Tag Archives: social change

Dear Graduate: Ideas on How to Occupy a Job

January is the month of new beginnings, and for students graduating in May, the start of job hunting season.  This graduating class’s senior year has been marked by Occupy events across the country, leading some soon-to-be-graduates to think about careers addressing what many believe to be our most pressing domestic issue: class inequality.  Indeed, this inequality is faced most by younger Americans, whose median income is a small fraction of that of “typical American households.”

I recently received an email from a 2011 graduate still looking for a job:

Dear Social Change Collaboratory:

My name is Tom, and I am a 2011 graduate of a good school.  I want to work for an organization devoted to working to address economic inequality and other related issues, and I was wondering if you knew any good organizations doing this.  I would appreciate all of the help you could give me because I don’t really know where to begin. 

Thanks you and best regards,

 The Obama generation is charged up to work for change, so where should they work?

Dear Tom,

Thank you for writing, and congratulations on graduating!  Welcome to the thrilling, perplexing world of adulthood.

You ask an excellent question.  People have occupied cities and posted yard signs declaring support for the 99%.   Many of us who haven’t marched have stood by expressing support for the frustration behind the Occupy movement.  Despite all of this fervor, however, the question remains: what are we going to do about this growing divide?

You ask about good organizations focused on this work. In reality, the road to finding a job working to end economic inequality is not necessarily direct—there are many organizations across many sectors doing this work.  Four questions to ask yourself before you decide on one.

1. Are you limited to taking the direct path to addressing income inequality?

In the most direct sense, economic inequality can be solved by reducing top incomes, raising bottom incomes, or closing the gap income, all else remaining equal.  (Hats off to my undergraduate degree in economics.)  Some ideas on careers that take you down this road:

Politics and policy:  Work for an elected official concerned about income inequality, or find an advocacy organization that addresses policy.

Small business:  Work in a small to mid-size business (or non-profit organization) in a low income area.  As Laura Choi notes, finding ways to support local business as they keep their money local helps to reduce income inequality.

Economics: Study economics to better understand the relationship between income and the economy.  This is the type of analysis economists do.

2. Quick fix or long term impact?

Limiting one’s scope to income inequality keeps one’s solutions in the realm of transactional change.  Taxing the rich (at the modest rates proposed), raising the minimum wage a few cents for the poor, or any other simple transfer of money or monetized benefit doesn’t fundamentally change how society works.  (Taxing the rich at high rates or raising the minimum wage significantly would, but that would just be un-American, right?)

Real social change happens once you take the inverse of a societal negative and turn it positive.  Indeed, once you get beyond raising or lowering actual incomes, addressing income inequality gets obscured into a range of job descriptions that rarely mention income or inequality.  These solutions set out to transform some element of society with the assumption that advocating for new laws, building stronger safety nets, or educating marginalized children and families will expand opportunities, thereby raising the lowest incomes.

Social change:  Work for one of the thousands of organizations focused on social justice issues, community development, or political advocacy.

Education:  Get school experience through AmeriCorps or through work at an afterschool care program.

3. Local or global?

Income inequality is not just an American problem.  Impoverished communities around the world face their own versions of income inequality, both domestically and within the context of external aid being imposed on them by large aid or governmental agencies.  We here can do a lot to help people around the world.

Organization support:  Non-profit poverty alleviation and social change organizations have staff members to raise money and expand their communities.  In Washington State, Global Washington has a directory of them.  In other states, contact your local World Affairs Council and ask if they have a directory of internationally-focused organizations working within that region.

Advocacy: A number of organizations work to end poverty by advocating for greater money or awareness about poverty alleviation.  ONE and RESULTS are two such organizations.

Philanthropy:  Philanthropists are foundations are paying closer attention to issues of equality in their giving.  Grantmakers Without Borders is a leader in taking a social change approach to giving.  Its job board includes organizations across the country and worldwide.  The Foundation Center’s job board also lists philanthropy-related opportunities.

 4. Work or volunteer?

Over the years I have been asked by several mid-career professionals how to break into international non-profit work.  After I hear what they are current doing, I get salary envy.  You really want to leave a well paid, challenging job to earn close to nothing, to live on soft funding year after year?  A lot is accomplished through volunteering and board service.  Graduates, ask yourself whether you could achieve your goals by earning a good salary and dedicating your charity dollars and extra hours to community leadership.

Volunteer:  Nearly every social service non-profit, food bank, shelter, after-school program, etc. needs volunteer support.  Contact your local United Way or any of the organizations linked above to find out ways to jump in today.

Lead:  Non-profit organizations rely on volunteer leaders and board members.  Take a volunteer experience one step further by become a leader.  Great programs work with young people on how to be a effective leader of a social project,  Seattle Works being one example.

Innovate:  If you can’t find the right match for you, think about creating something new.  The Equality Trust, based in the U.K., provides a list of ideas.

Tom, good luck finding the right match for you, and do stay in touch!  I can’t wait to hear where you end up.



Give for Good

How many of us have fantasized about rewriting the rules on how money is given away?  A decade ago, I became so interested in changing how philanthropy happens that I sought out two informational interviews with local foundations to find out how I could flip sides and use my skills to give away money for a change.  It would have been a nice break from life on soft funding, looking for money around every turn.  In both interviews, these foundation leaders whose jobs I coveted wistfully advised me to stay on the non-profit side because it is where the social change action takes place.

I still yearn to try my hand at philanthropy, albeit from the perspective of someone still working on the front lines of organizations dedicated to social change.  In fact, there has never been a greater need for collaboration between recipients and providers of social change-related grants given the urgency of some of our world’s most pressing issues.  Foundations have started important discussions related to social change philanthropy; fewer NGOs have published their ideas about how philanthropy should evolve.

I have been thinking about philanthropy since this past summer when a friend asked me to comment on the subject.  It got me thinking, and I drafted some notes.  I realized that it was time to go beyond a few notes a week ago when another friend talked with me about her challenge with legacy planning, trying to craft a will that honors her lifelong commitment to a better world.  Legacy gifts are the ultimate expression of our values, and deciding which organizations best express these values push us not only to look at the work of organizations we care about today but their potential to deliver an impact well after we are around.

I was asked what philanthropists should consider in their giving for good:

1.       Invest in people.  One way to support social change that ends widespread poverty is to find people who have track records that demonstrate effectiveness and integrity, and then invest in their agenda for change.  Think of it as a small scale social change MacArthur Fellowship.  Indeed, MacArthur Fellowships reward individuals who demonstrate “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”  The Fellowship looks at an individual’s past and makes a judgment about their future potential.  I think about the individuals around the world who are my heroes, people who have done the right thing by their people time and time again.  These are the people in whom philanthropists should invest.

Investing in the people behind social change means investing in exchanges, professional development opportunities, and training that allows local leaders to do the work in partnership with others.  It means standing by them as they try new ideas, not pulling funding if one set of ideas doesn’t work.  It means supporting their local networks so that they are able to bring their community along with them.

2.       Balance long term social change with short term needs.  Much of the literature about social change philanthropy recites an overly simplistic mantra of addressing root causes, not symptoms.  As Aileen Shaw wrote in “Social Justice Philanthropy” in 2002, social change is different from traditional charity much like advocacy differs from service provision.  Social change philanthropy helps people to help themselves, not giving handouts that lead nowhere.  Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.

This mantra, however, neglects the reality that social change leaders face.  While they  are addressing root causes of oppression, violence, and hunger in various ways, their community members also have to be safe, clothed, and fed.  Zealous focus on long term change can create blind spots to the short term needs of families often experiencing turbulence over time.  It is easy for us on the outside to demand disciplined focus on long term solutions; the reality is that our partners have to do both.  Effective philanthropists must balance the vision of long term benefit with the reality of short term needs.

It is also important to remember that teaching a man to fish doesn’t always happen in one trip to the lake.  Supporting an indigenous-led organization as they address a society where the odds are stacked against them is not something for those wanting to get in and out in a short window of time.  It can take a generation—sometimes several—to make social shifts stick.  Effective social change philanthropy means multi-year commitments.

3.       Provide a forum for you to realize your own learning goals.  What do you want to learn through your philanthropy?  Through the funding process, foundations and programmatic partners impose goals and objectives on social change projects all of the time.  Indigenous leaders are expected to get better at certain things during grant cycles, all of which is documented in grant proposals and reports.  An important way to even out the power divide between giver and receiver of funds is to approach grant-making from the perspective of shared learning where both sides have learning objectives to achieve.  I think of it in terms of inquiry-based social change where there are no prescribed outcomes determined by outsiders, but rather a shared process which uncovers new insights and deepens our collective understanding of the work before us.

Recently the executive director of the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, Bill Somerville, presented six predictions for philanthropy that he claims will be noticeable by 2014.  It was reprinted in the Nonprofit Quarterly under the headline “Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming,” a testament to its rosy predictions about a return to people-based, trust-oriented philanthropy.  Perhaps I would stop fantasizing about changing philanthropy if this dream came true.

Shhh… We may be talking about social change

In my work as a consultant, I often encounter non-profits that seem surprised when I start talking about social change. Social change suggests revolution, taking a blunt knife to a societal problem when all we really need is a scalpel.

Yet more non-profits than we think are working for a permanent solution to some problem rather than a short term fix.  Finding the will to end cancer, making the arts an integrated element in our lives, alleviating poverty, creating sustainable ways to educate our children about the world, and protecting the environment all involve making a permanent change in how our society currently operates.  They all involve some level of social change, or changing the balance of power and money to allow a different way of doing business.

One way to think about the relevance of social change to any non-profit organization is whether that organization’s mission is about changing behavior or about providing something simply nice to have.  On one extreme, you have an organization like Out2Play mentioned in the New York Times story about nonprofits going out of business upon meeting their mission.  Out2Play set out to create 40 playgrounds near housing projects, “nice to have” spaces for children, and then closed shop when they reached that goal.  They weren’t out to change the circumstances that cause children to live in housing projects in the first place.

On the other extreme are poverty alleviation projects that bore down into root causes of hopelessness and address the capacity building that needs to take place so that local people can address their own most pressing problems.  They look at the interwoven complexity of economics, power, and culture and try pull at the threads of education, social support, and fair wage work in order to shift the context in which poor people live.

Between playgrounds and poverty, however, lie a whole lot of other non-profits that are doing important work.  Arts organizations, public affairs institutions, disease awareness and research funds, etc. address aspects of our society that are important for our collective well-being.  Looking at them through a lens of social change challenges us to think deeply about their purpose and whether or not they are about changing long term behavior or simply about adding something nice to have if resources allow.  While few of these non-profits talk in terms of social change, their ability to think in terms of social change may make the difference between surviving and thriving.

Three reasons why more non-profits should think in terms of social change:

1. If you know where you are going, you are more likely to get there.  Buried deep within strategic plans and staff agendas is some notion that begins: “What we really want to happen is….”  A local symphony isn’t just about performing symphonic music for people who buy tickets.  It really wants to expand the role that music plays in the lives of diverse audiences, including those who never otherwise would have been exposed to a symphony.  A public affairs organization isn’t about lectures and meetings.  It really wants to make knowledge about the world a critical aspect of every citizen’s decision-making, thereby building the foundation for a more respectful and peaceful world.  By closing our eyes and thinking big, and we achieve a level of focus that makes more happen.

2. Focusing on society as a whole forces you to expand your community.  Many of these middle ground nonprofits have a certain following that cares about its programs.  Arts organizations have subscribers or patrons; public affairs organizations have people who come to them because they care about world affairs or public policy; disease funds attract individuals with family members affected by that disease.  Once you focus on society as a whole, however, you have unique opportunities to get creative in drawing in sectors of society who never would have bought tickets or seen themselves in your cause.

3. Expanding your view gives you a better case for raising money.  Times are tough, and each and every organization is up against each other for charitable dollars.  As more and more donors direct their dollars to human service organizations both locally and internationally, non-profits outside of human services need to tell their stories in ways that demonstrate how their work builds a foundation for a better world in the long term.  “Nice to have” activities rely on continual charity to keep them running.  “Must haves” must be funded in ways that are sustainable over the long run.

Non-profit leaders are used to living in two worlds, one defined by the reality of raising money from generous donors who have benefited from society as it is, and the other constructed within our imagination, exploring the kind of society or world required in order for our non-profit to declare mission accomplished and need not exist.  Thinking in terms of social change—or deciding not to—allows for critical conversations at all levels of an organization.