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In These Trying Times: Hopeful Reflections on the Nonprofit Sector from the Morning After the Election

Hands removing "I Voted" sticker from roll of stickers.

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It’s morning in the Eastern time zone on November 4th, 2020. As I am writing this, I have no idea who the next president will be.

There was just some late—sorry, early-breaking news that sounds good for my guy, but all of this is closer and less clear than I’d like it to be. This feeling is familiar—the topsy-turvy sense of reality, the disappointment with friends and family who don’t see eye-to-eye.

By now, you’ve probably guessed my political leanings, but you almost certainly haven’t guessed something else: I’m feeling (slightly) cooler and calmer than I did in 2016. I know—I’m a little surprised myself.

I’m asking myself why that is. What’s different this time? I’ve got a few theories (I live in a different, more politically-diverse city now; I have better pharmaceuticals this time around; and I’m pretty sure I’ve used up all of my allotted adrenaline and outrage for 2020), but there’s one theory in particular that I want to share and explore with you.

I am more optimistic about the next four years because I work in the nonprofit sector.

Starting way back in November 2016, after what folks on my side of the aisle have come to refer to as “The Election,” I got to witness nonprofit organizations all across this country kick into high gear to make sure that their missions would thrive no matter the political environment.

I saw donors in every state and at every level give stretch gifts to all sorts of causes to help create the kind of world they wanted to live in. I saw volunteers give their time and energy to direct service and to advocacy.

In other words, I saw people embrace their power, and I saw nonprofit organizations provide them the vehicle to do so.

I don’t know how you’re feeling this morning (or whenever this piece makes its way to you), but if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned over the past decade or so in the sector. I hope they are as helpful for you as they have been for me.

The nonprofit sector is where every American can make a direct impact. 

I’ve been working with Feed More, a hunger-relief organization in Central Virginia, for several years now. I’ve always been impressed with their well-run operation, their dedicated staff and volunteers, their strategic efforts to “shorten the line,” and their strong network of community partners.

Earlier this year we were rolling merrily along, working on broad-based communications and fundraising strategy, when the previously unthinkable happened: a pandemic.

Feed More—alongside virtually every other hunger-relief organization—encountered more than one existential crisis. In the face of COVID-19, how would they continue their vital in-person volunteer efforts? How would they safely distribute meals, especially to the elderly and other vulnerable populations? How would they meet the increased demand in the community in light of the sudden, staggering rise in unemployment? Would their donor base also feel the economic squeeze and decrease their level of philanthropic support?

It was a scary time. It’s still a scary time.

But what happened next was amazing. Feed More received an outpouring of support from Richmond and beyond.

Volunteers of all ages stepped up and asked how they could help. Their staff pivoted at a moment’s notice to create a socially-distanced operation that kept the team safe and kept food going out the door. Gifts came in at all levels.

This wasn’t just a few well-to-do families stepping in to fill the gap (though they certainly did!); contributions of all sizes came in from middle- and working-class people who knew their neighbors were hurting.

In our sector, we often throw around the phrase “time, talent, and treasure” to describe the ways in which Board members, donors, and volunteers can make a difference. Sometimes that phrase feels trite or stale, but this year I saw what that phrase means in action. It means every one of us has the power to make a positive, direct impact in some way. We can do it in every community, every single day—and nonprofit organizations provide us a venue to do so.

The nonprofit sector is where we can achieve great things even across lines of difference.

Another one of my all-time favorite clients is IGNITE, a national organization that describes itself as “a movement of young women who are ready and eager to become the next generation of political leaders.”

I have a graduate degree in Women’s Studies, so you won’t be shocked to hear that I’m a fan of their work. But the thing that sets IGNITE apart is not just their focus on gender equity—it’s their non-partisan approach. It’s central to their mission and it enables them to expand their reach, serve more women, and therefore deepen their impact.

Through this project, I had the privilege of speaking with young women from different states and different political perspectives about their desire to lead by running for office.

I heard from them about how it felt to be a part of a program that lifts young women up—without condition or expectation of affiliation—to own their political power. What they told me shifted my perspective about what’s possible when we are open to working with so-called “political foes” to achieve shared objectives around areas of consensus.

As one program participant said, “It’s amazing to see so many women running for office or helping other women run. This is the impact that IGNITE has on women: your sister, your mother, your daughter, your granddaughter—it teaches them to stand up, represent, and make a difference for themselves and others.”

This particular woman may or may not have been someone I would vote for, but on this cause, we are in complete alignment.

An organization like IGNITE provides us a space to work toward this shared cause without acrimony, bureaucracy, or fear. In our increasingly partisan world, nonprofit organizations allow people of good intentions to achieve great things across even our deepest-held lines of difference.

The nonprofit sector is where we can pursue bold visions.

In addition to helping people achieve impact through consensus, the nonprofit sector also sets us free from the need for consensus. Nonprofits allow us to push the political envelope, to advance unpopular positions, to speak up for the most marginalized among us, and to radically transform the dialogue of what’s possible in our country.

Several years ago (long before The Election), a friend of mine from college was working for a marriage equality organization. Their progress was slow but steady, and one day we found ourselves discussing a remarkable turn of events. How had the vision of marriage equality gone from pipedream to a seeming inevitability? He filled me in on some of the projects he worked on and the organization’s various strategies for pushing the cause forward.

Through this conversation, it occurred to me that this important social change was perhaps only possible thanks to nonprofits like his. Not beholden to political party, to stockholders, or forced to tow any corporate line, the organization was free to advocate for a position that was at first unpopular and quite radical—until it wasn’t.

The nonprofit sector is where we can pursue our boldest visions and realize our wildest dreams, and often all it takes to start is a few like-minded, brave individuals.

In June of 2015, I gave him a congratulatory call. “I’ve never been so happy to be out of a job,” he said. I smiled.

Okay, but so much of this still stinks

In closing, I want to be clear about something—I’m not some kind of Pollyanna about the state of the nonprofit sector, or the state of philanthropy. The ongoing dialogues about community philanthropy, diversity, and inclusivity as they relate to nonprofits are critical if we want our sector to fulfill its promise.

I’m also not so foolish to think that nonprofits are the panacea. We have to do so much more than donate and volunteer. I made signs for the Women’s March and I hit the streets in my city in support of Black Lives Matter. I will keep voting, I will keep protesting, and I will keep nagging my elected representatives on a regular basis.

I will keep refreshing the results on my news site of choice to get the latest vote counts as I pray for this circus to end. Whatever your perspective, by all means, you should too. But we can’t stop there.

No matter how this election goes (or the next one, or the next one…), even if (perhaps especially if) my guy wins, I know I have to keep my focus on what’s possible.

I know I can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, or make the good the enemy of the better. I know I have to keep practicing empathy and having the difficult conversations.

And I know I can do all of these things alongside the nonprofit organizations striving daily to make America great.

And you can too.

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