Q & A with Ho Nguyen

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ho Nguyen is a queer, first generation Vietnamese American with refugee parents. She holds a master of arts degree in public policy and leadership from the University of St. Thomas, was a 2012 Choice Leadership Institute Fellow and has a background working to address reproductive justice, racism, homelessness and poverty. Nguyen has been a program officer at PFund Foundation since March of 2015

Nguyen talked to Giving Forum about her first year with PFund, how she came to the work and how she’s implementing changes to an already well-functioning organization.

Q: Where was PFund when you came in and where do you see it headed?

A: PFund has been around since 1987, working with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer communities in the upper Midwest, and we now do grantmaking anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 and scholarships anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. We’re constantly looking at what the community needs, what the community is working on, and we try to be as responsive as possible.

Q: PFund’s scholarship program has changed significantly in the past year. What’s different?

A: Traditionally, it has been geared towards just academic scholarships. This year we’ve expanded to also include leaders. In thinking about multiple pathways in which people are able to grow into their own, we recognized that college may not always be the mechanism. So the program has expanded to include folks looking to further advance their leadership or professional development.

Q: How did you make this change to the scholarship program?

A: When Jessica Zimmerman (program manager at PFund) and I jumped on board, we were handed the scholarship program and, before we made any changes, had the idea that we should probably get to know the community and get to know who the stakeholders were. So, in our first couple of months, we went to North Dakota, we went to South Dakota, and we talked to folks in Minnesota.

We came back from all those trips and all those conversations and tried as much as possible to really plot out the political and social landscape. One thing we kept seeing over and over was this idea that a lot of people, especially in North and South Dakota, are doing this work, organizing, running one person shops doing queer justice work. They’re not necessarily in school, but they don’t have enough resources. Folks didn’t know how to write grants. Folks didn’t know how to run a nonprofit. We asked ourselves, how do we support them and not necessarily support an entire organization? And Jess and I thought, can we just give money to people?

So, we talked to past board members, we talked to pretty much anybody that had any ideas like this or anyone within the PFund world and just started bouncing off ideas. Then we talked to our executive director, Trina Olson, and she brought it to the board. There were a lot of questions and pushback, which made sense.

Q: Where is the program now and how are you measuring impact?

For us, it kind of became this radical idea of trusting your community and saying the whole idea of measuring impact is complicated. When it comes to leadership development, we sort of took a step back and tried to really overlay racial equity, class equity, just an equity framework and say “what are the barriers?.”

We are taking a risk. We’re still, sort of, fine tuning what all that looks like. We’re not necessarily just writing people checks. People have to let us know what they’re doing with the money. Right now we’re asking, what is the leadership training you’re doing? Is it a conference, a weekend convening, a cohort? Are you going to the Rockport Institute? Are you being a part of the Social Justice Institute? Are you applying to Wellstone Action? We still have some perimeters, but we’re trying not to make it so philanthropy heavy where we’re like, once you’re done, write us a 20 page essay as to what you did and all that.

Q: How do you think about ways to support grant and scholarship recipients beyond financially?

That was one of the things that we looked at a lot this year. One of the things that we are doing is, as we are getting to know people and talk to folks, we’re also taking notice when it’s an amazing story. Like, this is an amazing person who’s doing awesome work in rural North Dakota. We really need to highlight that. Everybody who’s coming through our programs is amazing. But there’s some folks that their story catalyzes people in a completely different way.

Our communication manager, Alfred Walking Bull, is doing a really good job of doing interviews, highlighting some folks and their good work. This is sort of the new generation, this is the new face.

Q: What is it about your own life and experiences that drives you to do this work?

A: I’m queer, I’m first generation, my folks are refugees from Vietnam. We grew up in poverty. We grew up facing a lot of discrimination. It’s a cliché but in a really visceral way I always remember where I came from. Not just remembering where I’m from, but also remembering all the institutions and all the systems which failed my family, my community.

When the opportunity with PFund came around, it felt like a unique opportunity with a unique organization, to think about funneling money into my LGBTQ community. Once I joined this world, I learned that LGBTQ communities get one quarter percent of every philanthropic dollar. There’s billions of dollars that are being swung everywhere and we get, like, 25 cents. That’s really gross.

What is equitable is more important to me than what is equal. That’s sort of what drew me to PFund. So far, everything feels really good. Being able to revamp the program in a way that feels really equitable and sustainable is amazing. And I feel really lucky to be part of an amazing team.

Q: Do you have ideas for someone who wants to make this kind of program change?

In order for an organization of any sort to do equity work, it has to be infiltrated from the top down and from the bottom up. It has to be an embedded value and not just something that the executive director or whomever is sitting at the top says “this is something that’s important.” That’s not necessarily being integrated into everybody’s work plan. When it’s not integrated into everybody’s work plan, it gets lost.

Find out more about PFund by going to PFundfoundation.org

Part of the Spring 2016 Giving Forum