Activism matters is a new interview series where we will be meeting activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist and secularist spaces. First up is Tif Ho, executive director of the Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB). FBB is a US based non-profit that seeks to end poverty and hunger, promote good health and well-being, and foster employment opportunities and economic growth in ways that exemplify humanist values.
How did you become the executive director for Foundation Beyond Belief?
I have always worked with non-profits across various causes. And by coincidence, I was looking for new opportunities to make a difference while FBB was looking for a new Executive Director. It was a long process; I applied for the position at the beginning of July and came on at the end of September. But it was a good fit – for myself and (I hope) for the organization.
What drew me to FBB was its focus on humanism. I grew up in a Buddhist family, though a non-religious one; it’s more of a cultural thing for us. So as a non-religious person who values humanism, it was both a surprise and refreshing to see an organization apply this concept. And to see that, by doing so, they were able to do so much good for so many people in all these different countries. It was an opportunity to take my humanist values further, from doing good in my own life to making a difference through widespread impact.
FBB was founded in 2009. During this time, it’s gone through many phases, worked in a lot of areas, and created so much impact. Whether it was FBB’s founder, Dale McGowan or Noelle George – they did a good job in leading the organization through all these changes. So, when Noelle stepped down as executive director, it made sense to continue this legacy and hard work by once again reinventing itself to seek greater impact. And I think that the Board saw that coming in the form of spreading humanism to the greater public – which maybe informed their decision to move forward with a new Executive Director who wasn’t necessarily from the humanist community.
What is the biggest challenge that comes with the job?
Leading an organization is always a challenge, because it entails so much. My biggest challenges have been ensuring FBB is sustainable while balancing our responsibilities. It’s no secret that more than 60% of US non-profits operate with budgets of $500,000 or less (for atheist, secular, and humanist organizations, funding is particularly difficult.) That’s not a whole lot when you have so many people depending on you. The people we serve, and of course the donors who so generously fund us, the partner organizations who support our programs, and our wonderful board who works entirely on a volunteer basis – they all want to see impact. At the same time, FBB has a small team that works really hard and makes a lot of sacrifices in order to do good. But these are all things that are critical for FBB’s success; they help us run smoothly, grow, and create larger impact. So of course, I want to make sure that my team is fairly compensated for the work that they do. With a small budget, it’s difficult while trying to do right by all of these different groups.
My second big challenge is that FBB has been undergoing a restructuring, changing direction, becoming more focused, and trying to grow our impact. Historically, FBB has focused on a lot of different cause areas and has done some really good work. But we are a small organization with limited resources. So, we can either continue to work in many spaces but have less to give or do more in fewer spaces. Right now, we’re in a phase where we’re becoming more focused, so that we can allocate resources more effectively. We’ve made a lot of changes in the past year. We’ve changed our mission statement, relaunched the Compassionate Impact Grant, and launched the Food Security Project. We’re also reworking our Beyond Belief Network, Humanist Action Ghana, and Humanist Disaster Recovery programs. Most of all, we’re really set on building up our Beyond Belief Network volunteer teams, addressing food insecurity and measuring impact more effectively.
In my experience many leaders within charities working on many of the same areas as Foundation Beyond Belief are reluctant to be openly non-religious. Why do you think that is and what can be done to make being more open easier?
Religion is almost universal, though the form it takes changes across cultures. In the US, even though we are technically secular, there is a religious overtone that informs everything from laws to community relationships. Americans are becoming increasingly non-religious, it’s just that it hasn’t reached the point where it’s ok to be open about it, to talk about it as a critical part of a person’s identity.
Many leaders are reluctant to come forward and be open about their beliefs. We can change that by shifting the focus to common values and shared mission. When charities lead with their belief or non-belief, it automatically puts us on opposite sides. But when we focus on respect, collaboration and inclusivity, and get to know a person or organization on another level, we are able to build trust and long-lasting relationships. In turn, this creates the space for non-religious leaders to come forward with who they are and how it informs the ways in which they do good. In the end, we are working towards the same goals, trying to create a better world. So, when charities replace proselytization with respect, leaders can be more open about being non-religious, and people from all backgrounds can work together to do more.
Many atheists and non-religious people find it difficult to get involved in charities especially in areas where social support networks are weaker or religiously dominated. How can organisations like Foundation Beyond Belief and your experiences change that?
Organizations like FBB offer an alternative to charities bound together by shared religious beliefs. When people want to do good – but are faced with a lack of social support networks or religiously-dominated charities – it helps to know that there are organizations out there that share their same values and that they can connect with other people who seek the same goals, or start their own initiatives. FBB (and other organizations, including American Humanist Association and American Atheists) work to build those ties. We encourage local initiatives by providing networking, funding, and logistical planning. Charity doesn’t have to be dominated by religion, people don’t have to be tied together through belief. Instead, it can simply be about doing good.
Often leadership in atheist, humanist or secularist spaces has been associated with church state separation activism or challenging religious beliefs, what different types of leadership do projects like Foundation Beyond Belief provide an opportunity for.
In the past, FBB has offered opportunities to be involved in church/state activism. But that focus has shifted. Other national organizations, including some of our previous partners in secular activism projects, are better equipped to handle that type of work. We want to support them in doing so, while carving out our own path, and collaborating when our work overlaps.
Our current focus is in creating a respectful, inclusive space where atheist, humanist, and secular people are able to do good. We want to make sure that people can be open with who they are, participate in service events that they are passionate about, and create long-term impact. We offer opportunities for local leaders to start up their own projects, which align with the specific needs of their own communities. FBB empowers those leaders by providing networking, funding, and other types of support through our Beyond Belief Network. As we move forward, and new needs arise, FBB will continue to take the lead on and offer volunteer opportunities in service-based projects.
What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in humanist spaces?
Being an effective leader requires an understanding of and an appreciation for people. Even though FBB is a remote organization, with our team located all over, I try to make sure that there is consistent facetime and one-on-ones through video chats. It’s important to get to know your team, what is important to them, and to invest in their growth. There’s never a one-size-fits-all approach; everyone is different, and every context is different. When you value your team, you are able to change your approach to fit that. In an organization, everything is interconnected – from programs to development to communications. Knowing how all those moving pieces fit together can help with decision-making and holistic solutions.
Specifically, in humanist spaces, an effective leader needs to be willing to work across belief lines and prioritize impact. It is a very fragmented space, with varying degrees of non-belief. There’s atheists, agnostistics, freethinkers, secularists, humanists, etc. And there can also be so much noise, with a lot of debate going on about what to call ourselves, who is right, what is the best way to do things. My policy at FBB is to stay above that. We are respectful of, maintain good relationships with, and work with all organizations in the space as long as they share the same values and goals of doing good. That’s our number one priority.
It’s important to allow room for mistakes, acknowledge those mistakes, and do your best to remedy it. I came from the startup world before FBB – and one of the things you learn there is that [controlled] failures bring more than continual successes. If you’re always succeeding, you keep doing the same thing until it no longer works – but by then you can’t pivot.
You’re currently doing a PHD in global leadership, with a focus on intersectionality and the experience of leaders from marginalised communities. What lessons do you think this holds for atheist, humanist or secularist communities?
Historically, the atheist, humanist, and secular communities have lacked diversity. But for the sake of sustainability, we need to reach new audiences. Continuity comes when we draw in younger generations, which are more diverse. To these communities’ credit, they have been working really hard to push Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives and activism. But there is still a lack of representation, which I feel keenly as one of the few (maybe only?) AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) leaders in the space.
It’s really hard to make DEI impactful if you don’t know what someone else is going through. In fact, many DEI efforts take the form of elevating some groups over others, assuming homogeneity, and speaking for – rather than speaking up for – groups. We need to acknowledge shared experiences between marginalized groups, while also appreciating differences. Marginalized individuals are the best equipped to lead change initiatives for their communities. Our job is to centre internally led efforts rather than prioritize externally led efforts. FBB has been doing this by taking a step back and supporting efforts, rather than leading our own. For example, our Compassionate Impact Grant recipient advances locally led efforts in marginalized communities.
Also, it’s really important for marginalized leaders to work together, across gender/sexuality/race/ethnicity/culture, especially since there’s so few of us (particularly in the atheist, humanist, and secular communities). There’s this overarching narrative of groups fighting each other, fighting over resources. But a lot of groups do have shared histories and experiences (though not the exact same experiences), which have included collaboration and coalition-building (and yes, also a lot of clashing) as well. Many neighborhoods are a mix of marginalized groups; for example, my mom is an immigrant who grew up in a very poor and culturally-diverse area, where AAPI, Black, and Latino/a/x communities interacted frequently. Also, during the height of the BLM protests last summer, many AAPI communities showed up for Black communities; likewise, during the wave of AAPI hate that has been going around, many Black communities have stood by AAPI communities. Unless we understand this tangled web of shared histories, appreciate differences, and work together across backgrounds, it’s hard to get to the root cause of inequality and create real change.
What do you think atheist, humanist or secularist groups can do to support the development of future leaders and role models?
Making space for and looking towards the next generation. More representation, more transparent dialogue, and DEI efforts. We develop future leaders/role models by communicating shared values, encouraging intergenerational collaboration, and providing opportunities for them to participate in causes that they are most passionate about. Realistically, even though Gen Z is the most non-religious generation – I think that their focus is less on the lack of belief and more on creating impact. We need to take that into consideration and take a step back from our own priorities, giving them the opportunity to lead and bring unique perspectives.
What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?
My take is: go for it, and don’t get stuck. Many people who are just getting into this space may feel intimidated, because they feel that they don’t have the knowledge or skills. But they should never let that stop them. Everyone has something to contribute, so they should be confident in their capabilities and also be open to other perspectives as well.
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