If progressives want change, we must play the game differently. Here are five things we must do.

[Image description: A young person holding up a large lantern, getting ready to release it into the sky. In the background are four other lanterns that have been released and are floating upward. Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, apologies in advance, this post will be more serious and political than usual and I am sure will be polarizing. The Virginia Beach mass shooting has been on my mind. I am thinking of how New Zealand was able to pass gun-control bills within a matter of days after the horrific Christchurch shooting, while we Americans remain the laughingstock of the entire world. Mass shootings have become so common and taken for granted that The Onion publishes the same satirical but damning article each time more innocent people are murdered (“‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens”).

Last week’s post (“We need fewer Theories of Change and more community organizing”) resonated with a lot of people. However, there were a few colleagues, especially researchers and evaluators, who bristled at my call for us to intellectualize less and organize more. As I mentioned several times in the post, strategies and actions are both important, but the BALANCE has been off. Just like food and air are both necessary for survival, but if all we do is breathe, we won’t last. I hope we can come to that agreement, because we have other important things to discuss.

Namely, how we in the nonprofit sector can be effective in driving social change. How we can actually dismantle unjust systems and not just constantly respond to the symptoms of injustice. Thousands of immigrant kids are still separated from their families. Black people are still threatened and killed simply for existing. Basic rights for our transgender community members, like not being discriminated against at homeless shelters, continue to be eroded. Our planet has only 11 years left before irreversible destruction from climate change. And our sector hasn’t been able to keep up. We’re exhausted. People are leaving the sector feeling frustrated and hopeless. We need to operate completely differently.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between conservatives and progressives (see “10 things progressive funders must learn from conservative ones or we are all screwed“). Last week I brought up how progressives come to a knife fight with a spreadsheet. Maybe a logic model. But the major difference may be that conservatives are united under a single set of philosophies and strategies (their “Theory of Change,” if you will) and spend most of their time and resources implementing it, while progressives waste endless years creating and debating thousands of separate theories and strategies that are then poorly coordinated and put into action.

Let’s learn from our conservative colleagues, then. Let’s create and finalize the Progressive Theory of Change, the mother of all Theories of Change, the Theory of Change that will guide all of us in the sector. It will shape how we act, how we fund, how we measure whether we are successful as a sector. If we can just all align with the strategies in this TOC, it will positively affect everything, not just gun control laws. And while it is progressives’ natural inclination to spend the next 40 years creating this Ultimate Theory of Change and writing 3,000 white papers about it, I am going to get us started, based on the information I have gathered talking to the people in the field doing the work. None of this is new or original; it just bears repeating over and over until we mobilize to act on it:

1. We must do everything we can to elect more progressive women of color into office at all levels: If we can only choose one strategy, one indicator, this is it. This needs to be a fundamental progressive belief, that the people who experience the most injustice would be the ones to best understand it and thus be the most effective at addressing it. And in our society, women of color, especially Black and Native women, experience the most injustice. Fortunately, they are increasingly running for office, winning, and making the community better for everyone. We all need to support this. Funders need to significantly increase payout and fund organizations lifting up the voices of women of color. 501c4s need to focus specifically on these candidates. The number of progressive women of color in elected office should be used as the main indicator of how well we are doing at effecting systems change.

2. We must do everything we can to control public perception regarding important issues: Conservatives are incredibly adept at controlling cultural narratives, shaping people’s thoughts on government and taxes and science. That’s because conservatives know that controlling public perception is directly correlated with policy success. So conservative funders invest in it and conservative groups deploy it as a strategy. While conservative media continue to thrive, progressive ones struggle to survive, forced to Frankenstein bits of funding together like nonprofits. It is hard to change gun laws in the US because decades of messaging have seeped into people’s unconscious. If progressives do not do a better job controlling the narratives in the media and thus the general public, we will always be playing catch up on every single issue. We all need to speak up more, be more vocal, even if it pisses people off. And funders to need to significantly fund progressive media over long periods of time.

3. We must do everything we can to remove barriers so that people most oppressed can vote: Yes, people sometimes vote against their best interests, but more often than not, the people who are most marginalized in society, when given a chance, tend to vote for progressive policies. Conservatives know this. Progressives must use our organizing skills to ensure the people most screwed over by an unjust system—people of color, incarcerated folks, immigrants and refugees—have the support to fully participate in civics. We must fight to strike down voter suppression laws. We must end gerrymandering. We must rally behind things like Election Day. We must provide support—transportation, childcare, whatever it takes—for people to vote.

4. We must do everything we can to remove the influence of money on politics: Having a bunch of money does not guarantee someone will be elected. This, however, does not discount the significant role that money plays, including allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to exert inequitable influence in our society. Their influences often lead to laws that are for their own best interests, including allowing the extremely wealthy to pay proportionally less taxes than poor people, which widens the wealth gap and lead to problems like homelessness. Our sector needs to do a better job reducing the influence and power of corporations and the wealthy on who gets elected and which laws get passed. I know colleagues are working on initiatives like voucher programs. We need to do more.

5. We must do everything we can to create a sense of belonging and to end othering: As professor john a. powell has been speaking on, creating a fear and hatred of “the other” has in the last few years been really effective, not just in the US, but all over the world now. In this umbrella of “others” to fear are immigrants, refugees, Muslims, LGBQIA folks, trans folks, people with disabilities, Black and Native and people of color in general. And, of course, the people who would speak up for these “others” are also now others. As history has shown over and over again, dehumanizing others makes it easy to rationalize or deny the existence of atrocities like the removal of children from their families and warehousing them in cages. How do we counter this? By creating a sense of belonging, of community. We nonprofits play a vital role in this. We must more intentionally create bridges among people. And funders need to support these strategies.

I’m sure there are other strategies we can talk about. And each strategy could be fleshed out more with specific tactics. The point, though, is that what we have been doing is not allowing us to keep up with the growing level of injustice. Progressive funders’ and nonprofits’ avoidance of politics, policy, and risks, and our embrace of intellectualization over action have forced us to constantly deal with the symptoms instead of addressing the root causes of problems.  

We as an entire sector have to change our philosophies and practices. I added “we must do everything we can” to each of the strategies above on purpose, because that is not how we have operated. For the past few decades we’ve operated under “we will try our best, given our limited resources, after spending a few years thinking about it and vetting it and maybe making some sort of pie chart to present at a summit.”

We owe it to our community to do whatever it takes to bring about an equitable world. In the darkest of times, our sector is often the lantern. But we are falling behind. We must think differently, act differently, evaluate differently, fund differently. While we intellectualize, people die. I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old, and I am just waiting for them to come home one day and tell me about the song they learned so they could remember what to do in case there’s an active shooter at their schools. No kid should ever have to be prepared for that. None of us should accept that as normal. We can make sure it’s not.

Related post: 10 things progressive funders must learn from conservative ones or we are all screwed

Be a monthly patron of NAF and keep posts like this coming.

Donate to Vu’s organization

Write an anonymous review of a foundation on GrantAdvisor.org

Subscribe to this blog by entering your email in the widget on the right of this page (scroll up or down)