The Impoverished Humanitarian

My senior year of college I took a grant writing class. One day one of my classmates said that he believed that everything, even non-profits, should operate like a business or a for-profit venture. Eye-rolls abound in the classroom, his sentiments were shrugged off and even passionately rejected by much of the class (myself included.) Two years later his words still reverberate through my head -but I’m no longer rolling my eyes.

So what has changed for me in those two short years?

-Looking for a non-profit job in the proverbial “real world.”

Like most recent college grads, I was not born into the privilege of money. I have loans, I need money to eat, for shelter, for transportation, etc. UNlike most recent college grads (or at least some of them) I am really passionate about fighting poverty and would like to apply my talents, knowledge, and abilities to the cause. This means getting involved in the non-profit world. The issue that arises from this is that it is hard to get a job in the non-profit world as most non-profits run largely on volunteerism. While volunteerism is not completely a bad thing, for me it is almost completely out of the question because of the aforementioned needs that can only be met with a position that pays.

Furthermore, I have found that there is some level of hypocrisy to be found when an organization that is trying to help people get out of poverty is forced to doom a large portion of their workforce to the same fate.

Dan Pallotta, in a talk he gave for a TED Conference, expounds upon this idea further. He too believes the stigma placed upon non-profits that pay their workers decently is stunting the growth potential for these organizations, and is driving out some of the most talented people to the for-profit world because of the inability to earn a decent living in the former pursuit:

We have two rule books: we have one for the non-profit sector, and one for the rest of the economic world. It’s an apartheid and it discriminates against the non-profit world […] We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money NOT helping other people. You want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids -go for it, we’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine, but you want to make half-a-million dollars curing kids of malaria and you’re considered a parasite yourself.

He makes an excellent point. It seems to me that there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a company to make as much money as it possibly can exploiting people, animals, and the environment, but placing monetary limits on organizations that are set to help protect those same potentially vulnerable things. Essentially, it is like rewarding a child that destroys a room for his own personal enjoyment, yet punishing a child that tries to clean up the mess for the betterment of those who occupy the room.

I understand that the idea of paying non-profit workers larger salaries is an idea that opens up a whole host of potential complications. Many would argue that human nature is to be selfish, and that non-profit employees would exploit their position for their own profit. Honestly, this could happen with some organizations. However, just as non-profits have a strong obligation to their patrons to provided services that help them with their plight, conversely, businesses have an obligation to their customers to provide an excellent product. If a business has a crummy product and/or crummy service, the business fails. What’s wrong with non-profits operating similarly?

 

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Title: Traditional Business, Social Entrepreneurship, and Non-profits
Watercolor on paper by author

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MLK Day

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If Google and social media didn’t clue you in, today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day -a day that is often riddled with postings on social media of quotes made famous by the great orator himself. Many of these posts focus more on abstract themes like love, sacrificing for others, standing up for “things that matter,” faith, and change among others. While I find these quotes to be important, relevant, and inspiring, I am also really inspired and empowered by the quotes where he explicitly calls out and stands against the status quo. With that being said, here are a few MLK Jr. quotes that I find very inspiring:

On Poverty:

“There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are words that must be said.”

Economic Systems:

“…communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

Society:

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

I urge you to reflect on these words of King and how he used his life as an agent of change for the greater good.

“Where There is Despair, Let Me Sow Hope.” -St. Francis of Assisi

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While I have written a lot about Kiva in my posts about micro-finance, there are many other organizations that do micro-finance work that deserve recognition. One such organization is Sow Hope, a non-profit located in my surrogate hometown, Grand Rapids.

After my seasonal job ended in November, I went on a trip through several parts of the country including Pennsylvania, Maryland, and eventually ended up in Chicago for a weekend. While there, I had the opportunity to attend a showing of the documentary that Sow Hope produced and to participate in the question and answer session afterwards. I learned a lot about the good work the organization does; it has helped nearly 40,000 women globally to become empowered through programs in healthcare, micro-finance, literacy training, and clean water initiatives. I also learned that despite the volume of women it has helped, it is a rather small, and streamlined organization: having a small, volunteer board of directors and two paid staff members. I was drawn to that aspect of the organization because it reminded me of an organization that I interned for my sophomore year of college, ANSWER. What drew me to both of these organizations is the transparency that they offer as well as a stronger emphasis on community.

So I urge you to check out Sow Hope, and if you feel compelled by its story, find a way to volunteer your time, money, skills, and talents to further its cause.

First World Problems

My new favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote is this: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ” To me, this quote not only challenges the traditional idea of what helping the poor and being compassionate is, but also provides a valid critic of the way our government, non-governmental organizations, and economic systems are structured. While one can read it as a single person giving money to “a beggar” it also could apply to the idea of charity as a whole. Many corporations give millions of dollars to a non-profit that may do some good, but doesn’t actually change anything or end the cycle of poverty. The same can be said for a government; like the US for example, which will give nearly $50 billion of aid to other countries, and yet these countries can never seem to get out of poverty. Perhaps the notion of charity needs to be reevaluated.

This is what I like about micro-finance. Although it is not perfect, it seems to challenge the traditional structure of aid. It is more empowering than handouts. With micro-finance, people are given money, yes, but they are also given respect and accountability.

So with that being said, two days ago I made another loan! This time it happened to be to someone in the US. Unfortunately, I must admit that I, although I’m sure I’m not the only one, tend to be a bit biased against people asking for loans in the developed world (especially the US). I unconsciously assume that they do not need the loan as much as those in less developed countries. This is a common misconception, to be sure, and it can stand in the way of the reforming a pretty flawed system like that of the US. When I think of it at a more human level though, such as in terms of my own struggle with this project, I can more easily understand the plight of someone in the developed world.

So I encourage you, whoever is reading this, to take a minute to check out this other entrepreneur’s blog, shop, and kiva profile (she still needs lenders!) Although there may be people who are in more dire financial conditions, we can’t forget our neighbors who may still need our help as well.

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Catarina’s Loan: http://www.kiva.org/lend/597599

Catarina’s Shop: http://docerelashop.com/

Catarina’s Blog: http://blog.docerelashop.com/

P.S. She makes stamps too! Talk about a perfect loan for me to help with!