red press
8 min readMar 16, 2018


Dear nonprofit and foundation professionals, you are each a unicorn.

The more I work in the nonprofit sector, the more I am amazed and inspired by the people in it. You are some of the smartest people I know. You could pursue work elsewhere for much better pay and prestige — but you are here, in this sector, fighting each day to help families lift themselves up and to strengthen our communities.

Love, Vu —, 14 February 2014

And with this love letter to the unicorns, the hard-working, mythical, magical people of the nonprofit sector, the unicorn movement began.

Yet, all is not well in the land of unicorns. In fact, we tend to disappoint each other, and act in ways that create nightmares, except that they are real and happen in broad daylight. Which is why we need to talk.

Let’s start with what we know: The Unicorn Family Tree has deep roots and many branches. It includes brilliant human beings who work in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors as leaders, doers, fundraisers, funders, investors, donors, volunteers, entrepreneurs, activists, organizers, researchers, and changemakers of all kinds.

We unicorns are all dedicated to seeing communities and the planet thrive. Yet we can be a highly dysfunctional family. Our family dynamics can be fraught with distrust, power struggles, jealousy, disrespect, time-wasting, and a lack of listening and honest and open communication.

Top Ten ways our Unicorn Family Disappoints


  • We trash talk other nonprofits and bad-mouth foundations
  • We are defensive when given feedback and ignore good advice.
  • We believe (and act like) we are entitled to funds.
  • We say what we think foundations want to hear, whether it’s true or not.
  • We are not transparent with foundations about our challenges, setbacks, and needs.
  • We don’t follow grant guidelines and waste time and money by applying for grants that don’t fit.
  • We take funding rejections personally.
  • We act like martyrs and perpetuate a scarcity mentality.
  • We have an inferiority complex in relation to foundations.
  • We revert to funding pitch mode too frequently.


  • We trash talk other foundations and bad mouth nonprofits.
  • We give advice without understanding the context and don’t seek advice from nonprofits.
  • We don’t trust nonprofits to spend the money where they see it’s most needed.
  • We are not clear on what we do/don’t fund and rarely fund for more than one year at a time.
  • We have longer decision cycles than it takes to conceive and give birth to a baby.
  • We ask for extensive individualized info and evaluation for small amounts of money.
  • We let personal interests drive foundation strategies and set grant priorities without community and nonprofit input.
  • We punish nonprofits for having too much money in reserve.
  • We have a superiority complex in relation to nonprofits.
  • We exclude nonprofits from foundation gatherings because we don’t want them to pitch us.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn our Unicorn nightmares into Unicorn dreams. We can start channeling our energy to efficiently tackle the real enemies: poverty, inequality, and injustice.


By building EPIC Partnerships.

Simple, right?

“But how can we achieve EPIC Partnerships?”, we hear you cry.

First, we have to stop being so crazy about money.

Once a person or a group places their wealth into a foundation, it is no longer theirs. It no longer belongs to individuals or families. It doesn’t belong to staff or boards or corporations or nonprofits. 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.

Even if we know this is true, we all still act as if the money belongs to the foundation’s donor, board, and/or staff. And:

Even if it’s unconscious, Money = Power.

We assign more power to the donors or representatives of the money. A lot more power.

Even if it’s unconscious, People With Money = Powerful People.

Power shapes interactions between boards and staff inside both foundations and nonprofits, and between staff members of nonprofits and foundations. Power determines when and where we meet, how we talk (or don’t talk) with one another, and how much we share (or don’t share). Power determines who has to adhere to character counts and who can write at any length they choose. Power determines who is accessible and responsive and who is not. Power determines who gives and receives advice and feedback. Power determines who is paid for their expertise, who must give it for below-market salaries, and who must give it for free. Power determines who has the final decision, and who doesn’t.

Stacking the inputs of social change from most to least important diminishes the importance of the PEOPLE who contribute those inputs and produce outcomes, especially people and communities most affected by injustice. The hierarchy keeps us in our little boxes of ‘money-giver’ or ‘money-seeker’. It means we are unable to honor and value all the contributions of the people at nonprofits and in communities, which we know extend beyond giving labor in exchange for funding. It means we are unable to honor and value all the contributions of people at foundations, which we know extend beyond giving money. Money — its ownership, and its position at the top of hierarchy — is the number one root cause of most of our Unicorn Family dysfunction.

Second, we have got to start trusting each other.

We tend to put each other into boxes labelled ‘foundation’ or ‘nonprofit’, perpetuating myths that:

  • Foundation people act in unpredictable individualized ways, make arbitrary decisions and aren’t responsive, think their time is more valuable than that of nonprofits, and feel they have the right to call all the shots.
  • Nonprofit people act in ways that are highly transactional, only care about getting more money, over-promise and under-deliver, take everything personally, and don’t know how to manage their organizations well or efficiently.

Foundations and nonprofits are most effective when the relationship starts with trust, not suspicion. The default right now is distrust. Foundations wonder: Is this organization legit? Are its staff even qualified? Will it do what it says it will do? Will it embarrass my foundation?

Nonprofit professionals don’t trust foundations to appreciate, or be comfortable with, the high level of financial risk they take personally and professionally to start, grow and sustain organizations. While they worry about the risk of not being able to make payroll for employees, failing so spectacularly that funders will not give one more dollar (and having to eat cat food in retirement), they are conditioned to hide these risks to instill funder confidence and trust. And so there’s too much overpromising of results, and too little transparency about challenges and needs.

Third, we have got to sort out the ‘double-standards’ thing.

We’ve got two sets of standards in our field: one for nonprofits and one for foundations.

We expect nonprofits to meet strict deadlines for grant request submissions, but we expect foundations will formulate and communicate grant decisions whenever they are ready.

We expect nonprofits to provide as much of their time and information as asked for by foundations, but we expect foundations to protect as much of their time and privacy as they want

We do not expect nonprofits to have reserves, and if they have one, we often question whether they truly need any more money.

We expect foundations to keep huge reserves to enable them to operate in perpetuity, or to their chosen time horizon.

And so on.

Infuriating double-standards like the above get in the way of any partnership, let alone EPIC Partnerships.

Here’s the good news. Unicorns Unite is the ultimate guide to help you turn unicorn nightmares into unicorn dreams.

One day soon, foundations and nonprofits will recognize each other as smart, dazzling, visionary unicorns who want to build beautiful vibrant communities and enrich the planet.

Nonprofits and foundations excel at building peer relationships based on equality, respect, trust, shared standards, and common (bolder!) goals.

We do whatever it takes to help each other thrive and, as a result, everyone thrives.

This is going to take work.

Work on ourselves; work on our nonprofits; work on our foundations; work on our partnerships.

This is a movement, and we want you to join us.

We are unicorns. 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. And we’re all committed to doing it better.

Share this article. Sign the Unicorn Manifesto and demonstrate your commitment to building EPIC Partnerships. Read our book. Dive into our fun and thought-provoking exercises with your peers, staff and board, and community of unicorns. Digest what you’ve learned; then take your newfound knowledge out into the world and create the EPIC Partnerships that are the stuff of your dreams.

Build EPIC Partnerships? We are unicorns. We got this.

The above is an extract from Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations can Build EPIC Partnerships by Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Jane Leu and Vu Le. The book will provide the ideas and talking points for the uncomfortable conversation we really need to have: how can nonprofits and foundations work better together?

See where the Unicorn movement began at and the Kickstarter campaign that brought together more than 200 unicorns who made this book possible.

Join the movement on our Facebook page, Twitter, and Pre-Order the book today!

*Discounts are available when ordering in bulk. Email*



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