Opinion

Democracy hangs in the balance. Nonprofit and philanthropy need to stop being neutral.

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, apologies for the likely brusque tone of this week’s post. Like many of you, I am shaken by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; may her memory be a blessing. It is hard for us to celebrate the life of an extraordinary (and imperfect) leader when there are so many terrifying implications now that she is gone. Already Trump and McConnell plan to ram a nomination through, despite what they said four years ago about not confirming SCOTUS nominees during election years. The hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy are astounding but not surprising. We need to ensure Biden/Harris are elected and the Senate is majority blue, then expand the Supreme Court, set term limits, grant statehood to DC, pass the Voting Rights Act, end the filibuster, and get rid of the electoral college, among other things.

If you’re asking me why I’m talking about politics on a nonprofit blog, I need you to shut the hell up. Believing that nonprofit and philanthropy are somehow separate from or above politics is how we’ve been complicit in perpetuating unjust systems. And yet we keep doing this. Last week, I gave a keynote virtually where I reminded folks that kids are still in cages, that Black people are still being killed by the police, that Indigenous women are still missing and murdered, and that everything is still being controlled by rich old white dudes and we need to get more women of color elected into office. In the chat stream was a sniveling remark along the lines of “Wow, this presentation did not need to be so political.”

First of all, I was talking about basic human rights and a government that looks like its people. The fact that some people in our sector believe that saying something like “we need to end the state-sanctioned murder of Black folks” or “we need more women of color in leadership” is somehow “political” or “partisan” or “controversial” just shows how effectively we’ve been brainwashed to believe that anything that conservatives disagree with is political.

Second of all, so what if it were to have been political? Are we as a sector going to keep pretending that what happens within the realm of politics does not affect our communities and our work? Are we just going to keep hunkering down to deal with the symptoms of shitty systems instead of using our influence to collectively change these systems? Neutrality is the security blanket of the privileged, folks whose lives will not be negatively affected no matter who wins what elections or who is on the Supreme Court. Their kids are not in cages. They are not undergoing hysterectomies against their will.

The most important elections of our lifetimes are coming up, a matter of life and death, and nonprofit and philanthropy need to stop with this pretense of neutrality and being above the fray. Charity and philanthropy have been used to launder the reputation and conscience of people and institutions who have been hoarding wealth and power and causing the problems we’re trying to solve. We are complicit. We’re in it, whether or not we think we’re too good for politics. If we’re going to do our part save democracy and the soul of the US, we have to acknowledge that our sector has to stop being neutral and all of us have to roll up our sleeves.

I know many of you are in despair. We have been for the past four years, and it continues to look hopeless as our society rapidly descends into fascism and chaos. All the work we’ve put in, and the work of so many leaders before us, are being undone before our eyes. But RBG along with John Lewis and other leaders fought until the very end, and we need to honor them by not giving up. We need to organize.

Foundations, you need to shift the conversations you’re having: We have about 40 days left, and so many of you are still discussing inane, pointless things like “should we give 1-year grants, or maybe 2-years?” or “Let’s discuss at the next board meeting whether we should ask grantees for quarterly or annual reports.” Double your payout and give 10-year unrestricted grants, the end, move on! You are standing there ignoring the smoke alarm, debating where the couch should go, when the three-quarters of the house has been engulfed in flames. Many of the things you think are important—grant applications, budgets, logic models, theories of change, reports—are actually completely insignificant right now and you need to stop wasting energy on them. Focus your attention on getting more money out immediately to the communities on the front lines getting folks to vote, helping with the Census, organizing rallies and protests, mitigating the influence of money on politics, etc. Stop being wishy-washy while civilization burns, and increase your payout right now.

Nonprofits, you need to mobilize your staff, donors, volunteers, and clients to vote, write postcards, call elected officials, etc. I know all of you are stretched to the limit this hellish year. It’s a lot to ask you to do more. And some of you are still squeamish about “mission creep” and whether you are even allowed to do these types of things. Yes, you are allowed to (just don’t endorse anyone). And in fact, we as a sector have a moral obligation to organize our communities. We have seen what happens when the forces of hatred and white supremacy gain power. We need to do everything we can to stop this from continuing, because the next four years will be even worse for our communities. Remind your community to vote. Give staff who are signing up to be poll workers paid days off. Host some postcard writing virtual parties. Let’s get prepared to demonstrate the full strength of our communities. Also, inevitably, there will be a fight regarding Trump’s nomination of Justice Ginsburg’s successor. We will need to take to the streets.

As individuals, we need to not make the same mistake we made last time: We became complacent, believing in the polls, believing that Hilary Clinton would win. Something that will haunt me forever is that on the day of the election four years ago, I and some colleagues took a stroll through a scenic park in Seattle, assuming things would turn out ok. Who knew if our making some additional phone calls or writing post cards to swing voters or donating money to campaigns would have made a difference, but doing nothing certainly was not helpful. Over the next 40+ days, let’s all of us, to the best of our abilities, take actions. I asked colleagues what they’re involved in. Here are few things you can do right now:

  • Visit votesaveamerica.com It has lots of helpful information about mail-in ballots, how you can be a poll worker, volunteer to confirm registrations, etc.
  • Donate to Black Voters Matter and Movement Voter Project
  • Donate to candidates in contested Senate seats, including Mark Kelly in Arizona (who will play a critical role in the Supreme Court fight coming up if he wins), Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, Doug Jones in Alabama, Sara Gideon in Maine, and Amy McGrath in her long-shot but not hopeless battle against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
  • Instead of donating to individual contests, you can also donate to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They have a wider view of Senate contests and can spend the funds where needed.
  • Sign up with Vote Forward to send letters to voters in swing states encouraging them to vote
  • Volunteer with Gun Sense Voter to help elect candidates who support common-sense gun safety laws.
  • Visit Swingleft.org and write letters, volunteer virtually, donate, start a fundraising campaign, phone bank, etc.
  • Write postcards with Postcards To Voters.
  • Phone bank to swing state voters with Seed the Vote. You’ll get trained, and you’ll join zoom parties so you’re not on your own. Mobilize.us is another place you can sign up to make calls to battleground states.
  • For those who want a little more art with their civic engagement, Art on the Streets has coloring pages created by local artists to help kids and adults get informed about how to vote safely.
  • Tell your US-citizen friends who live abroad that they need to vote. They can go to votefromabroad.com to register and request ballots. Also check out Democrats Abroad.
  • Check out and get involved with Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight.
  • Host virtual events to encourage others to write postcards, make phone calls, donate, etc. Host ballot briefing parties where you can discuss issues, candidates, etc., as voting can be overwhelming and it’s helpful for folks to not feel alone.  
  • Read this extremely informative report on what progressives need to do to effect structural change, and then take actions.

I’m sure there are lots of other cool things you might be doing. Please feel free to add them in the comment section. There are plenty of choices, but let’s not get distracted trying to choose. Just pick one or two things and start doing them. Today. Our sector, both nonprofit and philanthropy, collectively and as individuals, must get out of this entrenched belief that we must “remain neutral.” That is how we’ve been helping to allow these harrowing past four years to happen. We now have a chance to unravel this nightmare.

I know it seems hopeless sometimes, and this year has been relentless with bad news. But let’s remember the words of Justice Ginsburg: “Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.” She also said, “I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”

Let us honor her and other leaders by using whatever talent we have to do our work to the very best of our ability to build a society that is just and inclusive. Let’s get fired up.

About the author

Vu Le

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