Every year, I look forward to the Puget Sound Mycological Society’s Wild Mushrooms Show, where hundreds of types of mushrooms are on display. All are critical to the ecosystem. Some are edible and delicious; others are poisonous; a few phosphoresce in the dark; several gradually melt into a sticky mess. In other words, mushrooms are very much like nonprofits.
All jokes aside, there is much that mushrooms can teach us. We can liken direct service organizations to mushrooms, as they provide sustenance to a variety of plants and animals. They are vital because they feed the community. However, for mushrooms to flourish, the mycelium must be strong. This is the vast but mostly underground network of root-like tendrils. Mycelium is like an invisible tree, and the mushrooms you see are the visible fruit. The mycelium does many important things: Brings nourishment, clears out toxins, connects mushrooms to one another, creates symbiosis with other species, and decomposes and recycles nutrients, among other things.
Mycelium has often served as a metaphor for community, for the invisible connections that bind us in a vast network of humanity. It also serves as a great model for support organizations. I am going to define these as the organizations who do not provide direct services but support those that do. This includes capacity builders (like Rainier Valley Corps), back office service providers, collective impact backbone organizations, affinity and profession development associations, grantmaker associations, state nonprofit associations, coalitions, and foundations.
Support organizations, like mycelium, are often invisible. And sometimes people wonder what the hell we do. On occasion, especially when funding is tight (because no one wants to fund capacity building or advocacy or whatever) we ourselves even ponder what the point of our existence is. But we are vital to the nonprofit ecosystem because without support organizations, it will be challenging if not impossible for many direct service nonprofits to thrive. Mycelium thus provides our sector with a great guide on the role and functions of support organizations, and a gauge on whether we are effective at doing our jobs. If you are a support organization, get your team together and discuss how well you are doing in each of these categories below:
Delivering nutrients: In nature, the mycelium brings nutrients so that the fruiting bodies, the mushrooms, can grow and do their work. Support organizations must ask ourselves how we are bringing resources to nonprofits. By advocating for more funding? By helping write grants? By providing back-office services? By recruiting and training volunteers? The most important resource is multi-year, general operating dollars (MYGOD). In this sector, we have a damaging belief that nonprofits should be self-sustaining. Following the Mycelium Model, it should be the role of support organizations to bring resources so that nonprofits can do their jobs. Just as importantly, support organizations must assess whether we are taking or using too much of resources for ourselves, which would be a violation of one of mycelia’s primary functions.
Detoxifying the environment: Certain types of mycelium are proving to be extremely effective in removing toxins from the environment, including plastic, petroleum oil, even mercury. That’s freaking amazing! Support organizations play a similar role when help to remove barriers so that other organizations can do their work. For instance, my org discovered that the contracting and reporting process for a grant was unrealistic and burdensome for many nonprofits in our operations support program. Due to power dynamics, it is difficult for these smaller groups to give the grantor feedback directly. RVC, however, was able to provide the feedback and work with the funder to simplify it. Capacity builders, intermediary organizations, professional associations, and even foundations, must play more of this role of helping to remove barriers so that nonprofits providing vital services to our community can thrive.
Strengthening communications: Mycelium help to connect plants to one another, kind of like an internet within nature. This allows plants to communicate and helps with things like collective defense against threats. Recently, I led a conversation among fundraisers and other nonprofit leaders on how we may be complicit in perpetuating inequity even while we aim to fight it. The discussion was eye-opening. The group that brought me there, a support organization, realized that these organizations had very few opportunities to have these deep, meaningful conversations. Support organizations must bring leaders together, creating spaces that are conducive to honest discussions, feedback, and collaboration. As the challenges facing our communities become more challenging, we play a critical role in strengthening communications among nonprofits.
Creating symbiosis: Mycelium play a fascinating role of fostering beneficial symbiosis with a variety of plant species. The mycelium absorbs nutrients that may not otherwise be accessible to plants, and in turn plants provide sugar and other nutrients that the mycelium cannot easily obtain. Support organizations play a similar role when we help organizations cooperate, through connecting but also through intentional setting up of symbiotic relationships: A funder introducing two orgs that are doing similar things so they could collaborate; a capacity builder connecting an org that has tried and succeeded (or failed) at something and another org that is thinking of heading down the same path so they could share lessons learned. Also, I’ve been seeing more support organizations facilitating cross-sector collaborations, which will be vital to many of the issues we are trying to address.
Protecting against harm: When mushrooms or symbiotic host plants are attacked, the mycelium plays a defensive role by releasing chemicals to ward off intruders. When it might be too late for one plant or mushroom, the mycelium can warn others through its channels so they are prepared. Support organizations play a similar role when we fight off ignorant and damaging beliefs and policies, such as the destructive focus on “overhead.” As if we didn’t have enough to deal with. Support organizations need to recognize and more actively engage in our role of protecting the sector against ignorance-based beliefs and policies.
Decomposing and recycling: Mycelium helps to break down organic and inorganic matters so that they could be used as nutrients. This includes reabsorbing mushrooms that are past their time and may no longer be useful to the ecosystem in their current form. That sounds morbid, but it is a pivotal role in the ecosystem. And in the nonprofit ecosystem, we need support organizations to play a similar role. In fact, I think this is one area that we are not very strong at in our sector: Helping nonprofits that are no longer effective, or that were formed for a specific time-bound purpose, to dissolve. I’m not sure many nonprofits even know of this as an option, and so we have a bunch of “phantom nonprofits” who have legal tax status but who are not active. We capacity builders and other support organizations need to do a better job letting nonprofits know that it’s OK to dissolve, and help them through the often existentially-fraught process of doing so.
Maintaining balance: It has been found that mycelium not only helps to connect plants of the same species, but of different species, and this facilitates the redistribution of nutrients to weaker or younger plants and species. According to this article, “It has been proven that nutrients being recycled from older trees do not always go to older-established trees but instead go to the saplings in the area to help them grow.” Support organizations must play a similar role in bringing resources to nonprofits led by and serving people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ folks, older adults, people in rural communities, etc. Right now, it is imbalanced, wtih these organizations getting the least funding. Our role in restoring and maintaining balance is one of our most important ones, and we need to be as intentional as mycelium.
All right, sorry I geeked out so much on mushrooms and mycelium (and yet I am not sorry at all). Mushrooms are an important part of our ecosystem. They are pivotal in the environment and in our communities, including in my wild mushroom and chocolate chip risotto (very popular with the children). To thrive, however, they rely on the invisible mycelium that runs in a vast network underground that provides nutrients, connects, detoxifies, creates symbiosis, protects against threats, decompose and recycles matters, and maintains balance. We support organizations must recognize our responsibilities within the nonprofit ecosystem. Learning from mycelium is a way for us to gauge how effective we are in carrying out our work, and prevent us from straying too far from our purpose—for instance, by absorbing too many resources for ourselves, or by not doing a better job with advocacy in the face of external threats, or by not creating connections and collaborations among nonprofits—and possibly harming the organizations we were formed to support.
Vu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears monthly in the GuideStar Blog. This article is a cross-post of a May 20, 2019, piece from his blog, Nonprofit ... And Fearless. Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.