We need to restore romance in nonprofit and philanthropy! (No, not that kind of romance)

[Image Description: A old-school windmill, white building with black top and black blades, against a blue sky with wisps of white clouds. Image by Karabo_Spain on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, before we get into this week’s topic, on August 30th at 11am Pacific Time, there is a FREE webinar about one of critical things we all need to pay more attention to: Legislative reforms on Donor-Advised Funds! It’s hosted by CalNonprofits and will feature lots of brilliant minds on this issue: Jan Masaoka, Chuck Collins, Darryll K. Jones, Alex Reid, and Jon Pratt. Get more details and register here. There will be live captioning. Please be there if you can; we need to demonstrate there’s interest in the sector to reform DAFs.

You might read this week’s blog post’s title and are hoping for more advice on love and dating in the nonprofit sector, or part 2 of “Excerpts from Romance Novels Set in the Nonprofit Sector” (“His lips tasted of wine and social justice. They fumbled, unbuttoning each other’s shirts, both bought at Ross Dress for Less at 30% discount”).

Sorry, that’s not what this week’s post is about. Besides, I am a middle-age divorced man who has transcended romantic love and has fully embraced a shabby, gremlin-like existence of Netflix and Costco dried mango, so I am not sure I’m still qualified.

Over the weekend, I went onto LinkedIn and observed some discussions that started when a colleague posted “Hey Nonprofit Leader: Do you understand who your customer is? If you’re funded through philanthropy, your customer is your donor.”

Of course, I vehemently disagreed with this, as did a lot of other colleagues, and I’ll file this topic away to expound on later. What stuck with me from the various exchanges was the quick dismissal of looking at fundraising through a lens of equity and justice. Several colleagues, mostly white fundraising consultants, scoffed at this equity-based grounding, one colleague insisting it is a “romanticized” view of fundraising. The non-romantic view, they insist, is that donors “pay the bills” and if we want them to keep giving money, we need to accept that harsh reality and the traditional lens of donor engagement, which emphasizes serving donors as customers. Another colleague chimed in with a tidy “no money, no mission.”

This view has been so prevalent across the sector, and not just in fundraising. I see it in board development (“it would be great if our board reflects our communities, but that’s just not practical; we still need mostly white board members, they give more money”), leadership (“a co-directorship and flat hierarchy sounds amazing, but I’ve seen it fail at another org”), staff compensation (“you think everyone should be paid a minimum of how much? Come back down to earth and look at our budget”), capacity building (“sure, it’ll be great if marginalized-communities-led organizations can grow exponentially, but that’s just not going to happen, most would just fail if we gave them large grants”). Everything.

There is some sense of noble pride in “pragmatism” and “realism,” and those who call for radical changes in philosophies and systems are often seen as wishy-washy dreamers who should just go back to their drum circles and eat some cubes of organic tempeh or something and leave the work to people who live in the real world.

Well, guess what, our work, by its very nature, is romantic. I am using this definition of romantic: “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized.”

By this definition, the entirety of our work in nonprofit and philanthropy is a profound exercise in romance. Each nonprofit has a vision of an ideal world it’s working towards. This vision is often remote, far into the future. An end to poverty and racism. Humans live in peace and harmony. Every child feels safe. Everyone has enough to eat. There is compassion for animals. The earth is in balance.

To do this work, we have to be romantic. We have to believe that people are generally good and worth being helped, and that the forces of good wins out in the end. And we have to be heroic. Despite an unending barrage of setbacks and challenges, we continue forward toward this vision of what our world could be. That’s heroic. We’re fighting Mordor and the Empire every day.

Because of the very nature of this work and the personal values we hold that draw us to it, we are the most romantic people working in the most romantic field ever!

In many ways, we’re like Don Quixote of La Mancha, by writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (or, more relevant for those of us who grew up in the 90s, Don Coyote and his sidekick, Sancho Panda), a knight who reads too many tales of chivalry and sets out to fight evil. People laugh at him, thinking he is too romantic and naiive. He is, and often he is fighting windmills and other things that don’t exist. But maybe he sees clearer than everyone else. He comes up with one of my favorite quotes ever:

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

I think it is good for us to reflect on that from time to time. This work, especially over the past several years, has worn many of us down. We lose our sense of optimism and possibility. Instead of getting excited about the idea of appealing to people’s better natures and changing ingrained systems, we get annoyed and pessimistic. Instead of our vision and imagination guiding us, we put them on the backburners as an afterthought, pulling pragmatism and incrementalism to the front.

I wrote earlier about our sector’s need to restore its imagination. We also need to restore our sense of romance, as many of us have gotten very jaded and cynical. I’m not pointing fingers. I’ve been there too; entire bags of Costco dried mango have been consumed wallowing in frustration at the state of the world and the belief that nothing significant will ever change.  

Anyway, let’s bring romance and imagination back to our sector. Let’s not only see and accept life as it is, but work to make it what it could be. We are not fighting windmills. We are fighting the very real forces of racism, injustice, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, etc. These are difficult battles that require more vision, more courage, and more optimism, not less.

Please join me in donating to support the people and communities affected by the wildfires in Maui. Our friend Erin Okuno at Fakequity.com has a great list of organizations to donate to, as well as other ways to help.