An Open Letter to our Allies in the Solidarity Philanthropy Community
March 16, 2020
Contact: Ariel Brooks (617) 645-2708
I’m writing this letter from my home office, with immense gratitude that the Center for Economic Democracy will be able to meaningfully continue our work from our kitchens and couches. And for the fact that all of our employees have salaried roles and full benefits. It was relatively easy for us to make the decision to switch to fully remote and do our part in the social distancing effort.
As we know, the situation is very different for the majority of our world. Our movement partners have done an incredible job uplifting the ways that the Covid 19 pandemic will disproportionately impact those who already suffer the worst impacts of capitalism, racism, patriarchy and ecological collapse. (See references and further reading at the end of the letter)
I was inspired to write to you after hearing multiple examples of these impacts within our network of partner organizations this week, and want to call you into thought partnership about solidarity philanthropy frames for answering this crisis. As a first step, as you create your rapid response strategies, have you considered calling your grantees about their immediate needs and the hard choices they’re facing?
A snapshot of some direct economic impacts experienced by non-profit employees nearest me: A local organizing group just hired fourteen part-time door knockers whose jobs are abruptly impossible. With Boston Public Schools closed through April 27th, my daughter’s afterschool providers just effectively lost their jobs. My husband works at CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK), which has given me a window on the tough and multi-layered economic choices the organization is trying to make.
CWK is a nonprofit shared-use commercial kitchen and resource center in Dorchester for emerging local food businesses. Member businesses -- most owned by women and people of color -- have lost tens of thousands of dollars of contracts in a week and have already begun layoffs. This, in turn, has meant plummeting earned revenue for the nonprofit, and difficulty justifying full staffing levels. In a mission related catch-22, closing the kitchen is safest and healthiest for everyone, but also likely means laying off fifteen people, and making it impossible for small businesses to continue making their products.
As we know, the nonprofit sector is the third largest sector in the US - after retail and manufacturing - supplying more than 11.4 million jobs. I couldn’t find reliable research about the percentage of these jobs that are hourly vs. salaried, but as we think about out-of-school-time workers, museum and arts service industry employees, part-time campaign employees, we intuitively know that nonprofits across the country are facing similar heart wrenching decisions. While the Families First Coronavirus Response Act may alleviate some of this stress if it passes and goes into effect, we know our government systems are slow to respond, and difficult to navigate. We can and should address immediate needs wherever possible.
For a long time, I’ve held the perspective that nonprofits were a necessary evil. That if our government and communities were functioning as they should, nonprofits wouldn't be necessary. That we should all be working towards structural changes that put ourselves out of jobs, even as we provide bandaid solutions that ease the struggle in front of us right now.
Recently, growing out of our reflections about restorative economics and Just Transition for philanthropy, I’ve begun to reframe. Philanthropy is the result of capitalism’s extractive excesses, that has nominally been set aside for public good. (We won’t go into here a full rant about the contradictions of sitting on huge endowments while communities continue to suffer - I know I’m preaching to the choir.) Perhaps, in this time of transition, we should see nonprofit jobs, with steady philanthropy support, as a key bridge in our transition to the new economy.
If philanthropy’s response to past financial crises can be taken as an example, your colleagues in the investment office might have already sent out messages about “tightening the belt” and giving out less money as the market continues to crash and we begin to see the unimaginable economic ripple effects of this pandemic. I want to think together about ways we could, instead, use this opportunity to provide a tipping point towards the next ethical horizon in philanthropy. I’ve read a few good articles about quick responses to community need, and strategies for helping nonprofits stay open during and recover after the crisis. What else can we do together?
Part of solidarity is acting locally, with folks already in our community. We’ve seen evidence of spontaneous community emergence across the globe -- from folks singing to each other across the streets in Italy, to mutual aid circles emerging in every city. CWK would love to furlough its hourly workers with full pay, and they estimate it would cost $150,000 to do so for three months. A drop in the bucket for some foundations (even with massive market losses) but fundamentally transformative for fifteen families and the organization. If we multiply that impact by millions of nonprofit workers across the country, we’re talking about an economic intervention that begins to ripple outwards - to businesses that might keep enough customers to stay solvent, to lessened family stress and health issues. Can you call all of your grantees to learn if they are facing tough decisions and offer to fill the gaps?
I’ve focused on this particular intervention because it’s the idea that inspired this letter, and it can be helpful to have a specific action to focus on in times of crisis. But it’s just the beginning of my dreaming about how we can respond together, and use this moment to accelerate our Just Transition that centers regeneration and cooperation over wealth accumulation.
The fragility of our economic system has never been more apparent. “Perpetuity” may not be possible, even with the most conservative financial management. Can we use this moment to open the conversation about spend down? To lean into opening the corpus rather than retreating into a strict (and diminished) 5% distribution? If we’re going to continue investing, how can we make sure the money is going to real communities? How are we contributing directly to building local resilient economies with community-controlled capital that can survive increasingly turbulent macroeconomic conditions? Our experiments with community capital are still small and fragile - how can we all work together to grow them from seeds to gardens?
Center for Economic Democracy is excited to continue this conversation - if we all share our thinking, responses, ideas, and bright spots the next ethical horizon will become that much clearer.
Center for Economic Democracy