Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits & Foundations Can Build EPIC Partnerships

Regardless of what corner of the social sector you work in, you're probably working to make the world a better place. At a time when many scorn and deride such an ambition, Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build Epic Partnerships urges social-sector changemakers to roll up their sleeves and get to work on improving the relationships necessary to drive the progress we all want to see.

Written by Jessamyn Shams-Lau, executive director of the Peery Foundation, Jane Leu, founder and CEO of Smarter Good, and Vu Le, executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, the book is a highly creative attempt to deconstruct the classic dichotomy between grantmaker and grantseeker — and why not? One can't exist without the other, and changemakers often jump back and forth between the two. But first, what do they mean by "unicorn"? A unicorn, according to the authors, is "a persistent, visionary, and dedicated nonprofit or foundation professional who shines with brilliance and practices humility." And why are they great? Because they are bad-ass; they provide jobs and strengthen the economy; they handle stuff no one else wants to do; they restore and build community; they amplify voices that aren't heard; they stand defiantly against injustice; and they create hope. What's more, we all have unicorn potential inside us. Shams-Lau, Leu, and Le are here to help us find it.

The first step in that journey takes the form of a pep-talk, a much-needed moment of levity before readers are led into the nitty-gritty of all the ways in which our professional relationships are dysfunctional. The authors then dive into "What Is," highlighting some of the key issues in the "unicorn family" dynamic with real-life examples, including distrust, jealousy, power imbalance, fear, hypocrisy, time wasting, disrespect, and a lack of listening and honesty. In the process, they note that while those of us working in the sector have everything we need to foster better relationships within and beyond our organizations, too often we put ourselves into "boxes" — "Foundations are often funder-centric. Nonprofits are often nonprofit-centric. [And we] are all often egocentric" — and that these boxes often turn into "nightmares." Indeed, we spend so much time focused on what's going wrong in these nightmares that we end up perpetuating them, when we should be focused on solving problems together.

The book shares some of these nightmares, which may be therapeutic or chilling, depending on what "box" you put yourself into. In one example, a funder dangled a half-million-dollar grant in front of a nonprofit unicorn, whose staff spent sixty hours filling out their forms and spreadsheets only to have that funder ask them to let go of current staff and replace them with lower-paid staff, and then reduced the size of the grant to $100,000. In another scenario, a foundation unicorn, trying to be respectful of a nonprofit director's time, asked for materials that had already been prepared for other foundations and let the director know as soon as it was clear that his organization wasn't a good fit — only to be accused of leading him on and effectively ending the nonprofit's work by not funding it. And several foundations and nonprofits share the difficulties they have in being in the same room together as peers.

We all have these nightmares, and we all want to forget about them and move forward, but we get stuck because "we are all afraid to name, and then address, the root causes that create division in our sector." Perhaps the biggest one is, "Whose money is it?" The authors are quick to remind us that "nobody owns the money in a foundation. It belongs to the foundation, which is also not owned by anybody — not even the founder or the board. The funds in a foundation exist to serve the public good." But though we know that to be true, we act as if the money belongs to the people tasked with dispersing it, and "even if it's unconscious, money equals power." Arguably, this unequal power dynamic, more than anything else, shapes the interactions between nonprofits and foundations — and between staff members within an organization. It also leads to what the authors call the "Tyranny of the Hierarchy of Inputs," which is an incredibly useful framing of how money is too often valued above all other inputs and contributions to the outputs we are working for — things like leadership, experience, knowledge, hope, labor, creativity, caring, risk taking — and so diminishes the value of those contributions and the people who make them.

What's more, the distrust that often exists between nonprofits and foundations makes it impossible to fully and openly collaborate on the mutual goals we hope to achieve. In considering trust, for example, a quote from Vu Le's blog, NonprofitAF, rings true: "Funders and nonprofits are most effective when the relationship starts with trust, not suspicion. The default right now is one of mistrust: Is this organization legit? Does it have its 501(c)(3)? Are its staff even qualified? Will it spend my money properly? Will it do what it says it will do? Does it even know what's it doing? Will it embarrass my foundation? All these concerns are often unconscious — and are very similar to the concerns that society has about poor people. They also lead to the ineffective and frustrating practices that, on a daily basis, make nonprofit professionals want to abandon civilization to live in a van down by the river." For those in the nonprofit box, these often unspoken questions can make the work incredibly hard to do. Le makes the argument that we need to stop treating nonprofits the way society treats poor people: we need to stop punishing them for success, and we need to put aside the constant expectation of gratitude. Foundations: you cannot meet your missions without your nonprofit partners. It goes both ways, and that's why the grantmaker-grantseeker dichotomy is so damaging.

But there's hope! In part two of the book, "What Could Be," the authors stress the importance of being clear about our dreams for the social sector, what they call "Unicorn Dreams." One such dream is that "nonprofits and foundations [will eventually] excel at building peer relationships based on equality, respect, trust, shared standards, and common (bolder!) goals." They then share a number of dreams straight from actual unicorn mouths that touch on what the relationship could be, and how better, stronger relationships would transform their work and the work of the sector more broadly. Those dreams range from the big but practical, like foundations giving away six- and seven-figure multiyear operating support grants; to the more nuanced, like practicing radical honesty and empathy; to the ever simple but difficult-to-achieve golden rule: that foundations and nonprofits treat each other the way they themselves wish to be treated.

This leads Shams-Lau, Leu, and Le to a larger dream, one in which nonprofits and foundations work together to coordinate and advance real social change. Of course, that would mean eliminating habits that don't serve our communities well, expanding our current definitions of collaboration and partnership, and setting aside egos and insecurities to become more than the sum of our parts. In such a world, foundations and nonprofits focused on the same issue or community would come together in a movement driven by results, rather than money, a movement that embodied equity and empowerment over old power dynamics. It's a dream that reminds one of the saying that you can go faster alone, but you can go farther together.

The final pages of part two comprise a workbook of sorts, one that encourages readers to let their imagination run wild with respect to what their dream partnerships would look like. The authors  want readers to get messy, to let their words and imaginations flow, to not let the perfect get in the way of the good. And they use this part of the book to explain the concept of EPIC partnerships, in which those of us in the social sector equally value all inputs; prioritize the needs of those we serve; increase trust and empathy; and commit to big, bold, better outcomes. This framework is what the authors call the "Unicorn Manifesto."

The third and final part of the book is where readers get to put the manifesto into action through active exercises. This workbook-style section allows readers to start wherever they want, to draw, write, skip around, get creative, and collaborate with other colleagues. Some exercises are labeled for nonprofits, some for foundations, and some for both. They're designed to help readers assess the value of different inputs, reduce the time spent on due diligence and reporting, find the courage to ask for what they need, anticipate the unknown, prioritize client needs, recognize the power dynamics at play in their work, dig deeper, collaborate, and champion results, and they all center around empathy, prioritization of the work, and breaking down barriers and power structures, informed by the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Unicorns Unite is characterized by a level of honesty, clarity, and humor rarely seen in social-sector literature. It is simultaneously a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief. The authors remind us of what is most important— our shared goals — and give us insights and exercises designed to help us build better, more effective, more equitable partnerships to achieve those goals. As an aspiring unicorn myself, I encourage my fellow social-sector unicorns to read and share it with your colleagues and peers. The work is hard, but it's so very worthwhile. Or as Shams-Lau, Leu, and Le put it: "We fight poverty and injustice. We restore and promote health and wellbeing. We create and find jobs. We build housing. We educate children and train adults. We preserve nature and wildlife. We secure human rights. We help everyone find their power. We do hard, emotional, thoughtful, caring, challenging work every single day. Build EPIC Partnerships? We are unicorns. We got this. 3, 2, 1, Unicorns Unite!"

Aleda Gagarin is director of development at Foundation Center.

FEATURED OFF THE SHELF