As we move toward the end of the year I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned over the past twelve months. Not so much on a personal level (that usually takes place over the holiday idle when I get to the Maine woods), but in regard to what it means to be a citizen. Like so many of us, my civic engagement ramped up to new level this year. I learned that we can’t take our democracy, the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, or anything else in the body politic for granted. It’s been a sobering, if not startling, year.
So what does that mean as we embrace a fresh start in 2018? For one, if you are in a place of privilege, it means being braver and stretching more than you have in the past. One of the lessons I took to heart this year is that our nation is not going to prosper unless we all go forward together. Facing what equity means for diverse people and understanding the role we each must play in ensuring it exists was something I took deep into my heart in 2017. With that in mind I want to suggest that we seek out ways to foster equity in our organizations and communities and that we purposefully amplify the voices of our neighbors who, by virtue of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or economic status, have been marginalized. How do you do that? There are so many ways, but for now, I’ll touch on two opportunities.
In every region and in many communities, there is at least one organization funding scrappy community groups and non-profits working on the front lines of social and environmental change. Help them do more. In the Northeast, we are fortunate to have the New England Grass Roots Environmental Fund (NEGEF) doing this important work. NEGEF invests its time providing technical assistance and leadership development to support the front-line work of grassroots organizations, while making small grants to propel their efforts. While NEGEF will be able to tell you what good your contribution made possible, the small organizations that they bolster are not generating sophisticated metrics and shiny annual reports. They are simply doing the work, piecing together the resources, harnessing the skills of volunteers, and weaving together the fabric that builds community resilience. Why is it brave to give to these organizations? In part because in the field of philanthropy we have gotten so fixated on “strategic giving” that we sometimes miss the opportunity to do great good with modest resources. We seek far too much “evidence” and trust too little in relationships. As a grantmaker, I have come to believe that relationships and trust are the key ingredients to success. Those relationships take time to cultivate and it is what NEGEF does best. If you look at the stories on NEGEF’s website you’ll find someone is stitching together our collective good by helping immigrants to assimilate, ensuring access to food and medical care for vulnerable populations, running afterschool programs and building community gardens. Sadly, it is likely that in the year ahead life will become more desperate for some people and those of us with means, at any level, must do our best to alleviate their pain. So please consider taking a leap of faith to support organizations like NEGEF who work diligently and effectively to ensure there is equity and resilience at the community level.
Second, consider bolstering equity in the financial sector by investing resources in Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs). According to the Opportunity Finance Network, “…CDFIs are private financial institutions that are 100% dedicated to delivering responsible, affordable lending to help low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantaged people and communities join the economic mainstream.” There are CDFI’s in all 50 states, more than 950 across the nation. They take several forms; some are loan funds, some act like credit unions, some provide venture capital, and some act as community development banks. The NH Community Loan Fund (NH Loan Fund) is one such organization. It is one of the best-kept secrets in the state. Ensuring that more people are bankable and can obtain loans and other forms of financing, is but one piece of a systemic approach that seeks to empower individuals, families, cooperatives, as well as small and medium enterprises. Anyone can contribute to the NH Loan Fund’s innovative work as a donor, an investor, or both. As an investor you can choose your term (1 to 10 years) of investment, which comes with a commensurate rate of return (1 to 5%). Knowing that your money is invested in a risk-mitigated loan fund that works to build equity into our communities is so simple, more of us should support this work. Find the CDFI that’s right for you and commit to building a future that is bright for more of our neighbors.
I wish you good health and joy in the year ahead. I hope you are safe enough and secure enough to stretch to help others in whatever way you can. I hope your generosity, care, and compassion for others nourishes your soul and helps you to discover your vast potential to do even more good. As we act to ensure there is enough for all, and that all people matter and have agency, we must be undaunted. There are forces of greed and gluttony working against us, but we can’t give in to complacency or despair. As Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed 100 people, then just feed one.” Start where you are and do what you can and then maybe . . . stretch just a little further. Peace Be to All.