Besties or frenemies? The real story behind government, foundation and non-profit partnerships.

This past week I was on a panel discussion about understanding and connecting with communities. As Seattle becomes more diverse–economically, culturally, linguistically–there has been a rising interest in how to better engage, and ultimately serve, these emerging communities.

On the panel were representatives from City government, a gentleman from a local Foundation, and me–speaking from the non-profit perspective. Together, we represented “the big three.”

The moderator asked questions like, “How do you use data to understand the community and shape programs, investments and strategies” and “What tools do you use to understand your community?” We each shared how our respective institutions uniquely approached community development. Sometimes our work and vision clearly align (besties!), and other times we butt heads  (frenemy).

Rather than going into too much technical detail, I decided to write a fairy tale to explain the magical world of government, foundations and non-profits.


The Immigrant versus the Three Magi

A long, long time ago, far away in sleepy land cursed with eternal rain and little sun, there lived three magi: Government, Foundation and Non-Profit. Together, they watched over the entire kingdom with good intention and grace; each blessed with a different gift.

Government was born with the gift of influence, and lived in great hall filled with cubicles so massive they are rumored to steal one’s soul. Any man, woman, or child unfortunate enough to mistakenly wander into the hall would be lost and forgotten beneath reams of paperwork for all of eternity.

Foundation was blessed with wealth and lived in an ivory castle high above the clouds. There, she enjoyed a life filled with gold, jewelry and retirement benefits. Though Foundation had many suitors with whom to share her wealth, she was always hampered by a fear of long-term commitment.

Finally, Non-Profit–the smallest but most beautiful of the three–had neither influence nor wealth, but was given the gift of heart (and lavishing skin with perfectly symmetrical facial features). Non-Profit lived in a humble abode, which he had to split with other two roommates because he couldn’t afford rent.

Once a year the three magi emerged from within their walls to meet with the kingdom’s inhabitants, and each other. The gathering was known as the Great Equity Summit, an annual celebration where the magi granted audience to the people, listened to their needs, and offered solutions to their problems.

“Send in the first citizen,” announced Government.

“Your majesties, I am a poor shopkeeper who recently came to this Kingdom from across the eastern ocean, in a place called the Orient. I was able to find moderate success selling gluten-free water at the local market, but recently the cost of living has risen faster than my income. Now I can’t support my family and I am worried we will lose our home. Other families are growing anxious and more desperate too. Please help us.”

“Your words have moved me stranger,” replied Government, “and if what you say is true, then we must begin by carefully studying this problem. I shall appoint an independent Royal Assessor to collect data on other citizens in your neighborhood. We will conduct surveys, organize focus groups, and host community gatherings to get the input we need for a written report. Only then will I be adequately informed to make a decision.”

“We must act now!” interrupted Non-Profit. “What you need are new skills and opportunities for leadership. I shall create a job training program to teach you English and math, and find you an internship with the local masons. With hard work, you will earn a higher income, save your home, and strengthen your family.” Non-Profit spoke with passion and determination. “But first, is there anyone in this great Kingdom willing and able to volunteer as a tutor, case manager, and/or web designer for the shopkeeper?”

“No, no, no.” said Foundation. “That won’t achieve lasting impact. We need to be strategic and create a road map that will guide our work. I offer a grand competition for people, or corporations, to submit proposals that will address this urgent problem. We will gather new, innovative ideas and rank them according to factors like board composition, spelling, sustainability, and overhead. The champion will be announced in six weeks, and afterward we shall feast on lobster tails sprinkled with gold dust.”

“Foundation, you need to check your privilege ,” cried Non-Profit. “Your ‘grand competition’ always declares the same White Knight as champion.” Foundation felt hurt that her love and kindness was rejected by Non-Profit, who she secretly admired. In anger, she scratched his eyes and put him in a headlock.

“Let me go at once!!!” said Non-Profit. “Biases! Biases I say! Let me go.”

“Say ‘collective impact,’ then I’ll let you go,” yelled Foundation. “Say it!”

Government stepped in to break up the fight. “Friends, be civil, please. Let’s put this to a vote!”

“Everyone be quiet!” yelled the shopkeeper. “Stop fighting with each other; it’s not making anything better. None of you ever listen to the community. You’re always just set in your own ways. Government, you’re paralyzed by process and analysis. Foundation, you spend more time in the clouds than with people like me. Non-Profit, I appreciate all of your energy and enthusiasm, but your volunteers are unreliable.”

The three magi were stunned–no one had ever dared to raise their voice against them before. They all felt embarrassed and thought about the shopkeeper’s words. “Perhaps…it would be best if we worked together,” admitted Government, who agreed to set new affordable housing policies. Foundation decided to use her wealth to support grassroots champions of all colors and creeds. And Non-Profit committed to hiring permanent staff to provide services.

Everyone celebrated this huge milestone, for it represented what could be accomplished when Government, Foundation and Non-Profit used their gifts and talents to support one another.

“Lobster tails for everyone!” Foundation said joyously.

“Finally, a summit the resulted in action!” echoed Non-Profit.

“Wait a minute stranger…” interrupted Government. “You mentioned that you came from the Orient. My data says your people are college educated and high-income homeowners. What gives?”

The shopkeeper, having had his wished fulfilled, ran out the door and yelled “I’m Southeast Orient. Learn how to disaggregate your data, jerk face!”

***The End***


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