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By Nate Levin-Aspenson, writer and grants manager

When I was a kid, my mom (shoutout to my mom), found this catalog in the back of a Lego instruction booklet that let us call the Lego company and order little packages of specific Lego pieces.

This was a game-changer in our house.

Because whenever we got that big blue Lego bucket out, we were always on the hunt for those little fiddly pieces that were so hard to find. Joints. Hinges. Those little toggles that make the Lego people look like they’re using a joystick. All of them worth their weight in gold if you wanted to build a cool robot or a spaceship with a working hatch (which, as it happens, I often did).

One particularly fortunate Christmas, I was gifted with the set of all sets to delight the detail-obsessed child: Darth Maul’s Sith Infiltrator from “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

This thing had it all — adjustable wings? Check. Hatches? Check. A little scooter that pops out for him to ride around on? Oh yeah, that’s a check.

But enchanted as I was by the clever detailing on this Lego recreation of Mr. Maul’s personal chariot, it wasn’t long before I looked at those adjustable wings with greedy eyes.

After all, every collection of parts shares the same destiny.

I. Horse manure and other problems

Not to switch gears here, but did you know there was a time when London was on track to be completely buried in horse manure? New York City, too. In 1894, one article estimated that within 50 years, the city would be buried under nine feet of dung. It was such a huge problem that it compelled all of the foremost urban planners in the world to come together for the very first global urban planning conference in 1898.

People thought it could be the end of living in cities.

Which all seems a little bit silly now because, well, it wasn’t. All of those roads were repurposed for cars and motor vehicles, and by 1914, that crisis had been relegated to the history shelf.

Of course, cars come with their own problems. Here in the U.S., our transportation systems are overwhelmingly built around cars. Our highways and interstates produce gridlock, collisions, and deaths on a daily basis. In 2016, 37,461people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, an average of 102 deaths per day.

And then there’s the small matter of car and truck emissions making up one-fifth of U.S. carbon emissions, hastening climate change and the demise of the human race.

But hey, at least we aren’t buried in manure.

II. Our friend, the wheel

Whatever — this isn’t an essay about cars. It’s an essay about Legos nonprofits! This should be obvious by now.

We work in a sector that is defined by its structures. The structure of board governance. The structure of tax-exemptions. Heck, the only reason our job exists is because the structure of liberal (definition 2.b.) capitalism assumes a large class of people who do not have everything they need.

The evaluation of each piece gets more complex as the structures they are a part of grow in complexity.

Those structures are made up of pieces — the volunteerism of the board, the indirect public support of tax designations, the individual needs left unmet by government and business and community. Each piece has a relationship to the other pieces that, interconnected, make up the structure. Each piece has effects that they produce independently and effects they produce within the structure.

Crucially, the two are not always the same.

Take our good friend, the wheel. Along with its best friend and partner, the axle, they’re probably the most important simple machine in the world. (Don’t try me, pulley stans.)

On their own, the wheel and axle are incredible force amplifiers. They’ve probably saved an incalculable amount of energy over the course of human history. Hand-carts? Carriages? Little red wagons that children can use to pull slightly smaller children?

Great stuff. We love it.

Well, then let’s add an internal combustion engine to the mix. With that, our wheel and axle can take us much further much faster. Pretty cool so far. Even though the whole affair is very loud and the exhaust smells bad and it’s more dangerous — it’s probably a net gain so far. Right?

Now, it’s 100 years later. Inflation and traffic congestion have killed the electric streetcar. Now we’re grappling with all of the economic and environmental consequences of a world that runs on cars.

The evaluation of each piece gets more complex as the structures they are a part of grow in complexity.

Is the wheel bad? Probably not.

Are cars bad? Sort of? They have a lot of utility, but also a lot of drawbacks.

Are transport systems based on small motorized vehicles bad? Well.

III. My favorite track is ‘Soliciting Detailed Feedback’ — it slaps

So what happens when we apply this lens to nonprofits and fundraising?

Take the board structure (please!)

The individual units that make up a board are a relationship between an organization and a community member who cares about the mission who helps guide and govern the organization.

Sounds fine so far.

But what happens when we bundle 6-20 of those relationships into a group and ask them to do all of the high-level decision-making and governance, with little to no preparation or experience, for an organization?

What happens when those relationships are tangled up in white supremacy and its culture?

The simple machine — a stakeholder offering guidance and expertise — starts to produce problems as part of a more complex system. We’ve all seen boards made up of people, who all showed up for the right reasons to do the right thing, still struggle and fail, all the while creating additional work for staff members. And those are the good ones.

Our current model of board governance is inefficient, ineffective, and calcifies organizational power in the hands of mostly white, mostly wealthy people.

At the same time, there are elements worth salvaging. Organizations will probably always need stakeholder guidance in the same way vehicles will probably continue to need wheels.

Similarly, there are simple machines within fundraising and donor-centered practices that work pretty dang well.

Centering relationships between organizations and donors is still a heck of a lot better than centering transactions between organizations and donors. Joy is still a stronger and more enjoyable motivator than guilt or obligation.

And that’s before we get to club bangers like the tested appeal letter.

But how can we get any of those good elements out when they are currently trapped inside huge, complicated, and harmful structures?

How, indeed.

IV. In which I finally put feudalism in its place

It may be tempting to steer the current structures as they now exist towards better ends. I spent most of my life believing in the process of improving systems incrementally, so I understand the impulse. The problem, again, is that white supremacy is baked into these systems.

I grew up in the United States in a state called North Carolina, which out of all the Carolinas is certainly the best one. I didn’t find out until much later (on this cool website) that I grew up on the land of the Shakori and Lumbee peoples.

The United States is, among other things, a liberal democracy, part of a movement of liberal democracies that broke from the power of European monarchies during the century when it was very fashionable to do so. This era marked the end of feudalism, which was a pretty good development, all told.

Hot take: Feudalism was bad.

And hey, there is some good stuff in this liberal democracy. The idea that all people are created equal was very radical (among Europeans) at the time, and the concept of inalienable rights that could not be infringed upon by the state was a marked improvement over the previous concept where they absolutely could be.

A government that derives its power from the consent of the governed? Very chill.

Unfortunately, the signing founders were kidding about basically all of the values they claimed to hold — unless you, like them, held a very specific and alarmingly racist definition of what a ‘person’ is.

The United States was born as a slaveholding republic built on stolen native land, and it has never known a day since when people were not kidnapped and held in slavery within its borders.

I bring this up not because I’m a huge bringdown and killjoy (although I am), but because it is relevant to the topic at hand.

Here in the U.S., as in many parts of the world, white supremacy is built into the culture and structures around us so deeply that we literally cannot see it unless we know how to look. That includes the structures of nonprofits and fundraising.

It may be tempting to steer the current structures as they now exist towards better ends. I spent most of my life believing in the process of improving systems incrementally, so I understand the impulse. The problem, again, is that white supremacy is baked into these systems.

I’ve personally tried to use whiteness as a tool to undermine whiteness before and, trust me, it doesn’t work.

I remember with grim clarity the moment when I caught myself enjoying the act of wielding my privilege for just causes. In that moment of clarity, I could feel the immense machinery of white supremacy moving around me, and I had let myself be a simple machine within it. I let my guard down, and it swallowed me up again. As it is always waiting to do.

A lever cannot move itself. Some parts simply have to be torn out.

No easy task, considering this part is connected to all the other ones.

In conclusion: the big blue bucket

The harm that these pieces incur as part of larger structures has to be addressed. We owe it to our communities, and to our donors, to take the bad pieces out and put the good pieces back together.

It is a tragedy of every movement that the next struggle will begin before the work of the current struggle is finished.

Donor-centered fundraising (among other things) may feel unfinished, like it only needs more time in order to fully realize its vision. After all, most organizations have failed to fully implement it. We don’t live in the world of donor-centrism the way we live in the world of liberal democracy and cars. But we don’t want to get too caught up shoveling manure off the sidewalk that a climate crisis of our own sneaks up on us.

Even the community-centric fundraising movement will not be in the vanguard forever. We will always discover new ways to do our work better, and the future will demand even more radical change from our sector and the people within it.

But will that mean that racial equity and social justice will not continue to be important? Does that mean commitment to economic justice or fostering a sense of belonging will be discarded?

Of course not.

Just like the advances of the community-centric model do not mean leaving behind the utility of testing, mutual respect and partnership with donors, the joy of giving, or other advances made by donor-centric fundraising.

There are good pieces in there. Cool hinges and joints. The wheel is in there! (With its best friend, the axle)

But there is a highway system in there as well.

The harm that these pieces incur as part of larger structures has to be addressed. We owe it to our communities, and to our donors, to take the bad pieces out and put the good pieces back together.

Which I think will be a lot of fun.

The best part of every Lego set, even one as meticulously designed as Darth Maul’s Sith Infiltrator from “Star Wars Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” was taking them apart.

Eventually, every piece went back into the big blue bucket.

We would upend that bucket onto the floor and my eyes would widen as I hunted for the joints and hinges among the multicolored bricks, already thinking of ways to combine the best ideas from the instructions with all the new ideas racing through my head.

Y’all, I don’t know if the pieces of all these broken systems can be rebuilt into something good.

But the only way to find out is to take them apart — and try again.

Nate Levin-Aspenson

Nate Levin-Aspenson

Nate Levin-Aspenson (he/him) is a writer and fundraiser based in Rhode Island. Born and raised in Durham, NC, he has since left the South, aking the good word of White Lily flour with him.  He currently serves as the Lead Grants and Foundations Relations Manager at Newport Mental HealthHe needs to renew his membership with the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Rhode Island Chapter, but has the tab open and is definitely going to do it next week. You can get in touch with him by email and you can often find him staring into the void on Twitter.

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