“What can technologists do to fix the problems facing the nonprofit world?”
The question hung in the air for a while.
The setting was a recent “hackathon,” an on-line, national gathering of college students – mostly computer science majors – organized by UC Berkeley undergrads. I was on a panel of nonprofit leaders, where our role was to describe the challenges facing the nonprofit world because of the Covid pandemic.
One panelist, the head of a food bank in Texas, described how demand for food had doubled, while the food bank’s resources, clearly, had not. Another, the head of a social service organization in San Francisco helping isolated seniors, spoke about how difficult it was to reassure and support their clients in a time of social distancing. When my turn came, I spoke of the financial and operational strain on nonprofits, the loss of funding and donations, and the excruciating choices nonprofit executives were making about staffing levels and services.
The notion was that, after hearing from us, the registrants would spend the weekend conjuring up high-tech solutions to the problems we had raised.
Which led to that final question posed to each of us on the panel: “What can technologists do to fix the problems facing the nonprofit world?”
When my turn came, I paused, then answered: “Vote!”
I went on: “You have to register and vote. And you have to vote for leaders who believe in science and who respect expertise. You have to vote for leaders who care about people without money as much as they care about the people who fund their campaigns. You have to vote for leaders who believe in the rights of people of every race and religion. You have to vote for leaders who place a priority on providing accessible, affordable healthcare. You have to vote for leaders who put the long-range interests of the nation ahead of their own reelection. You have to vote for leaders who are honest. You have to vote for leaders who want to save the earth, and not simply exploit it.” *
My turn on the political soapbox was unplanned by me and unexpected by the event organizers. But it was the only intellectually honest answer I could manage.
I confess that I’m deeply skeptical of techno-fixes to deep-seated societal ills. I knew that the mile-long line of cars at the San Antonio food pantry, as described by my fellow panelist, was not going be ameliorated in any significant way by the development of, say, an app to ease the flow of traffic. Tech-driven logistical nudges wouldn’t change the basic problem, which is that people are unemployed, have little money or power or hope, and are hungry. Many are sick, or worried about sick relatives, and everyone is scared. Yes, the coronavirus was going to hit us regardless, but bad political choices and leadership, now and over the last few decades, have made the situation much worse than it might have been. And you can’t app your way out of terrible political leadership.
And if technology can’t fix the problems created by political leaders, neither can nonprofits. Nonprofits can and do make a difference, but by themselves they are relatively powerless in compensating for an incompetent or malevolent government.
For example, there are a great many nonprofit organizations working on climate change, as we know, but their combined efforts matter far less than the decision by the Trump Administration, in the middle of the pandemic, to roll back mileage standards for American cars.
In the Texas example I mentioned earlier, the nonprofit food pantry is feeding many families whose situation is much more desperate because they are waiting for unemployment checks that are dreadfully delayed. Decades of underinvestment in the people and systems needed to process unemployment applications and payments led to a total crash of the system in Texas, Florida, and so many other states. I would argue that this is not an accident, but the result of an ongoing political calculation that underfunding and disrespecting government services has been politically advantageous for certain politicians. The impact on people in need was not part of the consideration – or, more precisely, it didn’t matter because “those” people were not the constituency that the politicians cared about.
How many millions of people had to wait two months or longer after authorization in the CARES Act for their “economic impact payments,” those checks or debit cards worth up to $1,200 per person? The slowness of these payments lays bare the calcification and lack of preparedness of the federal government. The Washington Post describes an IRS that has depended on antiquated software (some dating to the Kennedy Administration) and an over-reliance on paper – with no provisions for a time, such as this, when much of the IRS workforce, already deeply reduced by budget cuts, would be unable to come to work and process the paperwork. Meanwhile, the demands from the public have increased enormously. As a result, the government has left millions of vulnerable people to fend for themselves.
When the economy falls apart and unemployment and stimulus checks don’t arrive, the burden falls on nonprofit social service organizations to make up the difference, and those nonprofits scramble to make up for the failures of government. Hence the long rows of cars at the food pantries.
These nonprofit service providers are treating the symptoms afflicting society, and not the diseases – and I’m not referring to the literal disease of Covid-19.
First, there’s the enormous and growing wealth disparity. We see now that there are people who are deemed essential, from first responders to supermarket cashiers to meat cutters at slaughterhouses, who are putting their lives at risk for low hourly wages; there are other people who can work from home, usually at a higher salary, and generally with much greater personal safety; and there are some people who don’t have to work at all, beneficiaries of inherited wealth or ownership in successful businesses, who are holed up in second or third homes. Covid is shining a bright light on the economic disparities – and amplifying the distinctions. It’s no exaggeration to say that poverty can be a death sentence in 2020 America.
Second, there’s America’s institutional racism, dating back 400 years to the importation of the first enslaved Africans and the expropriation of land from indigenous peoples. The structural disadvantages faced by people of color are playing out today in the vastly higher rates of infection and death among African American, Latinx, and indigenous populations – a reflection of poorer baseline health, inadequate access to healthcare, substandard and crowded housing, and the risk and exposure that comes with lower-paid employment. The tragic and violent events of the last few days have made clear to us all what people of color have long known: white supremacy remains a strong and threatening force in the nation.
Third, there’s lack of access to health insurance, made all the worse by the staggering loss of 40 million jobs, many of which had provided a lifeline to affordable health insurance. Sick people are choosing between dying and bankruptcy. Having a huge portion of the population unable to get affordable medical care can only accelerate the spread of the virus – while creating yet more human misery and tragedy.
Are nonprofits expected to fix all of this? No, though those nonprofits whose mission includes advocacy are at least raising the issues. Can nonprofits be helped by technological gadgetry that will help them both erase society’s ills and get them through the existential threat many of their organizations face? No, of course not.
Technology won’t cure hatred or bridge divisions. And technological advances won’t pay nonprofit staff members’ salaries, or the organization’s rent or electric bill. Yes, nonprofits must do all we can in a time of crisis to serve our communities. It’s our mission. But let’s keep some perspective. Charitable organizations, as they often do, are clutching at the ragged threads of a shredded society, trying to sew them back into a coherent fabric. But unless larger political attitudes change, nothing else will.
We need responsible, competent, caring, strategic, empathetic political leadership that is committed to equity and justice. We need leaders who respect, rather than mock, science and expertise. During this hugely challenging time, we are all doing what we can to get ourselves, our families, our organizations, and our communities through the pandemic. Our actions each day matter. But nothing matters more than reclaiming the political direction of the nation in November.
* * * * *
* At least, that’s how I like to remember what I said. I’m sure my comments were less coherent when I uttered them.
Copyright Alan Cantor 2020. All rights reserved.
Superb–can I share with my small Twitter audience?
Yes, of course, Chris! Thanks!
Al, I will shamelessly grab quotes and ideas from this post to motivate folks to GOTV. You nailed it in terms of labeling the burden on nonprofits to perform some of the basic functions that our government should be doing. All this chaos in the streets is about November. Thanks for articulating our mission for the next 5 months!
Great to hear from you, Martha. I give you permission to grab quotes to your heart’s delight! Hope you and your family are well!
First, thank you for speaking from your heart and values as part of that panel, Al.
Second, I think they asked the wrong question. Tech can be helpful to nonprofits, and can create applications that can make doing our job easier, but not applications that can fix the issues we are addressing. Perhaps the question should have been, “What can technologists do to help and support nonprofits in addressing the problems they are trying to solve?”
Thanks, Maria. That’s really helpful observation!
Spot on, as usual, Al. I am involved in a group here in San Antonio that registers high school seniors. Research shows that if you vote in your late teens in multiple elections you are more likely to become a lifelong voter. GOTV!
Thank you, Marsha! Keep up the good work. Trust you are well!
Thank you Alan, for placing the focus where it belongs. Vu Le of Nonprofit AF similarly decries the country’s ever-growing dependence on nonprofits as a result of the continual fires being set by the people in office whom you describe. Seeking to improve our sector’s ability to put out more and bigger fires does not stop those setting the fires. I would add that nearly all tech companies continue to operate with a notorious lack of diversity -despite shiny corporate social responsibility policies- in their hiring and support of people of diverse genders and colors. The support piece is critical because being hired seldom equates to success for non-white, non-male people entering fields where white men predominate. They need mentoring and workplace support to learn how to navigate and be heard, and that requires a corporate commitment that remains exceedingly rare in tech. Until technology is developed with the meaningful participation of people whose voices reflect the needs of those who can’t afford and aren’t currently served by tech, it will continue to be designed to capture high-end market dollars and not for broadening access to those for whom it is out of reach, and certainly not for solving social problems. I applaud the question posed to you all, but the tech sector must look to its own culpability and put out the roaring fire it continues to stoke in its own backyard. One need only search for ‘diversity in tech’ to read the sorry statistics.
Excellent observations, Linda. Thanks so much. I wish I’d thought of that at the time!
Thank you, Anne!
“The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim
to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.” Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, 1933-1945. She is credited with formulating policies to shore up the national economy following the nation’s most serious economic crisis that continues to uphold us each and everyday with Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and minimum wage. We need leaders like her, and FDR, who CARE. Thank you Al! http://www.francesperkinscenter.org.
Thank you, Laura!
I love that quote from Frances Perkins. She was remarkable, as you know better than anyone!
About a year ago I read Kirstin Downey’s excellent biography of Perkins, “The Woman Behind the New Deal.” One of the things that struck me — beyond Perkins’s intellectual brilliance, administrative genius, tirelessness, and dedication — was the way in which she took FDR’s big ideas and put them into practice. For example, FDR wanted to help the workers, and he didn’t want seniors dying of starvation, but in no way did Roosevelt himself have a framework in mind for creating Unemployment Insurance, the Labor Relations Board, or Social Security. Those initiatives, as you know, were driven by Frances Perkins. (All while dealing with the challenge of being the first woman cabinet official in history.)
I’ve thought that this is like a nonprofit strategic plan. There were FDR’s guiding big goals, what he wanted to accomplish — that’s the strategic framework — and then there were people, first and foremost Frances Perkins, who put it into action.
Thanks again. I trust you and the family are well!
Yes it is political! All have added nicely to your thoughts,
but the only true bottom line to all of this is to vote!
Thank you, Peter — and yes to voting!
I always enjoy and learn from your blogs, Al but this one went straight to my aching heart. Thank you for you insight and wisdom in these dark days. I just hope we will be able to vote in November . My optimism is beginning to wane…
Thanks, Dianne. I appreciate your pain. Hang in there!
Thanks so much, Dianne!
Brilliantly written! Every single word is spot on. Thank you for this eloquent and thoughtful post!
Thank you, Karen!
As always, Al, on point and eloquent.
Thank you, Sarah!
“Charitable organizations, as they often do, are clutching at the ragged threads of a shredded society, trying to sew them back into a coherent fabric. But unless larger political attitudes change, nothing else will.”
Al: You always combine eloquence with imagery that compels the reader and illuminates the message. It is essential that we don’t give up hope, when doing so sometimes seems the only reasonable response. We also need to understand the structural origins of what we are facing today, underscored by the wise observation that our systems are producing “the outcomes that they were designed to produce.” You have helped us see both of these truths, while also urging us to act. Bravo!
Wow! Thanks so much, Andrea! And yes, you’re right: We can’t give up hope.
Al: What a thoughtful piece! I have reread it several times (and I have no doubt that you were as articulate on the panel). I forwarded your essay to my family (I hope that was OK) in preparation for a Zoom call in a few days to discuss our role in fostering an anti-racist society.
Gracious, Jane — what kind words! Thank you! Please feel free to share widely — and I’ll be interested to know how your Zoom call goes! Best to you — always.
Catching up on browser tabs opened weeks ago 🙂 Nice piece, Alan, and so important! I’ll only add that tech people can also work to ensure that everyone CAN vote who is entitled to vote. Voter suppression is a deep, widespread problem with dreadful outcomes — unlike voter fraud, which is largely a figment of the *resident’s imagination. Keep fighting.
Thanks, Liza, and yes to all of this!
Alan — Thank you so much for this incisive and important post. The words “it’s political” are so often used disparagingly. . .but politics is ultimately about values– and voting is central to the expression of those values.
Thanks so much, Barbara. I appreciate your kind words, and, as you can imagine, I agree about need to attend to voting! Thank you — and be well!