Am I just preaching to the choir? Maybe

[Image description: Three cute puppies with white/pale-yellow fur, in a basket placed on some grass. Image by chathuraanuradha on Pixabay]

One of the comments I often receive online and in-person after my various baby-animal-picture-punctuated rants is, “Vu, I agree with all the stuff you’re saying, but it seems you’re preaching to the choir. Shouldn’t you dress better and yell at the people in power who are not in this room?”

I can understand the frustration. Many of the issues I point out—grantmaking shenanigans, the archaic focus on overhead, the need for better tax policies, the ridiculousness of infinity scarves, etc.—are things many of us have been ranting about for decades. To hear someone bring them up again can invoke feelings of exasperation over how little progress we’ve made in many of these areas affecting our work.

However, I am not sure we’re actually a choir. I don’t know much about music, and I have the singing voice of a blender trying to puree a handful of fidget spinners, but I think choirs overall has members who show up at the same time, sing songs that are agreed upon in advance, know who is singing which parts, and start and finish each song at the same time before starting another one. I am not sure that accurately describes any audience I’ve spoken to.

If anything, it reveals how far away from being a choir we have been as a sector. Take the overhead issue for example. Most of us should be in agreement by now that general operating funds should be the default, and that funders who still provide restricted funds exist in the past and should all be given a codpiece to wear on their clown outfits because they still insist on living in the Middle Ages, when average life expectancy was 27 and there was no wifi.

And yet, many nonprofit organizations still say things on their website or at their fundraising events like “95 cents of every dollar you donate go directly toward benefitting the families we’re serving.” WTF. I thought we had collectively agreed this was a bad thing to say and we’d all cut it out. (Seriously, cut it out).

If we were truly operating like a choir, I’d love to see the following:

We all work to advance voting and voting rights: Over the past few years, literally hundreds of bills have been passed to suppressed voting, disproportionately affecting marginalized people. And except for a few really awesome organizations, our sector response has been “meh…” Thank you to the 20% of orgs in our sector that are working to protect and advance voting rights and register people to vote. But this number should be 100%. One hundred percent of nonprofits should be working to advance voting!

We are in-sync and on-message about taxes: We should all agree that the way our sector is operating is not tenable and we should all be working to change the tax code so that wealthy individuals and corporations are paying their fair share of taxes. And then we’d work together to ensure our government is representative and effective and that our taxes are used to fund education, housing, etc., and not just war.

We all engage in advocacy and community organizing: Most of the sector has been terrified of doing advocacy work and are confused about what’s legally allowable and what’s not, and it doesn’t help that so many funders prohibit this sort of work and refuse to fund it. But there’s no way we can change inequitable systems unless we do advocacy work and mobilize our community members in great numbers. All of us should be engaged in some way, not just the few amazing (and usually severely underfunded) advocacy orgs.

We are on the same page regarding philanthropy: Philanthropy should be understood to be a short-term solution and that we should be working toward a society where philanthropy, in its current form, is obsolete. Instead, we currently have half the sector cheering on the status quo—funders who believe foundations should exist in perpetuity, and fundraising experts who constantly fight against change, who think it’s perfectly normal to have a system where the wealthy can hoard resources and then not only determine which issues get addressed based on their whims and interests, but that nonprofits should be grateful for it.

We work toward curbing the influence of corporations: The idolization of the for-profit sector is still strong, manifesting in things like corporate leaders being hired into leadership with little or no nonprofit experience, a preference for board members from for-profit, the lionizing of corporations for donating to nonprofits a fraction of what they should be paying their taxes, and a bunch of people still believing nonprofits should operate more like for-profits. We should all be working to curb the effects of capitalism, not conscience-launder and charity-wash for it.

We understand and strategize effectively against the opposition: If we want to talk about who has been operating like an actual choir, it would be the right-wing. Every time I point out the differences between conservative funders and movements, and how often they are so much more successful than progressive-leaning movements and funders, people’s eyes widen, as if this were new information. It’s not new information. There’s tons of studies and reports on it. Progressives need to use similar strategies—political engagement, community organizing, narrative control, consistent flexible funding, etc.—but with values of equity and justice.

We renew our commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. As DEI gets attacked, spurred on by the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, many in our sector get scared and start backing away from DEI efforts when they should be doubling down. This is another test for our sector, and so far, a lot of organizations and funders have been getting squirrely, afraid of getting sued or getting into the crosshairs of zealot bigots. If we are a real choir, then let’s not be fair-weather DEI followers. It is a tenet of equity to show up especially when things are rough.

We would rally as one voice in support of Palestine, Sudan, Congo, Tigray, and other countries affected by injustice: The last few months have tested our sector’s moral courage in speaking up against genocide, settler colonialism, and other forms of injustice, and I’m afraid we failed miserably as a whole. There have been many leaders and organizations being courageous, and often paying the price for it, but there has not been a collective cohesive response from our sector. We have been trained to be terrified of taking risks, to avoid “controversy,” to shy away from anything that might scare off funders and donors.    

Anyway, the point is, it may seem like many of us are “preaching to the choir” when we mention all the challenges in our sector and what we need to do to improve it. However, for all the talent, passion, and dedication of individual choir members, as a whole we’ve been scattered, everyone singing different notes to different songs. And there’s a danger to believing we’re actually in sync when we’re not. As the problems facing our communities worsen in intensity, we need to focus on the same goals and strategies. The above may be good starting points.