February 20, 2020; International Examiner
Vu Le, the author behind the Nonprofit AF blog and a vocal critic of the attrition of leaders of color in the nonprofit world, will step down from his position as executive director of Rainier Valley Corps (RVC). A farewell vegan roast was held as his send-off last Saturday.
Le launched RVC in 2014 on his own, with the goal of developing leaders of color in the nonprofit world, as well as building and strengthening organizations run by communities of color. RVC now has a full-time staff of 20 people and offers many avenues for partnership and leadership development, including its Community Impact Fellowship Program, Operations Support Program, Capacity Building Program, Advocacy and Collaboration Initiatives, and Partnership Fundraising efforts. Through these efforts, which focus on core programs and services, as well as partnerships with communities and organizations of color, RVC seeks to promote social justice.
Le has decided to step down from his role to spend more time with his family, including his two young sons, and focus on speaking engagements and his blog Nonprofit AF. Regarding his departure from RVC, Le says, “I just need a break to spend time with my family, [and] I encourage others in our sector to take breaks when they can. Our sector and world need you for the long haul.”
These comments echo a broader sentiment Le has shared in the past about the rate at which the nonprofit sector loses leaders of color due to burnout and a lack of resources. Multiple surveys have found that 9.5 out of 10 philanthropic organizations are led by white people, and only seven percent of nonprofit chief executives and 18 percent of nonprofit employees are people of color.
Le notes that when executive directors and nonprofit employees of color ask for funding, “Many of us are not taken seriously.” He goes on to say, “The biggest grants are not going to communities of color. We have been trained to just be grateful for any tiny amount of money we get. We need to have more audacity and ammunition to ask for more money. There are so many brilliant organizations out there that deserve this.”
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But Le remains optimistic despite these obstacles, because he believes that these are major issues that can and must be addressed by the larger corporate entities “in the game.” He uses his blog to share the successes both he and the field have had, as well as his nonprofit, RVC. “One of the biggest accomplishments of RVC is expanding our mission to include the operating support program and changing the way we think about capacity building.”
Le notes that his team has been critical to this success, and it appears his team is mutually effusive about Le’s own contributions. April Nishimura, the Director of Capacity Building at RVC, calls Le a “superstar” and says, “Vu is very honest and that’s been special about him as a leader. He’s been able to articulate why you need to fund nonprofits [led by people of color] and he’s not afraid to say this is one way to fight systemic injustice.”
Regina Elmi, cofounder and executive director of one of RVC’s partners, Somali Parents Education Board, says, “One thing that I love about Vu is he is very candid about holding funders accountable. There’s no sugarcoating. He would show them why we deserve the money we need, and they can’t give us breadcrumbs. Having RVC as a partner means I can now focus on things like relationship building. As a community advocacy group, every minute of the day matters for us.”
It is understandable that Le needs to take a break from the exhausting work of running a nonprofit. And it is disappointing that the structure of the current nonprofit sector has left him so burned out at such a young age. As he mentions, funders in particular, as well as nonprofits in general, have been ignoring the problem of attrition of leaders of color. Nonprofits have fallen short in hiring and retaining leaders of color even as the pool of talented leaders grows. This lack of diversity in leadership can cause those in charge to misunderstand or miss completely key community concerns.
Among the largest nonprofits, the problem is even worse than the sector as a whole, with almost 90 percent of the leadership roles occupied by white people. As the Race to Lead study by the Building Movement Project indicates, while white leaders often believe that people of color are uninterested in leadership roles, survey data of people of color in the sector say otherwise. As a result, the study finds that it is necessary for white leaders to change current systems to stop perpetuating these problems. For instance, a study by Community Wealth Partners found that more than 80 percent of nonprofit staff recruit from their own networks and a staggering 75 percent of white Americans do not have any colleagues or friends of color in their networks.
Le’s success in building capacity and leadership among people of color who lead and run nonprofits is noteworthy not only because of the growth and outreach RVC has had, but also because it has succeeded in spite of the obstacles mentioned here.—Kristen Munnelly