Are Nonprofits the New Okies?

Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . . . . I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’-I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build-why, I’ll be there.” Tom Joad–The Grapes of Wrath


This week, in a toss off reply to a tweet from my friend Andrea Snyder, who was suggesting that I was on the road all the time, I jokingly likened myself to Tom Joad, whose book-closing commitment to justice and American ideals remains one of the only moments during my entire 12 years of formal education in which I stopped reading, sat back and let the warm rush of true inspiration heat my blood.

Now, I’m no Tom Joad….but over the last few days, I’ve been thinking….are we, America’s nonprofits, the new Okies?

Underpaid laborers who harvest the sweet fruits of American philanthropy?

Economically beaten down or threatened when we step forward, or try to organize into a more potent force?

Shut down when we speak truth to power?

Getting our “grants/goods” from the store owned by the very companies that create the problems we seek to solve?

Dramatic…sure, and let this be a warning to all those who want to step onto the long road—it is dramatic. You see it everyday….in all those airport bars and shelter basements, backstage green rooms and threadbare pantries, in all those nursing homes and co-op farmer’s markets, in all those recovery centers and rest stops…and it gives you no choice but to really think things through. You HAVE to. You see the people who are left out. You see the lines. You see the great programs that are just squeaking by, one grant away from closing, when they should be thriving. You hear the tales of endless fundraising and backbreaking effort. You smell the sweat and fear–literally. Your pulse races when you hear the idealism of a generation who long to serve but can’t live on the pay. You feel it in every audience. You see it in their eyes and the eyes of those they serve…and it makes you think, HARD, about where WE are, how WE got here, and most importantly, how WE can work together to get OUT.

So…do me a favor today. Join me, if only for a minute, and think about it. Really. Stop and think about your work, my work, OUR work and wonder, if like countless others who eventually figured out the rules and then used them to change the game….whether today–National Philanthropy Day–is gonna be the day when more us of decide to step forward, together, than pretend we can keep doing this the way we have.

Is it?

Si, Se Puede.

See you on the road.