Pragmatic Progressivism

It’s no secret that I’m on the political left. It’s no secret that, as much as there’s a left-right divide in the church, I’m on the theological and ecclesiological left. I support things like a robust welfare state, universal healthcare, a universal basic income, an emphasis on diplomacy, and a host of other progressive causes. More than that, I support a charitable society; I hope for a world where there is not a needy person among us, because we share freely with each other as there is need.1Acts 4:32-37

I also recognize that, given the current political climate and the broader culture of the United States — let alone the world — many of these things are unlikely to happen without direct divine intervention. We live in an imperfect world. While I can hope — and work — for the Kingdom of God, I know that the most I will accomplish in my lifetime will fall far short of that.

Which bring me to the point I made in this post: there is eschatological hope and there is immanent hope. My eschatological hope is for the Kingdom of God. My immanent hope is for more immediately attainable things, like winning elections.

That is to say: I am a pragmatic progressive. I am interest is furthering our movement towards a world of greater justice and mercy, and I recognize that doing so may mean accepting imperfect incremental improvements. That doesn’t mean that I abandon my eschatological hope. It simply means that I don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Footnotes   [ + ]

People I Listen To: Preet Bharara

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s person I listen to is Preet Bharara.

Preet Bharara is the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Near the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, the administration asked for resignation letters from all 46 U.S. Attorneys who were still serving at the time. Bharara refused to resign and was fired. He is well-known for his anti-corruption stances  work and for being largely apolitical and fair-minded.

Stay Tuned with Preet is a podcast about justice and fairness, featuring Bharara talking with figures like John Miller, Bill Browder, and Jeff Flake about issues ranging from civil rights to the Russia investigation and beyond.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Addie Zierman: The Inadequate Gifts That Change the World

Most of all, I remember the jolt of understanding that fell across my heart as I stood in that shipping container house and realized that the answer to the open wound of poverty is not, in fact, some Extreme Home Makeover (Move that truck!). It is not some lavish gift or building donation. The answer is not even to move into the heart of poverty and live some martyr-ymissionary version of life.

The answer is a lot of average people doing a lot of average things.

The answer is donations that feel completely inadequate in the face of the world’s great need. $10 here. $20 there.

It’s money for eyeglasses or for a new coat. It’s letters in the mail. It’s community leaders and public servants who care deeply and have the resources to enact their passions. It’s programs like World Vision’s “Go Baby Go,” that gives mamas like Ani information about child development and resources to foster learning and creativity in their children.

Hope… Eschatological and Immanent

While working on another project, I’ve been thinking about hope. And part of what I’ve been thinking about is the difference between eschatological hope and immanent hope. Those are big words, but they matter.

Eschatology is the branch of theology that asks questions about death, judgement, and the ultimate destiny of creation. Eschatological hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom will be realized: that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Immanence is the reality of the divine that we see here and now. Immanent hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom is already in the world among us. It is the hope that we can make the world a better place now, even in the face of the world-as-it-is.

And this matters because it’s easy to think that, because we can’t make everything perfect now, it isn’t worth doing anything at all. We can — to use a phrase that I remember showing up a lot in the original discussions of the Affordable Care Act — let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I’m going to talk more about this in another context — yes, I’m writing this post so that I can write another one — but I wanted to put this concept out there. As a Christian, I always have an eschatological hope: I always hope that the world will ultimately be the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be. As a person, I also have immanent hope: I can make the world a better place today. And I’m not going to let the fact that I hope that God will ultimately make the world what it should be keep me from doing my part now.

Or, as the quote often clumsily misattributed to ‘the Talmud’ puts it:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

This Is How Development Works

A while ago, I was on the phone with a member of my Board of Directors. We were talking about plans for a trip to visit his congregation, but at the end of the call he brought up another subject: that congregation had recently finished a capital campaign, it had some money left over, and was going to send a significant amount to my organization.

And I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Here’s why.

On the one hand, I didn’t do anything to get that gift. I didn’t solicit it. I didn’t even know that the congregation was doing a capital campaign, let alone that it had exceeded its goal. It isn’t a gift that I would brag about bringing it.

On the other hand, I — and people who came before me — did everything to get that gift. Through years of visits, volunteer opportunities, newsletters, appeals, and other relationship-building, I created the climate that led that congregation to think about my organization when it had extra money. It was good cultivation and stewardship that led to that gift. And I was critical to making sure that happened.

It can be hard to remember that this is how development works. This is what makes development different from fundraising.

Fundraising is transactional. If I were a mere fundraiser, I would have had to ask for that gift. I would have to ask for every gift. I would be constantly chasing those next few dollars. I would be starting over new with every donor every time.

But I am not a fundraiser. I am a development professional. And development is the slow, steady nurturing of relationships to the point that donors are ready to give on their own. And while I still have to ask and remind, I’m never chasing dollars; I’m helping donors do what they already want to do.

And, sometimes, that means I get a nice surprise: all the work I’ve been doing pays off without even asking.

People I Listen To: Pretty Much Everyone at Crooked Media

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s person I listen to is pretty much everyone at Crooked Media.

Crooked Media is a podcasting network founded by three Obama administration staffers: Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. It features podcasts by those founders, plus others with media personalities like Ana Marie Cox and activists like DeRay McKesson. Every one of their podcasts is excellent, bringing deep conversations, serious analysis, and humor together in “a no-bullshit conversation about politics and culture where you can laugh, cry, scream, ridicule us daily, share your ideas, and hopefully decide that you want to help fix this mess too.”

Here’s the list of Crooked Media podcasts (current as of the time I’m writing this):

Crooked Conversations

Lovett Or Leave It

Pod Save America

Pod Save the People

Pod Save the World

With Friends Like These

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Economic and Political Empowerment

A couple of weeks ago, I shared this link to a story at the Washington Post. Here’s the gist. A lot of international organizations focus on women’s empowerment. But a lot of those organizations think of empowerment in terms of the ability to make a livelihood. They give women chicken or goats, or microloans to start a small shop in their home, or a sewing machine. Now empowering women is good, but the ability to make a living is good. But women aren’t suffering just because they can’t make money. Women are suffering because they don’t have political power. And organizations tend not to focus on that.

So women end up receiving financial or material help that doesn’t lead to longterm economic gains. And women still end up being denied the political power that they could use to change the systems that are keeping them — and their communities — in the ways that would lead to longterm economic and social improvement.

As the article puts it:

This narrow definition ignores something important: Women suffer not just because they don’t have a form of income. Women are part of a system that fundamentally doesn’t favor them, that makes it hard for them to obtain and stay in power. To change that, the report says, these women need political power. As one of the report’s co-authors, Rafia Zakaria, wrote in the New York Times: “Without political change, the structures that discriminate against women can’t be dismantled and any advances they do make will be unsustainable.”

Many of us in the West — especially, maybe, charity skeptics — tend to have a narrow view of empowerment that is focused on providing people with the tools to find economic livelihoods. Job training, soft-skills education, and other employment programs become the beginning and end of empowerment. Often, that means taking on work that serves the interests of the relatively wealthy more than it does those of people experiencing poverty.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t work on economic empowerment. But any economic empowerment project needs to be paired with political empowerment projects. People living in poverty need to have a substantial voice in the issues that affect them, from minimum wages and universal basic incomes to health care and criminal justice reform. Economic empowerment by itself can only help people survive in the system as it is; political empowerment can change the system so that it is more egalitarian and more likely to actually benefit people experiencing poverty.

Timothy Burke: Enough

If America is not great, it is not for a lack of attention to our sensitive right-wing snowflakes. They said: hands off our guns. Well, we stand now at the moment of the most intense judicial restraint on any attempt to restrict gun ownership and use in the history of this republic. They said: lower our taxes! We are the least taxed liberal democracy on the planet, we are 37 years into a national regime of ceaseless tax reduction. They said: cut the welfare state, get rid of the safety net! The safety net has been cut, the great revolution of the late 19th and early 20th Century in favor of public goods is nearly totally undone. They said: stop teaching our children what we don’t want them to know. Creationism is back in schools, the government is actively hostile to science, it’s ok for the top leaders of this country to endorse historical falsehoods and insist they be taught to the nation’s children. They said: we’re too free to see pornography and get divorced and live together outside of marriage and take drugs. And where is it that pornography is most popular and adultery flourishes and opoids and meth take hold? In Trumplandia, where people apparently need the Nanny State to stop them from doing what they blame on others who do it far less. They said: stop crime at all costs! And thirty years later, they’re still afraid in a country that locks up more of its own people than any other comparable nation, that allows cops to kill black men with impunity.

Why You Shouldn’t Worry So Much about #GivingTuesday

Every year in mid to late October, I see posts and questions about #givingtuesday appear in my feeds. A lot of people want to give you — or sell you — advice on how your organization can have a record breaking #givingtuesday. And a lot of organizations, development professionals, and executive directors are wondering how they can make this the best #givingtuesday every for their organization.

And they all use the hashtag.

Giving Tuesday can be a great opportunity for you and your organization. And it’s not difficult to make it work:

Spend the weeks leading up to Giving Tuesday priming your donors. This means communicating with them about the work your organization does, why they should care, and what impact their gifts can have. You should do this through every channel you have, and it’s even more effective when it’s peer-to-peer. Encourage supporters to share the reasons they give to your organization on their social media channels.

Find ways to increase the impact on and around Giving Tuesday. This is a great opportunity for a matching gift campaign. If you have a donor that will do a dollar-for-dollar match for every gift on Giving Tuesday, that will be even more motivation for people to give!

Create lots of opportunities to give. The time around Giving Tuesday is a good time to remind people about Amazon Smile, to host an event, or to find other avenues for giving (besides the website and direct mail appeal). Make sure that people can give no matter what they’re doing.

Don’t forget to ask! Make sure that your Giving Tuesday schedule includes asking for gifts, preferably several times. Let people know how the day is going and encourage folks to put you over the top.

Most of all… don’t worry too much about #GivingTuesday.

Giving Tuesday is a big deal to fundraisers and nonprofit organizations. That’s why we all start getting antsy about it in October. But for most people, Giving Tuesday could come and go without a mention and they wouldn’t even notice. As much as we might want to think that this is a big celebration on par with Black Friday, it just doesn’t live in the people’s imaginations in the same way. And that alright… the first Giving Tuesday was just a few years ago, in 2012.

And here’s the thing: good fundraising works every day. It works on Giving Tuesday, it works on local giving days, it works on Christmas, and it works on June 4. If you’re a fundraiser, you should always be priming people to give, finding ways to increase the impact, giving people the opportunity to give, and asking for (and stewarding) those gifts. Fundraising, even on Giving Tuesday, isn’t about clever gimmicks. It’s about working a plan every single day.

So yes, do something for #givingtuesday. It’s a good opportunity and you shouldn’t waste it. But don’t worry so much about it. Don’t stress about it. Don’t panic about it. Do the work on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and normal Wednesday, too. That’s how you raise money.

Food Stamps and Fungibility

A week or so ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted about his experience meeting someone outside of a Chicago grocery. The person he met tried to sell him food stamps, offering $100 in purchases on her EBT card for $80 in cash. My friend thought this was funny, because this person was doing what he thought was a terrible job of negotiating. And, of course, the comments on his post were predictable: this person doesn’t have a job, this is taxpayer money, and so on.

But here’s the thing: that person trying to sell access to her EBT card at a discount makes sense. It’s a sensible thing to do.

And here’s why.

First, food stamps (or, more accurately, SNAP benefits, usually stored on an EBT card) are non-fungible. People can only spend those dollars on things that the state has decided that she can spend them on: bread, cereal, fruit, meat, dairy products and so on. People cannot spend those benefits on alcohol, pet food, hot food, or anything that would be eaten in the store.

And that’s all fine and good. But it also means that people can’t spend them on household supplies that you might find in the store, like paper towels, toilet paper, soap, or feminine hygiene products. And, of course, it also means that people can’t spend them on other necessary things like medicine, doctor visits, rent, utilities, or clothing.

Food stamps are for food only. And as long as the person needs food, that works fine.

Second, poverty involves a lot of trade-off thinking. People who don’t live in poverty often think of prices in terms of money. For example, since I had to buy a new dress shirt recently, I know that dress shirts at a certain store cost about $89 plus tax. But we can also think of prices in terms of goods. I could think of that shirt as two dinners out or a month’s internet bill. People living in poverty often think in terms of trade-offs: every purchase made means being unable to make a different purchase later.

And people living in poverty think that way because they have to. When someone doesn’t have enough money to make it through a month, she has to decide what necessities she will buy and which ones she’ll try to forego. This person who my friend met may have had a car repair, a rent payment, or medication that she needed to pay for. And she may have been willing to give up a certain number of meals for that.

Food stamps are for food only. When the person needs something else, that doesn’t work at all.

What this person was willing to do was commit benefit fraud (an extremely rare occurrence) to purchase fungibility. And she was willing to pay a premium for it.

And, if what she needed was money for rent, transportation, or heat, that is entirely reasonable.