Hi everyone. A quick warning that this post will be serious and may likely piss off a whole bunch of people. Everything is on fire right now. The entire world. Amidst Zoom meetings, I’m scrambling to provide some semblance of calm for my six- and four-year-old. The news has been bleak. Systemic racism means Black folks are disproportionately dying from Covid. Day laborers and domestic workers are starving. Problems Native Americans are facing are exacerbated. An Asian woman was ambushed, acid splashed onto her face while she took out the trash, one of many examples of the rise in hate crimes against API folks. Domestic violence has increased. Clueless celebrities, meanwhile, from their luxurious mansions, jokingly compare their experience to being incarcerated, oblivious to the racism and cruelty of the prison system.
In our sectors, nonprofits are stretched to the limit, dealing with the heartbreaking situations their communities are facing, while simultaneously being in heartbreaking situations themselves. Many foundations have stepped up. Some 600 have signed a pledge promising to make it easier for nonprofits during this time. Some have greatly increased their payouts. Others hunker down, preferring to prioritize preserving their assets—for a future when things get even worse than this, I guess; I’m sure when the earth is a completely uninhabitable post-apocalyptic wasteland, scattered groups of warring cannibals will be glad that those foundations are still around giving out grants.
I know everyone is busy dealing with all sorts of critical issues (or refusing to see reality and doing nothing but maintaining status quo), but let’s stop for a moment. We are at risk of learning all the wrong lessons from this horrifying global nightmare. Yes, the lessons that we are all in this together, and that our lives are interconnected, and that inequity hurts all of us and not just the marginalized—those are all great, but they are dangerous if we use them to continue to be in denial of a much more critical lesson: The only way we can make a dent in social justice is if progressive nonprofits and foundations get over our disdain of politics and fully embrace using it to change unjust systems.
Imagine for a moment that there are people who continually run around setting fires. The fires are burning down people’s houses, killing thousands, destroying crops. People starve to death. Neighbors start rallying to support one another. Some develop fire-resistant building materials. Others create treatments for burns. A few engineer crops that grow fast. Other folks coordinate workshops on how to put out fires. The people who set fires keep doing it, but people get better at mitigating the damages.
After a while, this is just accepted as normal: Some people set fires, others help victims of the fires. White papers are written about how fires disproportionately harm people of color. Conferences are held on burn treatments. The people setting fires, though, get smarter and more coordinated. Instead of setting random fires, they set targeted fires aimed at weak points at a time in the year when the fires would likely spread the fastest. The entire town is now ablaze all the time.
The townsfolks, stretched to their limits, are tired, but resolved. They work together even more effectively. They create masks that prevent smoke inhalation. They make crops that grow even faster. They have even more workshops on fire safety and how to survive during fires. There are countless deaths, but there are also countless lives saved. A spirit of camaraderie develops. Still, the fires keep increasing in number and intensity.
Throughout all this, a few tiny voices keep piping up to say, “We need to stop the people who are setting fires!” But everyone ignores them, countering with “Uh, no, our job is help victims of fires and shine bright lights on the inequity around who gets burned and who does not get enough food after their houses burn down. Stopping the people who set fires is the job for someone else.”
So the fires rage on and worsen as the firestarters get smarter and bolder, knowing that no matter what they do, the townsfolks will only respond to the effects of the fires, not try to stop them from setting fires.
And this is basically our entire sector—and by that, I mean the progressive wing of our sector—and the impact of our disdain of politics. We need to wake up before it’s too late.
I and others have written multiple times now (here and here for two examples) about the differences between conservatives and progressive nonprofits and funders. A major difference is that conservatives are not afraid of politics. In fact, they embrace it, knowing that if they can get people who align with conservative values to be president, senators, governors, state representatives, judges—if they can get a single Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court—they will influence thousands of wide-reaching issues for a long, long time. So they invest and strategize. They cut out all the barriers in order to achieve these goals.
Meanwhile, a colleague of mine texted to tell me that at her new-employees orientation, the new staff were told “We are a 501c3, so we cannot do any lobbying or advocacy.” (This is completely untrue). I have seen countless grant contracts and RFPs now that actively discourage lobbying and advocacy. I called up a program officer once asking why this language was in the contract. “Well, it’s not that we’re against advocacy—in fact, we support it—we just don’t want our money to be expressively used for that purpose.”
This is the problem. Our sector is afraid of advocacy, much less politics. And we have an absolute disgust for politics. We believe it is beneath us. We don’t want to get our hands dirty. Politics and anything associated with it is an ugly, terrible thing; we should focus on more noble, feel-good pursuits while virtue signaling by rabble-rousing about how we need to change systems yet simultaneously avoiding doing the one thing that would significantly change systems.
Plus, politics takes forever and is so complicated, and we have trained ourselves to like short-term, simple, easily measurable and thus easily understood outcomes. We invest a little bit, here and there, on civic engagement, on voter mobilization, on advocacy, and barely anything on electing the right people into various offices.
Decades of this, and this is where we are now. We have a corrupt president spreading the flames of hatred, whose denial of the pandemic, vast incompetence, and literal admission that he is prioritizing sending help to states that would help him with his reelection means that hundreds of thousands of people will die. We have children in cages still. We have school shootings (thankfully, that has stopped for now, since all the schools are shut down). And while we are distracted from all this, the administration works aggressively to roll back environmental regulations, dismiss inspector generals, punish whistleblowers, remove food stamps for 700,000 people, and otherwise sets new fire after new fire.
And yet, even at this moment, when it cannot be any clearer that the people we have elected are the biggest factor in every single issue, we still will not talk about politics. I have read so many think pieces from philanthropy and nonprofits now. Few, in fact I haven’t seen any, call on all of us as a sector to work together to end this white supremacist cult that currently occupies the White House.
It is time for us now to not only engage with politics, but to fully embrace it. In light of all the suffering and deaths of countless people, and more that will come, it is our moral obligation to get over our disgust of politics and use it as an instrument of justice. We can no longer continue to only respond to the fires, we must stop the people who keep setting them, who keep fanning the flames. We need to wake up to reality and fully and unapologetically engage with politics.
I still believe 501c3s should not be endorsing political candidates. However, we have a mechanism for political engagement: the 501c4, as well as Political Action Committees. Unfortunately, they struggle for funding even worse than 501c3s. Progressive-leaning funders, you need to ask yourself if you are content just respond to symptoms of an unjust system, or you actually want to change those systems. We all need you to get over your belief that you are above politics, that it is beneath you. Find creative ways to fund the work of progressive 501c4s and PACs, especially those working to support candidates of color, especially progressive women of color. The election of progressive women of color, I’ve stated in the past, is the single most effective thing we can do across every single issue.
In March of this year, which now seems like three years ago, I learned from a colleague at Future Now Fund that it only takes about $100,000 to flip a state chamber seat. State government still significantly determines policies. If every progressive-leaning foundation in every state, if every Donor-Advised Fund, would just put money into flipping these seats from red to blue, we would see vast impact on everything we care about. We could lessen the pain and suffering of millions, not just during this crisis, but for decades to come.
We are all in denial about so many things: The severity of this crisis, how truly broken our systems are, and right now how critical the 2020 election is. If we truly believe it is critical, we need a pledge of 600 foundations promising to give funds to stop Trump’s and McConnell’s reelection, and all of us need to be engaged in ensuring the most marginalized people have the support they need to vote. We have seen the untold damage they have orchestrated; can you imagine the destruction Trump will do if he is no longer worried about getting reelected? Can you imagine a Supreme Court with seven conservative justices?
We need to admit the painful fact that right-wing groups have brilliantly and effectively run circles around us at every single turn. While we help folks affected by their cruel policies, they create more cruel policies. While we debate theories of change and read white papers, they install right-wing judges. While we congratulate ourselves for flattening the curve, they continue to elect racist senators and presidents.
What we’re doing hasn’t been working. How do we win a fight when we refuse to see that we’re in one? If all we learn right now is that “we are all in this together” (when we are clearly not), that if neighbors just support one another, that if funders and donors can just remove barriers and be better partners to nonprofits, then maybe we can weather this storm. If THAT is the main lesson, then hope is lost. Injustice will only increase. We must wake up and do everything we can to stop the people burning down everything, or we continue to be complicit in all the pain and suffering they cause.
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