Clydesdales in a World of Unicorns

Kevin Bolduc

I might be going out on a limb. Hanging by a thread. Treading on thin ice. But that’s how I feel poking a bit of fun at Vu Le and Nonprofit AF, whose Monday morning musings often give me a chuckle while raising important issues about the ways that funders and grantees work together. But this is a post about metaphors, and there’s one recurring theme in Vu’s writing I just can’t get behind. Caution: proceed only if you’re interested in an unusually silly post with a serious point.

No, it’s not Vu’s obsession with the Oxford comma. I agree that all intelligent, clear, and right-thinking communicators should use the Oxford comma. It’s also not Game of Thrones, though I’m also anxiously awaiting 2019.

I can’t believe I’m about to do something so absurd: I’m writing a post about unicorns.

That’s the thing that bugs me — the cartoony, juggling unicorn that is the Nonprofit AF avatar for each and every amazing nonprofit. In Vu’s words, “Nonprofit work is difficult AF, with the overhead BS and the clueless public looking down on us, among hundreds of challenges. It takes a certain type of badass to do it. That’s you. You’re an amazing unicorn who brings balance to the world. You’re a Jedi unicorn, and I’m so glad you exist.” Nonprofit AF even has its own nonprofit unicorn name generator. (I’m Moody Dizzy Bubbles, Breath of Diversity, in case you were wondering.)

Yes, unicorns are legendary. But they’re also solitary creatures. (Trust me on this one, I went through a fantasy phase.) They’re always solo, peering down from posters on kids’ bedroom walls, or standing alone in a wooded glade waiting for a princess (or, let’s be modern, a prince) to find them so they can trot away into the sunset (or, alternatively, into an ideal world free of business jargon and full of general operating support and healthy office snacks).

But here’s the thing. If unicorns are solitary, it’s not a great metaphor. We nonprofits can’t afford to stand alone. As one foundation CEO said of colleagues in CEP’s report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective, “Everyone tries to go it alone, with no collaboration, convening, consensus, or common view.”

What a unicorn thing to say.

What metaphor might better encapsulate the collaborative mindset we really need?

Close your eyes, and resorting to another equine metaphor, picture the noble draft horse. Perhaps I’ve been influenced by decades of Super Bowl commercials, but I see them harnessed together, pulling a heavy load. Is that a funder in the front, or is it a grantee? Who knows! It’s hard to tell them apart and it really doesn’t matter. They’re all working together to pull bales of hay — or social progress — forward.

Unfortunately, this particular trademark is probably owned by a certain adult beverage manufacturer. And it’s definitely less fabulous than Vu’s unicorns.

Nonetheless, I’ll submit for your consideration that we could use a few more Clydesdales in our world of unicorns.

Kevin Bolduc is vice president, assessment and advisory services, at CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @kmbolduc.

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