat: I’m doing the research but I’m not a lawyer (my first draft misspelled “lawyer”). This is a post about starting a 501(c)(3) written by someone who has never started one. It’s important to me to state this caveat up front.
my organization goals
Here are a few thoughts I have about the type of organization I want to create.
I want the organization to be worker-led or employee owned
I want the organization to exist within the community it wants to support
We’ll use many Teal Organization principles at startup. We’ll be free to adapt our approaches considering a pretty basic “do no harm” principle
I want the people or teams to function in cooperation or collaboration
The organization will run without a hierarchy. This does not mean flat or directionless! Everyone has distributed decision-making authority within their area of work. We’d discuss larger decisions as a collective and choose a person to make the decision.
We’ll use the advice process for all decisions. That means anyone can identify a problem and come together with others to solve it. Consensus is not necessary
The organization will be explicitly anti-racist
That’s a good start for now.
501(c)(3)—what is it?
Most organizations in the united states that serve the public good do so as a non-profit. The IRS designated these organizations as a 501(c)(3) in their tax code. Most 501(c)(3)s operate as a public charity or private foundation. There are a handful of other options that don’t apply to this exercise.
Charities with a religious affiliation are exempt from filing here. The same goes for charities that receive less than $5K per year.
how do you do it?
Starting a 501(c)(3) means completing IRS form 1023, plus related paperwork. The steps below come from that massive form and from a page on donorbox.
1. Organize – establish as a corporation. Register with the secretary of state as a non-profit. File the IRS paperwork. Establish a board of directors. Create bylaws for how the board will operate. Write a narrative of the activities the 501(c)(3) will perform.
During the process of incorporation, these sources recommend a few other steps. These steps are not required at first but will be good to document. Define the organization’s mission and purpose. How will you generate revenue?
2. Operate – once you’re up and running. You can’t intervene for or against a referendum, initiative, or political candidate. Routine reviews and audits could happen throughout the life of the non-profit. This depends on the size of the organization, the activities, and any financials.
The 501(c)(3) is a common approach to a non-governmental organization. The startup costs are nominal and the application is 28 pages long. The most common sources of revenue for a 501(c)(3) are grants and donors. Solving a well-understood problem or doing good work can help drive donors to you. There are plenty of grants offered by the government, foundations, or other non-profits. Grant funding usually requires a skilled grant writer or prior connections to the funder.
what’s good to avoid
Non-profit organizations are a capitalist approach to good works. Even though profit isn’t their goal, they need large and recurring sums of money to operate. This can create an unhealthy relationship between the 501(c)(3) and their donor class. Philanthropists can hide their money in a pet project instead of paying taxes.
Non-profits often replace functions that the government should be doing. This phenomenon is sometimes called the non-profit industrial complex. In the world of food access, food banks and SNAP perform similar roles. But even with multi-billion dollar food bank networks, SNAP helps 9 times as many people. It’s also much more convenient. With more funding, a system that people already use could be made more useful. I’ve heard of legislators try to pass SNAP cuts by sending some of the cuts to food banks. They might pose at a food bank to pretend they aren’t heartless.
Conventional wisdom on good governance means recruiting board members from related for-profit industries. Their guidance may not apply, but they fit the goal of running a non-profit “like a business.”
Another area of criticism is the outdated focus on overhead. These are costs like staffing, supplies, and other resources. Intuit recommends a 501(c)(3) spend less than 10% of their revenue on overhead and no more than 35% of their receipts. Donors shopping for a good cause might find themselves comparing charities. They may assume our high overhead means we spend their donations on bloated salaries. Community-Centric fundraising described this in a recent article that I liked.
Finally, 501(c)(3)s can’t advocate for or against a referendum, initiative, or political candidate. Doing so could jeopardize their tax status and make all donations non-tax deductible. This seems easy enough to follow, but support for people with low or no income is now a political issue. I don’t want to limit strong positions as a policy briefing or neutral press release.
When most people think of public service, they’re thinking of a non-profit 501(c)(3). The donor and board centered approaches I described are pretty common. This is especially true among well-established or long-running organizations. It will be easy to happen into those traps.
As I get started I will have to custom-build every policy and approach. When the organization grows, we may hire workers from other non-profits. That means they might infuse outdated practices or approaches from white-dominant culture into this new system. We would need to create strong foundations and clear values to nudge staff away from these practices.
2021, right?? What a year it’s been. In our first full week, Georgia is sending two new senators to congress. Trump supporters / white supremacists (redundant) attempted a coup on Wednesday. Who knows what else will happen before this post goes up?
Last year felt like a never-ending processional. I found a joke 2020 calendar, long since gone from my archives, that started out looking like a normal web calendar. Until you scrolled down past January, February, and finally to a March that never seemed to end.
After all that, though, 2020 ended. A new year is upon us. And every single day is the best day to end the brutal capitalist white supremacist patriarchy we’re all mired in. So how do we do that? I have a few goals for the coming year. I’ll start by reclaiming “actually” for the forces of justice.
actually be in community
Here’s a thought question. All things being equal, whose approach should an organization want to fund?
Someone who lives this work every day. Someone who is part of the community in focus. Someone who is a subject matter expert and applied practitioner. Someone who came to their ideas in conversations with their peers.
Someone in a pinnacle position of leadership. Someone who is not used to having their ideas challenged. Someone who had fifteen minutes between meetings to come up with the first draft. Someone who jotted down their notes but didn’t have time to collect feedback before turning it in.
The reality is that everyone in a PWI has been guilty of being the latter. Those of us who met PWI-established demands during the deadliest event in our century (to date) know what I mean. There’s not enough time in the day to do everything we’re often charged to do.
It’s also true that many funders can’t tell the difference, on paper, between approaches 1 and 2 above. They both look like proposals. So they trust the people and relationships that they already know. Even when those are the people who have tried and failed to solve the problem for decades.
Some leaders join in community with a goal of advancing only their agendas and ideas. They operate under the flawed ouroboros-like belief that their ideas are the best because they are the ones who get funded. This dynamic means that their ideas may be crowding out true subject matter experts. And the problem is never solved.
Giving myself a break here means that we and our organizations don’t have to do it all. I can give my outsize power to the communities and ideas that need it. I can take the time (on my time!) to learn about why they came to the solutions they did. I know I will learn something. In 2021, it’s time to stop holding listening sessions. Instead, let’s turn over the keys.
Last year was a big one for feeling helpless or isolated. There have been times when I’ve felt like I was stuck in a box. I have an above-average level of institutional power in my medium-sized industry. I still spent time spinning my wheels against forces I didn’t agree with.
I will devote time this year towards putting that torque towards better causes. I’m going to be launching a few new writing series (and finishing the first one) to explore some of these ideas I’ve had.
Right now I’m searching for a mentor or two. This means deciding what I might want to do next in my career. I didn’t get positive responses to my first three attempts at finding a mentor. The fear of rejection is real but it’s one that can be overcome.
My goal this year is to connect with people who do work that I admire. I will do research on what I appreciate about them before I reach out. I’ll create a list of questions for them. I’ll try to answer those questions based on what they’ve already written or said on the subjects. When I do reach out, I’ll have better questions that I hope they won’t be tired of answering.
I keep doing what I do because I want things to change. I want these explorations to lead to something.
actually do things differently
Actually do things differently, though! This seems like an easy or glib commitment. But look at last year. I grew tired of the “is it April yet?” jokes in March. We had entire days, like this past Wednesday, that felt like an entire week.
It’s easy to get caught in the motions, rush to complete something, swat it away, and move on. I’m working with a colleague on a project to release grant funding to our partners. In the project workgroup, we found ourselves reviving the same widely-used traditional methods of funding. We found ourselves absorbing and reflecting that same staid approach to grantmaking.
My colleague has been learning more about transformational capacity building. We realized that if we want to do things differently, (big emphasis) we actually have to do that! So, we did. We pumped the brakes and reimagined the project. It will take more work because we’ve never tried this before. There are unknown obstacles ahead. We’re moving with a little more caution, but that’s not a bad thing.
The old ways are how we got to where we are. We have to reject the patriarchal white dominant culture within ourselves. We can start by choosing one project out of our stack, and testing new approaches with it.
If you are seeking equity but operating in the exact same way, then you might be doing it wrong. You might not notice if you are moving at the same pace you always have been.
The goals I’ve set for myself above are not new skills for me. They’re underused. We need to practice before we can do them on instinct. Our workplace habits are from years of bad approaches that have gone unchecked. In the paper above (and again right here), the authors list seven approaches to transformational capacity building. Approach #2 is Address underlying patterns of behavior rooted in history and culture. There’s so much that we can untangle from that sentence to find meaning within ourselves.
It’s critical that we recognize our own roles in how we got to where we are. It’s critical that we flex these muscles and prepare for the aches that often follow any new exercise routine. Like those new motions, you have to move slowly at first to get it right.
Like most millennials, a lot of my reading these days takes the form of news and pop culture. It was a natural progression for the voracious reading habits that began when I was a kid. When you only read about current events, a lot of what you read is useless even a day later. So a few years ago, I decided instead to devote some of my time to reading more books. Last year I started keeping track of the books that I read. This year I wanted to share my five favorites that I read in 2020.
I learned about this book from an article (haha) near the start of the pandemic. The article’s author compared the book to the unsettled start of our 2020 pandemic. In The Memory Police, the narrator describes a town in which things disappear. One day birds disappear. Another day, the concept of a calendar disappears. The calendar on your wall would need to go, or else the memory police may come and do it themselves. At first these things start to disappear from people’s minds, like water seeping out of a crack in a pitcher. Eventually, the memory police arrive to destroy all traces of the items. Possessing these items or talking about the things you’ve lost are crimes. Some people in this town never forget the items or concepts that go away. But for most of the town, there’s only a feeling that things are different.
Reading it through that lens, I found it distressing in places and comforting in others. Distressing in how complicit everyone seemed to be in the undoing of their own society. Comforting in the reminder that life goes on despite it all.
Minor Feelings is a memoir as a collection of essays about being an asian american in the united states. The stories are imbued with race and racialization. Minor feelings, the author writes, are “emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” The book was a meditation on shame and identity and what it means to be a part of… all this.
I read more memoirs this year than I can remember ever reading. I learned about Minor Feelings from Jia Tolentino, a fellow second-generation asian american. I’m exactly six years apart between both of their ages, so there was a lot in this book that I related to. I also kept a series of notes of things referenced in this book that I wanted to look up. I started this book the night of the election and finished it a few days later. I loved it.
A friend of my parents gave us this book as a wedding present. Bev and Frank have lived for years in the pacific northwest. I can’t think of another book that better captures how I feel about this place. Each chapter tells a story about a different owl species. The book is full of facts about each owl, though it reads more like personal stories than reference guide.
The most dramatic story for me was the story of the Great Gray Owls with the Great Horned Owls. My favorite owl is the so-tiny Flammulated Owl, which lives in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. And now, whenever we go out into a stand of trees, I can’t help but look up.
This book is a history of anti-Mexican violence and lynchings in Texas. Each chapter centers on an individual, a family, or a town. It lay bare the savage brutality of the white settlers and Texas Rangers in the early days my home state.
This was another fast read. It’s also the rare library book where I bought the book soon after finishing it. I started this one near the beginning of 2020, and you know what this year has been like. It was a bleak way to begin a year that seemed to only get bleaker. This book makes clear how little progress we’ve made against the enforcers of white supremacy. It also reminds me why it’s so important to fight, even when it feels futile.
Covering an entire millennia or so of the future, this book was a sprawling epic told through a few lifetimes. The story begins on a planet and spreads out to the entire universe. I could have spent an entire book in any of the settings the author created. There’s a brilliant designer of space stations that take centuries to build. A ship captain who spends weeks in space that are decades to the people she meets whenever she lands. A boy who fell from the sky and at first only communicates with music. And, sadly, a universe controlled by ruthless century-spanning corporations.
This book was the novel of my dreams! The immersive storytelling was catnip for my imagination. The characters were diverse and queer and fully realized. I have a stack of books that I still need to get to, but I’ll be coming back to this one soon.
I’m taking next week off, so my next post will be in early 2021. I had a blast working on radical innovations this year. This blog has helped me bring clarity to my ideas and given me confidence when I’ve needed it. And at least once this year, something I wrote for this blog made its way into an official government memo to 500+ organizations across the state. This work is my attempt to build the fractals that adrienne maree brown describes in Emergent Strategy:
“In a fractal conception, I am a cell-sized unit of the human organism, and I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do. This means actually being in my life, and it means bringing my values into my daily decision making. Each day should be lived on purpose.”
I know that the qualities we are can lead to the decisions that build the future we need. I’m grateful and lucky that I get to put my ideas into coherent sentences and share them with you. I hope you enjoyed reading.
I had a great chat with my friend Clara recently. She and her friend Melo are the hosts of a podcast, Intersectionality in the Diaspora. We talked for a while about our experiences surviving predominantly white institutions (PWIs). We discussed the harms that they can visit on BIPOCs existing in all parts of society. It was a satisfying conversation! If you would like to listen, it’ll link to it once the podcast goes live.
Preparing for the podcast helped me clarify my thoughts on survival. I’ve talked about the webinar series I took hosted by artEquity: BIPOCs surviving PWIs. Over the course of five sessions, the speakers and participants shared many of their own experiences at a PWI. Their perspectives led to a single unblinking message: get out!! Prepare the resources and the network you will need to survive without them. Leave your PWI while you still can.
I struggled with the idea that a series on surviving PWIs was telling me there is no survival. But their arguments were persuasive. For many BIPOCs, staying in a PWI means a career of feeling undervalued, tokenized, or othered. We in PWIs recognize that we may spend a lifetime performing work that we aren’t paid for. Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield writes about the “racial tasks” that companies ask of workers of color. These tasks reinforce racial hierarchies, maintain the status quo, and limit the impacts of revolution. This stress creates a debt that compounds and is never repaid in full.
These truths have been turning over in my mind for weeks now. I’ve written a handful of essays on this site where I process my thoughts. I started out rejecting those ideas. Why should we abandon all these systems and structures of power? How can they make the progress we need without us? And the money! They have immense networks of donors that may not be available to a person of color just starting out. How are we supposed to pay rent? Even as I processed this, I knew on some level they were right. I also knew that the other side’s grass is a hypersaturated green. It can’t be that good. Right? With all that in mind, I wanted to make a case for both worlds.
for those who stay in a PWI
Predominantly white institutions are all around us. They are the beneficiaries of centuries of unequal power and outsize influence. No matter how good we are, they won’t all implode this year. So how can we live with them?
why you’d want to
For some people, staying in a PWI can feel like seizing the means of production. Here we have a sturdy institution that we know can move. Organizations are people, people are malleable. If we know that all organization must adapt or die, then adapting to a racially just world is in both our interests. There are places to find common ground. For the people who are willing to teach, there are leaders in PWIs who are ready to learn.
what you need to remember
With all that said, you have to remember what you are signing up for. The progress will be slow. There will be months or years where the best you can hope is to be pleasantly surprised. There are leaders out there who’ve never considered these things. And in an instant, they can change their deep-seated beliefs. I’ve worked with groups that one day realized their complicity with white supremacy. For the BIPOCs in their world, this must have felt like some kind of liberation. But those stories are also rare.
Staying at a PWI demands patience and understanding. It’s well-documented that we are changed when we navigate worlds that aren’t made for us. For those of us who dream of a new world, our goals won’t always align with theirs.
With all that said, I have to be really honest here. The longer we work in the systems that were built to oppress us, the longer it will take before we’re free. I grew up internalizing the “twice as good” rule. What I’ve learned is that even after a decade doing what I do, I am still setting my own performance expectations that high to be seen as worthy. And it is still not enough to bend the perspectives of the people holding the keys.
Existing in this structure my whole life still has me believing that I can smile and paint a positive outlook on this approach. I can’t. The people who can will retire at 85 still waiting for someone to save them. I created this website under the belief that the real savior, like a movie with a time travel loop, has to be us (those movies are incidentally my favorite).
No matter where you are or how entrenched you feel, you need to get out. PWIs will eat you alive before they realize you’re even there.
while we’re here, we can:
work to understand and refine our goals and intentions
radicalize our coworkers and employees
speak up! using whatever voice we have
support unionization and efforts that create a collective consciousness among staff
create a bubble of safety and support and invite fellow BIPOCs in
why you might reconsider
If you can do this, do it for a long as you can. Know that if you do leave, your habits and instincts will carry with you the lessons of your PWI. But also know that leaving is not a failure. Know that any progress you have made is its own success.
for those who leave
Everyone knows the Audre Lorde quote! The place we want to go, we can’t get there from here. PWIs that fear change will survive the longest by maintaining the status quo. No matter how hard we try, it’s too tempting to undervalue workers. This creates its own trauma. If we want real liberation, we will have to do it ourselves.
why you’d want to
The clearest path to liberation is to reject the status quo and make something new. It might not be perfect. There are other donors out there. There are other people who are looking for better things. Reject the low valuation of your worth, and help others find their own future.
You don’t have to start your own organization to get out. BIPOC-led or BIPOC-centered institutions are out there. The jobs may be more scarce because they’re more in demand. And they aren’t always as large, but they still have impact. Many of our colleagues start out as single-person consulting firms and grow from there. You have the power to create something that has a real impact within your community. Your work has the potential to grow, and to go far.
At a PWI, you may be spreading messages you don’t agree with, while trying to get slivers of your ideas into them. Leaving that PWI means you can spread the messages and ideas that hold value with a new audience. Rather than grinding yourself to dust, you could help create authentic, satisfying outcomes.
what you need to remember
Working on your own is not easy. Don’t set out without preparation, because our racist and capitalist society has a specific type of intolerance for BIPOC failure. Know that it is difficult, but remember that it’s necessary. Right now, I don’t know if I’m ready for the hustle or ingratiation required of a full-salary consulting gig. One person in the Surviving PWIs session shared that she was grateful to be on her own and out of the education PWI she used to work at. But now, as a consultant, she works with the same people she was happy to escape.
Even if you leave a PWI, there will always be people who can’t. People who are more junior in their careers. People who need the stability of a steady paycheck from well-established donors. Leaving a PWI doesn’t mean leaving the BIPOCs who are in them. Work with and support each other. Know that they may feel trapped even though they can see you’ve wriggled free.
while we’re here, we can:
mentor people at PWIs, and show them what’s possible
help people see that the water isn’t as deep as they might fear
educate your clients on concepts they couldn’t hear when their BIPOC employees first said them
share and refine your ideas with like-minded folks
grow your organization and hire in all the ways you wish PWIs would
why you might reconsider
For some people who leave, liberation at first might mean sleeping on a friend’s couch. If that works for you, do it. Not everyone can make that choice yet. It’s horrible that we live in a world where we can’t strike out on our own without connections or a trust fund. No matter where we are right now, we share a common goal.
just stay alive
I oscillate between wanting to be in both of these camps. I’ve seen and felt the impact that I’ve had in PWIs. These accomplishments might not have been possible if I was standing on the outside. I also know that the longer I’m in, small victories feel enormous. I look at my career and feel the changes I’ve made for the causes I believe in. But wouldn’t it also be amazing to work for those causes full-time?
The victories I’ve had in PWIs are also in some ways half-measures. They came with compromises, costs, and delays. By the time we get the nation to a $15/hour minimum wage, the minimum wage adjusted for inflation should be $22/hour.
No matter where we are, we have to do our part to reject white dominant culture. That culture indoctrinates us to believe there is only one right way. We know this is false. There are as many solutions to a problem as there are paths to justice. For as long as someone is trapped in a PWI, there is still work to be done. For people who have gotten out, the work is different but the same. No matter where we are or who we report to, we must keep walking forward.
Many in the non-profit industrial complex are pivoting to meet a newish trend. They hope to elevate the voices of people who have long borne the brunt of a racist, capitalist, and artificially-white-supremacist society. In the united states, a narrowing majority has spent generations as the only ones whose voices society uplifted. So how do you elevate others when one group has always held the spotlight? How can we elevate people who white dominant culture long destabilized? How can we finally put them into focus? It starts, and must not end, by moving the camera.
the camera itself
Say you’re holding a camera. It’s a standard point and shoot, any level of technology. You might twist the lens to change focus, or tap a different part of the screen to do the same thing. You’re looking through the viewfinder at two people: one close, and one far.
Say, in this transparent allegory, you’ve been looking at the close person for centuries. You watch them shift and move in the light, but you rarely need to adjust your focus to see them. And the person that’s further away shifts and moves too. Sometimes they move nearer to you; sometimes they move back. Sometimes the nearer person turns around and looks at the one behind them.
How can you look at them both?
the act of looking
Now you find yourself, for the first time, wanting to look at the other person. Get a real good look at them. You can’t just point your camera at this new person and see them, at least not clearly. You have to change the focus. Twisting the lens or tapping the screen brings no pain to the person nearer to you. You’re only looking at a different person, and not even forever.
What you holding the camera might not realize is the focus isn’t all that’s necessary to see the person further away. You might think all that needs changing is who the camera is pointed at. But that would ignore the racist history of film chemistry. It would ignore those who wrote the algorithms the lenses use to capture images. It ignores you, the person who is holding the camera. How long have you been holding this thing? Who held on to the camera before giving it to you? Who taught you how to use the camera, where to point it, and what was important to look at?
It also ignores the history of why that other person has always been out of focus. Why they are so far away. And when you start focusing on other people, who else might emerge from the background? Who else might you have never noticed before? Who else has always deserved to be seen?
But for so many leaders in the public sector, they believe that all you need is to gaze towards what now matters. Those of us who have always been around are now at the center of the viewfinder more than we used to be. And suddenly the world is changing for these leaders. Suddenly, they’re or we’re called to do things in a way that’s different, for the first time ever.
But what has changed, really? People in power are still exactly where they’ve always been. We may have a seat at the table, a folding chair placed at the corner of their mahogany boardroom. What is the same? Everyone else at the table. The board that affirms their power. The others in leadership that take their cues. The donors they speak to. The audience they think about.
Some believe they can live an entire life in an artificially-white-supremacist society and emerge unbowed. Or in the space of a single (optional) two-hour session, these leaders will be able to do the new work we must demand. They believe they can use the same equipment and film they have always used. The techniques that feel natural to them. The discomfort that can last for sheer minutes before they insist we change the subject. And the faint awareness, almost out of frame: the only moral act that people now in power should take is to abdicate.
how we get free
I’ve wrestled with these concepts a lot lately. I’ve had some crystallizing conversations with a few people I’m lucky to know.
Abdication is not going to happen in my lifetime. I’ve realized that we have to do it all over. We need a complete reenvisioning. We can’t change the world from the view at their table. We have to take a step back and find a different way towards the future we know we all need.
If we do it another way, and it’s successful, they’ll steal our ideas. Take credit for them. We’ll come up with new approaches. The ideas themselves aren’t even new; what’s new is how we use them. We’ll reimagine the models we’ve lived through and make them better. This continuous adaptation is not without purpose. Our goal is to keep creating until we have something that looks unrecognizable to them.
What we’re doing is decolonizing ourselves. Wave by wave. Until all that’s left is the future we’ve made.
Most of the companies I’ve worked for have had a strategic plan. These plans run the spectrum between incremental and ornamental. Some get by with unambitious tweaks to last year’s plan. Others go through months of revisions only for it to end up posted on a wall in a forgotten conference room. But rarely do I see people use strategic plans to dream!
dream the journey
Strategic plans get a bad rap among most people in the working world. One coworker of mine once told me they struggled to do their strategic plan work on top of their regular work. That’s definitely not what a strategic plan should do. The strategic plan work should be the regular work, and vice versa.
At their best, strategic plans sell a vision. They can be blueprints for implementing that vision. They are also a best guess about the future, which humans are notorious for being bad at. The best comparison I can make is that they work like old-school paper maps.
Strategic plans contain a lot of information, but not an infinite amount. If you’re in a rented van with several friends, you can use one to decide where you want to go. All you need to do is pick a destination, and start heading that way. This section was going to be about “finding a north star” but that’s how a thousand other blogs describe strategic planning. No! It’s a map!
finding a north star it’s a map!
Think of an organization as that group of people in a van. They all want to go somewhere, they might even agree on a cardinal direction to drive towards. This is where the dreaming comes into play. Where do we want to go? Is it a city? What does the city look like? Does it have skyscrapers? Incredible restaurants? Or is it an isolated beach with a view of the ocean?
Like with strategic planning, we need to know where we want to go before we can get there. I’ll use as my example a brand new organization. I want to start a non-profit that helps brand new food pantries get off the ground. When we finish our work, what do I want to see?
I want an organization that is accessible to all. I want to create a fire hose of funding and resources that we can direct anywhere it’s needed. I want to seek out community groups and help them get started. I want this organization to run as clusters of individual self-managed entities. These organizations operate under a single umbrella to de-duplicate overhead. Each cluster can make the decisions they need to for the benefit of their communities.
From that vision, we can create goals. I know it will be tempting to take all those simple sentences and turn it into one giant sentence. This doesn’t help people understand what you do! There is no genie that will fulfill your wishes if you separate them with commas instead of periods. Instead, the genie will skim your too-long sentence and only grant the keywords they remember.
how do we know where we want to go?
Strategic plans should reduce down into tangible goals and actions. Review your goals. Does everyone agree with them? Everyone in the organization should find themselves in the strategic plan. Recall my colleague in the story above. If their day-to-day work is not part of our strategy, how are they helping us get where we need to go? If their strategic plan work is separate from their daily work, when will they have time to do it? If their work doesn’t fit into our plan, we should consider (more than once) whether we should be doing it at all.
I’ll further extend my map metaphor. Everyone should know how they contribute to our strategy, as easy as pointing to their city on a map. The reverse is also true. Everyone should know at least a little about the entire strategy that drives our organization. That awareness helps people ground themselves into their work. It helps people, especially in large or complex organizations, feel more grounded.
now, the dreaming
I don’t start by thinking about our five year plan. I start by thinking about the environment we want to see where we’re done. That helps me consider context. If I want a world where nobody goes hungry, how long will that take me? Is it reasonable to think that we can do that in five years? It’s not wrong here to be audacious. Our destination might be very far away. But what small steps can we take today, or this week? What steps can we take next month, or next year?
This is also a good time to consider the scope of your goals. The organization I made a few paragraphs ago will have limited influence in its infancy. There’s a world in which one or two state legislators might have heard of us in a year. We may not have the influence we need to achieve our goals in a year. But what can we do? What can’t we do yet? The answers will be helpful when thinking about the actions for those goals.
how do we get there?
The team responsible for the work should be the same ones who write the goals. But now, each goal needs its own review time. I’ll pick one of my examples above.
A lot of my current job is about network-building, so I’ll use an example goal that’s close to that:
seek out community groups and help them get started
What are the actions I could take to achieve this goal? Here are a few:
identify community groups that need support
determine the most pressing needs they have
find a way to help them get those needs
This is the area where your goals and your scope come into play. Some of the community groups I know need funding to stay afloat. If nobody on the team has fundraising experience, we won’t be able to help them with that. Hiring that kind of staff support could be an action for this year. It could also be a goal for a future plan.
Next, break each action into a workplan. If this is the action we want to take, how will we do it? How much time will it take, or how many staff members will it take? It’s unreasonable, even for startups, to devote hundreds of hours a week to stay afloat. Either staffing should go up, or scope should go down.
how do we know where we’re going?
Key performance indicators (KPIs) are not supposed to be scary. Like the strategic plan, they shouldn’t serve as an extra thing to do or track down. The best KPIs have a direct line to the action they measure. They should tell us if we’re going in the right direction before we get to the end of the highway.
Take one of my actions from above: “identify community groups that need support.” My KPI might be X number of community groups identified this year. Breaking that action down into a workplan might reveal other useful KPIs. Number of community groups in each region we support. Or number of organizations that want what we are offering.
It’s not unambitious to set a low target. I once worked a grant where the KPI felt made up. None of our grant actions helped raise the KPI, but we were going to increase it by 50%. Setting an unrealistic KPI makes it harder to reach. It can also demoralize the people who worked hard and still failed to meet a made-up goal. Trust is important throughout this whole process. Trust the doers to plan. If it’s a place they want to go, they will set challenging targets. If people are uninterested in the destination, we’ll have a bigger problem than one red KPI on a dashboard.
what if we’re wrong?
Something I admire about teal organizations is how they perceive strategic planning. Members of a teal organization don’t spent time on unwieldy strategic plans. Instead, teal organizations describe themselves as having an evolutionary purpose. People in the organization have an intrinsic awareness of what gaps to fill or directions to move into. The tree, they say, does not have a five year growth plan. Yet it grows.
We don’t have to predict the future to create a plan for it. Strategic plans are tools, and tools are only useful if they are useful to us. I use my strategic plan as a guide, or a way to check my work. If the landscape changes, so can we. I will not be sad if my ten year plan to end poverty gets done in three. Setting a destination, no matter how far ahead it might be, is what matters. Whether our plans change or the world changes, we can always adapt and move on.
Strategic plans don’t have to be a nightmare. They don’t have to outlast us if they’re wrong. Make them realistic, use them as a guide, and we’ll end up exactly where we need to be.
I’m suspicious of nonrandom acts of charity. In my college ethics class, I learned most selfless acts aren’t completely selfless. They can give someone a warm feeling or a return on their investment. In the industrialized world of non-profits, these good works can come with a lot of strings.
Take grant applications, for instance. I have been a funder, and a grantee, for different organizations. Right now I do a little of both, depending on how much money we’re talking about. Some grant applications I read request a mountain of information. Narrative, budget, logic model, letters of recommendation. And once I receive the grant money, I have to turn in another mountain of information to keep receiving it. Monthly reports, client stories, survey results, year-end reports.
It got me wondering about the practice of exchanging stories for funding or services. How did it start? I tried looking it up, but I’m not a great researcher. Instead, I thought about how I’ve used this practice across my career. During my funder days, we used to ask grantees for client success stories. On the occasions we received them, the stories were great. We packaged those stories into quotes that we repackaged and sent up the chain in our own reports. These stories went from a few paragraphs to a bullet point list. Further up the chain, the list trimmed down to an anecdote in a briefing. Paraphrasing the anecdote might land on the desk of an elected official. At some organizations, client stories add personality to fundraisers and impact reports. As my boss once said to me, stories can move a donor to give, but data tells them how much money you need.
But where do we go from there? What happens when we feed this narrative, that X story will earn Y impressions or Z dollars? People who actually do research call this poverty porn. Poverty porn creates a cycle that begets more poverty porn. It teaches people that the pain they see has a remedy, and we can only apply that remedy if they write us a check. There is no path out of exploitation that is made through more exploitation.
What needs to happen is removing donors from the center of what we do. They should not be the first or only beneficiaries of our good works. I’ll look at this through three transactional lenses: applications, client data, and stories.
“please note: this application requires a second mortgage to complete”
It’s already a cliché that grant applications are more complicated than they need to be. But it’s that way for a good reason, right? These answers help the selection committee decide who should and shouldn’t get funding. I get it: staring at a pile of applications, all requesting the same shallow pot of our money. But it’s a bit like teaching for the test. The applicants who get funding are the ones who are good at grant writing. It doesn’t mean their plan is good. It only means that their application is. What about when we zoom out and see that we all breathe the air of an artificially white supremacist society? Some of the biggest large-dollar donors are recipients themselves of generational wealth. They pass those dollars onto organizations that share their values. How do organizations getting off the ground ever manage to compete? This is more challenging as white-dominant organizations adopt the language of racial equity.
What if we made things different? What if we funded organizations that were at different stages in their development? “Before you finish your business plan, here’s seed money to work on it full-time,” or “Before you write that logic model, here’s funding and training on how to do it.” What if the grant application worked more like a sales pitch? What if the selection committee included only people with current and past lived experience? What if that selection committee met with potential grantees? What if they had a conversation about the goals of the grant and how we’d use the money? Holding onto money doesn’t mean you should hold it over people.
“don’t worry about PII, your clients are numbers to us.”
My first question about data collection is usually, “why do you need to know?” I’m serious. Why do you need to collect this information? This goes doubly true when the data includes Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Some organizations collect metrics that they have no intention of using. Data that might be useful later. Or, funders might ask grantees to analyze the data to create a report that never gets read. Worse, the power relationship between grantor and grantee prevents that kind of dialogue. Grantees feel like they have no grounds to push back on the data they’re asked to collect. They act like DaVinci wrote down exactly what his patron paid him to do and made it all to spec. He definitely would not pose his male lover as the most mysterious woman in the world (allegedly)! But when we pull apart the power dynamic, we create a stronger relationship with our own patrons.
What if we made things different? Think about your program. How do you use the data you already collect? What could you stop collecting and nobody would notice? What information could we ask to create a better program? What if funders requested data, then paid to have it analyzed and shared? How could we collaborate with our clients and our funders to collect data that makes a program of value? What if all the grantees in a cohort decided together what was important to study? What if receivers of the service told funders what was important to know? What could we do with an environment of mutual respect between people with and without institutional power?
“enough about me! how do you feel about me?”
The most sinister side of charity is the things we demand from people in need. Data is huge, but stories are so much more personal. The way we collect most stories exploits the power dynamic of people who feel like they can’t refuse. Like means testing, stories and data set qualifications in exchange for help. I’ve written elsewhere about why I am very cautious when I ask for and use stories.
What if we made things different? Start with awareness. Start by compensating people for their stories or their time. Promise a cut of the fundraising dollars you earn from their face on the side of a bus. Client stories can be exploitative, but they don’t have to be. What if client stories were more like enthusiastic YouTube videos? Uploading them is voluntary. Production values vary wildly among creators. But their creators tell their story, whatever it is, exactly how they want to tell it.
“captain, what if we used the deflector array to invert the paradigm of funding to power?”
What if we asked funders to hold themselves accountable to their grantees? What if organizations were accountable to the people who need the help?
We can push back on invasive data requests, or find another way to collect the data. Non-profits are offering basic safety net services. What harm do we cause when we ask invasive questions before they qualify? Do our benefits outweigh their dehumanization? Is any dollar amount worth that?
Many of us already think of our clients as the most important part of our work. So why would we take part in a system that demands their exploitation? Let’s take these recent feelings of political relief and zoom out on the system we live in. Let’s start to be really clear about who is tying the strings, and who should be holding the scissors.
At the start of the pandemic, my organization faced a new challenge. Business across sectors closed, making thousands of people unemployed overnight. The need for food spiked across our state, to a number that we hadn’t ever seen before. We started the pandemic like we would any disaster. We started importing in boxes of pre-packed shelf-stable food. But the pandemic is of course not like most disasters. Most disasters affect one city of region in the entire country. COVID spread itself around the whole world. Most disasters, like hurricanes, only last a few hours. COVID has lasted for almost a year since the earliest known cases.
Given the market forces, and our own supply chain, we made some decisions. One of those was to start mass-producing boxes of shelf-stable food. We designed these boxes to fit most communities’ needs. The subtext here is we did not design them to fit all communities’ needs. After a few months of this, supply chains started to return to normal. The enormous demand for food slowed to a more fathomable number. But now that we’re out of the woods, I have a chance to try a little hindsight.
what’s gained in a food box?
easier and safer. We had a lot of food to get out the door in a short amount of time. Food boxes made sense. They cut the contact time between two people. This was critical at the start of the pandemic because nobody knew all the ways the virus could spread.
storage capacity, to some extent. While many of the people who need food pantry had refrigerators, not every food pantry does. Shelf-stable products are easier to store, even if they are bulkier. That said, food pantries can only store so many boxes, no matter what’s inside. As demand ballooned, some food pantries struggled to store the boxes they needed to serve.
what’s lost in a food box?
one size fits some but not all. we produced many thousands of boxes using a menu that was the same across the state. This means that some people receiving these boxes did not want to eat the items we packed into them.
food for an emergency time, not a long time. we prioritized shelf-stable food over fresher but more perishable food. This makes sense in a disaster. If power has gone out across a large region, you wouldn’t want to give someone in that region a freezer’s worth of food. But COVID didn’t cause the same disruption that something like a tornado would have. Most people had working refrigerators and freezers. Eviction moratoriums protected many (but not everyone) from losing their homes. Those protections did not save anyone from having to pay back rent.
the spices of life. And more than that, eating a diet of industrialized food can be very hard on the body. Industrialized food often lacks flavor, which it compensates for with excess salts. People can wash off the salt if they’re concerned about sodium, but that won’t make them more flavorful. If you don’t have spices at home, you’re going to be eating a lot of bland meals. As the disaster stretched on for months, people who could not afford food were still eating from cans. One of my coping mechanisms during the pandemic has been cooking. I also have the time and stability to be able to cook. Not everyone has that ability.
what could we have done instead?
a greater variety of boxes. Even though one size doesn’t fit all, we could have planned for variety in the boxes. Or, we could have created boxes with a smaller base of items. Add-on or specialty items could have fit into these boxes. This would give food pantries the ability to customize boxes beyond some basics. In fact, we did move to a build-your-own system for most of our partners.
go bigger on perishable products. Later in the pandemic, we increased our access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This meant we could distribute fresher options to go with our shelf-stable offerings.
make ourselves obsolete. Imagine what we could do with a system that works for everyone! SNAP benefits (subsidized money for food) available to everyone who needed it. Removing means-testing from charity food programs. Free PPE for all essential workers. These are not ambitious programs, but they’re much more than we’ve had to work with.
the crisis next time
There’s so much more we could do in the food system to end hunger for everyone. My friend Clara recently shared with me the work of Chris Newman, a Black and Indigenous farmer, and the owner of Sylvanaqua Farms. He is part of a cooperative of farms in Washington, D.C. that seek to modernize the food industry. I hope that I won’t live to see another pandemic. No matter what comes next, we have to move beyond what we do now. We have to invest in a system that will serve us all.
What are the agreements that hold society together? Currency, especially the concept of fiat money, is a big one. Unlike the gold standard, where a person’s dollar equaled a certain amount of gold, fiat money is fake. Where does the money come from? I’ve read some very complicated explanations for why we can’t simply print more money. But the government does anyway! We’ve vested in it the ability to spend more money than we have on hand. Only the federal government can do this, because they wrote the law that says they can.
In many ways, the concept of power functions like fiat money. It’s made up! It has arbitrary value that depends on the context where it’s used. My importance in one circle doesn’t always mean I’m important in other circles. In an institutional hierarchy, power can be coercive. People with power can make others carry out decisions that they know are bad or unhelpful. People with power can redirect attention or slow down progress. They can do this even when they themselves know it’s the wrong thing to do. People with power can also confer power unto another person. That person’s qualifications are sometimes scrutable, sometimes not. At least some monarchies had the good sense to declare their power came from holy authority. It’s hard to dispute power vested in a person or their lineage by a capital-g god. But there are points in history when a couple of capital-g guillotines demonstrated that no power is absolute.
We navigate structures of power and dynamics every day, everywhere. This week’s controversy is about Trump’s refusal to concede his electoral loss. People are asking themselves, “can he do that??” The real question is, “why are we letting him do that?”
A colleague and I were talking at work recently. She noticed the efforts I make to help new managers feel welcome in our halls of power. I see it as my role to do more than that. I’m trying to dispel the mysticism of management. Like money, a leader’s power only means something if we let it mean something. People are fallible and human. Power bestowed upon them by the system doesn’t make their instincts better by default. In fact, relying on power as authority can create blindspots in a person’s reasoning.
Take for example the bigger role that race and equity issues now play in many organizations. The leaders of those organizations may not be particularly experienced in these things. The skill sets for their roles may have changed, but they still hold the power. Only someone else with more power can do anything about that.
Another example involves asking who has the power to make decisions. In the public sector, decision-making doesn’t always rest with the public. Transferring decision-making to impacted communities can give them power they did not have. It gives people in need the ability to make decisions that are best for them, even if those decisions feel wrong to us.
Some people in power convince themselves that they alone have the right answer. They might believe their place in the system grants them that exclusive power. They may think that empowerment can function as a token or rubber-stamp of their plans. When I work to empower the communities I serve, I keep in mind this truth: given power and the authority to wield it, someone might act a different way than I would have. True empowerment must include giving up my ability to veto decisions I wouldn’t have made.
how do you rebalance power?
If you have power, start by finding ways to share it. Then, relinquish it. Historic racial inequities and injustices should make it clear why most power in the united states is ill-gotten.
Sustaining Community has a great post about the Spectrum of Public Participation. It’s a framework developed by the International Association of Public Participation. The framework describes actions along a gradual transition of power to the public: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. Each action contains tangible steps used to engage the community we serve. The goal of empowerment is empowering for traditional power-holders as well! There is a burden or cost to making unpopular decisions. Instead, join the discussion as one of many people, all with unique ideas and perspectives.
These apply to both personal and professional life. Work to restore power to the masses through unions, organizing, and collective action. Support community groups and mutual aid projects. Collaborate with others to hold people in power accountable.
Power is magic. It doesn’t always make sense, though it sometimes leads to incredible things. But whether you are the magician or the audience, you have to be aware of what’s happening. Don’t forget the fact that it’s all a trick.