Welcome to Week 11 of Be the Change!

This week I explore the contradictions inherent in the nonprofit space and then provide some career advice--no, really!

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Biting the Hands That Feed You

Biting the Hands That Feed You
One of the fundamental contradictions, if not flaws, of the nonprofit world is how the vast majority of us are funded. People and businesses generate massive profits, often at the expense of people and the planet--underpaying workers, skirting regulations, lobbying for lower taxes, dumping pollutants into the ground, water, and sky--and then donate a tiny percentage of those ill-gotten gains to nonprofits, in exchange for which they earn a tax deduction and positive PR. I wrote about this dynamic in a May 2019 article for the Chronicle of Philanthropy titled In Our Broken Economic System, All Nonprofits Face the 'Sackler' Donation Question. There I explored whether the recipients of grant dollars from the Sackler Family, which became billionaires through the sale of Oxycontin, should return the money, and concluded that the answer is likely no: if nonprofits were to return "dirty" money, we would be left with little funding to carry on our all-important work!

Still, this model has always been hard to defend. And in the era of COVID-19, rising authoritarianism, and a climate emergency, I find myself ever-closer to denouncing it, even at the risk of biting the hands that feed Capital Good Fund. What inspired me to write this essay was a Twitter thread by Stop the Money Pipeline, a "coalition over 150 organizations" that seek to hold "the financial backers of climate chaos accountable." The thread is about Line 3, "a proposed pipeline expansion to bring nearly a million barrel of tar sands per day" that will run straight through "untouched wetlands and the treaty territory of the Anishinaabe peoples."

We cannot stop the climate crisis while continuing to build this kind of dirty, climate-polluting infrastructure. And none of these massive, expensive projects are feasible without the backing of financial institutions and insurance companies. So when Stop the Money posted about the largest financial backers of the pipeline, I had a feeling that many of them would turn out to be funders of Capital Good Fund. Sure enough, several of them are, although in the interest of not shooting myself too directly in the foot, I won't specifically call them out (pragmatic cowardice on my part, perhaps?)

Not only is this wholly incompatible with the goal of having a habitable planet, it also flies in the face of what many of these banks have said about the importance of tackling climate change. One CEO noted that "Climate change and inequality are two of the critical issues of our time," while his bank has provided hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for fossil fuels since the signing of the Paris Climate Accords in 2015. Another CEO recently said that "Climate change is one of the most urgent environmental and social issues of our time" while his bank invested over $26 billion in fossil fuels in 2020 alone.

It is wonderful that businesses provide so much philanthropic support; without this, the work of nonprofits like Capital Good Fund would be impossible. I don't know how to square this circle, however: while we receive six and low seven-figure grants and investments, many of our funders are investing hundreds of billions of dollars into furthering the climate crisis. Now we find ourselves on a warming planet, with rapidly melting glaciers, rising oceans, and ever-more-frequent wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods. What's worse, it is an entirely avoidable catastrophe, for the science is clear and we know how to solve the problem. What we've lacked is the political will and the capital to fund the solutions.

So I feel compelled to say something, but at the same time, what good would it do to jeopardize my little organization's funding? We do so much to change the lives of those we serve, even if the harm done by some of our funders far outweighs the good we do. I don't know the answer, but I can't pretend that the hand the feeds us isn't also feeding the forces that are jeopardizing people and the planet. The only thing I can do is speak out and try to nudge, cajole, and force these firms to fund the just future that all of us desire, deserve, and demand. It's a balancing act that every nonprofit leader has the impossible task of maintaining...

Career Advice. No, Really!

Career Advice. No, Really!
One of the primary things I've learned over the past twelve years working in the nonprofit space is that, first, we know how to solve many of the challenges we face--climate change, poverty, you name it. And second, that we lack enough people working to implement and advocate for the solutions we have. In my case, given the audacity of Capital Good Fund's mission--to create pathways out of poverty and advance a green economy--it is clear that neither I nor the organization alone can realize our vision for the nation and the world.

Recognizing this, I dedicate a significant percentage of my time to inspiring and encouraging high school and college students, as well as recent graduates, to work in the social sector, broadly defined as nonprofits, for-profit social enterprises, and government. I give talks to high school and college students; write poems and essays; and participate in other forums, such as webinars and conferences, all with an eye toward getting more people to invest their time, talent, and energy into doing good. It is hard for me to know the extent to which I succeed in moving the needle, but it is a passion of mine--it is devastating to know that, for lack of people and funding to implement solutions, billions of human beings suffer needlessly from hunger, poverty, the impacts of climate change, and the like.

I am often asked what the best way to do good is, and my answer is always this: the most impact you have is in your job, in what you spend at least forty hours a week doing for at least thirty years. Too many people buy into the notion that it is justifiable to work for a company that is not aligned with your values so long as you volunteer on the side and donate to charity. But that model simply doesn't work, for several reasons. First, large corporations are one of the largest drivers of inequity in the world, be it environmental degradation, underpaying workers, or lobbying against fair taxation and consumer protections. Helping these businesses make even more money at the expense of people and the planet cannot be squared with wanting to help...people and the planet. Nor is it logical to believe that companies can be "changed from within": they almost certainly cannot, and your time is much better spent elsewhere.

Second, we don't have time to wait for people to make a lot of money and then donate it to charity: the climate crisis is a crisis today; every day a child goes hungry is an unconscionable injustice. Put another way, a life changed today is worth more than a life changed tomorrow; I refer to this as the net present value of injustice. We need everyone working, right now, for a better world.

Finally, the scope of the challenges we face are far too great to tackle with charity and volunteerism alone: we need an all-hands-on-deck approach, with every single sector of the economy and society working in concert toward shared goals of a prosperous future.

With that in mind, the next question I get is, how do I plan for a career that aligns with my values? I tend to respond by marveling that we seem to spend more time thinking about what Netflix show we're going to watch, or researching restaurant ratings, than we do about how to make intentional career choices. The simple fact of the matter is that if one is not careful, one can very easily wind up taking any old job and then, thirty years later, suddenly find that one has been unhappy at work for their entire adult life! Good does not happen on its own; good is a function of intentional, calculated, diligent planning and execution.

So my advice is this. Create a mission statement and rubric for yourself and then benchmark any career option against it. When I started graduate school, I decided that whatever career path I chose had to operate at the intersection of poverty and environment: I wasn't interested in saving trees for the sake of trees alone, nor did I want to tackle poverty without addressing the climate crisis that is disproportionately impacting low-income families. I decided that I didn't care in what capacity I would work on these issues--whether that was in government, at a nonprofit or for profit, or even starting my own organization. That flexibility allowed me to remain open to opportunities that might emerge. I certainly never expected to start a nonprofit, but when the idea to offer loans to empower lower-income Americans to better their lives and also invest in climate-mitigation through energy-efficiency, I decided to pursue it. Capital Good Fund checked all the boxes.

You are of course free to craft your own mission statement and rubric! First, you want to identify the issues you care about. Be as specific as you can without being prescriptive; had I said that I only wanted to work on energy burdens in low-income households, I might not have been open to starting a nonprofit lender. Second, be open to how you address the issue(s) you're passionate about. For instance, if you want to work on domestic violence ("DV"), you shouldn't necessarily limit yourself to only working as a social worker or counselor (unless that is of particular interest to you). You may find that, as you research the issue, the idea of working on public policy related to DV really catches your eye; or maybe you get excited by the idea of using the law to protect survivors, and end up going to law school.

Third, devour everything you can on the topic. Reach out to nonprofit and community leaders; listen to podcasts, read blogs, sign up for newsletters; talk to thought leaders and professors. There are so many resources out there, and most people will meet with you if you are clear about why, are respectful of their time, and come prepared.

Fourth, do not underestimate the impact you can have by working on public policy or in government. While starting an enterprise or joining a nonprofit may seem sexier or more obvious, only the government has the ability to set the stage for dramatic change. As a case in point, suppose you want to end hunger in America. You can come up with all manner of approaches, but if the federal government were to raise the minimum wage or increase SNAP (food stamp) benefits, hunger could easily be eliminated through one piece of legislation. No problem can be solved without government intervention; tax policy, regulation, the social safety net, and other public policies determine what's possible, or at least how easy it is to do good. And when I speak of public policy, I mean that broadly. You can work at a think tank, run for elected office, or become a policy aid for an elected official. Nor should you limit yourself to the federal government: we need smart people working at the state and local level, on school boards, state treasurers offices, in public transit, etc.

And lastly, give yourself the freedom to experiment. Before starting Capital Good Fund, I had about ten ideas that didn't pan out: a composting venture where I collected people's compost and took it to a local composting site; an environmental consultancy; a system wherein drivers of electric cars could come to a station and, rather than charge their battery, simply swap it out for another; and a solar canopy design that would use rain water to clean the panels, thereby increasing efficiency. I explored each idea, gave myself the space to feel it out, and, when it was clear that the project didn't have legs, I abandoned it.

The same logic applies even if you aren't starting a venture. Volunteer or intern for interesting organizations. Join student or community groups. Attend trainings, protests, and marches. Get on calls with activists and community organizers. In short, immerse yourself in the issue, come to understand it, see if it resonates with you, and remain open to different ways of addressing. And most importantly, always benchmark any possible career choice against your mission statement and rubric. If a job offers you more pay but doesn't meet your other criteria, then hold out for the lower-paying job that does. I can't emphasize that enough: it's better to earn a little less money but feel that you are living out your values! If just a few more of us do live out our values, well, the sky's the limit in terms of how beautiful we can make the world!

Warmer Days

The winter was mild by New England standards.
We stayed indoors, set the thermostat to 70, and

when the energy bill arrived—late, because, lest we
one day forget this epoch, the mail, like so much else

about our lives, was being sabotaged—we would let out a
sigh of relief, for money is tight in a pandemic, in a world

where thermostats connect to boilers, to supply chains,
to ancient substances mined, refined, sold, burned, then

dumped into the sky for profit. How vast is the sky, how much
power it takes to fill the air with warmth, to make us emerge like

the creatures we consider ourselves superior to—ants, spiders,
mice, raccoons! But we are delicate, slather ourselves in sunblock,

put on hats and sunglasses: cautious, tentative. Is this why we
destroy with such lust—to keep us safe? Of course we also lust

for one another, the innards of flowers, mountains, bodies both
animate and celestial. So ravenous are we, if we could eat the stars,

we’d hunt them to the brink of extinction, nonprofits would construct
zoos and reservations, sell bumper stickers that say “Save Orion” and

“We are all stardust.” As it is, we can hardly see past ourselves.
Light pollution and smog obscure the grandeur beyond;

satellites and space junk blanket us like moons. On Earth, we’ve
tampered with rivers; manufactured so much plastic, we consume

a credit card’s worth a week; and found we can change the weather,
if not control it. But let’s not worry about that now. Warmer days are here.

Meet me on the beach, beautiful even as it erodes. Let our sunscreen-
streaked bodies touch and touch. With each breath, a few grains of sand

fall from our backs. We don’t notice the sun go down, the waters
flow in quiet awe, or imagine that another intelligence, chancing on us

from its own eroded home galaxies away, might envy how your hands
glide across my skin as if to soothe a terrible concern for the future.
Keep on keeping on.

- Andy