The 2020 Uprising has challenged all of us to inspect the ways our complicity has reinforced systems of oppression. By diagramming the public sector resource exchange within the familiar framework of market forces, we can see how the public sector design reinforces and enables systemic exploitation. I identify potential leverage points within this framework where nonprofit professionals and our stakeholders can realign our sector for systemic change.
This is my first attempt at modeling the relationships between nonprofits, our funders, corporate partners, market forces, and the communities of entrepreneurs and working families we serve. In last week’s discussions, I referenced in one comment the concept of a Philanthropic Industrial Complex–the lived experience of many professionals in the public sector that feel we are all somehow rigidly structured into a sector designed to be unable to break the perpetuation of social ills and their root causes, despite our shared passion for radical change.
On the right-hand side is a simplified model of how we understand market forces in our society. Investors and capital interests sit at the top, financing large corporations, big and small businesses, which employ workers who support their families. The dominant force of interest in this side of the model is the capital flow, which like a tornado sucks the vast majority of wealth from consumers at the bottom and delivers it to a few shareholders at the top. Money does trickle down in the form of wages, contracts and the value of products and services consumed, but the foundational feature of market capitalism is that wealth is systematically extracted at all levels and delivered to owners. Capital to the Capitalists.
We are familiar with the downsides of capitalism. The extractive force is a constant tension on all players, and is especially damaging to marginalized communities. The positive feedback loop of the more you reap–>the more you invest–>the more you reap leads to massive wealth disparities that correlate to disparities in health, access, and human rights. We are familiar. We are upset. Many of those benefitting may even be embarrassed by their own success, recognize their duty to common humanity, or more shrewdly, may understand the risks of social upheaval that arise from the popular dissatisfaction with our system–if left unchecked.
The left hand side of the model is where I am excited to dwell. Those of us who work or participate in the public sector–nonprofits, faith organizations, government–may intuitively understand much of this model as well. The same wealthy individuals, global corporations etc benefiting at the top of the cyclone often donate to philanthropy, foundations, etc. These entities then make grants to nonprofits big and small, who deliver direct programming to communities. In my world, our primary constituents are small business owners (think mom-and-pop in flavor) who in many ways better fit in with the community of families and workers than the corporate right-hand column. Like B2B arrangements on the private side, big nonprofits often sub-contract to smaller nonprofits, who have deeper community connections to deliver service. [[One observation at this point in the model is that, unlike wages, which do provide direct cash all the way through the system, grant dollars typically stop at nonprofits–communities rarely receive direct cash–rather that cash is “converted” into services deemed valuable. We may pause to wonder if all those grant dollars–which often end up in the pockets of nonprofit professionals like me–really translate or multiply into service value on a systemic level.]]
I start with this personal admission of culpability because, as I explore the assumptions and implications that emerge from this model, I want to make clear that I am not laying judgement and blame on particular individuals–my focus is on the systemic outcomes of our system. It is easy to vilify those at the top. It is more productive to understand the system, our complicit participation, identify what we can do about it and build allies along the way.
By directly linking our source of funding to the chief profiteers of our market system, it is difficult to conclude that the goal of philanthropy is to solve the problems of market capitalism–only salve them. If these patrons are not hell-bent on ending world hunger, racism and poverty, then what are they getting out of it? The final dynamic in this model, on the far left side, is the Credibility Flow. We accept grants in exchange for reporting of outcomes–number of mouths fed, test scores raised, butts in the seats. There is a frantic arms race in data collection. Maybe efficiencies are rewarded with further investment. What definitely happens is these outcomes are reported up the chain with great fanfare. This work would not be possible without Benefactor X. Corporation Z is deeply committed to investing in our communities. There are press releases, ribbon cuttings, front page news, with honors accruing at the top in a fashion eerily similar to how wealth flows up. On an individual level, we may attribute this to kindness or vanity. When we mirror it alongside the destructive forces of our market, it appears the goal of all this positive press may be to lend credibility to those at the top, to shore them against our worst accusations of exploitation. Whether they are cornered by a reporter or hauled in front of Congress, they can always point to their good works. You think I’m some kind of Robber Baron!? Look at all the good work I’m doing in the community! It’s not uncommon to see giant checks handed out to charities after a round of bad press. You might imagine there is some sort of ratio at work here, where X amount of damage requires Y amount of philanthropy to shore it up, make amends. In that case, then you might even predict that when new philanthropic initiatives are announced, massive new investments made unconnected to bad press, that the bad press is coming. It would be cynical to assign charitable contributions as a pre-meditated defense against known wrongdoing, like an insurance policy. But on a systemic level, wisdom-of-the-crowds thinking suggests the system knows.
But again, I am not dwelling on the top. How do I contribute, participate in this defense of capitalism? Every time I “Yea but” to shield a partner from criticism. Every time I prioritize making our work “look good,” make our partners “look good” highlighting all the smiling faces of those we are serving. It’s a game we all play to some degree, and many of the people we serve understand the game and agree to play along, helping us “look good”–they know it’s the price of admission. I hope we do make people smile, and we need to celebrate our successes. But we need to take a hard look at our outcomes and ensure they live up to the hype. We need to ensure we’re not selling hype to fund our passion projects.
One opportunity this framework illuminates is that we can make philanthropy “look good”–look really good– by working with them to make systemic change. Many sources of funding are tied to corporate entities or individuals in positions of power. Instead of funding an ounce of cure for a pound of pain, why not pre-empt the pain by changing the rules? This may have been unpalatable a year ago. But we are in a unique moment where the centuries of destruction our systems of racism and capitalism are currently tottering. The levees are showing cracks. We can sandbag, or we can start talking about relocating out of the floodplain, or we could address the environmental causes of all this flooding. We could take an all-of-the-above approach.
We are in a moment where the Status Quo has lost much of its accumulated credibility. The systemic response will be to correct with massive investment. Lots and lots of balloons. Potentially, lots of big checks coming to our organizations. Our challenge is to resist the systemic response. This is the moment to say “never again,” and pull ourselves, our sector and our society out of this racist experiment with capitalism. Or we are going to keep having years like 2020. And it feels like our sector and all its contributors are open to that conversation right now. Who can you talk to? Who in your individual map has power to change the rules and shift priorities? Who has the vision to break the cycle of oppression?
While we work to influence the middle and top tiers of the model, we can also build power at the base. Cooperatives can serve as buffers, self-sufficient entities that create value, wages, and social services in the community. With shared ownership, the wealth accrues in the community. The credibility accrues in the community. We build an alternative model that looks less like a boom-bust parasite and more like a healthy ecosystem.