This is the first in a four-part series of articles from the summer 2018 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Nonprofits as Engines of a More Equitable Economy.”
Since fall 2017, the Nonprofit Quarterly has covered a growing number of stories on emergent forms of economic organization. This includes writing on employee ownership, cooperatives, social enterprise, community development finance, anchor institutions, the growth of nonprofit-owned businesses, and the rise of community land trusts. We’ve run features on a union-co-op conference in Cincinnati; on the use of employee ownership as a business succession strategy as the baby boom generation retires; and on the rise of platform cooperatives—that is, app-based platforms that are co-owned by the workers, in lieu of the investor-owned Ubers of the world.1
In their own right, these are important stories, but there is something deeper going on here, too. A few years ago, Clara Miller, then president (now president emerita) of the F.B. Heron Foundation, wrote a paper titled “The World Has Changed and So Must We.”2 Miller was talking about capital markets and the need for a mission-based approach to investing foundation assets. But what about us? In other words, what is the role of civil society—the people who our sector represents, independent of our legal form—in a world where the economic ground beneath us is shifting rapidly?
In our sector, nonprofits typically act to mend problems. The basic assumption behind this is that the system, despite major problems here and there, is more or less functional, and our role is to come up with clever solutions—be good social entrepreneurs, if you will—to plug the holes and fill in the gaps.
But it is increasingly evident that these basic assumptions don’t remotely describe the world in which we operate. Last December, NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez wrote:
Places like Puerto Rico that are experiencing full-scale collapse are simply at the edge, experiencing it first. In Dmitry Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit, he proposes that current civilization has entered the collapse phase where, rather than long-term decline, we have sudden changes caused by systems out of control. Perhaps these moments are the new high-leverage points in systems change; when systems are collapsing, there is a vacuum and a battle for the new order.3
So, if the current political and economic systems in the United States are corrupt, decaying, or even collapsing, then plugging holes and filling in gaps—no matter how well we are guided by sophisticated logic models showing the wisdom of our interventions—will fail. This means that those stories about so-called alternative forms of economic organization may be more than “feel-good” narratives of community self-determination;4 in fact, they may be glimpses of another world emerging. In short, if our economic, political, and social systems are changing before our eyes, then community-based economics stops being a nice-to-have and starts becoming a must-have.
How Did We Get Here?
Before talking about the contemporary process of corruption, decay, or collapse, it is important to start out with the obvious: that for all of our society’s accomplishments, for many the United States has never been the shining “city upon a hill” that leaders dating back to colonial Massachusetts governor John Winthrop have envisioned. The “American project” has always been an imperial one. Noting the country’s history of genocide against Native Americans, Yale historian Paul Kennedy, for example, remarked, “From the time the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an imperial nation, a conquering nation.”5 And, of course, the nation was also built on the sweat and tears of Black slave labor. Another Yale historian, David Blight, points out, “Slaves by 1860 were worth approximately $3.5 billion. That was the largest single asset in the entire U.S. economy. That was worth more than all railroads, more than all manufacturing, all other assets combined.”6 As Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have demonstrated, the impact of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing discrimination has ensured the persistence of vast race-based gaps in income and, especially, wealth. And, without enumerating them all, the United States has been riven by many forms of inequality—among them, patriarchy, discrimination against Latinx and Asian Americans, homophobia, transphobia, and class divisions—throughout its history.
In short, there is no sense in idealizing the past. And yet, even with all of its shortcomings, the nation’s political-economic institutional struct