Conversation with 2018 Professional Achievement Award Winner, Ray Li

Congratulations to Ray Li, the winner of this year’s Professional Achievement Award! Ray is not only a strong leader in the sector, but also the first person of color to receive the award. We sat down with Ray to talk about this and other thoughts he had about the sector.

Can you tell us about an early philanthropic experience that shaped you into who you are today?

The most memorable experience was when I was 12. We celebrated my grandfather’s 75th birthday and his and my grandmother’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was in Indonesia at this huge restaurant with over 600 people on each of two floors. I was amazed at the sheer number of people there. Everyone that arrived made a point to stop and shake my grandfather’s hand and to pay him and my grandmother their respect.

I had no idea that he had so many friends – I really didn’t get that many chances to visit him – living so far away. My dad later shared with me that my grandfather helped found the first school for Chinese families in that city in Indonesia. This was during a time when people of Chinese descent were being persecuted. The school he founded was a benevolent gathering place for the Chinese community. In retaliation for this bold effort to bring together the community, the local authorizes burned the school down and arrested my grandfather. After his release and a change in tide in the political environment, he helped to rebuild the school. Seeing all the people there celebrating my grandfather and the legacy he left was the first time I witnessed the power that one person can have in making a difference in the lives of others.

This is the first time this award has been presented to a person of color. What does that mean to you?

I remember when I started in fundraising and when I would look around me, there were very few people of color (POC) doing this work. I don’t think it was because we weren’t invited or that we weren’t valued. I think it was because we either didn’t know this work existed, or we weren’t programmed to even consider it as a choice to make.

I was on the parental influence track of becoming a doctor. I had spent high school and college completing pre-requisites for medical school. After spending endless hours volunteering in clinics, conducting research and in the hospital, I just couldn’t see myself doing this for my career. I knew it was important work and that I could see the impacts immediately, but it just didn’t feel right. What excited me was working with the community, with young people, with people who had ambition and gumption. In my volunteer work with youth development and leadership, I saw that I had an opportunity and a role to play in helping to change the balance of who held roles of leadership. That is, if I had such a hard time seeing this as a role for myself, then I could only imagine how many others were in the same boat.

That’s where visible presence, active outreach, and personal connections mean the difference between helping people to explore this profession or to have them continuing to feel like this isn’t a place for them. That’s one the reasons why I love teaching so much. You get to see people, to personally encourage them and to move them along

The fact of the matter is, the nation is saddled with a leadership crisis. We don’t have adequate representation of leaders of color and when we look at leaders of color leading organizations that benefit POC’s, the numbers are even worse. Just like everyone else, we sometimes get too comfortable and don’t fight the good fight or shy away from stepping up. Or we wonder, what is the purpose of stepping up and putting yourself out there… my job is perfectly good. But is it?

At the end of the day, just taking one step at a time, and not looking at the overall daunting problem, has a benefit. I was lucky enough to have been invited to teach the UW Fundraising Management Certificate and in doing so I exponentially exposed myself to that many more people, and people of color. I was also regularly invited to speak in a variety of classes at Seattle University. Those were opportunities to address a variety of audience and to bring them into the fold. Were they all POC? No. Were they in class together with POC? Yes. Does seeing someone who is a POC speak with authority make them think twice about the efficacy and impact that POC’s have? Yes. Exposure and normalizing is an important aspect of what AFP can do to build an inclusive culture. While we may consider the broader sector having gaps, just seeing the impact we can have from the fundraising community is powerful.

You talk about the importance of visible presence. What ideas do you have for increasing inclusion in the sector?

There is an unrealized impact of visually seeing someone that represents you in a leadership position or getting an award like this. What people see tells a story. It’s one thing for an organization to have a diversity plan or include equity into a strategic plan. It’s different when belonging is visually articulated. Until people are comfortable seeing and experiencing leadership from people with various backgrounds, it only exists as an intellectual conversation instead of being fully internalized and realized.

That is why I was so passionate about board training when I was board president after the AFP and NDOA merger. I wanted us to do something that would empower each person take what they learned back to the organizations they worked for. That is why we focused on anti-bias training. I felt that would have the most impact. It will make our community and sector more creative, strategic and effective in the long run.

I also think it is important to lead by actions. A lot of what I focus on as a board member are small actions that increase diversity and inclusion. Things like making sure there were affordable options for smaller nonprofits interested in posting jobs on the AFP career center. Like sharing what we do on the website so that others can see how we are deliberate and thoughtful with our actions. We, as leaders in our organizations, can create and influence change. We can easily spin ourselves up around large conversations that ultimately don’t result in actions or, we can find ways to make small changes and build from there. You need actions to make a difference – big or small.

Is there a message you would like to share with people of color in the nonprofit community?

What we stand to lose in all of this is that we will continue to have our diverse communities feeling like outsiders in what is otherwise a fairly monochromatic set of values of what it means to be an American. Our demographics are changing and nothing we can do as a group could change that - nor should we. What we can do is to adequately reflect those changes, enhance areas of our work where they are not as well represented and continue to tell the story through the eyes of POC. All of this takes time. While the bigger stats don’t reflect the change and impact, I’ve been exposed to the change and I see the change. Is there more to do? Of course. Can we talk more about it? Of course. But simply, we just each have to do a small part in order for the whole to change.

Switching topics, what would you recommend to someone to is early in their career and looking for advice on how to be successful?

Put yourself out there. In the early days, your ego leads you to want to be successful. You need to have checks and balances and someone or a group to bounce ideas off of. We set up affinity groups in Advancement Northwest just for this purpose. They give you the chance to find your tribe and to engage others in your work and passions. We all need different things at different points in time and your peer network gives you people who can give you what you need as you evolve.

Social media in effect has short-circuited what it means to be human. While it has an important role in our evolving society, it has also caused us to lose sight of who we are as social beings. We need to spend time with one another; to talk, to debate, to explore and to resolve. The efforts of the merger wouldn’t have been possible without a group of us first starting at the smallest increment – a conversation between a few people – then building to a larger group and eventually with the two respective boards. This takes time and patience. Just like our work building communities in support of our respective organizations.

Take the time to connect with each person - to get to know them and to share your commonalities and to leave room for debate. It seems so basic, but when we are challenged each day to prioritize what is important between work and life, we tend to skimp on this critical aspect.

You mention connections. How meaningful are the peer connections you’ve made with other fundraisers?

In my experience, most people who are in this work are in it to make the world a better place. Being part of boards, getting my MNPL degree and volunteering all have afforded me levels of access that others dream of. What I’ve learned is that you need to make yourself available to the possibilities and take the step – and while you are there, take full advantage of that opportunity affords you. This is a step in a journey and not an answer to a quest.

We expel a lot of energy out as fundraisers. With the exception of when you secure the support you were hoping for, there are few instances when energy comes in. It is not a balanced equation. My network helps me rebalance. My peers stimulate me in a different way than our donors or our staff teams. They give me someone to commiserate with. They provide an emotional support network. They are my team outside of work that help push me outside of my complacency zone. They are a mirror and door for new exploration.

You came from Neighborhood House and started with a fundraising team of one. Do you have any thoughts for people working in small nonprofits?

Everything I’ve said before is relevant for people in small shops. You have to know when to prioritize, when everything is equally important. Without a network to draw from it is hard to make those priority decisions.

When I started at Neighborhood House, the board announced, “Ray’s here and he’s going to do all the fundraising for us”. As a newly minted Development Director and only 26, I thought that was normal. Boy was I ever wrong. As I started to understand what was needed, I had to really change the way I thought about the work. We had a small team to start, just myself and half the time of another. We set out to connect with all the program staff in all our sites. This was a just as much a conversation for us to learn as it was for us to share what we had planned. We learned so much about philanthropy from our diverse staff and community. We also had to build bridges with each board member. We needed ambassadors: people who would be willing to take on development roles. This part took time. But when we had our first board member go on a cultivation visit and then to later to receive a grant from the organization, we couldn’t be stopped!

When you have someone to talk to along the way, you don’t have to learn all the painful lessons yourself. You can benefit from the hive mind. Experiences like Janet Boguch’s Table Talks and affinity groups are great for creating a safe space to discuss issues. It is difficult when we don’t know everything, but people expect us to know it at the same time. That is where your community comes in, especially in small shops.

Do you have any final thoughts to share?

I want to see a national moral fiber be re-established. We have become “anti” stuff. There is no affinity for people to feel part of something. We used to have a moral fiber, but as the population moves away from religion and community groups, it is decreasing. Politics should be central to that conversation...says the Canadian! I want the philanthropic sector to be part of that by creating a groundswell of generosity around shared cultural beliefs for the nation. A movement that will fuel the hopes and dreams of people and allow us to become better neighbors and to be active leaders and participants in our future.

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