Calculated Epiphanies and Justice in Funding

I saved my favorite of the Begging for Change posts for last; Robert Egger is one of the few nonprofit leaders I’ve ever heard be willing to speak truth to the Rockefellers of the world AND give social service organizations such a clear way to make the connection between their work and advocacy. Since justice not charity and the link between social work and social change are two of my very favorite topics, I was literally flagging almost every other page towards the end of the book.

But this will be a short post, because it’s been a long week of challenging everything we think we know about nonprofits, and it’s Friday, and, you know, there are limits. Two main takeaways:

1. Nonprofit organizations need to be consistent agitators for justice, which means not accepting funding from corporations and others who are creating a lot of the problems that these same organizations are then expected to address. Egger tells a sobering story of a graduate of the DC Central Kitchen program who gets a job in the AOL cafeteria. As the Kitchen’s Executive Director, Egger has these visions of partnerships between AOL and the Kitchen and all of the great work they can do together, until he finds out that the job only pays $8/hour despite requiring a long commute for the newly-minted graduate. It’s like Rockefeller, right? How would our society look different today if, instead of making a ton of money by exploiting natural and human resources and rewriting economic rules to enrich himself, and then donating some of the proceeds, Rockefeller had instead shaped an economy built on justice and prevention of suffering?

So here’s what I’d like to see: the next time that a social worker in a nonprofit organization is offered a grant from a corporation with a poor record of labor or human rights, instead of taking the check and serving as cover for the company’s larger misdeeds, what if the corporation was urged to set its own house in order first, as in the examples Egger provides?

2. Services aren’t enough. We need social change. Egger uses the example of Habitat for Humanity and how much more capacity the federal government, and corporate America, collectively, have to address affordable housing than the efforts of this one (even very large) nonprofit organization. He obviously gets it, that we need to cultivate our political strength and then wield it to bring about policy change. So you know I’m nodding along. And then he goes further, giving nonprofits a visual that I love–the idea of reaching decision makers’ hearts through your service work, like a Trojan Horse, and then helping them to reach the realization of their own powers to work alongside you towards a common goal. He calls this ‘calculated epiphany’, the idea of slipping into someone’s conscience to bring them along on your cause, and I think there’s a ton of truth to it.

In my own advocacy, I know that we won the most when we could first connect to lawmakers’ values around family, the story of a welcoming America, the promise of youth…and then they, often reluctantly, were forced to admit that making those values reality required policy change.

So what can be your Trojan Horses? How can you leverage your direct service work to build relationships with influential people in your community who are in a position to effect significant change? How can your organization become a place, as Egger says, where “people see the impossible made plausible”? What will you do to make lightbulbs go on…and stay on?

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