The work of building a just and compassionate society has never been easy. In recent years, however, the challenges have grown significantly. Regressive tax policies, growing inequality, and the budget drain of a permanent war economy have led to a resource-starved environment for maintaining an adequate human services safety net. As budget deficits at all levels of government threaten our capacity to build a truly civil society, it's time to reimagine the role of government as it combines with the nonprofit sector to build a healthy future.
Kim Klein, known as a leading expert in grassroots fundraising for social justice, has turned her attention in recent years to the big questions involved in funding a just, sustainable future. Her work with the Building Movement Project (buildingmovement.org) is allowing her to explore an interest in the idea of the commons -- what we do and what should we own in common? Klein believes the nonprofit sector plays a critical role in creating and maintaining a democratic society.
She is the founder and former publisher of the bimonthly Grassroots Fundraising Journal, which celebrated its 25th birthday in 2006. She is also the author of the classic "Fundraising for Social Change" (fifth edition, 2006), "Fundraising for the Long Haul," "Ask and You Shall Receive," and "Fundraising in Times of Crisis."
You're known primarily as someone who is an expert on grassroots fundraising. How does the Commons project and your tax dialogue work grow out of that?
I was having the experience of teaching fund raising and more and more people in my classes were public school teachers and public school principals, and working in the public health departments. And I was working with groups who were really good groups and they were really good at raising money, and they were having a harder time doing that and couldn't understand why. I was hearing from donors and they were saying "I used to give to the film festival," or whatever it is, "and now I have to give to my kid's public school." And I found that organizations are now competing with organizations that previously were funded mostly or entirely by taxes.
It is simply impossible for foundations, corporations and individuals in the private sector to give to everything that is funded privately along with all these things that should be funded publicly. Not only is it impossible, but if it were possible, it's not right. This is a democracy, and what we do with tax dollars is a mirror of community values, and right now the values say that we don't care if a lot of people are homeless, and we don't care that a lot of people are hungry, particularly children, which is now 20 percent of those living below poverty, and we don't care that a handful of people have massive amounts of money while the vast majority don't have nearly enough.
And I'm not just a fundraising expert. I'm a social justice activist also -- that's the kind of fundraising I've always done -- so this was a logical place for me to move. And nonprofits, I was finding, really weren't doing much about tax policy, they were trying to cope with having less money and doing more and more with less and less, and as we do more work with less money, we basically say to the right wing, "You're right, we didn't need that much money." I don't think that's a message we have to be saying.
What should we be saying?
The fundamental question for the entire nonprofit sector is, "What is the common good? What does a really healthy vibrant community look like?" What's been happening is that we've moved into these silos where education is most important, or health care is most important, or disability or housing is most important. There isn't some hierarchy of oppression where we need to argue about who is hurting the most. That's ridiculous. Meanwhile, our tax system is redistributing money to the benefit of wealthy people. So, the conversation needs to be about what should be paid for publicly and what should be paid for privately. We're only having half the conversation, and that conversation is all about cuts, and we have to look at revenue.
Peter Maurin, who was a mentor of Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic workers movement, said, "Our job is to create a society in which it is easy to be good." I think that is really the question. Numerous studies show clearly that inequality is the most corrosive thing that can happen in a society. It is better for a society for everyone to be really poor than for a few people to be rich and to have inequality. We need to be clear. To be for social justice is to remedy inequality as much as possible.
We have a long history of people kind of knowing that we're supposed to be a society where there's at least some rough social equity, and yet we are structured against that. The Commons are about the question of how we can at least have rough social equity. How can everyone feel that they participate in having a voice?
Can you date where that shift occurred, of government withdrawing from its responsibilities and placing a bigger burden on the private sector and non-profits?
It goes back to 1986, when Reagan changed the tax laws. He wasn't the beginning, but he was a powerful and popular president and that was the beginning of the anti-government and anti-tax movement, and then we had Bush and his Thousand Points of Light saying nonprofits and not government services were the answer.
I do think that Reagan genuinely believed that if the private sector paid less in taxes that they would reinvest it in their communities, and we tried that, and now, 10, 15, 20 years later, we can see that it doesn't work. And so, it's puzzling to me now that we still have people saying the private sector should pick up the tab for the public good.
Even though we are now in the longest and deepest recession since the Great Depression, there's no way now that someone could pass Social Security the way Roosevelt did, let alone the New Deal. Very little can happen today given the anti-tax sentiment.
When you've looked at what people think should be public responsibility, you've found some unanimity across the political spectrum. Is that true?
Well, if you pull out the really anti-tax, the really far-Right Tea Party, then that's true. But what we really found was that most people didn't have an opinion at all. They really didn't know. They really hadn't thought about it, particularly in the not-for-profit sector. People are hunkered down, doing their work. They lift up their heads very rarely, and they don't really have an opinion. They know in nonprofits that there needs to be public funding but they don't feel they can do anything about it. They don't have opinions because they don't have any reason to think that anybody would ever be interested in their opinions. So a large part of my work with the Commons has been really to just start conversations. To get people to step forward and say, "This is the community I want. This is how it should be done. This is what I believe is in the interest of the common good."
Peter Maurin also said it was the responsibility of every social worker to be a social justice activist. I find that many service providers, when confronted with the fact that we'll just keep losing if we don't take on the larger social justice issues, still think that's not their fight, and as a result we have these large institutions building the structures that systemically entrench poverty.
Oh yeah. There's the Women of Color Against Violence book "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded" that's a critique of the non-profit industrial complex. What we've found is that instead of having a social justice movement, we have this professionalization, where people are like, "Well, what's my career track, and what sort of certifications should I get, and what kind of education should I get," and yeah, those are all important questions, but why are we doing this work in the first place?
One of the things I often talk about is how we know how to end homelessness because we've done it before. The mass homelessness of the pre-World War II era was ended by building a vibrant society and a broad middle class within a strong economy and by reducing inequality. We did not end it by building a huge social services delivery system.
That's absolutely true. It's a different problem from taxes, but they're related.
Have you seen examples of social services agencies becoming more politicized and taking on these larger justice issues?
Yes. The Building Movements group that I'm part of has published a book called "Social Services and Social Change." They went into social services agencies and found a lot of frustration among social workers and line staff, feeling like they do the same thing over and over and always see more need, and they see that a lot of social services organizations want to become part of the fight for social justice and getting to root causes of the problems. More recently they published a book, "Making Social Change," that offers case studies of social services agencies that had implemented social justice work. There is that resistance that you've seen, but there are a lot of social workers who would like to take this on and have more of a voice.
Right now we have a deeply polarized debate about simply ending the tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent. Where is our hope in this?
We really have to believe in the power of conversation and the power of sitting down with people and having a civil discourse. We have to be able to disagree without being disrespectful or disagreeable. We have to return to having the ability to have some really serious discussions and debates. We talk on the left about what message we should have. We shouldn't just think our job is to feed people some line. It needs to fundamentally arise out of "I would like to know what you think, and I would like you to know what I think," and "We can all work together."
I think the Right is very strong, and things are happening very quickly, but we need to step up and see where we're willing to start and can we have our own twenty year plan to turn this around. I'm somewhat heartened in some ways by the Tea Party movement, not that I agree with them, because they have come out of nowhere and have captured the public imagination, and it shows how quickly things can arise that can change and unsettle the Republican establishment, and that's sort of interesting. So the question for us is whether there's any sort of equivalent that we can do?
Maybe the Left could adopt a sense of humor?
(Laughs) That would not hurt at all.
So what does this dialogue project look like? What's the scale, and what are your plans for it?
We're doing a project called Show Me the Money, where we have a curriculum and ask to be invited to nonprofit staff meetings, and we work through what's wrong with the California tax system. We're very focused on California right now, and we ask people to get involved in the campaign, and ask that they talk to more people. What we're really doing is preparing people to be ready should a pro-tax or pro-revenue movement arise. There are other sorts of projects like this and I'm in favor of all of them.
A Canadian activist said to me once "When American social justice activists see an injustice you tend to go, 'What should we do? What should we do?' And you run around doing, and it's really ineffective, because you never begin by asking, 'What do we think?'" We need to ask what we think, and whether our feelings are different than our thoughts, and do we have any mixed feelings here, and we need to find out what other people think. We need to just stop and take a breath. And I was so struck by that. It's so true. I see that in the work that I do, because people always ask, "What should we do, What should we do?" They say they don't want to sit around talking, and I remind them that sitting around talking is doing something.