Photo depicting Amy L. Piñon sitting on a leather couch, an office kitchen in the background.

OPINION: I Won’t Be Quiet About Healing From Nonprofit Harm

by Amy L. Piñon

In the summer of 2019, I had a very public breakup with the arts nonprofit where I had worked for six years. Two staff had just been fired, seemingly out of nowhere. They had been leading the organization on internal restructuring and equitable practices. The work was going well and conversations were fruitful. The board and leadership were vocally supportive. Until they weren’t.

I and several other staff members responded to the firings by writing a public letter to the organization’s community of supporters, asking for their help in holding leadership accountable, reinstating staff, and conducting a transparent investigation. Unfortunately, this threw the organization into more turmoil and ultimately led to my departure.

It’s still painful to process everything that happened that summer, but what I gained was a more intimate understanding of how the nonprofit sector is failing on its equity promises. 

It wasn’t until I left the nonprofit industry that I could fully process the ways in which I was harmed by it. I was in a state of constant burnout. And I wasn’t even aware of how burnt out I was because productivity culture had ingrained itself so deeply in me that I believed there was something wrong with me for being so tired. Then there was the tokenism, the microaggressions, the insubstantial paycheck and the general pay disparity.

As I “moved up” in the organization and practically became the entire communications department (another issue within nonprofits — one person holding the role of an entire department), it became harder for me to see my work as truly meaningful and ethical. It felt like I was pouring into a system that wasn’t pouring back into me, at least not anymore. I had plateaued in my skill development at the organization and had been thinking about leaving for a while. But I knew it was time to go after leadership doubled down on their dismissal of the equity work underway — issuing an ultimatum to either get on board and stop questioning their authority or to leave. The result was a mass exodus of staff — some who were fired, some laid off, and others who resigned.

On the outside, most nonprofits have a great track record of “equitable” practices, mostly because they tout lofty mission statements that include “ending poverty,” “serving the ‘underserved,’” and “undoing racism.” Taken at face value, these seem like noble undertakings, and surely organizations ARE creating programs and opportunities that work toward these missions in some way. The mission statements are sometimes cringeworthy, but the work is often impactful and positive.

The problems with equity more often lie on the inside.

Truly embodying equity as an organization involves constantly learning and adapting. It means challenging institutions that intersect with nonprofits, because they contribute to the problems too (such as grants with reporting requirements that create more work for certain staff but don’t provide funds to compensate for that extra work). It means that leaders at the top of the organizational chart don’t get to make all the decisions by default and must cede some of their power in order to let others lead. We need to challenge the entire system that is in place, because “we’ve always done it this way” is no longer an option.

Unfortunately, there are too many stories of BIPOC entering organizations, voicing their concerns, trying to disrupt the “business as usual” complacency, and then becoming cast as a villain — insubordinate because you are pushing against power. 

After I left, I started to see more and more of these stories emerging — sometimes publicly, but more often privately. A former coworker floated an idea to me and I decided to run with it: Make a documentary about nonprofit harm and healing.

I’ve never seen it done before, and I feel uniquely positioned to direct it. After years of gaining experience in filmmaking largely for the purpose of developing fundraising videos, I’m now working for myself and have complete control over what I make. It’s time to turn the lens onto these stories from deep within the nonprofit industry. Stories that are seldom told publicly for fear of retaliation, fear of not being able to find new work, or fear of the system itself.

The goal of my film is not to attack the nonprofit industry or call out any particular organization for perpetuating harm. I do not regret any of my years spent working within nonprofits, and all the ways in which I was able to grow personally and professionally with every experience. I believe in these organizations’ missions. It’s completely possible to criticize an inherently flawed structure and still love the groundwork. That’s exactly why people speak up instead of leaving immediately.

I want this film to spark real conversations from the heart — beyond the buzzwords and nonprofit jargon — to create actionable change and collective healing.

Through my pre-interviews for this film, I’m learning that, while there might not be a single solution, there ARE tangible steps and mindset shifts that can happen when everyone — staff, board, funders, and the greater community — are on the same page about creating equitable change. Organizations must lead with PEOPLE at the forefront — as opposed to work identities or bottom lines — in order to break through surface conversations of “race and social justice.”

I invite everyone — current and former nonprofit workers, board members, executive directors, funders, those who have never worked at a nonprofit, and those who are critical of this film concept — to consider the positive potential of a transformed nonprofit industry (and your personal place in transforming it).

There are so many incredible insights from my pre-interviews that I want to share, but I won’t share them here. I want you to hear the stories for yourself in this film. Please contribute to the campaign.

Amy L. Piñon (she/her) is a filmmaker, photographer, and audio engineer emerging in the field of visual storytelling.

📸 Featured image courtesy of Amy L. Piñon.

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