Founder and President, Child Care Counts
In my role as the founder and president of a small, local, non-profit, Child Care Counts, I hear the term “systemic change” used a lot. Systemic change is the gold standard in the not-for-profit sector; we are all working for the day when our organizations are no longer necessary because the problems we are addressing have been solved. When it is used as an excuse to withhold support from smaller not-for-profits, however, I have a problem with it. True systemic change is HARD and takes a long time: decades, centuries, even millennia. While we should never stop striving for it, we simply cannot stop supporting local efforts that lesson the pain and suffering in and around our communities in the meantime.
Maybe I need a thicker skin, but it stings a little when someone says “I’m only giving to organizations that focus on systemic change” to explain why they are not giving to Child Care Counts. Although the speaker may think of it as a polite refusal, it ends up feeling dismissive and belittling. Worse, it calls into question the worthiness of the work an organization does and yokes that work to the current, failing, system.
In a way, all not-for-profit organizations are bringing about systemic change when we educate people and get them to care about an issue. Education and getting people to care are two key ingredients of systemic change and without them, it is almost impossible to make significant changes. Every single day, not-for-profits, big and small, are doing the hard work of informing people and hopefully, getting them to care deeply enough to vote for the right candidates and policies, to change their mindsets and behaviors and to stand up for what is right, when necessary. These grass-roots efforts are the glowing coals that help ignite the fire of systemic change when the time and events are right.
If you have been reserving your charitable giving for organizations that focus on systemic change, consider instead, “is the world better off because of the work an organization does?” Consider if they enable people to achieve potentials that were previously unattainable. Organizations whose missions focus on easing suffering and injustice, one person at a time, while the wheels of systems change turn, are important and necessary too. To borrow from the Talmud, even if only one life is “saved,” it is as though the whole world is saved. That sounds systemic to me.