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.

  • Sam Davidson

    Beautiful and brilliant. I’m in.

  • samuelisaac (Samuel Richard)

    Twitter Comment

    Grapes of Wrath impacted me in a big way, too. Insight from @robertegger on nonprofits being the new Okies: [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • SP

    Grapes of Wrath was one of the most formidable novels of my school-education, too. We actually divided into groups and did video-reenactments of scenes from the book. I’ll never forget pretending to experience famine, drought and heat exhaustion in my parents’ lush green backyard in Orange County, CA; thank goodness I left that place after high school and, moved to Berkeley. Phew.

    ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ by The Boss (and, more recently, reinterpreted by my sweet, folk-rock singer/songwriter boyfriend, a union organizer) is an inspiring tune, if you haven’t heard it already.

    Excellent post. I’m in, too.

  • R.Son

    See Visalia,Ca. new farm museum at Mooneys Grove Park,they have a great dust bowl exhibit!!!!!!!!

  • Olivia Blatt


    I think that if more people were to read this post, they would reconsider their choice not to join a charitable organization. I think many people believe that there are plenty of volunteers out there and people making donations that their efforts would go to waste, after all, we are in a recession right? However, I firmly believe that no volunteering is ever too much. I myself have realized recently that I need to give back to my community more. I am in a fortunate position, and I think the only way you can truely appriciate where you come from is to see the lives, in action, of those who are less fortunate than you.

    Thanks again for the post.

  • Ed C.

    In a way, non-profits organizations are the New Okies. These organizations do the work in our community that may be the most important, but yet it has been overlooked by the overwhelming majority. And to top it all off- they don’t get paid for it!

  • Kathlyn Alford

    This is something I have been thinking about since joining the non-profit world. I just read your Millennium Generation piece and I completely agree. We are and have been ready.

    There needs a to be a change within our system. I think leveraging the people we serve to help us in this change will be the most effective. Please contact me to let me know how you think we can start the conversation on a wider scale. I know I am excited about the future, and I know plenty others who are as well :)

    • Robert Egger

      I’m glad you read this post…one of my fave’s. And YES, we agree….the troops are there, the need is there, the will is there…the there is there. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. I’ll be launching a new C4, advocacy group based on Emily’s List. There’s a place holder at PLEASE sign up for details once we launch. In the words of Vincent Vega, “You’d dig it the most.”