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1. A Year of Action for Racial Justice

As we note below, the nation faces a legitimation crisis. A legitimation crisis occurs when the professed values of a system are diametrically opposed to the actual operating values of the system. Indeed, America’s relationship with race is the leading cause of the legitimation crisis the nation faces. Americans, especially white Americans, like to tell themselves that the nation was founded on democratic and republican values, and that is partly true, but only with the negating caveat that slavery and genocide were taken as a given. In other words, we live in a state founded in violence and domination, and as a nation we have never seriously addressed a reconciliation process—a fact illustrated by the refusal to dismantle this country’s many monuments to defenders of white supremacy right up until this past year.

Indeed, the old way of addressing systemic racism was a “plug and play” approach: the system just needed tinkering to ensure the benefits available to whites (education, capital, safety from unfair treatment at the hands of criminal justice officials, a generative voice in our political and social systems) were available to others, too. But there is increasingly wide acceptance that the outcome of that denial, that the entire system has been built around and repeatedly reinforced to fit a foundation of racism, makes the country as a whole fatally unfriendly terrain for people of color, as compared to white people. The grotesque murder of George Floyd in May of this year, strangled to death by a police chokehold for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, brought this again to a head. The backdrop included many long decades of organizing, but also a long history of lives lost—recently notably including Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

Atop that landscape was lain the COVID-19 pandemic, which made racial disparities in the US health and the economic system all too visible. The combination of events was too much to ignore, and at least for a time, the dam broke. Estimates of the number of participants in protests in late May and the month of June range from 15 to 26 million, making it likely the largest mass social mobilization in US history.

The uprising has had many effects. The language characterizing the parameters of the problem has changed its focus from amelioration of failures in the system to an acceptance that racism defines many of our systems. It is no longer sufficient to declare oneself for diversity without also committing to anti-racism in a more structured way. But there is a long path ahead. Yes, Joe Biden’s selection of now-Vice President Elect Kamala Harris as his running mate almost surely was influenced by the uprising. Statues of Confederate generals have been torn down across the South. Many statues of Christopher Columbus, who enslaved Indigenous people, were also torn down in many cities. Museums, many of which have historically failed to embrace diversity, education and inclusion, now face increased pressure to connect to the community or go under. Sports teams in Washington and Cleveland have agreed to shed mascots with Native images after decades of resistance, while sports athletes used wildcat strikes to leverage concessions from team owners. Calls for reparations began to result in actions, including among churches and local governments, such as in Asheville.

These actions are promising, but resistance is fierce. Calls to #DefundthePolice, have had success in some cities, but many have opposed this effort, including Biden. The risk of backlash, seen so often in US history and manifest this year in the rise of right-wing militias, remains very real. Writing in NPQ, Will Cordery and Steph Guilloud contend that for the racial justice movement to succeed activists must “stay mad.” This requires paying attention to history and the continued building of a vision for a new, equitable, and more life-affirming world, and this must be supported by expanded social movement infrastructure with political staying power for the long haul.

2. Saying the Unsayable: The Overton Window Moves Slightly Left

This year saw a number of concepts move from fringe discussion into the mainstream, with no small amount of controversy as they came. Following the issuance of the $1,200 stimulus checks to US residents through the avenue of the CARES Act, discussion of universal basic income as a means to alleviate both chronic economic malaise and keep people employed and in their homes during the pandemic popped up in the national conversation, not least through its promotion as a policy plank of Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Certain municipalities had already experimented with UBI, including Stockton, California, which commemorated 18 months of its income program by releasing some of its promising results.

Following months of action on the racial justice front, the movement to abolish the police—or, at the very least, transform them into something quite unlike their current state—came to center stage in the form of #DefundThePolice, a call to slash policing budgets and redirect the funds into other areas of social and municipal support, like de-escalation programs. Cities like Los Angeles and Chicago had to address demands coming from people and the media to change how they thought about law enforcement and its future. Unsurprisingly, the #Defund effort has been met with pushback—both from expected sources like police unions and arguably less expected ones like former president Barack Obama, who blamed the slogan as one cause for the lack of the Democratic wave we referenced above.

What’s next? Looking at the past month, a rising topic is the forgiveness of student loans. Can President Biden really eliminate some, or all, of certain kinds of federal student debt through executive order? Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) thinks it’s possible, and the question of how many thousands of dead-weight dollars might be lifted from people’s shoulders is a live one as we enter 2021.

3. Dual Crises Cause a Real Shift in Philanthropic Behavior

The tendency of institutional philanthropy is to put its own stability above that of the nonprofits and communities they’re ostensibly there to benefit. But this year, a number of foundations—large, influential ones—acted differently. It started with a number of foundations committing to spending well above the required five-percent minimum, adding to that a pledge to fund general operating grants over multiple years. For many organizations, a healthy portion of the increase in funding was directed to racial justice advocacy work and involved a multi-year commitment and lessened reporting requirements. All these shifts are ones the field had long requested, ones that begin to unravel the question of who owns philanthropy.

Something at least as remarkable happened at the end of the year, in that a group of foundations organized a philanthropic reform effort that would require higher levels of payout and accountability from private foundations and donor-advised funds. What makes this so notable is that the foundation sector’s traditional response to calls for reform is to get wildly defensive. It’s almost unheard of for them to promote actual reform and listening carefully to their partners.

Lastly, it appears that individual giving has not plummeted, despite much of the sector spending six months lamenting that it had.

4. COVID-19’s Business Wrecking Ball: Sooner or Later, a Reckoning’s Coming

If the Great Recession was driven by the financial machinations portrayed in The Big Short, the COVID economy could be aptly described as “The Big Float,” one sign of which (but not the only one) is the Federal Reserve’s use of quantitative easing, which has increased its balance sheet by $3 trillion to its current level of $7.2 trillion.

One strange economic phenomenon of 2020 has been the rise of the stock market in a pandemic. Currently, the Dow Jones stands above 30,000, which is record territory. The reasons for this outcome, however, are not good. Fed policy is one factor, but another more disturbing factor is the demise of small businesses. Yelp estimates nearly 100,000 retail businesses have closed. The failure of these small businesses has opened market space for the many large, publicly listed businesses that remain.

The float economy extends beyond the Fed, too. The gap between renters, who are (partially, not fully) protected by moratoria, and landlords with no mechanism for relieving rent for tenants or covering lost rent for themselves is one more float. Then, there are landlords to commercial businesses. Do we believe that all of the nonprofit and small businesses that have closed down are current on their rent? Then, consider the banks with loans dependent on those rent payments, whose loan portfolios are surely deteriorating, sustained for now by the Federal Reserve. And we shouldn’t forget that small businesses are the heart of our communities. We know we’ll feel this when the pandemic ends and local businesses are no longer there.

Bain & Company—you know, the corporate cost-cutting (ahem, consulting) firm that US Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) once worked for—ominously notes that “Sooner or later comes the reckoning.” The bottom line is clear: The COVID-19 crisis won’t end with the vaccine.

5. COVID’s Effects on Nonprofits Varied Drastically, Field by Field

This year, we began to understand in a very vivid way the ways in which business models affect the survivability of nonprofit organizations. When the coronavirus hit, organizations dependent on congregate sites felt the greatest impact, because those endeavors posed a particular public health risk. Among them are performing arts organizations, museums, childcare centers, senior centers, and recreational programs. In some cases, they have been ordered to close, then permitted to reopen only to close again. Some that remained open have suffered from lowered attendance due to new distancing requirements, and bridges for their survival have been spottily maintained.

Some of these, if not necessarily all, could be seen as necessary infrastructure for communities. Had we as a sector been able to identify their particular needs early on, they could have gotten more attention overall. Instead, they were largely left to fend for themselves as subsectors, which brought limited success.

There was a push to have large nonprofits included in the Paycheck Protection Program, which may have helped with some childcare centers and a number of recreational programs, but there was no systematic attempt by our national advocates to provide any kind of special aid or attention to the organizations most at risk, or the ones most needed in this profound moment of coming to terms.

6. Legitimation Crisis Grips US, but a New Generation Starts Breaking Through

Legitimation crisis, a concept developed in the 1970s by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, refers to a decline in public confidence in administrative functions, institutions, and leadership. And if a polity ever fit that definition, that would be us.

This legitimation crisis can be seen in many aspects of US life and politics. On the right, we have seen the refusal to trust public health officials and wear masks, with dreadful consequences. According to a research team from Stanford University, 700 people literally died from COVID-19 as a result of attending presidential campaign rallies for Donald Trump, while another 30,000 contracted the novel coronavirus at those rallies. And, if polls are to be believed, a majority of Republicans fail to recognize as legitimate the rather obvious victory of the Biden-Harris ticket in the election.

But the loss of legitimacy is far broader than that. As one community organizer in North Carolina reminds us, “Our persuasion isn’t just to people who have been seduced by the right, it is also to people who have been seduced by nihilism and despair for very good reasons given the options that have been put in front of them.”

One cause is institutional. We know US “democracy” is limited; voter suppression is part of it, but institutions that favor one side make this worse. The Electoral College is a sterling example, but not the only one. In 2018, Democratic candidates won 17 million more votes for Senate than Republicans; Republicans gained two seats anyway. The resultant minority rule led to a locked-in, 6–3 Supreme Court conservative majority. People notice—and the result too often leads to cynicism and disengagement.

We would be remiss, however, if we did not also call attention to the impressive and inspirational efforts of civil society to rise up and break this logjam. The uprisings against anti-Black racism, discussed above, are a central piece of this.

The barriers have not yet come down. But people have risen up in so many ways—not just in politics, but in daily community life. When banks were failing to reach nonprofits with PPP loans, community development financial institutions (CDFIs) stepped in. We’ve seen restaurants serving ramen shift to provide free meals supported by community donations to healthcare workers. We’ve seen textile manufacturing co-ops and private businesses retool to supply needed personnel protective equipment. We’ve seen culture workers, even as the arts are financially decimated, refashion productions to tell the stories we need in the hard times we face. The rise of mutual aid speaks to the bright and growing potential for social transformation, even as we slog through a dismal present.

7. Essential Workers’ Value Is Recognized—Or Is It?

It shouldn’t be news, but in 2020, we learned that labor is essential to our collective well-being. Who knew?

This collective realization has already resulted in a flurry of union organizing, especially among nonprofits. Nonprofit think tanks have gone union this year at the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, Feminist Majority Foundation, Scholars Strategy Network, New American Leaders, Innovation Law Lab, The Hub Project, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. There has also been a flurry of unionization among art museums, most recently in Boston and Philadelphia. In sports, athletes in pretty much every professional league held wildcat strikes in an impressive show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the shooting in the back of Jacob Blake last August.

Of course, these union wins are among workers who are not considered, under the pandemic definition, essential. Sadly, being an “essential worker” has often been a curse. Thus, meat products have been prioritized over workers’ lives. Day laborers and other undocumented workers have been denied federal benefits, even as Americans rely on those workers to clean our subways and grow our food. Healthcare workers have faced shortages of personal protective equipment, contributing to, according to Amnesty International, 1,077 US healthcare worker COVID-19 deaths by August. The treatment of nursing home workers, mostly immigrant and of color, has been nothing short of criminal. “I don’t feel like a hero,” one registered nurse told NPQ’s Amy Costello. “We do discharge people home, but it’s rare.”

Meanwhile, the economy has shifted wealth and income from “essential workers” to the elite. The nation’s more than 600 billionaires saw their wealth rise by $1 trillion, even as working folk saw mass unemployment at depression levels in a K-shaped economy on steroids. Another illustration: As Jeff Bezos saw his wealth rise by $70 billion, Amazon workers got $300 bonuses for the holidays—a modest expense that barely exceeded $500 million. Such a rapid and massive shift of wealth and resources is sure to have consequences and is likely to roil US society and politics for years to come.

8. Division and Indecision: Pressure Comes from Social Movements, Networks, and Localities

The late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once opined, “Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” If so, then the US would appear not to be exhausted yet. Early on, COVID-19 exposed a frayed social safety net and an excessive individualism that is literally killing us. We can envision a new national direction, based on values of solidarity, but our institutions stay frozen in place.

Yes, Donald Trump and Mike Pence were voted out and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris voted in amid an election marked by a higher turnout than the US has seen since 1900, and that is hugely important. But what else happened? Elections, it is said, have consequences. But consequences are also supposed to affect elections.

In 1932, the Great Depression led to a 17.7-percentage-point shift to the Democratic Party, giving Democrats not only the presidency but a net gain of 12 Senate seats and 97 House seats. In 1980, amid high inflation and unemployment and a hostage crisis, Republicans saw a 9.7-percentage-point gain, giving them not just the presidency but a net gain of 12 Senate seats and 34 House seats.

In 2020, amid an unprecedented pandemic that’s killed 300,000-plus Americans and a widespread racial justice uprising, there was a modest 2.3-percentage-point gain for Democrats—enough to oust Trump, but with meager results elsewhere. Democrats lost 12 seats in the House and gained one seat in the Senate (maybe three, depending on the Georgia runoffs). Among state legislatures, Republicans gained in New Hampshire with no changes of state legislature control in the other 49 states.

So much change in the world…so little change in our politics.

What this means is that pressure from social movements outside of Washington will be needed to push the Biden administration and Congress to solve problems. Housing justice is one such case. Certainly, eviction moratoria are critical. But allowing rent debt to accumulate—now at $70 billion, with 11.4 million households on average $6,000 behind on rent—is dangerous. Meanwhile, as debt grows, plans to cancel rent and assist small landlords are MIA. This must change. The need for social change has never been more obvious, but so far, the status quo carries on—at a frightening cost.

9. COVID-19 Illustrates the Nonprofit Difference

NPQ has been talking for a few years about the fact that some fields are ill-served by profit-making organizations because the incentives that drive for-profits are not designed to automatically guard the best interests of taxpayers, the vulnerable, or human beings in general. This year, that message was recapitulated in the nursing home industry. Multiple stories reinforced the many studies showing the established differences between for-profits and nonprofits in that field led to many more infections and deaths. Those differentials were worsened when the facilities were operated by chains and/or owned by private equity firms.

The conversion of newspapers that had been pillaged by private equity firms and chains to nonprofit status proceeded apace. We also saw a lot of activity in building nonprofit alternatives at various points in the pharmaceutical supply chain with the intent of improving the development, accessibility, and affordability of common drugs. Indeed, while some might have us believe that unregulated free market competition produces excellence in every sphere, in many fields it just produces antisocial mutations that violate every decency standard they can.

The nonprofit structure per se, with all of its attendant requirements, is not the only answer, but it is surely a part of it. However, without the ability and willingness to grapple with its own part in creating structural inequities and resisting accountability, this sector will not be ready to take on the larger role in the economy that we are called to.

10. Stormy Weather

COVID-19, devastating fires in California and Australia, tornados, and an unforgiving hurricane season have made it clear we are living in the throes of the climate crisis, despite the deniers. What is also evident is that a functioning, responsive government correlates directly with how communities prepare and receive aid in a prompt manner. Failed governments like Donald Trump’s administration abandon communities like Puerto Rico to fend for themselves. Capturing those stories of crisis and survivor resilience has become an important process of making sure we don’t become numb to this new reality.

While we’ve seen record funding to tackle the climate crisis, the real climate justice fight is being led by the people, mostly youth organizations and Indigenous movements who, as stewards of the land, are continually teaching us of a valued-centered economy and coexistence with the Earth. The racial justice movement this year has led many to reflect also on environmental racial equity and structural racism, sometimes at the heart of an environmental movement that seeks to protect pristine landscapes without thinking of those dispossessed of land.

Climate change was listed fourth as a priority for registered voters in 2020, after the economy, healthcare, and the pandemic. The stakes are high, and so are the expectations of Biden’s administration as key posts are filled. State governments like New Jersey are finally making the link between a healthy economy and healthy communities, and even in Georgia’s Senate runoff election, addressing climate change could play a big role in voter turnout.

11. The Power—and Problems—of Moving Online

As we learned more and more about how the novel coronavirus spread, and the dangers of congregate sites became apparent, a greater shift to virtual engagement was unavoidable. The rise of the videoconferencing platform Zoom as the preeminent mode of online interaction led to worries over digital security and personal privacy, along with calls for the site to lift its time limits for nonprofit use. (Those limits are still in place, but they have been raised from time to time for things like holidays.) Under the pandemic, education had to shift to distance learning for public school students and college attendees alike, putting many schools in the position of deciding whether to let people back onto campus or suffer the tuition hit from parents and part-timers deciding that telecommuting to class wasn’t worth the high price. And the increased use of broadband internet across the board—confirming once and for all that access to high-speed data is a critical utility that ought to remain unthrottled and unrestricted—has only highlighted the importance of reducing America’s “digital divide.”

Still, in the face of these challenges, the potential of the digital shift shouldn’t be ignored. Although COVID has caused many nonprofit organizations to have to change their plans rapidly, the opportunity to present online has opened their productions and other creative endeavors to audiences that are homebound and eager for content. What’s more, virtual environments have lifted barriers of accessibility and distance, enabling people to connect and learn in ways that would have been difficult or impractical before.

12. American Exceptionalism Begins to Crumble

The warnings were there before: Deep structural changes in racial, economic, and democracy issues were desperately needed in the US if we wanted to avoid a process of dangerous despotism and inescapable suffering. Many saw Trump’s election in 2016—and the incessant chaos that followed—as a symptom of a larger problem, and then the pandemic hit. Early on, we began seeing all the equity sinkholes in a system that is largely set on the richer getting richer (deemed the “K-shaped recovery”), the middle class disappearing, while the poorer pay the price, particularly communities of color.

It is really an issue of shifting power and building new narratives, which ultimately burst open in the racial justice protests of 2020. We recognized that building a new democracy would take grassroots, communal, local, and public-nonprofit alliances to survive. As democracy itself became threatened, people saw the 2020 elections as more than just a regular partisanship transition of power; it became a cultural struggle for our democratic rights, including the right to repair. We witnessed something immense, against all odds: in North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, and Missouri, through Black, Latinx, and Indigenous power—to name just a few—the voter turnout was indeed historic.

We understand, clearly and in visionary terms, that it is movements, not politicians, that will lead the way to make the US part of a world community of peace, justice, and equity. The painful birth from a deceitful “American Exceptionalism” has cost too many lives, but we must remain hopeful.