You’re (Not) the One that I Want

It’s all Sandy all the time here on The Blog Briefly Known as “Democratizing Philanthropy?”, so the most famous cinematic Sandy had to get a shout-out in my song-title-as-blog-title shtick. This whole thing – by which I mean the Sandy relief and recovery effort – goes right to the heart of my two questions on this blog: what does it mean to democratize philanthropy, and is philanthropy as a democratizing force? This whole thing is putting those two questions into sharp relief?

What it means to democratize philanthropy is that people are streaming to the Rockaways and Staten Island and just Getting. It. Done. Check out Sandy Sucks; I had the dumb luck and great honor of getting assigned (thank you Occupy Sandy) to car in which maestra Katie Bennett and two of her friends were getting out to the Rockaways last Saturday. Her site is an invaluable resource for keeping up to speed on what’s happening on the ground in some of the hardest-hit areas.

As someone who’s dedicated their career to working in and/or building the nonprofit sector, it pains me to see brilliant, dedicated people like Katie and her friends so turned off by the way the nonprofits that are meant to be at the frontlines in disaster relief are operating, or failing to.

Let’s be real here. The more New Yorkers see up close the ridiculous, bureaucratic, political, infuriating ways in which various elements of the nonprofit infrastructure responsible for disaster response fail to coalesce, the more pressure there’s going to be on Obama’s freshly reminted coalition. You’re less inclined to argue for the role of government when you see up close the abject failure of the government to provide one of its most basic functions. Just you wait and see…. The young people who make up a big and growing part of Obama’s coalition have ZERO patience for doing things the way they’ve been done just because we need to protect the institutions that have protected us for so long. It’s hard enough to defend teachers’ unions when they’re the object of systematized propaganda campaigns (cough, Rahm-Emanuel-tip-of-the-iceberg, cough). But to defend the role of FEMA when you see with you’re own eyes that FEMA’s just not there, or not there nearly fast enough – well, that’s a yard too far.

I’ve long been of the opinion (see here) that progressives ignore at their peril the incredibly mediocre everyday experience of government “service” that’s no farther than the local DMV or Post Office. You can’t defend government’s role without looking squarely at the inefficiencies of government. Now let’s be clear, these get exaggerated, and/or there are reasons, political or otherwise, for these inefficiencies. (That’s a post for another time; I am a political scientist after all, this is what I was trained to analyze.) But Sandy is a clear case of the rubber hitting the road. The people meant to help aren’t there to help.

There’s another side to this, and frankly, I don’t know how to reconcile it. Check out this list from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy about how nonprofits are responding to Sandy. This sounds like a lot! Maybe the way to reconcile it with the Sandy Sucks experience is that these are local organizations that were already there (like Red Hook Initiative), and the problem is the national ones that need to come from outside. But I don’t know. I see a disconnect, and it troubles me. The government-charitable disaster-relief infrastructure is taking a HUGE credibility hit in the wake of Sandy, in the heart of an area that should be a bastion of its support. I worry about the long-term impact on nonprofits…but I’m hopeful that it’ll lead to greater efficiencies, greater accountability, and ultimately, faster response to the hardest-hit.

Is philanthropy a democratizing force? Sometimes, when it’s done in the spirit of self-provisioning and mutual aid, maybe it can be.

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