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Status quo, social justice and moral ambiguity

February 5, 2012

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass

Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, wrote a thought-provoking piece on moral imagination and philanthropy. Ruesga’s initial romantic idealization of foundation work reminds me of my tenure as a young nonprofit manager: I often analogize working in the nonprofit sector to rearranging seats on a sinking ship, though a more flattering—though just as cynical— analogy might be to bailing out water on a sinking ship. While it’s true that nonprofit professionals do more of God’s work than does Lloyd Blankfein, at some point you realize, as Ruesga wonderfully points out, that you serve two mutually incompatible constituencies: victims of social injustice and beneficiaries of the status quo (i.e. Lloyd Blankfein). This might be slightly discomforting to dogged pursuers of social justice—and again I admit it is overly cynical and exaggerated—but it doesn’t make it any less true.

Ruesga really speaks to—and attempts to address—the underlying factors that result in a demand for funding social services and affordable housing, and it’s a conversation focused on power and privilege; it’s a very uncomfortable conversation to have in the nonprofit sector. To effectively achieve social justice, there has to be some shifts in the power structure, and defenders of the status quo have no interest in supporting that sort of shift. And yet, financing for the nonprofit sector is almost wholly dependent upon the largess of beneficiaries of the status quo.

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