Martin Luther King Day and philanthropic inactivism

I joined the social sector because I care deeply about social justice. Somewhere along the way my vocation became my job. Where I used to stay up late thinking about the millions of people in the United States with less opportunity than me simply for where they were born or the color of their skin, and the billions around the world living unimaginably on less than $2 per day, I now stay up late worrying about saving for my future and how I will provide for my family.

Social justice crusader indeed.

Everyone has to live, and everyone has ambition. On Martin Luther King day I am reminded not to let my desire to live a good life overpower my desire for everyone to live a good life.

While I firmly believe our society looks to the philanthropic sector as some sort of moral compass (seriously, everyone assumes I must be a noble person for working at a nonprofit), I don’t think we do much with it.

Passionate people join the social sector because they see the world as it is, and have a vision for how it can be better. While individually there are lots of different visions, collectively we don’t really have any vision at all, resulting in a philanthropic community that while assumed to have the moral high-ground ultimately does not stand for anything.

I think there are plenty of folks who don’t find this reality problematic. It seems a strange consensus that philanthropy and politics do not mix. Yet it is our politics, and more specifically our collective values, that creates the maladies we aim to address.

Martin Luther King was a civil rights pioneer not for creating a nonprofit that provided social services to help African Americans live a little better, but by challenging the laws and social values that subjugated a significant portion of our community. Social interventions like homeless shelters, food pantries, and tutoring programs are fundamentally responses to injustice. While these programs are wrapped in apolitical blankets, they are plainly and intuitively critiques of the system we live in.

Yet as a sector we don’t consolidate and articulate those critiques, and it is all for self serving reasons. Large corporations that perpetuate income inequality and pollute the planet also give in large amounts to nonprofits, and setup foundations that fund our work (and our lives). Politicians that support draconian immigration laws that breakup families also hold the keys to preserving the charitable deduction.

You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, so the saying goes, and the philanthropic sector certainly abides. But maybe we are hungry for the wrong thing.

Maybe we in the social sector can get more from Martin Luther King’s legacy than a paid vacation.