In the classic 1930s film, The Wizard of Oz, there is a famous scene where, after a perilous journey following a yellow brick road, Dorothy and her pet dog Toto—joined along the way by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion—make it to the castle of the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz. The “wizard” seeks to scare the group away, only to have Toto pull back a curtain that was hiding a film projector, revealing a rather ordinary man.
There is a message in this classic scene, and it extends well beyond the technicolor world of Oz. The movie, of course, was a product of its times—two times, really. The original children’s book by Frank Baum drew on images from the populist movement of the 1890s, scarred by economic depression. The classic film directed by Victor Fleming was released in 1939, during the Great Depression.
In 1939, US unemployment had fallen from its depression high of 24.9 percent but was still 17.2 percent. A decade-long drought also had ravaged much of the Great Plains, including Dorothy’s home in Kansas. Think back to those early, dreary black-and-white scenes in the film, made only more dramatic by the contrasting technicolor scenes in Oz. This was a very scary time, particularly in Kansas. Many “wizards”—too many to count—had failed Americans.
Today, we face what certainly looks to be our own economic depression, with food lines extending a mile long or even longer. Making the situation even more appalling is the fact that wealth at the top of the pyramid has once again consolidated and grown, even as conditions get increasingly desperate for so many. Between March 18 and May 19, the net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest families increased $434 billion, while tens of millions lost their jobs. Could the situation be any starker?
The answer to that question is yes, as a video recording of the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last month spurred a national uprising against the pernicious racism that enabled it. And then there is the COVID-19 pandemic itself, which has cost over 115,000 Americans their lives, with Blacks and poorer Americans being disproportionately numbered among the dead.
Meanwhile, the damage continues to mount. At least 100,000 small businesses have failed already, and many nonprofits are teetering too. A survey released last week by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that an estimated 90 percent of nonprofits had to cancel or postpone fundraising events and 81 percent had to curtail operations, even as service demands increased for more than half. We could use some wizardly magic—and, often, in the world of nonprofits, that wizard is named “philanthropy.”
Philanthropic Responses to the Crisis in 2020
When public officials started to shut down the economy in March, it did not take long to realize this would result in an extraordinary crisis that would require an extraordinary response. Back on March 16th, philanthropic critic Vu Le wrote a blog post titled “Funders, this is the rainy day you have been saving up for” and called for philanthropy to double its payout rates. Two days later, NPQ amplified this call.
While philanthropy certainly merits criticism, it is worth acknowledging that, although not universally the case, many in philanthropy have bee