After the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, MN on May 25 this year, a fire was lit across the globe in response to police brutality and racial injustice. This fire has not, as we enter July, been extinguished. As a matter of fact, it has spread. Chants crying out, “Defund police,” “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe” can be heard and seen in all corners of the United States. Pair that with our current state of living in a pandemic during an election year and, well, there has been somewhat of a line drawn in the sand among those in protest and those that would wish to quash marches in the streets demanding a better, more just future for our children. Whether you like it or not, this is political. Despite which camp you claim to be a part of, political opinion and agenda are situated slap in the middle of it all.
As the leader of a local nonprofit, I feel I speak for many other organization representatives when I say this is a tricky environment to navigate. At least it can certainly feel that way. Donor approval of mission, performance and alignment to values often dictate the lifeblood that is private funding. While, sure, grants and other sources of public funding may be less impacted, the reality is that nonprofits, like ours, depend on the personal and collective investment in the mission by its community. With a strong precedence for transparency, ethics and impact to maintain a solid standing in the nonprofit industry, the introduction of this year’s global and national crises add a whole new layer of challenges to navigate.
There have been many, many times that I have skirted comments from large donors that were political in nature–because, after all, we are not a political organization–to ensure that I maintain a passive and somewhat mysterious political identity as the one carrying the flag for our organization. Our event committees have toiled, at times, over how to engage political figures in our communities with the work we do, all the while without “offending” or “being off-putting” to some donors with different political leanings. And sure, it is certainly important to remain on mission, to speak to your work and to ensure it is not colored by any particular opinion base–our work should stand beyond that of politics … right?
Though I have to wonder: Is the idea of human services not somehow inherently “political?” The existence of nonprofit work is such to fill gaps where critical needs are not being sufficiently met (or not being met at all) by our governmental institutions. Food banks exist because too many people do not have proper access to food. Free health clinics exist because there are very real barriers to acceptable health care. Shelters exist because there are too many individuals experiencing homelessness. Mental health services are so critical to help the many in our communities living with mental illness but not with resources for treatment. The point is, the system is inadequate. Those employed and emboldened to help others are filling the holes in the system, and thus, believe in leaning into the raw reality of those who are disenfranchised, traumatized or abandoned. They believe in stepping in to do something about it. But the ability to do such work requires the favor of our constituency. So, when we are called to speak up about injustice, there is real trepidation around damaging that favor with those who might disagree. Charged with caring for those we serve, there is fear of creating a response that could negatively impact how critical services are delivered. Many nonprofits have been quiet. And I get it.
But to those nonprofit leaders, I ask you, what do you stand for? Who does your organization stand for? What are your values? I asked myself and my leadership this as we watched crowds erupt in cities all over the globe, families argue on social media, and felt our hearts break for our country. This may be political, but more than that, it is about humanity. Racial injustice is more important than red or blue, more directly infringing on basic human rights, and is, unequivocally, wrong.
As a founder I can easily access vivid memories of the first days of Paws and Stripes. Tracing our mission back to its roots, its inspiration, and the very soul of why it remains today, ten years later, reveals it was our system’s failure to serve our people. Paws and Stripes’ mission is to serve military veterans living with trauma and to save a dog’s life along the way. Our veterans are just as much a part of our community as any group, and, furthermore, are themselves an incredibly diverse population. Men, women, in their twenties all the way to their seventies, all ethnicities, all sexual orientations and so many more identities have walked through our doors asking for the same thing–to get their lives back. Many have looked death in the face, both overseas and in their own eyes battling suicide. Many have faced brutal sexual trauma in the military. Too many times have I heard, “This is my last chance, I am at the end of my rope.” These men and women felt unheard, undervalued and incredibly isolated.
Today and for many years, there are more voices in our country that are crying to be heard, to be valued and to be seen as they truly are. They are crying out for justice and for actualization of the freedom that our nation promises.
It might feel scary, but as leaders in the world of human services, nonprofit and philanthropy, it is the very fabric of our work to speak up for those who need a voice. Black lives matter. There is a certainty that not all of your donors will agree with this, and that is okay. We must still be courageous. We must speak up with love, with respect, with kindness and with integrity. If we are here to play our part in ushering in a better world, then let’s get on with it.