How hyper-localism in nonprofit and philanthropy has become a barrier to justice and equity

[Image description: The earth as seen from space, one half of it seeming to be on fire and disintegrating into embers. Image by TheDigitalArtist on Pixabay]

A few weeks ago, I came back from a trip to Kenya to learn about and discuss global aid, specifically how colonization and imperialism and their legacy have created a system of global aid wrapped in patriarchy and white supremacy. It was my first time on the continent, and it was eye-opening seeing how foreign policies have affected local communities.

I am now back home in the US and continue to be horrified by the gen0cide that Israel continues committing against Palestinian civilians: bombing refugee camps, massacring children and civilians even as we sleep and go about our days.

 “Why do you care what happens thousands of miles away?” several trolls have asked me online. Similar sentiments are expressed by people I know, including colleagues from our field, but sounding much more civil and reasonable: “I don’t have the time and energy to be up to date on all the global events. I’m trying to focus on what I can do in my own neighborhood.”

Over the past several decades, we have internalized a philosophy that local is good. Support local businesses. Buy local produce. Hire people who live in the neighborhood. Our sector has been a huge proponent of this philosophy, with most nonprofits tackling local issues, and foundations and donors choosing to invest their dollars in the geographic areas where they and their trustees live and work.

In general, I’m supportive of this approach. We should invest in our communities and avoid the environmental and other costs of spending resources outside it. However, like with anything else, the pendulum often swings too far to one end, creating negative consequences, and often worsening the problems we’re trying to solve and causing new ones that we may not even know about:

Maintaining the inequitable distribution of resources: If wealthy people and corporations only invest in where they live, then it concentrates resources in already-wealthy neighborhoods, leaving behind many areas, such as rural communities where there are few rich people and few foundations. This concentration of wealth in already affluent areas perpetuates the cycle where well-off neighborhoods have programs and services, while poor and rural communities continue to struggle.

Entrenching apathy toward other communities: I see it with Palestine, Congo, Sudan, and other countries where horrific things are happening. It is overwhelming to have to pay attention to everything taking place around the world. Localism allows us a convenient excuse to look away and not pay attention. After all, how can anyone blame you for wanting to focus your time and energy on the people and businesses in your own neighborhood? But again, this can go too far, where the lives of others in far-off places become theoretical and academic, which reduces our collective empathy and humanity.

Limiting the scope and effectiveness of our work: Poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, and other issues are systemic in nature, not localized to specific areas. It may make us feel good to believe we’re solving a particular problem in our neighborhood or city or state and that’s good enough, but unless its addressed effectively everywhere else, it will likely come back in some form, or create other problems. Hyper-localism may lead to missing opportunities to coordinate at state, national, and global levels to create impactful change.

Stymying the building of political and other power: The hyper-localism among some funders to invest only in their own city or state means that resources may not be going where it’s needed strategically. For instance, funders in extremely blue states will continue funding voter engagement and candidate support efforts in those states, when those funds could create significantly more impact if invested in a red or purple state that may not be where those funders operate.

Perpetuating our complicity in global problems: Being hyper-local in our thinking often creates a complacency that perpetuates our complicity in terrible things happening around the world. We are electing people who advance foreign policies that lead to many countries remaining poor and dependent on our “aid.” Our tax dollars, over 14 billion US dollars, this year, literally fund Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. We are funding the bombs and soldiers that are slaughtering children and civilians. Many of the people in the US don’t realize this because our hyper-localism prevents us from seeing or thinking about it.  

None of this is to say that we should all be abandoning local efforts to focus on larger, global issues. But there must be a more balanced approach. Localism can be great, but hyper-localism causes us to focus our perspective so narrowly we may not be able to fully see and thus effectively solve issues. Or worse, we could be exacerbating problems.

Nonprofits all need to be aware of what’s happening outside their geographic areas, including in other countries. Read up on global issues; bring them up at staff meetings for discussion. Connect with other nonprofits outside your city, state, and country.

Foundations, meanwhile, should consider whether focusing all their resources in their local communities makes sense, or whether some consideration should be given to other areas, especially those where there are not many affluent people, businesses, and foundations already.

And all of us need to be aware of the injustice happening in Palestine, Congo, Sudan, and other places, understand how we may be complicit in it, and use our voices to effect change, such as contacting our elected officials to demand to stop funding and enabling Israel to continue its campaign of genocide. Our sector cannot be at its most effective unless we adopt a broad, global perspective in our work.