In the nonprofit sector, the rules governing our tax deductible status result in our sitting voiceless outside the noisy process of selecting leaders and legislators. The trouble is, most of us engage in this work because we are committed to social change. We want to see the world around us become a more humane, just, and supportive environment for everyone. That’s what gets us up in the morning, and that is what motivates us year after year. And the opportunity to do this work is what many of us use to justify our accepting far lower wages, and far higher risks.
As we all know, many in our sector do what we can. We organize and support non-partisan voter engagement work. We highlight and educate the public about public policy questions. And then, law-abiding citizens that we are, we remain silent as the rough and tumble of the fray carries on. Until now: the election is over and the business of governing has begun. Silence is just the opposite of what needs to happen now.
I have watched two other instances where progressives took the reigns of executive power—Jimmy Carter in 1976 in what was largely a reactionary vote to the scandal that was Watergate, and Bill Clinton who raced faster to the center than Mr. Bush (senior) or Ross Perot could manage. In both cases, the idea of a mandate was far from the case. A sea change in the landscape was never discussed. But now, after 40 years of working for progressive change, we have both in Barack Obama’s victory. There is a clear sense of a mandate for change, and there is no question that there has been a seismic shift in the landscape. Indeed, this probably occurred in the months leading up to the election as the subprime meltdown changed everything.
My point is that at least in my lifetime, progressives have never faced such opportunity. Now we have to figure out what we are going to do with it. Let’s start by speaking out loud about what we want. When Carter was elected, I watched in astonishment how many friends and acquaintances were recruited into the administration, and how the public interest sector slowly fell silent. We didn’t want to criticize our friends who we knew were trying the best they could to effect change. What we didn’t know then was that they could not make change inside, if everyone on the outside who supported change failed to speak up. That left only the forces resistant to change speaking out loud.
Let’s not make that mistake again.
Drummond Pike founded Tides in 1976 and is the chief executive officer. He helped pioneer the advent of donor-advised funds in philanthropy, and has long supported grassroots and public-interest organizations through environmental and social change philanthropy. He received the Outstanding Foundation Professional Award in 2004.