Love, power, and the nonprofit sector

[Image description: A green sprout breaking through the grey concrete ground. The sprout is bending to the left. It has a white bud, and two leaves. There are black crack lines radiating from where it springs up.]
Hi everyone, Valentine’s Day is coming up, so let’s turn down the lights, play some soft music, uncork a medium-priced bottle of white zinfandel, and gaze deep into one another’s eyes as we reflect on the intersection of love and power and how the nonprofit sector must embrace this duality to effectively fight injustice during this current political turmoil. Hold on, I’m going to slip into something a little more…comfortable.

(What, like your Valentine’s Day plans are so much hotter).

The last few weeks have seen terrible policies springing up on a daily basis. My organization works with many immigrant and refugee communities, and my family and I escaped poverty and violence under an oppressive regime, so it’s been hitting me a little hard thinking of all the banned people whose hopes now are dashed, and innocent adults and children doomed to suffering and death. Layered on that is everything else—the war on truth, on the press, on the environment, on public education, on the arts and humanities, on kindness and compassion. There is a profound sadness of seeing the country I love, flawed as it’s always been, but nevertheless a shining beacon of hope and freedom to my family and to so many others, drift further and further into darkness and hatred.

After the Women’s March, a colleague reminded all of us of one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quotes:

“One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. […] What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Our sector, the nonprofit sector, though it too is flawed, embraces love. So many of us are driven to this field because of love for our community, for our neighbors, for our environment, for animals, for justice. We love and speak up for many who may not yet have the strength and resources to raise their own voices. We are not always good at what we do, and we don’t always know what to do, and we make mistakes and fail—but we are firmly on the side of love and everything it stands for.

But, as Dr. King said, there is an identification, often unconscious, of love as a resignation of power, that they are on opposing sides of the continuum. And so our sector, as a whole, has shied away from power, from the perception that we are taking power or having power or wielding power. “Love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Unfortunately, sentimental and anemic is how our sector is often perceived. Many of us avoid advocacy and lobbying. We often do not fight back against destructive expectations like low “overhead.” We defer to funders and donors’ sometimes-ridiculous wishes. We jostle to seem humble and consensus-driven in every interaction.

Our sector embraces love, but facing injustice we must now also embrace power. As our country moves further into intolerance and chaos, we must summon our strengths and be the balancing force. “Power without love is reckless and abusive.” This is what we are seeing in this new administration. In some of my daydreams, the new administration defies our fears, moderates some of its rhetoric and policies, and maybe puts the well-being of our country, the world, and the tenets of democracy above pleasing its base. Maybe, as one now-former reader puts it, “maybe it won’t be as terrible as you think it will be.” I wish she were right. I wish it were true that some of us are just being alarmists and the sky is not falling and that after a few glasses of white zinfandel and some time, things will calm down and we can read the news and not recoil in horror at every headline. After all, they are keeping the previous administration’s order to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. So maybe things are not all that bad.

No. There are signs of things becoming as horrible as we think. The actions and words of this administration even at this point are terrifying. To believe that things will be OK if we just wait it out, that would be sentimental and anemic. In these dark times, with so many lives at stake, love and justice demand we own our power and mobilize. In the face of oppression, our sector cannot remain neutral. Equity does not allow us to remain neutral. When power operates without love, then love must operate through power.

How that looks will shift and evolve. I am still trying to figure it out, but I do know that we have way more power and influence than society and we ourselves have led us to believe. As I mentioned earlier, in the busyness of our urgent daily work, we forget that we employ 10% of the work force. We are the 3rd largest sector. We contribute $900Billion to the economy each year. (Here’s more data). We are far from anemic and sentimental. We just have not been fully tapping into the collective power of our sector. Here are some things we must do:

All organizations must engage in advocacy and lobbying: There is this misconception that 501c3 organizations can’t be engaged on advocacy/lobbying work without jeopardizing their status. We cannot endorse candidates, that’s true, but we can legally use 5% to 20% of our time and resources in advocacy work. So let’s do that. Here are some wonky details. If each organization currently not involved in advocacy work now spends 10% of its time locally and at the state and national level to inform our policy makers around various issues affecting our communities, imagine how much we can accomplish. I know, none of us have eight minutes to spare each week, must less four hours. But the needs of our communities will increase even as our resources get cut if we do not make time for this. Bring this up at your next board meeting and staff meeting. My organization just spent 3 hours writing postcards, emailing, and calling local and national public leaders last week. It was fun and easy and a great community-building event. Let’s have more actions like that. Let’s all do at least 10%. (This needs a cool hashtag. #10PercentAdvocacyChallenge)

We must support organizations leading in the work: There are advocacy organizations working hard to fight unjust laws, educate our community members of their rights, lead protests and lawsuits, among other important actions. We do not all need to reinvent wheels. Let’s support these organizations’ efforts by talking about them to our circles and rallying ourselves and our donors, volunteers, and clients to bolster their efforts. When they call on us to sign petitions, call legislators, add our org’s names to a letter, show up at a protest, let’s thoughtfully and quickly engage. So often we get stuck in bureaucratic processes, spending endless time in debates about mission alignment when our nonprofit colleagues at the forefront of the fight call on us. Yes, we must be thoughtful and deliberate in which actions we support. But we must all be involved, because all missions fall under our sector’s prime mission of creating a just and inclusive community, and right now that is severely threatened.

We must end the Nonprofit Hunger Games: We cannot build collective power if we are constantly fighting with each other for resources and credit. If there was ever a time for us to place the value of our community above our organization’s individual survival, it is now. We must support each other, talk to one another, build alliances, share resources, introduce our donors and funders to one another when appropriate. Only when we all firmly believe that our work is all interconnected and that we must support one another’s work can our sector unleash its full potential.  

We must work closer with the press and other sectors: As I mentioned earlier about cross-sector collaboration, our sector needs to do a better job working collaboratively with ourselves, but with other sectors. At this moment, our colleagues in media and journalism are also feeling anxiety as “alternative facts” and fake news are all around. It is terrifying, this assault on facts and truth. We need to do a better job supporting our friends in journalism, especially those lifting up the voices of marginalized communities. Let’s subscribe/donate to them, write positive comments on their articles to counter trolls, and work together to make sure our communities’ stories and messages are out there.

Funders, you must be more agile: Philanthropy’s necessary evolution during this crisis needs to be explored more (I have some recommendations here and will write more in future posts) but suffice to say, it needs to evolve, because many current funding philosophies and dynamics actively prevent the nonprofit sector from building power. In two weeks, we have seen an incredible amount of harm. Our communities cannot wait for the six or nine months it takes many funders to make decisions, for example. Nor can we afford to lose hundreds of millions of hours each year trying to navigate restricted funding. Increase your payout, set up an emergency fund, fund faster, fund advocacy, continue to fund direct service, stop restricting funding, take risks. Philanthropy must also own its power and influence, and nonprofits and funders need to work more effectively together, and quickly.

We must individually be engaged: I encourage all organizations, not just advocacy organizations, to roll up their sleeves and fight. But all of us, as individuals who believe in a just and inclusive community, have our own personal responsibilities to embrace our individual power to make stuff happen. If you’ve never written an op-ed, write one. If you’ve never been in a protest, be in one. If you’ve never called your legislator, call one. If you’ve never testified at a public hearing, testify in one. And if you’ve never given feedback to someone who said something racist or misogynistic or Islamophobic or homophobic or anti-disability, speak up; do it with love, but firmly. And if you’ve done all these things, keep doing them.

It is time that our sector summons its strengths, claim its power, and use love to implement the demands of justice. I know this is not always going to be easy. As Dr. King said:

“The road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted […] But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

We must maintain this audacious faith in the future. But to realize that future, we as a sector, and as individuals, so used to love, must gain and wield power. We must now embrace it with the same determination and passion we always bring to our work. Equity and social justice demand nothing less of us.

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