Many things old are new again

A rebirth of mutual aid. Phone trees. Grocery pick-ups for your neighbors. Pooled funds for loans to cover unexpected expenses. Sharing physical goods within communities.

Many things that defined philanthropy before it became a formalized, industry unto itself (early 1900s in the U.S.A.) are coming back into fashion.

This list from Allied Media Projects has some Michigan-based examples of mutual aid.

Here’s a list of collective care opportunities.

On March 1 I delivered a manuscript to my publisher called How We Give Now. In it, I noted the signs of this kind of rebirth – so it’s amazing to see this happen at such scale in a short few weeks. But all the signs were there – connectivity, familiarity with direct giving (due to crowdfunding), cultural traditions of mutual aid that never went away, they only stopped being seen by the formal “counters” of philanthropy.

The manuscript also notes how exclusionary (discriminatory? racist?) our current built system of tax policies for nonprofits and philanthropy is – the legal and tax incentives that define the “nonprofit sector” in the U.S. have always privileged wealthy, white, Judeo-Christian norms and practices – and we’ve counted those behaviors as if they were the whole of giving. They never have been and they’re not now. It’s good to see long-called for changes like a universal charitable tax deduction finally getting attention, although no one wants a crisis to be the reason.

This policy change would be more inclusive than what we have, but it is still lacking in both imagination and consideration of how we give. It still assumes that “philanthropy” is about giving money to a privileged type of organization and that our giving is shaped by tax incentives (after Trump’s 2017 tax giveaway the percentage of people who itemize their tax returns – and thus benefit from tax deductions – dropped from about 25% to less than 10% of tax filers. In other words, current tax deduction policy does not matter to more than 90% of Americans)

Mutual aid and direct giving are two very visible signs that the assumptions driving public policy change are not based in an understanding of how we give now. Consider policy ideas to boost giving that started from where a lot of it happens – online – and build from there. Privacy laws and protection from fraud. Broadband access. Encryption. Consumer data protection. Control over who sees what we’re doing and with whom. These are the kinds of policy domains that matter to how people give using payment apps, donate now buttons, online platforms. 

In the summer and fall of 2019, as I was writing the 2020 Blueprint, I made two predictions. One was that the year would bring a global recession. The second was that said recession would reveal the fragility of our built institutions, including nonprofits and foundations. That fragility has been hidden by a multi-year story that conflates a booming stock market and gross corporate profits with the lived economy of people.  New institutions will emerge, but the transition will be bumpy. I’m sad how right I was on the first; we’ll see if I am correct on the second.

The global health crisis we’re now in is going to peel away many such vanities. Buried in this crisis is the opportunity to re-examine what we need from civil society and philanthropy and how we get it. What do we need in order to be able to voluntarily connect and use our private resources (digital and analog) for public benefit? How will we control our associational choices in an age of platform dominance (which already has done so much damage to our control of expressive and private spaces?) It’s time for first principles; time to ask ourselves about the basics of civil society, aid, altruism, philanthropy, democracy; back to our assumptions about participation and membership and equity and justice.

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