Photo Credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Working and volunteering in the nonprofit sector for over eight years, there’s one thing that I know to be true for most small to midsize nonprofit organizations: we are always operating from a place of scarcity. Never knowing when we’ll get that next general operating grant, or when/if that dependable sponsorship might fall through. We, as an industry, have to be resourceful, forward thinking, and economical.
At LURN, leading our fundraising and development efforts has affirmed this reality for me. We are always scrambling for the next new grant, trying to make connections with new people and spending hours on proposals that might not even filter through the funding pipeline.
It is evident that the nonprofit industry is set up in such a way that sometimes actually deters sustainability. Those of us who work at nonprofits are constantly being asked by funders “How will you sustain your programs after your grant?” even though the entire sector is designed to rely on subsidies from foundations and charitable donations. This is a paradox.
Not being able to pay employees salaries they deserve is not sustainable. Asking ourselves “If we don’t get another grant, how many months of runway do we have before we lose our jobs?” is certainly not a mind-set that encourages employees to act boldly, think creatively and be confident in our ability to impact the kind of change that we are still only dreaming about.
Truthfully, it seems as though the nonprofit system is fundamentally not designed to achieve the changes we want to see. The hollowing out of the welfare state over the past several decades is not an isolated occurrence. This absence of funding for nonprofits and other social services is a result of other budgeted priorities that we often do not talk about.
The inherent problem here is this illusion of scarcity.
The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We are not living in a country that is resource-less. We should be angry that we have to operate from a place where there is not enough, because there certainly is. We can close the gap between the haves and the have nots. We have resources to address income inequality, hunger, homelessness and job insecurity in our communities. They are all just being spent in the wrong places.
We often hear the sentiment that “our budget is a reflection of our values.” This is true for many of our personal budgets, for our organizational budgets, and is certainly true of the budgets that run our cities, our states, and our federal government. If the major expenditures of this country tell us what we really care about as a people, then I believe our values are grossly misaligned and that something must change.
We often draw few connections between the issues we face locally, and our foreign policy decisions that are not only fiscally disastrous, but are harmful to people and to the planet. For starters, since 2001 The United States government has spent $5.6 trillion to wage wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. This estimate is found in a report from the Costs of War project, which is housed at Brown University and includes an international team of 35 scholars, human rights activists, physicians and legal experts.
To truly understand the magnitude of this number, these wars abroad cost the average American taxpayer $23,386 (!!!!!). For a country that boasts the highest budget for defense spending in the world, it really should come as no surprise to us. Unfortunately, these numbers are continuing to increase as 45 intends to grow US defense spending to an unprecedented level in 2018, equaling the entire military budgets of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan combined.
Beyond the fiscal mess, we can’t forget the real human costs of American imperialism. The war in Syria is on its 8th year, with the death toll already at half a million people, according to several conservative estimates. Millions on top of that have been displaced both internally and abroad and the United States continues to drop an unprecedented amount of bombs on already suffering towns and villages, murdering civilians in hospitals, schools and in their own homes. These numbers collectively represent half of Syria’s population, either dead or displaced. Imagine your neighborhood, your community, your home country, cut in half.
Weapons manufacturers and contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin are certainly not complaining, as they’re bringing in tens of billions of dollars in contracts and enjoying their 40% increases in stock values. War is not cheap, but it certainly yields high profit margins. It’s a hard pill to swallow, knowing that while our tax dollars are funding violence abroad we are struggling to access resources to prevent our local communities from crumbling.
Community development organizations and grassroots coalitions are operating with minimal resources to try to solve some of the most pressing problems in cities. Homelessness in Los Angeles is at an all time high with the latest, rather conservative, estimate finding that there are 34,000 homeless people in Los Angeles (about 1% of the city’s total population), with nearly three-quarters of them sleeping in the streets, alleys, canyons and riverbeds.
I came across this headline the other day, “Blacks and Latinos Will Be Broke in a Few Decades,” and felt so angry. People of color are falling deeper and deeper into debt and more and more Angelenos are finding themselves living on the streets because they can’t make rent. Additionally, a report released by the Economic Policy Institute found that in some cases, African Americans are worse off today than they were before the civil rights movement. In fact, something we talk about all the time at LURN, the wealth gap between white and black Americans has more than tripled in the past 50 years, according to Federal Reserve data. We can thank the enduring legacy of slavery, the Jim Crow era, laws barring housing, voter discrimination, the prison industrial complex, racial segregation and the countless other disadvantages so many African Americans face beginning from childhood.
Photo Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
My point is simple. There is a bottomless well of money for weapons, prisons, border walls, bombs and for police departments. But there is never any money for food stamps, education, the arts, mental health services or housing subsidies.
So, what does this mean for our communities in Los Angeles? And other cities around the country? It means that we need to start talking about how these violent foreign policy decisions matter. And it means that we must do everything in our power to protect what is left of our democracy from further corporate influence. I urge everyone, myself included, to continue to be critical of how our cities, our counties, states, and federal government choose to expend their resources.
Ultimately, I want to offer that the struggles of these various communities who live across oceans are not as disconnected as one might think. Fiscally, politically, ideologically, fundamentally, they are deeply intertwined. At LURN, our daily work that connects vulnerable micro-entrepreneurs like street vendors to low-interest capital and coaching is not separate from the Syrian entrepreneur who has had to flee his/her home in search of safety and opportunity for their family.
In Los Angeles, we owe it to our diverse City to draw these connections more deeply. To lift our heads out of the sand of local politics and see these social justice issues more holistically. To feel more ownership over the geopolitical and fiscal decisions made on Capitol Hill.