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Leave Your Charity at the Door

charityI hate the word “charity.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not big on semantics. But “charity” is more than a word, it’s a destructive mindset that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished.

“Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and as such was viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world.

As social problems mount, we must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change as part of everything we do.

And here’s why:

Charity Lives Beside the Economy, Social Change is Baked into the Economy
While charity was just an afterthought of the real work of the world, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. The number of nonprofits grew 50 times faster than for-profits in the last 10 years and nonprofit revenues grew at double the rate of GDP growth in the same period. And its not just the size and resources of nonprofits that contribute to an emerging social change economy, the Millennial generation actually thinks about social change as part of every aspect of, not separate from, their work and life. The work of social change is ubiquitous.

Charity Addresses Symptoms, Social Change Addresses Systems
Charity is about remedying the immediate and direct symptoms of a larger problem. It is about feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. But as very real structural challenges grow (like the widening income gap) we can no longer just stick a finger in the dike. We must come up with approaches that solve the underlying issues causing those problems.

Charity Requires Spare Pennies, Social Change Requires Significant Investment
Charity existed on the largesse of the profiteers of the last centuries. Once they made their millions, they sloughed off a portion of the excess to the charities who cleaned up the messes they made. But you can’t do much with the dregs. Because social change is about changing larger systems it takes real, significant investment of resources.

Charity Employs Volunteers, Social Change Employs Experts
Charity was always the purview of the wives who didn’t work. As volunteers they devoted their time to helping the needy. But as our social problems become increasingly complex and entrenched, we must employ experts – not volunteers – who through education, knowledge and experience know exactly how to approach the problem and how to solve it. And we must pay them what it takes to keep them working on those solutions.

Charity Apologizes, Social Change Demands
When you are voluntarily acting on behalf of a charity and asking others also to act voluntarily on behalf of the charity, you are often apologizing for the interruption to their “real work.” But social change is very necessary work, and social changemakers must demand the investment, mindshare, time and effort required. There is absolutely no space for apology.

Sometimes words and the baggage of the past really matter. When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” we start demanding and creating real investment, real attention, and real change.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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