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

Written by Vu Le

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.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.