Ask Ero: Answers for baffled and confused Idealists

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In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to answer all your questions (regardless of how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer them.) Consider me sort of a tech-literate, bearded, Ann Landers, or a work-safe Dan Savage.

In the last installment of this series, I answered a question about being a older jobseeker in a world of entry-level jobs. How was my answer? I hope you’ll tell me. Now, on with this installment’s question!

Lately, as I apply for jobs, I’ve been noticing that many nonprofits rely heavily upon corporate donors.

How can we reconcile the reliance that some nonprofits have on corporations whose actions are the very antithesis of the compassion, cooperation, and ethical behavior that most of us in the nonprofit sector are trying to promote?  – Elena

Some years ago a very wise person I know, who founded a successful nonprofit and who now works at a prestigious foundation, referred to her work as “the revolution.” I thought at the time that this was ridiculous and pretentious. To me, “the revolution” meant activists in the streets, not liberals working on fine-tuning grant proposals. But I’ve begun to understand what she meant.

The world often seems like it’s run entirely by the visible and violent hand of the market: multinational corporations squeeze communities dry, war profiteers rain bombs on the less fortunate, and only the rich truly succeed. Capitalism isn’t all banditry and the might-makes-right, but it often seems as though it were.

But the human experience is much more than just grasping for power and status: we’re here on this earth to love each other and help each other too. So how do we express that in our daily work?

The nonprofit world is one answer to this. At its best, this is a new and different order than any other; those of us in the sector are participating in a different kind of marketplace, one driven by conscience and funded by the act of giving. We do our work because we believe in it, and we’re paid because someone else believes in it too.

There are considerations of supply and demand, as there are in the larger society, but the fundamental economics are very different. And they should be different. Because of this, working in the nonprofit sector really is a (slow-motion) revolution: we’re creating a new model of work, that operates by different rules and has different values.

But we’re not an island, and the nonprofit sector is inextricably involved in the larger society’s compromises and corruptions. As you point out, well-meaning nonprofit organizations often act, wittingly or unwittingly, as public relations maintenance for truly disreputable corporations. If an organization’s charitable work is funded by a company whose profits consist of making assault rifles or addictive substances, is that organization really trustworthy?

There’s a utilitarian answer: because it’s better than the alternative. Because it’s better to do good in the world. Because nothing happens in this world unless someone starts to take action, and the nonprofit sector offers a million great ways to do good right here and right now.

I think I do speak for Idealist.org when I say that I believe that nearly everyone has good intentions, and that if we work together we can make those good intentions real, despite all the obstacles and compromises. We’re all in this muddled world together.

Have questions about anything I’ve said? Or about anything else (and I do mean anything)? Ask me.

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Ask Ero anything (anything anything anything) at ero@idealist.org.

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