“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.