Wealth has accumulated to the top 1% of the population at a rate never witnessed in American history, and the beneficiaries have used this wealth to accrue more influence. They have shaped our democratic institutions as their protectors by resisting taxation in all its forms, arguing against “handouts” to the undeserving masses.
The moneyed class has reduced the social safety net to meager benefits at a time when people need it most. These gutted benefits fail to provide even the most basic standards of living for millions of people in what is supposedly the richest country in the history of the world.
For those who do feel a moral obligation (or existential guilt), there is philanthropy. But because philanthropy allows wealthy donors to choose the causes and population they deem to be worthy of support, “philanthropy is the privatization of the social safety net.”
Nonprofits are now left to address what our tax dollars should fund - the loss of a job, or housing, or food, or transportation, or healthcare, or struggles with substance use or mental health disorders or any number of things bound to happen to all of us.
Well that’s bleak! So what do we as nonprofiters do??
I suspect like many of our YNPN-TC members, I have always worked in nonprofits and I intend to spend my entire career in the nonprofit sector. So how do we exist in this sector knowing that it is fundamentally tied to a deeply flawed sense of irresponsibility on behalf of the wealthiest Americans?
First, we must vote to change the system (but that is the subject of another post).
In the meantime, we must continue working in nonprofits to try to improve our own lives. Our fates are inextricably linked to the clients we work with, especially as the wealthiest 1% continue to poison our air, water, and land to accumulate ever-growing wealth.
We must commit to the nonprofit sector, moving it toward a more equitable future and away from a mimicry of the private sector. It’s absurd to embrace a version of Effective Altruism that asks us to make as much money as possible (i.e., by being a hedge fund manager) to then donate it to the nonprofits with the most scientifically-provable impact. This approach erodes vital programming, encourages a general moral bankruptcy, and results in a brain drain from the sector.
We can make the greatest difference in our careers by continuing to work in nonprofits making the greatest impact in our communities. While it’s not ideal that nonprofits must exist to fill the gaping holes in our social safety net, it’s better than no safety net at all.
We all have spheres of influence
We must affect change in our spheres of influence, however limited it may be. When I get demoralized thinking of the status quo, I’m reminded that I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
I have the privilege of being a director at a nonprofit. With the work and responsibility that comes along with that role, it’s easy to forget that I am one of only four directors at our organization. In this small group, my voice actually has a tremendous amount of sway. Even more sway if I’m able to get buy-in from my fellow directors. I credit Edgar Villaneuva and his book Decolonizing Wealth in helping me understand the relationship between this power and this responsibility.
I recognize that not everyone has the privilege, but entry-level employees also have influence through the language you use, the books and movies you discuss in casual conversation with your coworkers, or the art you have in your workspace. As a manager you perhaps have influence in the vendors you choose to patronize, the employees you choose to hire, the committees you choose to participate in, or the professional development opportunities you pursue. We cannot do everything, but we can do something.
All of these items are made exponentially easier the more privilege you have. The more privilege you have, the more critical it is to use that privilege towards dismantling the status quo because our fates are all bound to the fates of those with less privilege than us. The nonprofit sector, however imperfect, is the right place for us to do this work.