Don’t Start the Revolution without me

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 19th, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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My son recently had to write a paper either agreeing or disagreeing with the statement that went something like this:  Marx preached a philosophy of freedom.  As he so often does before he has to start constructing an argument, he asked me what I thought.

Well, it has been a long, long time since I read Karl Marx, but it was an easy answer for me.  Absolutely!  Marx was all about freedom—freedom from the systems and structures that alienated ourselves from ourselves and breaking away from a world view that didn’t really let us see the world very clearly at all.

I confess that I didn’t—and still don’t—always understand all of Marx.  But the part about cultural revolution, that I get completely.  It is cultural revolution that is needed to rattle the cast iron cages that contain so much of what people think, barring any new ideas or possibilities.  And cultural revolution is the answer to my current, though not new, frustration.

I am so far beyond tired of the nonprofit sector being treated as the stepchild of society.  The sector that tirelessly caters to the marginalized populations of society that those not marginalized are oh so relieved to have someone else looking after gets marginalized itself.  The sector that preserves the pockets and expanses of nature’s splendor so that all of us can run, walk, picnic, and restore our souls gets kicked to the side like the empty plastic bottle blighting the trail.  The sector that lifts our spirits and plays to our imaginations and creates the possibilities of “what if …” by bringing us museums and theatres and both experimental and tried and tested art, music, dance and more gets no standing ovations or rave reviews, as it wasn’t deemed worthy of sending a reviewer.

Just what am I talking about?  I am talking about the sector that ensures that our society remains human yet receives so little attention—or the right attention.

On the first night of my MBA class on nonprofit management at La Salle, I always ask the students to tell me how many nonprofits they interact with in the course of an average week.  Most tell me none.  But when I ask how many attend a religious service on a weekly basis, or run in a park, or attend a cultural event, or—and this is the one I love—attend this university—then, and only then, does the invisible start to become visible.

I am talking about the many people who put board service on their resumes to attract the right attention for themselves but who don’t have the time, commitment, passion, awareness, to give their right and proper attention to their role as board member.  (For the record, there are some who take their job as board member very seriously.  And to those, I say thank you, and join the revolution!)  I am talking about the people who drop the $25 check in the mail to their favorite charity while on the way to parking ($20), dinner ($110) and theatre ($260).

Mostly, though, I am talking about taking the nonprofit sector seriously and recognizing the contributions it makes to ensure the quality of life in all of our communities.  I am talking about being realistic about the cost of running these businesses and a willingness to pay for the “sexy”—the programs—and the mundane—the lights, computers, mortgage or rent, etc.  And I’m talking about bringing to the board table the same work ethic, level of commitment and intention to do the job expertly as is brought to the paying job.

Employees of the nonprofit sector are, for the most part, highly skilled, extremely capable and absolutely dedicated to doing both well and good.  And though this is great, it is not sufficient if we are to maximize the benefit this sector brings to all of us.  To achieve that, the sector must be embraced in public, not behind closed doors; it must be brought out of hiding and into the light; it must be truly valued as an equal player in the production of goods and services and as a contributor to the economic engine that drives this country.  And those who volunteer in this sector must understand the importance of their job and only take it on if they are willing and able to do so with the level of professionalism that drives them in their day job.

Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that such change will occur—shy of a major cultural revolution.  Marx would like that!

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.