Last week, I drove up to my local hospital to drop off some extra masks that we had bought a couple years ago during peak wildfire season. As I handed them to the hospital administrator, he said “Thank you so much. Would you like a picture of yourself handing these to me?”
Seriously? This moment spoke volumes about how entrenched we have become in a culture of individualism, self-promotion, and self-interest. Moreover, it showcased the way that donors are canonized in our society. The donor is seen as the savior to whom people must bow and ask what more they could do, so that the donor can promote and project their beneficence.
We are in desperate need of a course correction. We are facing the public health crisis of our lifetime, and the economic devastation that comes in its wake will be of tsunami proportions. But let’s not kid ourselves about the disproportionality of the impact. It’s time for people like me in the owning class to be real about the fact that we aren’t going to feel it financially. In all the ways that money can buy, our quality of life will not be impacted.
Sure, our portfolios have lost some value, but this isn’t the time to bemoan the loss of our net worth. All of us in the 1% still have far more than we reasonably need. Radical redistribution of wealth is long overdue. The 1%, as demonstrated by its steadfast resistance to progressive tax reform, was never going to voluntarily put the brakes on the inequality that has been growing for decades. So instead, an imperative has been foisted on us in the form of a pandemic.
The need for redistribution certainly isn’t news to millions of economically vulnerable Americans. However, the owning class, faced with a crisis that is affecting us personally and not just in our pocketbooks, has finally received its wake-up call. It’s time for us to step up, not back, and do our part to help stop the bleeding. In this moment, it is crystal clear that business as usual in philanthropy is completely inadequate. It’s time to rewrite the rules and scrap the playbook.
For me, here is how this is playing out in real time. Every day, I make at least one significant donation, often several. Many of these donations are to community-based mutual aid funds, often organized through platforms like gofundme, rather than mediated through institutions. These get money directly in the hands of people who need it most. Government relief, when it arrives, is going to the most readily accessible people in traditional employment, gig workers (to some extent) and those who have recently filed taxes. The mutual aid funds I’ve been supporting are funding economically vulnerable people who are less likely to benefit from the goverment aid: indigenous people, undocumented immigrants and farmworkers, people experiencing homelessness, sex workers, people in prison and detention, and domestic workers.
I am also making donations to service providers like food banks and homeless shelters who are on the front lines of this crisis. A friend who runs a homeless shelter says their volunteer base entirely dried up and they are facing the reality that if they don’t extend PTO policies and/or offer hazard pay, they will not be able to keep their beleaguered staff. In some cases, my donations to direct service providers are covering their unanticipated budget shortfalls. In other cases, they have gone for emergency supplies. In another instance they funded motel vouchers to de-stress shelters. I don’t really care how these organizations use the money. I trust that they know what they need.
I am also doubling down on giving to the activist-led intermediaries that I have supported in the past, groups like Social Justice Fund NW and the Groundswell Fund, who have dedicated rapid response funds and whose grants are mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities.
Last, but just as important, I am re-upping and in many cases increasing grants I make to grassroots organizing efforts, both personally and through my family foundation. While giving to address the immediate crisis is important, we can’t do so at the expense of groups that are working for structural change that will build a more equitable future. In fact, the current moment may be the opportunity of our lifetime to catalyze transformative change. Grassroots organizing will be the engine of that change and individual donors will need to invest to sustain that work. Institutional funders have never adequately resourced organizing work and it is inevitable that, in the wake of dwindling endowments, their funding will further contract.
It’s time for the donor class to blow the doors off our cautious and measured planning and strategizing about how much to give, to whom and for what. Let’s do a little less reflection and take a lot more action.
What sets this crisis apart from others we have faced in our lifetimes is that the 1% can’t buy their way to immunity. That leaves people like me feeling personal vulnerability in a way that I am not used to. And yes, that makes me anxious. I live in Seattle, very close to where the outbreak originated in the US, with my partner who has respiratory issues and our two young kids. The rest of my family, including my 89-year-old dad in frail health, lives in the Bay Area, another early epicenter. I already know people who have loved ones who have died from COVID, and it’s only a matter of time before this virus finds its way into my inner circle.
I am struck by how new it is for me to feel the immediacy of danger in this moment, when so many have lived with it as a constant for so long. Those of us with money have a responsibility to lean into this moment, channeling its urgency into radicalizing our own giving and urging others to follow suit. Personally, I’ve found that a side-benefit of doing so is that it’s a damn effective antidote to the anxiety I feel about COVID-19. Giving money and supporting the community literally calms the tightness in my chest and stops cortisol from racing through my body.
We must distance, but do not need to isolate. Everyone has a role to play in this moment and those of us with class privilege must do our part by making sure the scale of our giving meets the scale of the need. Hoarding money in this moment is as unconscionable as hoarding surgical masks.