Category Archives: Nonprofits

Pumpkin pie and philanthropy

I have seen and consumed more pumpkin pies in the last week than in any other week of my life, as far as I can remember.

Last week, Eat for Equity Seattle held its first anniversary dinner, E4E4E4E! A tradition started by the Minneapolis branch, E4E4E4E is an annual dinner that benefits the local branch, to raise money to help buy kitchen supplies, run our program and build capacity. We held our largest dinner yet, and featured 7 pumpkin pies made by volunteers. They were absolutely delicious. We also fed 90 people and raised $1100 for our own work – by far the most we’ve ever raised, and the most people we’ve ever hosted. By all accounts, it was a huge success.

Pumpkin Pies
Then, of course, there was Thanksgiving. I spent Thursday evening with my inherited Seattle family, the sisters and cousins of one of my dearest friends from back East. There were too many pies that night. So many that we, (gasp), had to try a little bit of each one. All four. It was, if I dare to say it, entirely too much pie.

And then I had the gift of opening my home to my new Seattle family. These are the people to whom I’ve grown so close, with whom I can share my vulnerability, who have met me in this time of transition and reorientation and said, “dive in – we’ll catch you”. In fact, many of them have told me that my transition has inspired them to ask questions of their own lives, to have the courage to explore the taken-for-granted stories we find ourselves within; these friends have given me their love and received mine. Given my love of food and friends and gratitudes, it was a no-brainer that I would open my home and share a feast with these folks. Many hadn’t met before, but they all got along with ease. The group were couples, single friends, a roommate, an old friend, an adventurer, soon-to-be-parents, soon-to-be-married, a new friend, a visitor, many chefs; all in all they are my family. And there was another pumpkin pie. And a beautiful gluten-free buckwheat cake with carmelized pears. Oh, sweet goodness.

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Enough of desserts. What does this have to do with anything, you might ask?

In the course of these last 10 days, I have also been working on a side project that has spanned all the pies and has energized me when the sugar highs run out. I am developing a syllabus for a proposed class that I could teach independently through the Comparative History of Ideas department on UW’s campus. CHID always hosts a call for classes for pre-doctoral instructors. My class would be called Reimagining Nonprofits, and takes an interdisciplinary and action-based approach to learning about the nonprofit sector. Rather than approach it from a practitioner standpoint or a policy perspective, this small seminar would guide students through an exploration of the current role of nonprofits, how they’ve come to hold this role, and how alternate theorizations might expand our possible expectations for the sector. The class asks students contribute to popular discourses on nonprofits (through blog posts or op-eds). Additionally, students would design a proposal for an engaged project with a local nonprofit (that they could choose to enact, but wouldn’t have to).

I am so.fired.up. about this class. It has been the first thing I want to work on every day, and my biggest source of satisfaction. The syllabus captures what I am passionate about, but also what I want to learn more about. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I suspect that students and I could develop a really fascinating dialogue about what nonprofits are and what they could be. I’ve sent the syllabus to a few colleagues and friends to look over before I submit the proposal, and all of them have responded, “I wish this class was offered when I was an undergraduate!” “I want to take this class!” One of my friends/colleagues, (who recently got hired in a tenure-track position in nonprofit management), told me that I should absolutely plan to apply for nonprofit education faculty positions when I go on the market.

Which leads me to the ‘ah-ha’ moment over all of this pie I’ve been eating (and which I’m about to go have a slice of in a moment!)

Between the amazing article in Crosscut about Eat for Equity (A new model for millenial philanthropy?) writing this course syllabus, the two sessions on Philanthropy I’m organizing at this year’s AAG, and my upcoming membership with Social Justice Fund I realize that my identity and interests in philanthropy are more than just a tangent to my dissertation research. They are the central pieces to a larger puzzle. They are the core of my intellectual passion.

For a long time people have asked me how Eat for Equity fits into my research trajectory and broader commitments. I never knew precisely how to answer that question, because it was never *meant* to be part of my research trajectory. It was a passionate commitment to pursue social justice and community building through good food and positive, welcoming spaces. Now, though, I see a larger arc.

I believe that the current state of the nonprofit sector can never address large scale inequalities and offer systemic change. I believe that large scale systemic change is possible. I believe new approaches to philanthropy and giving are a radically important piece to this puzzle. I believe social justice philanthropy like SJF empowers donors, activists and community members to work together towards collective action. I believe that Eat for Equity allows individuals to realize that no act of giving is too small, that giving doesn’t have to ‘look big’, and that when we come together, we can do amazing things that we could never do on our own. I believe that scholars need to address this sector and use our theoretical toolkit to expand how we understand what nonprofits and philanthropy can do in the world. Quoting one of my advisers, then, I ask “what work does the nonprofit sector do?” I ask this of the sector at large, and I ask it of donors. I ask it of myself and I ask it of alternative forms of giving. As producers of knowledge, I believe academics have a responsibility to advance our theoretical understanding of this sector that influences so many people’s lives, and yet is often brushed off based on its perceived benevolence. In fact, when I say that I study the nonprofit sector, many people sometimes question my motives, “but, don’t you believe in the work that these organizations do?”

Yes! Of course I do. I think any program that makes someone’s life better is a valuable program. But what are the relationships between nonprofit programs and their donors? Between donors and the program recipients? What vision do these organizations have for the future, and for social change? How do organizations address questions of systemic inequality, privilege, wealth and inequality? Can organizations conceptualize ‘leadership training’ and ’empowerment’ not for individuals only, but for the collective?

So, the ah-ha pie moment: I am a philanthropy scholar. I am, maybe, a social entrepreneur (though  I don’t know if I am even sure what that term means anymore). My scholastic interests are not my primary identity. I want to expand and develop this larger broader identity as someone interested and committed to reimagining, envisioning and expanding the nonprofit sector through questions of social justice philanthropy and collective giving.

All of this is to say, I’m making myself some business cards. I just don’t know what they should say.

On Doing Development. Or, what I learned from Heifer International

I am in the business of practicing critique. Of contributing, yes, but simultaneously critiquing the institutions with whom I work. I have been trained to see the flaws in development projects; to criticize Western beliefs about how nations and communities of the global South should develop; to see many aid projects as inherently flawed.

Yet, there are moments when I just want to believe that things can be done well. Of course, if this wasn’t one of my core beliefs, I wouldn’t be pursuing the work I am doing. I do believe that individuals, and organizations, have the power to make profound and positive change in the world. Even those I’ve worked for that I’ve been quite critical of are still doing phenomenal work in the lives of individual young people.

At the end of August, I had the great privilege of joining some of the staff of Heifer International and Garnet Hill as they went to visit their field projects outside of Cusco, Peru. (side note: for more information on how I got to be a part of this, click here).In from of Asangate, one of the two most significant peaks for the Andean people.

Arguably, this was some glorified voluntourism, except that we weren’t even volunteering. We were 6 White North Americans, accompanied by 3 gracious Peruvian staff that worked for Heifer. Our roles were complicated, of course. We probably contributed 400 extra plastic bottles to Cusco’s waste system alone. Not to mention our excessive (by Peruvian standards) use of water, electricity, gas and food. Alas, this is not a post about the complicated role of travelers and tourism. All of that aside, I was immensely impressed by the actual work that Heifer is doing in Peru, in the few communities we saw. (worth noting: I have no official affiliation with Heifer, and all thoughts expressed are my own).

One of my longest standing frustrations with development projects is based on their perpetuation of Western ideals of efficiency as models of success. As we have learned from many geographers, policy’s are not one-size-fits-all, and development projects, whether big or small, never follow a mold. In Peru, (and I cannot speak for elsewhere), the projects were incredible well adapted to the specific communities with which they took place. For instance, we saw two Heifer projects, both revolving around alpacas. Why alpacas? Because they are the native animals to the high Andean elevation. Are alpacas the focus of projects elsewhere in Peru? Not at all. In some places they are helping communities raise guinea pigs, other projects involve artisanal crafting, and elsewhere the projects target coffee and cacao production.

Another critique I often have are the assumptions about value and production. Often times, involvement in market capitalism is seen as a direct corollary to development, success, empowerment, etc. Obviously, the goals in Cusco were not removed from market capitalism. The goals were still around increasing efficiency and labor time involved in raising alpacas and then using their wool for fiber. However, the longer term and more consistent goal was that the community as a whole could better understand the life cycles, health, well-being, and systems-thinking approach to raising alpacas. The animals are healthier, the are living longer; the notation and record keeping is directly associated to better cared for animals. In turn, community leaders (called Promoters), are able to pass on the knowledge, and more alpacas, to additional families when their own operations allow. Sure, this is about being able to earn more money to the kilo for alpaca wool. But it is also about the community as a whole integrating their knowledge, and sharing it in a way where multiple families are benefiting. This is not a project about economic empowerment via small business entry. It’s about effective community asset sharing. I was quite impressed and moved by how much pride some of the Promoters exuded when they showed me their record keeping. “Look,” they said. “Before, we never had any idea which animal we were breeding with which animal. Now, the wool is more pure. Look at my records.”

Photo credit: Katia Megarejo, Heifer Peru

Photo credit: Katia Megarejo, Heifer Peru

Finally, a note on that ole’ buzzword: empowerment. I am still unsure of what the Heifer Peru staff, the Heifer International staff and the Garnet Hill staff think this word means. I would love to know. That said, I can see a few things that resonate based on my understanding of the word.

In the Heifer model, the community comes together with Heifer staff to determine which family would benefit the most from the first Heifer gift (in this case, training and tools to help with alpaca husbandry). There is an agreement that this family, once they have benefited from the training, will pass on the gift to another family. This is an empowering act. It is saying to a family, “you may not have much to offer, by international standards. But you will have enough to become a donor, to become a partner, to help your neighbor, to flip the traditional and patronizing cycle of giving.” This resonates with some of the work on encounter and poverty that is happening in the US – empowering those with very little financial resources to actually become donors and influence the direction of gift giving and social justice initiatives.

Additionally, I do think a positive trait associated with empowerment is this notion of having a purpose; feeling useful; feeling like you have the power to change your own circumstances. This has been associated with consciousness raising in the US, or educational empowerment of students. I saw it with many of the women in the community. While many of the men leave the villages in the dry season to look for work in the towns and cities, we learned that these women have learned how to care for the animals, shear the wool, select animals for breeding, and then categorize and spin their wool. This is not to say that women in Upis were magically empowered (!). It is to say that learning a skill, feeling proud of that skill, and being able to share that with your children — hey. That is a positive thing.

So. Obviously there are critiques to be made. But… I don’t feel like it. I’d rather sit with the hope and optimism that a lot of the projects happening can have some truly positive impacts. I’ll save the critique for later.


Self-efficacy, self-regulation and success

Earlier this week, I wrote a post in anticipation of getting lunch with two of my close peers/mentors at Seattle Youth Garden Works. We enjoyed big bowls of spicy pho, and caught up about the development of the summer program. I was asked to come in as a guest chef for one of their days of meal prep, which, with a crew of 40, is not unlike Eat for Equity! I have not met the new crew yet, but there are 8 youth that have continued from last year’s year-long program, all of whom are a complete delight every time I reconnect with them.

While brief, our lunch reiterated to me the importance of asking questions about the meaning and use of ’empowerment’. I began our conversation by alluding to much of the cross-disciplinary reading I’ve been doing that situates empowerment from a supervisor-employee position, a position whose goal is to increase worker productivity. Both of my friends laughed, acknowledging how counter intuitive that felt to real empowerment. So what was real empowerment, then, to them? Robert, the farm manager, has a background in psychology. He framed ’empowerment’ in regards to a few ideas (ideas which I was starting to see recur in the literature I’ve been reading).
1) self-efficacy. to Robert, self-efficacy means the perception of being in control or having power. He referred to a study in which folks were given tasks to do, and a very annoying noise was playing. One group was told there was a button that they could press at any point that would end the noise (a button which, in actuality, did nothing). The other group was not given a button. The group with the button demonstrated much more happiness, productivity and satisfaction — and never even pressed the button. The mere belief that they could change the situation, though, increased their self-efficacy.
2) self-regulation. This is a concept I’ve heard Robert talk about before, and as best I can understand it, self-regulation is about delaying gratification, being able to break goals into small, achievable pieces, and then regulating oneself to achieve goals those goals. This is a skill that can be taught. One of Robert’s greatest goals it to help the youth identify goals, (and, relating to self-efficacy, to have them believe they have the power to actually do/change certain things in their lives), and then teach them how to break large goals down into smaller pieces. And, finally, to develop the tools to manage one’s life so that those pieces fall into place. The classic example he gives is to be able to set an alarm, wake up with enough time to get where you need to be, to take initiative and call if you’re going to be late, to get directions, to be prepared, etc…
3) That ’empowerment’ is an amalgamation of these two ideas — you can’t really get to self-regulation without self-efficacy. He ties this into an idea of ‘possible selves’, meaning, being able to look to the future and see many possible ideas and paths for oneself.

Kristen, my fellow Eat for Equity organizer and the program coordinator at SYGW, followed up with some thoughtful questions here, prodding and asking for clarification. In fact, in another life, I think Kristen could be a really amazing feminist ethnographic scholar. She is emotive and poses inviting, open-ended questions. I am continually inspired by her.

I followed up to both of them, asking if they thought that multiple people at the organization would agree with those ideas. “Of empowerment?” they asked. “Yes,” I said. “Definitely not…Especially if you asked the youth.”

Bingo! While I was not fishing, this is exactly a question I have been floating around.

“Oh yes? Do you think they’d be into that?” I asked.

“Yeah! What if you, like, did a video project? You could ask them all what they think it meant? That’d be neat.”

Bingo again! This is totally the type of project I was envisioning, especially for my Public Scholarship capstone project: filming and collaborating with the youth. Asking them about a possible narrative they would want. Doing some editing. Asking them about possible audiences for the video.

At the end of lunch: “I mean, I love this idea. I’m going to mull it over. But… I want to make sure they youth would be into it. I don’t want to force this idea on them.”

“Oh. They’ll love it. They have always been excited about these types of projects, especially if they get to speak on camera. They’ll love it.”
[I am skeptical on this last point, and would want to develop this project more closely with the youth I already know, rather than assume they’d be into it. But, encouraging that both staff were the ones that suggested the idea I already had brewing! How neat.]

So, I can look forward to getting to know the youth crew as a guest chef and volunteer, continuing to read and contextualize ’empowerment’ across many disciplines and activities, and, eventually, developing a possible video project. Great things.