Sponsor Spotlight: Rainier Valley Corps
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Vu Le, Executive Director of Seattle’s Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), the creator of the über-popular Nonprofit AF (formerly Nonprofit with Balls) blog, and the closest thing the nonprofit sector has to a celebrity.
Our conversation focused on RVC’s recent decision to launch a fiscal sponsorship program to build on its existing work and help incubate and grow projects in the local area with a tie to its mission. Over the past year or so, Le has made it very clear that he’s an advocate for fiscal sponsorship (including here, here, here and here) and now his organization has taken the plunge.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation covering RVC’s beginnings as a fiscally sponsored project itself, the organization’s decision to become a fiscal sponsor and launch its program, as well as Vu’s candid thoughts on the current state of fiscal sponsorship and a model for the future.
(Special thanks to Vu, and RVC Managing Director Ananda Valenzuela for their help in setting this up and seeing it through.)
Schulman Consulting: Let’s start back at the beginning – RVC began as a fiscally sponsored project of the last organization you worked with – the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA). Can you share some background on that? How was the decision made to have VFA sponsor RVC?
Vu Le: RVC was “grandfathered” in, because I was VFA’s executive director and I unilaterally made the decision. This, however, was not a good way to do it, since VFA’s mission did not include fiscal sponsorship or capacity building, so it was confusing for VFA’s board and led to a bunch of headaches for the incoming ED of VFA. It also highlighted the fact that there were so few fiscal sponsors in the area.
Social justice, strengthening organizations led by communities of color
SC: So when your team started RVC, did you always intend for it to eventually go out on its own or was it just, ‘let’s start this as a program of VFA and see where it goes?’
VL: We knew that eventually we would have to spin off, simply because it was putting unfair burdens on VFA.
SC: So let’s talk about RVC becoming a fiscal sponsor, was this something you were always thinking about just because of RVC’s existing programs and knowing that there aren’t a lot of fiscal sponsors in your area, or is it something where there was a light bulb moment or how did that decision come about?
VL: Fiscal sponsorship services has been something many leaders had been advocating for in the area, but due to the costs and complexity of it, not many organizations were tackling it in more than a low-key way. As RVC did our work and got to know many organizations led by and serving communities of color, it became clear that the needs were great, and we had a chance to provide an invaluable service to the community.
SC: How does this work fit in with RVC’s ‘alliance’ way of thinking?
VL: We are still exploring what we are calling the Community Alliance model, where organizations share operations support and work deeply together to build community wealth and power. Fiscal sponsorship seems like a good way to do it. But we’ve just started fiscally sponsoring organizations a year ago, so there is still much to learn. So far though, it’s been great, but we’ve been so focused on providing operations support. Moving forward, I’d love for RVC to delve more into the alliance building aspect, where organizations mutually support one another and build collective power.
SC: So, the first time – when you were sponsored by VFA – it was a quick decision to sponsor RVC. How much discussion was there this time, with RVC’s decision to become a sponsor, with the Board or anyone else?
VL: We definitely learned from our experience with VFA, whom we will always be grateful to for being so patient and supportive. We were a lot more intentional this time around, getting input and ownership from RVC’s board and staff. We worked together over months to gather feedback from partners, analyze it, and made the decision in a day-long retreat to be a fiscal sponsor. There’s full buy-in from everyone.
SC: Where is RVC now in the process of setting up your fiscal sponsorship program?
VL: It’s fully running. We now have nine partner organizations, with more coming. We are hiring additional operations support staff to ensure our partners are well supported. [Note – This is incredible growth since the program was launched less than 12 months ago.]
SC: Was there a reason behind why RVC decided to launch its program when it did?
VL: RVC started with a fellowship program where we recruited brilliant leaders of color, trained them, and placed them to work at partner organizations, where they helped with fundraising, program planning and implementation, marketing, etc. After a year, we asked our partner organizations what else they needed to increase their capacity. Many said that they did not have the time or resources to handle operations and administrative tasks.
SC: Does RVC have any goals around the fiscal sponsorship program at this point or are you taking a more wait and see approach?
VL: We are still very new, so we’re taking a wait-and-see-and-analyze-and-try-and-fail-and-learn-and-iterate approach.
SC: I just have a few nuts and bolts questions. It sounds like RVC is focused on Model A fiscal sponsorship where the projects become part of your organization. Is that correct?
VL: Yes, we only do comprehensive fiscal sponsorship. Really, we do “Model A+,” because we integrate capacity-building into our fiscal sponsorship model — all fiscally sponsored partners also receive capacity-building support that is customized to their needs. This can look like board development, grant writing, strategic planning, supervision, or whatever else they may need.
SC: What are the sponsorship fees for your program?
VL: We charge 10% to 14% of expenses (not revenues).
SC: I know you’re just getting started and aren’t really looking to grow at the moment, but if you had people applying for sponsorship, what types of things would you look for in those projects?
VL: We are looking for organizations that align with RVC’s values of advancing equity and social justice, doing it with integrity, being community-minded, and willing to take action in order to transform our world for the better. In particular, learning organizations that are eager to give and receive feedback and grow together are an excellent fit for us. We’re looking for organizations that believe in supporting and working together with other organizations.
SC: How is the idea of fiscal sponsorship perceived in the Pacific Northwest? Are there any challenges with funders?
VL: There’s still some stigma associated with it, where you’re not seen as a “real, legit” organization unless you have your own status. And some funders still reinforce this by refusing to fund orgs that are fiscally sponsored. Ironically, funders complain about the fact that there are too many nonprofits, and yet when a group is fiscally sponsored, they don’t support them. This is really too bad, and something we’re trying to change people’s minds on. The sector would be a lot more effective if nonprofits can partner with an organization like RVC so they can focus on their missions and not spend half their time on critical but time-consuming operations.
SC: Seeing as you’ve worked for a sponsor and a sponsored project and are now becoming a sponsor organization once again, do you have any advice for those nonprofits who may be considering launching a fiscal sponsorship program?
VL: I would say do your research to ensure there is a need in your community. If there is, then figure out where your focus will be and what model will be needed to make it work. RVC is not just a fiscal sponsor; we focus on capacity-building for grassroots organizations led by and serving communities of color. Because of that, for example, we are heavily subsidized by foundations. It’ll be a while before we break even, if we ever do. Make sure you’re OK with that, if you go down that path. Also, make sure you know what your values are, because it is critical in determining which organizations to partner with.
Do you have any questions about RVC’s approach or process for launching their fiscal sponsorship program? Do you know of a sponsor that we should feature? Please let us know in the comments below.