Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s summer 2023 issue, “Movement Economies: Making Our Vision a Collective Reality.”
What would a nonprofit sector that pursued economic justice look like? Too often, it is assumed that nonprofits are automatically leaders in the economic justice movement. The reality is more complicated. Sometimes, nonprofits advance economic justice; sometimes, they are part of the problem. Often, the very same nonprofit that is advocating for social justice policy may pay its own workers poverty-level wages.
In this issue on movement economies, we invited seven field leaders to answer the above question and consider how nonprofit practice might better align with stated economic justice goals.
Two of them—Dr. Nelson Colón of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation, and Clara Miller, president emerita of the Heron Foundation—come from philanthropy. The other five work for nonprofit intermediary organizations. These are: Seema Agnani of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development; Marla Bilonick of the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders; Gary Cunningham, CEO of Prosperity Now from 2019 to 2023; Jon Pratt, the now-retired founding director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits; and Dr. Akilah Watkins of Independent Sector.
In their contributions, the authors grapple with how best to face the challenges inherent in the struggle for economic and racial justice. Whether analyzing the accounting plumbing of our economy, highlighting the role of advocacy, or looking at the intersections of nonprofits, community, and movement groups, one message is clear: the nonprofit sector, when it comes to economic justice, is falling short. To do better, the contributors contend, requires vision, advocacy, clear-eyed analysis, and a willingness to challenge barriers that hold the sector back.
Morally Centering Our Economic Justice Vision
by Akilah Watkins
Economic justice demands economic and financial systems of fairness be demonstrated publicly and discerningly for the most vulnerable in society. Achieving such an important and morally centered vision requires nonprofits to have a heart-to-heart about the flow of resources and how we incentivize behaviors that align with our vision of economic justice.
For example, corporate and philanthropic dollars don’t always flow toward economic justice movements for a variety of reasons, which include everything from a lack of understanding of new leadership and organizational structures to grappling with supporting leaders of color dismantling systems of economic and social oppression. Black Lives Matter or Pride Month marketing campaigns might lead us to believe these movements are attracting all the funding they need, but they are not. This isn’t a criticism of anyone, but rather a healthy dose of reality.
If our sector was truly aligned with the moral imperative of economic justice, it would look like starting the conversation at institutions with power and resources. How do these influential institutions drive concepts of economic justice with their grantees? Some questions these institutions should consider are the following:
- Are we covering the real cost of this work at the nonprofits we support? If not, why not?
- What would it take to fully fund the human capital, governance, and advocacy costs of nonprofits?
- Are we considering all the elements necessary to drive a healthy nonprofit sector?
Another piece of this painting would look like a landscape of advocacy and policy change institutions that prioritize racial and economic justice to level the playing field. Nonprofits would have the bandwidth to play ball against well-funded lobbyists and trade organizations without the burden of limited budgets. Nonprofits would be trusted to hire the right consultants and form partnerships that are collaborative and generative toward their racial and economic justice goals.
Lastly, a sector in pursuit of economic justice would look like a constellation of organizations that have struggled through, grappled with, and found their racial equity commitments. Independent Sector, the organization I lead, has used all its levers in one way or another to work in service of economic justice. We advocate for parity between the business and nonprofit sectors. We pay our diverse network of speakers and facilitators for their time and contributions in our community-building events and leadership programs. We build community and coalition with others. But we still have work to do. None of these levers were created overnight. None are perfect. We, like so many other organizations, continue to get smarter and better. It takes an iterative approach to achieve economic justice, and it starts with small steps.
In many ways, I imagine a nonprofit sector committed to economic justice looking like a sector where the suggestions we made as we braced for the brunt of COVID are universal norms.1 But until we get there, let’s not forget the everyday solutions that we can bring today. This means supporting the economic justice movements that power social change, the nonprofit efforts that help to increase the scale and impact of economic justice work, and the millions of individuals and families in the United States still striving to thrive.
Nonprofits and the Pursuit of Economic Justice in Puerto Rico
by Nelson I. Colón
The nonprofit sector carries the torch of economic justice in Puerto Rico. Under the overarching theme of social and solidarity economy, three major movements—co-ops, labor unions, and nonpartisan political coalitions—embody the aspiration of fair distribution of wealth focused on the full realization of human beings.
The social and solidarity economy offers a liberatory vision that pursues collective wellness that amplifies personal progress. As persuasively described by Ruben Antonio Colón Morales, a professor at the Cooperativism Institute (Instituto de Cooperativismo) at the University of Puerto Rico, a democratic economy recognizes that we are endowed with the same human dignity, share the same rights, and deserve the same opportunities. It prioritizes building personal, social, emotional, and cultural capacities of human beings—instead of irrational consumption. The main goal is to empower workers and consumers and improve the quality of community life. In short, a social and solidarity economy is ruled by an ethic of care and a commitment to protect and amplify life on this planet.
The beacon of light of the just economy is at the heart of the co-op movement, guided by seven principles: (1) voluntary and open membership; (2) democratic control by members; (3) members’ economic participation; (4) autonomy and independence; (5) education, training, and information; (6) cooperation among cooperatives; and (7) concern for community. The co-op movement in Puerto Rico comprises a range of credit unions, youth co-ops, and co-ops in many other sectors, including farming, trade, manufacturing, services, transportation, and housing. More than 1.1 million Puerto Ricans, for example, are members of credit unions—more than a third of the entire country’s population.2 Co-ops are by far the largest sector in the just economy movement.
The co-op movement has not effectively penetrated other sectors of society, however. It remains encapsulated in a rigid legal straitjacket that limits its ability to react with agility to meet pressing social and economic needs and opportunities, such as the upcoming wave of solar energy development. Worker-owned co-ops and benefit corporations are additional public policy frameworks for a just economy.
VAMOS, (which means “let’s go” in Spanish), a nonpartisan political movement that has arisen in Puerto Rico, is a nonprofit organization that articulates progressive organizations’ efforts toward people’s well-being. Although still nascent, VAMOS postulates in its platform that the social and solidarity economy is its key economic framework.
These movements are growing in the dry soil of Puerto Rico’s economy. Since 2008, the economy has been spiraling down toward economic stagnation. Unable to grow at any consistent pace, gains, when they occur, are mostly due to disaster-related federal funding.
In the context of the history of Puerto Rico’s economy, the social and solidarity economy offers a critical path forward. Labor unions, co-ops, and VAMOS are all key building blocks for a movement centered on a just and democratic economy. Coalescing these distinct social forces offers the possibility of a new dawn for Puerto Rico’s community and economic development.
How a Collective Nonprofit Agenda Could Advance Economic Justice
by Jon Pratt
The US nonprofit sector is inspired to action with good intentions, which is commendable, but it needs to mobilize and behave politically as an industry group to advance united positions on the functioning of the economy, not unlike the consolidated fiscal advocacy of the business lobby.
The structure of the overall economy, and government responses or inaction to these conditions, are at the heart of why most nonprofit organizations were formed—to ameliorate the effects of market failure. The current market economy fails to effectively distribute goods and services to large segments of the population, resulting in poverty and maldistribution of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education. In a massive charitable response, vast networks of locally supported food pantries, coat drives, homeless shelters, community clinics, and free schools have been launched and sustained. While some of these organizations dream about “working our way out of a job” when their services will no longer be necessary, dogged US poverty levels and trends tend to give this dream the lie.
We know that thousands of nonprofit contributors, volunteers, board members, and employees are sympathetic to the ends of economic justice. These supporters sincerely believe their good works are improving the conditions of the poor and countering racial injustice, each in their own way.
However, philanthropic and community organizations need to openly concede that it is not possible for charitable projects to re-tilt the US economy and reduce poverty by their own expenditures. Obviously, the only entity with the assets and power structure to move this needle is the national government.
Influencing the economic levers of the federal government is undoubtedly a massive task, but this is where the strengths of the nonprofit sector come into play: the power of numbers, community connections, and grassroots legitimacy by virtue of local delivery. A keener and simultaneous role for this set of organizations is to build political power and the public will to leverage other resources, including government funds and regulation, to address structural inequality. While smaller and less endowed than business lobbies, these organizations, by combining their networks, can exert power on national economic decision-making through local education and advocacy.
Leveraging the power of numbers and mobilizing collective action are long-standing applications of the nonprofit form to exert influence, especially through associations and membership organizations. These entities exist throughout the nonprofit sector.
Today, nonprofit groups engage in advocacy largely by addressing their focus areas. For example, housing organizations lobby for housing funding, food pantries lobby for food programs, and so on. There is an incentive for nonprofit lobbies to concentrate on their own revenue, which can be seen as both self-serving and mission related. By contrast, on the corporate side, we have seen many industries line up together to lower corporate taxes—a mature campaign to reduce tax and regulation championed by chambers of commerce.
The tendency of most nonprofits to stick to discrete subject areas misses out on a collective opportunity. If the masses of nonprofit organizations seeking to reduce poverty and “work themselves out of a job” could organize around a specific economic justice strategy, they could multiply their impact. If together the nonprofit sector and its supporters would agree and meaningfully campaign for significant increases in the value of just three policies—for example, earned income tax credit, minimum wage, and childcare subsidies—poverty would decline, and many nonprofits would better achieve their missions.
Reconnecting Economic Justice and Economic Development
by Marla Bilonick
As someone who has dedicated her career to furthering initiatives that help residents and entrepreneurs in underinvested communities gain upward economic mobility, it will come as no surprise that I view economic justice as a key mechanism to unlock meaningful equity in our society. Economic justice and economic development have typically been detached and considered separate from other nonprofit areas of focus. Yet economic injustice is one of the most pervasive and subtle forms of discrimination that persists, hidden in plain sight in America.
There is not one area of nonprofit focus that can unbuckle itself from issues around economic justice (or injustice). Health inequities, crime levels, and immigration are all intrinsically linked to financial inequities, as are the failings of our criminal justice system. Access to quality mental health services is seemingly reserved for mid- to high-income individuals. The women’s rights movement still has much unfinished business around women and (un)equal pay. The drug epidemic has devastated our most poverty-stricken communities. Environmental pollution and degradation impact low-income communities disproportionately.
BIPOC communities and women have been and continue to be paid lower wages. Their personal and business loan requests are routinely rejected (or they are offered loans for lower amounts than their original requests and at higher rates and shorter repayment terms), stifling their ability to launch and grow businesses that create jobs. And BIPOC communities live in the shadow of years of discriminatory policies—most notably the redlining of the early 20th century that has left so many with a life sentence of lower household incomes, lower home values, and deteriorating housing stock. Low-income communities have also regularly been made targets for predatory financial service providers such as check cashers, loan sharks, payday lenders, and others.
Even with this short list of issue areas, unbuckling economic injustice from any nonprofit mission is impossible. A nonprofit sector that pursued economic justice would recognize the interconnectedness between economic injustices and a litany of linked issues for which nonprofits are seeking solutions.
Financial security should be viewed as a basic human right that is attainable for all. Financial instability is a trigger for so many other struggles that individuals and families face. Anyone who has lived under financial instability, even temporarily, understands how a precarious financial position infiltrates every aspect of life.
Kimberly Jones, an activist and author who writes about economic inequality in her book, How We Can Win: Race, History and Changing the Money Game That’s Rigged, was interviewed in 2022 on CBS’s Morning Show. She said, “A person should be able to ‘just be’ and be able to take care of their family.”3 This statement is at the core of how an economic-justice–centered nonprofit sector could achieve significant impact—on the ability of everyone to have financial stability, the opportunity to create and pass down generational wealth, and to live in peace.
Economic Justice Is Accounting Justice
by Clara Miller
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During my career in social sector finance, I coined a slogan: “Accounting is destiny.” I thought it was funny and cute, but I could see that it annoyed my colleagues and friends, especially campaigners for social and economic justice. One leader in movement politics said, “If accounting is destiny, I’m going to get out on the ledge. How depressing!”
Admittedly, my slogan doesn’t stir hearts and minds (and doesn’t get many laughs, either). Accountants are not typically renowned heroic exemplars. Accounting seems detached from causes such as fighting racism, resetting unjust laws, or upending false cultural narratives. So, I’ll put it another way: Accounting, broadly construed, maintains justice—and just as reliably, undermines justice. If we ignore it, all the marching, training, speaking out, changing of narratives, and passing of legislation will falter.
Economic justice is inseparable from the standards, reporting conventions, accounting rules, contracting terms, tax regulation, bank transaction boxes, algorithms, administrative rules, corporate profitability hurdles, business models, and similar silent, gray, boring appurtenances of finance and law. These are the guts of the system, the architecture, wiring, and plumbing of the economy, through which money and power flow or are blocked. They routinely uphold or undercut integrity and fair dealing all day every day. Justice—as well as its opposite—is in these roots. Yet we rarely see them and routinely disregard them.
We do have well-known, visible accounting rules. We understand, for example, how points are scored and counted in a game; how long a playing field or court is; what’s considered fair and not. The rules, rulings, and points may be contested, but they’re generally understood and transparent. They manifest the system of the game, the commonly understood language by which fairness, value, and quantity are measured, contested, adjudicated, and improved. Accounting comprises agreed-upon measures of value—and provides a structure for their evolution as society and its needs change. But that’s not always the way things work. Bad actors change the “plumbing”—the rules of commerce—to suit themselves, thereby extracting value from others without their knowledge or consent.
One example comes from my own experience. In 1975, I was an economic development planner in New York’s Southern Tier, which includes the northernmost counties of the Appalachian region. The economic base was in decline. Farms, especially small farms, were failing.
A colleague’s family was struggling to hold on to their farm. They couldn’t get credit to buy a tractor. The rhetoric of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not to mention public opinion, supported programs and services that would preserve small farms. Every member of Congress cherished small farms. But my colleague’s family couldn’t get help that seemed to be more widely available to larger farms. Why not?
Evidently, the USDA had changed the way they classified economically viable farmland. Based on the new guidelines, her family’s farmland was too small and steep, putting their farm outside the credit box for a guarantee. A silent injustice: without legislation, without debate, and probably as a result of a complex calculus involving overall expense to the government, lobbying muscle, demand, and other factors.
Yet it took property from small farmers and gave it to large farms with the stroke of a pen. Despite the slogans, the soaring speeches, and bipartisan support for small farmers, the invisible measurement conventions and rule changes drove the opposite outcome.
Multiply this one instance by years, and the myriad of other blatant and damaging versions: redlining, racially prejudicial credit screens, bank charges for smaller depositors, and deceptive and discriminatory marketing algorithms, to name just a few. The system recounted in Caitlin Rosenthal’s Accounting for Slavery lays out the cold calculus underpinning a savage US institution and its persistence in our systems, long after slavery has ostensibly been banned.4
“Justice” is a soaring, aspirational, and often abstract ideal. Calls for “system change” lead to head-nodding but also some blank stares. Taken together, the economy and justice require a both/and proposition if we are to move beyond false dichotomies and hopeful slogans. As W. Edwards Deming put it, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”5
Economic Justice as Living with Dignity
by Seema Agnani
I have been an executive director of nonprofit organizations multiple times now and pretty much all of my career has been in this sector. I chose this path because (as an old boss at Citizens Committee for New York City always reminded me) it is “not-for-profit.” For me, there was never a question of which path to follow—knowing my family and I had some level of financial security, I felt it was my duty (dharma) to ensure everyone was able to live a good life in dignity.
Unfortunately, leaders of not-for-profit organizations spend much of our time trying to raise funds, report on outcomes, ensure donations are managed ethically, and, of course, support and manage the people who make up our organizations. If public dollars are secured and you perform well, that can help. However, within the constraints of many publicly funded programs, it is nearly impossible to implement creative solutions in communities.
So, organizations are left with the options of going to scale, using predetermined program models that don’t quite fit the local or community context, or continuing with the existing structure that leaves very little time for our core purpose and mission. As a result of these systemic challenges, many organizations give up on the solutions that are defined by community need and ultimately prioritize scale over true impact.
In my previous work in Queens, NY, we were trying to find solutions for individuals and families who could not afford the rent, let alone to buy anywhere in the community where they felt a sense of belonging. Solutions that might have allowed them to stay, and also build generational wealth (such as limited equity co-ops or accessory dwelling units), were met with much resistance. The attorneys said it was too difficult to structure financially; the private sector said it was too risky; and public sector leaders were either stuck in impossible political climates or prioritizing strategies that would bring more immediate results. It took years to raise sufficient funds to advance this work substantively.
The good news is that today, with shifts in the political landscape, these efforts are moving again. If successful, they will ensure greater economic justice for generations to come. The role mutual aid funds played during the COVID-19 pandemic taught us that in times of crisis, it is important to be able to support communities in developing their own solutions.
Indeed, despite the challenges I named above, many community-based organizations are innovating on the ground and advancing economic justice. The rise in communities that are working to shift land ownership to community trusts across the country, for example, is putting the future of these communities in the hands of local residents. Also, models such as limited equity cooperatives, commonly used in the past, are being revived today. Community savings models such as chit funds or susus (savings circles, where funds are regularly pooled by a group and redistributed on a regular basis) are another example of where the nonprofit sector can build bridges and support models that are driven by communities.
If the not-for-profit sector were to truly facilitate the movement for economic justice, it would prioritize and support community-led models, while employing a multigenerational, community-focused lens. It would enable the public sector to adapt and adopt models that are flexible enough to be tailored by local communities, rather than acquiesce in forcing models on communities that have been negotiated down in the halls of Congress.
If the not-for-profit sector can continue down this path and make more room for models of economic justice that center benefits for communities and not just the individual, we might just transform the economy to work for those that are fueling it in the first place.
Forging a New American Narrative
by Gary L. Cunningham
A nonprofit sector that pursued economic justice would recognize that powerful elites have rigged the system, capturing government and the market. In their greed, they are hollowing out the middle class, stifling economic prosperity, limiting the mobility of current and future generations, and endangering our democracy.
We need a new approach, founded on the following principles: people first, and for each other.
People first—corporations, the market, and government should serve people, and not the other way around. People for each other—we owe each other a duty of care and respect, and to see ourselves in others.6
Many of us have toiled for years to build a just economy that works for everyone. We have marched; we have protested; we have picketed. We’ve been jailed, kicked, and bitten by police dogs. So many have given their lives to fight for the American dream.
Yet today, many of us are shut out and left out of a dream meant for all of us. In 1968, the Kerner Commission report identified many of the same issues that we are grappling with today.7 Many of us discovered the game was rigged even when we played by the rules. A significant proportion of Black people have given up on whether this country can live up to the American dream.
According to a 2022 Pew Research Center national poll, most Black people are skeptical that change will happen in their lifetimes. However, despite despair, we have witnessed significant and inspiring change in this country.8 Let’s consider some significant gains we’ve made as a nation: emancipation from enslavers, women’s suffrage, labor organizing, American Indian Movement, civil and human rights movements, farmworkers’ struggles, and Black Lives Matter.
We witnessed these movements transform our country. Each represents a step toward justice and economic security for all Americans.
I would assert that our country has not made significant economic, political, or social progress without a movement of people. It’s not a program. It’s not an initiative. Those things are essential, but if we’re going to make real progress in America, we need to build a multiracial/multiethnic movement of people focused on economic justice for all.
Today we have reached what is known as a Nash equilibrium in America.9 Unless the broader society sees a benefit to itself for improving the conditions of BIPOC communities, the allocation of resources and opportunity will remain unchanged. However, the Nash equilibrium also suggests that groups that build enough social cohesion to negotiate a common agenda improve their chances of transforming the playing field and changing the entire game.
Movement building boosts the power and the social cohesion necessary to disrupt the current system.
Manuel Pastor eloquently frames movement building when he states, “Movements are about a dream, about a vision, about a narrative that’s deeply rooted in values, but helps to frame people’s understanding.”10
We need to create systems and structures to include everyone at the same time and target resources based on how people are situated to opportunity. We must move away from zero-sum approaches that leave some groups out of the circle of human concern and privilege others. Targeted universalism is a vision to build the narrative for this moment.11
It’s time to change the old patterns that have wasted so much human potential. It’s time for a new narrative that spells out how we can move forward together.
- Akilah Watkins-Butler, “Community Development Is Crucial in This Moment,” Shelterforce, March 27, 2020, shelterforce.org/2020/03/27/community-development-is-crucial-in-this-moment.
- Juan A. Hernández, “The State of Co-ops in Puerto Rico,” The Weekly Journal, last modified September 8, 2022, www.theweeklyjournal.com/business/the-state-of-co-ops-in-puerto-rico/article_b3009dee-2ef7-11ed-9492-0793de01408c.html. The population of Puerto Rico is 3.22 million according to the latest US Census estimate. See US Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: Puerto Rico,” last modified July 1,2022, www.census.gov/quickfacts/PR.
- “Activist Kimberly Jones on fight for economic justice and equity,” CBS Mornings, 6:33, January 19, 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kvnGYgAVtw. See also Kimberly Jones, How We Can Win: Race, History and Changing the Money Game That’s Rigged (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2021).
- Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018). See also Caitlin Rosenthal, “Reckoning with Slavery: Revisiting Management’s Uncomfortable Past,” NPQ, September 9, 2021, nonprofitquarterly.org/reckoning-with-slavery-revisiting-managements-uncomfortable-past.
- See John Hunter, “A Bad System Will Beat a Good Person Every Time,” W. Edwards Deming Institute, February 26, 2015, deming.org/a-bad-system-will-beat-a-good-person-every-time.
- Gary L. Cunningham, “Forging Equitable Communities: Creating New Structures of Opportunity,” Poverty and Race 25, no. 1 (January–March 2016).
- Report of The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1968).
- Katherine Schaeffer and Khadijah Edwards, “Black Americans differ from other U.S. adults over whether individual or structural racism is a bigger problem,” Pew Research Center, November 15, 2022, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/11/15/black-americans-differ-from-other-u-s-adults-over-whether-individual-or-structural-racism-is-a-bigger-problem.
- Gary L. Cunningham, Marcia L. Avner, and Romilda Justilien, “The Urgency of Now: Foundations’ Role in Ending Racial Inequity,” The Foundation Review 6, no. 1 (2014): 51–65.
- Manuel Pastor, “Movement Building for the Next America” (lecture, 2014 Bioneers National Conference, San Rafael, CA, November 11, 2014, video, 21:24, www.youtube.com/watch?YYkfbiTQSo).
- john a. powell, Stephen Menendian, and Wendy Ake, Targeted Universalism: Policy and Practice (Berkeley, CA: Othering & Belonging Institute at University of California, Berkeley, May 2019).