Pumpkin pie and philanthropy

I have seen and consumed more pumpkin pies in the last week than in any other week of my life, as far as I can remember.

Last week, Eat for Equity Seattle held its first anniversary dinner, E4E4E4E! A tradition started by the Minneapolis branch, E4E4E4E is an annual dinner that benefits the local branch, to raise money to help buy kitchen supplies, run our program and build capacity. We held our largest dinner yet, and featured 7 pumpkin pies made by volunteers. They were absolutely delicious. We also fed 90 people and raised $1100 for our own work – by far the most we’ve ever raised, and the most people we’ve ever hosted. By all accounts, it was a huge success.

Pumpkin Pies
Then, of course, there was Thanksgiving. I spent Thursday evening with my inherited Seattle family, the sisters and cousins of one of my dearest friends from back East. There were too many pies that night. So many that we, (gasp), had to try a little bit of each one. All four. It was, if I dare to say it, entirely too much pie.

And then I had the gift of opening my home to my new Seattle family. These are the people to whom I’ve grown so close, with whom I can share my vulnerability, who have met me in this time of transition and reorientation and said, “dive in – we’ll catch you”. In fact, many of them have told me that my transition has inspired them to ask questions of their own lives, to have the courage to explore the taken-for-granted stories we find ourselves within; these friends have given me their love and received mine. Given my love of food and friends and gratitudes, it was a no-brainer that I would open my home and share a feast with these folks. Many hadn’t met before, but they all got along with ease. The group were couples, single friends, a roommate, an old friend, an adventurer, soon-to-be-parents, soon-to-be-married, a new friend, a visitor, many chefs; all in all they are my family. And there was another pumpkin pie. And a beautiful gluten-free buckwheat cake with carmelized pears. Oh, sweet goodness.

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Enough of desserts. What does this have to do with anything, you might ask?

In the course of these last 10 days, I have also been working on a side project that has spanned all the pies and has energized me when the sugar highs run out. I am developing a syllabus for a proposed class that I could teach independently through the Comparative History of Ideas department on UW’s campus. CHID always hosts a call for classes for pre-doctoral instructors. My class would be called Reimagining Nonprofits, and takes an interdisciplinary and action-based approach to learning about the nonprofit sector. Rather than approach it from a practitioner standpoint or a policy perspective, this small seminar would guide students through an exploration of the current role of nonprofits, how they’ve come to hold this role, and how alternate theorizations might expand our possible expectations for the sector. The class asks students contribute to popular discourses on nonprofits (through blog posts or op-eds). Additionally, students would design a proposal for an engaged project with a local nonprofit (that they could choose to enact, but wouldn’t have to).

I am so.fired.up. about this class. It has been the first thing I want to work on every day, and my biggest source of satisfaction. The syllabus captures what I am passionate about, but also what I want to learn more about. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I suspect that students and I could develop a really fascinating dialogue about what nonprofits are and what they could be. I’ve sent the syllabus to a few colleagues and friends to look over before I submit the proposal, and all of them have responded, “I wish this class was offered when I was an undergraduate!” “I want to take this class!” One of my friends/colleagues, (who recently got hired in a tenure-track position in nonprofit management), told me that I should absolutely plan to apply for nonprofit education faculty positions when I go on the market.

Which leads me to the ‘ah-ha’ moment over all of this pie I’ve been eating (and which I’m about to go have a slice of in a moment!)

Between the amazing article in Crosscut about Eat for Equity (A new model for millenial philanthropy?) writing this course syllabus, the two sessions on Philanthropy I’m organizing at this year’s AAG, and my upcoming membership with Social Justice Fund I realize that my identity and interests in philanthropy are more than just a tangent to my dissertation research. They are the central pieces to a larger puzzle. They are the core of my intellectual passion.

For a long time people have asked me how Eat for Equity fits into my research trajectory and broader commitments. I never knew precisely how to answer that question, because it was never *meant* to be part of my research trajectory. It was a passionate commitment to pursue social justice and community building through good food and positive, welcoming spaces. Now, though, I see a larger arc.

I believe that the current state of the nonprofit sector can never address large scale inequalities and offer systemic change. I believe that large scale systemic change is possible. I believe new approaches to philanthropy and giving are a radically important piece to this puzzle. I believe social justice philanthropy like SJF empowers donors, activists and community members to work together towards collective action. I believe that Eat for Equity allows individuals to realize that no act of giving is too small, that giving doesn’t have to ‘look big’, and that when we come together, we can do amazing things that we could never do on our own. I believe that scholars need to address this sector and use our theoretical toolkit to expand how we understand what nonprofits and philanthropy can do in the world. Quoting one of my advisers, then, I ask “what work does the nonprofit sector do?” I ask this of the sector at large, and I ask it of donors. I ask it of myself and I ask it of alternative forms of giving. As producers of knowledge, I believe academics have a responsibility to advance our theoretical understanding of this sector that influences so many people’s lives, and yet is often brushed off based on its perceived benevolence. In fact, when I say that I study the nonprofit sector, many people sometimes question my motives, “but, don’t you believe in the work that these organizations do?”

Yes! Of course I do. I think any program that makes someone’s life better is a valuable program. But what are the relationships between nonprofit programs and their donors? Between donors and the program recipients? What vision do these organizations have for the future, and for social change? How do organizations address questions of systemic inequality, privilege, wealth and inequality? Can organizations conceptualize ‘leadership training’ and ‘empowerment’ not for individuals only, but for the collective?

So, the ah-ha pie moment: I am a philanthropy scholar. I am, maybe, a social entrepreneur (though  I don’t know if I am even sure what that term means anymore). My scholastic interests are not my primary identity. I want to expand and develop this larger broader identity as someone interested and committed to reimagining, envisioning and expanding the nonprofit sector through questions of social justice philanthropy and collective giving.

All of this is to say, I’m making myself some business cards. I just don’t know what they should say.

4 Responses to Pumpkin pie and philanthropy

  1. Elyse,
    I’m so glad you’re asking these questions of the nonprofit sector, of your students, of yourself! Asking the right questions is more important than knowing the answers right away. I’m really proud of the work you’re doing with Eat for Equity, and I’m so glad it’s part of the through line in your work, and a venue for your experimentation and practice [and pie-making]. Thanks for your post, Emily

    • Em,
      Thanks as always for the support. I am loving having multiple spaces to ask questions right now. It feels very productive, generative and supportive. Also, it’s so interesting to see how questions in one venue translate to questions in another venue. For instance, last night I met with a gal who leads the Seattle chapter of the Awesome Foundation, (check them out!), and they have similar issues to that of Eat for Equity, especially when it comes to communicating between branches and sustaining community. So much to chew on! (Ha! chew. it all comes back to food!)

  2. Hi Elyse,

    I think the intellectual and personal themes you’re wrangling with (empowerment/non-profits/self-idenitity) are really important. As busy as you are, I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on the non-profit sector and its potential capacity for systemic-change. One of things I’ve struggled with over the years is offhandedly considering the retrenchment of stratification that non-profits may cause, because:

    1. NGOs arguably privatize social problems and fracture the impetus to collective action: They become an institutionalized and bureaucratic means of change that can draw attention/resources/legitimacy from more active forms of resistance to systemic structures;.

    2. NGOs are not in a place to be resistant (in a ‘structural’ fashion) because they are highly dependent upon a well-oiled and growing capitalist economy (e.g. corporate giving), which can put these orgs at odds with their various missions. This point assumes that changes in giving (e.g. local/participatory vs. corporate) could break this cycle and make NGOs more beholden to community stakeholders. Perhaps. But for a variety of reasons I remain skeptical.

    But this is why I think your research is so important: I’m sure these blurry and grandiose theoretical justifications are in need of at least some revision. What are you ideas on how non-profits can/should change?

    • Aaron,
      Thanks for reaching out! Such thoughtful ideas and questions here.
      I want to draw out point #2 – it seems to me that the nonprofit sector is completely dependent on our late capitalist economy, and thus it will not likely lead to long-term change (in its current form). I think this is for two reasons. First, the whole sector emerged *from* an unequal and devolved state system that put social service provision in the hands of nonprofit and private entities. Second, as an outcome of that relationship, organizations rely on individual and larger-scale donations/grants to fund their work. Appealing to individual donors means prioritizing donor concerns and criteria above that of the community being served. And, most donors don’t want to be pushed on questions of privilege and their role in maintaining the unequal status quo which their donations are, supposedly, trying to help.

      That said, I think that alternative funding structures are *one piece* of rethinking this sector. I don’t think this is necessarily a silver bullet approach, nor that it will completely revolutionize the nonprofit sector. Because, at the end of the day, my first point above is still true: these organizations exist and proliferate because of failings at the level of the state and national government. So, until there are also changes to strengthen the social safety net, I don’t see this changing that radically. However, at the level of nonprofits and philanthropic collectives, I think there’s a few ways to change the game and sector…
      1) organizations that are not totally social justice oriented, but provide direct services or ‘empowerment’ programming, could and should engage their donors, staff and volunteers in questions of privilege and reflexivity *at the scale of the organization* as well as the individual. This, to me, is key. Often, nonprofits have super reflective and aware staff, and yet these conversations about positionality don’t translate to the level of the org. So, even starting these conversations I think would allow organizations to see some of the contradictions of their work.
      2) democratize funding! make sure that people are making decisions together about where their money goes, what’s important, and how it can advance long-term change. Social Justice Fund, in Seattle, is an awesome example of this.
      3) question what it means to give and how. I think a lot of people shy away from giving because it doesn’t seem like it’s that effective. Or, they give out of an obligation (i.e. my mother will never *not* give to the homeless advocacy orgs when they call because she just feels like she must). But… if nonprofit boards look to organizations like Eat for Equity or the Awesome Foundation, they’ll see that people are more likely to give when it is fun, and when they feel empowered to be a donor. You don’t have to wait until you’re wealthy to be influential. So, changing this, piece by piece, will give more folks a stake in ‘giving’ (whether its financial or not), and hopefully also feel like they have a stake in shaping the nonprofit landscape, and how we address social issues.

      Phew! A novel of a response. But I’m so glad you asked! Thank you!

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