Anand Giridharadas calls philanthropy “the elite charade of changing the world.” I respectfully disagree.
Giridharadas makes many excellent points in his new book, WINNERS TAKE ALL, but his focus on Big Philanthropy obscures the remarkable good done by regular-people-like-us-philanthropy, and especially the ways that small, place-based nonprofits do change the world, in ways little and large, every day.
This is the story of an award-winning chef, a plucky nonprofit, a generous family and the community foundation that put it all together and changed some lives.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE RICH TO MAKE A MEANINGFUL DIFFERENCE
Micki Chestnut has a very different take than Donald Trump on how to “Make America Great Again.” She prefers a different president’s motto.
“Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’ That’s been a touchstone for me. And I thought, I can do something right here, right now.”
Two years ago, she and her family started a fund at the Douglas County Community Foundation.
“We are not rich people, but we do give and we can afford to invest,” she says. “This is my chance to light my little candle against the darkness. We felt like we could help to showcase what’s beautiful in the American spirit.”
Micki had worked for the United Way and “knew that many organizations had little initiatives that just need a few thousand dollars to really do something.”
So, the Chestnuts talked to Douglas County Community Foundation and created the Momentum Grant with a $10,000 gift. In that first year, their grants helped women who had escaped domestic violence to get on their feet, paired vocational students with local mentors to make career connections, and supported DACA students, “who took a risk to attend a ceremony where each kid shared why they were here and what they wanted to do. We were so intensely grateful to have been able to help them.”
Last year, the Douglas County Community Foundation called Micki hoping to interest her in a new opportunity. The Chestnuts loved it.
MAGICAL THINGS HAPPEN WHEN PEOPLE KNOW EACH OTHER
In the summer of 2017, award-winning chef and restaurateur, Rick Martin, was struggling to attract and retain great kitchen staff.
He’d been teaching cooking at Just Food, a local nonprofit dedicated to combating hunger. And he thought, “here’s a population that needs employment, maybe a second chance, a new trade. What if we could provide a free class that fully prepared them to enter commercial kitchens?”
He approached Elizabeth Keever, Just Food’s executive director, who loved the idea. “We had started a strategic planning process and recruited a client advisory board. When we asked, ‘What do we need to do to serve you best,’ under- and unemployment came up a lot. Rick’s idea seemed like a terrific way to support our community.”
The pair created KitchenWorks, a 5-day, hands-on commercial kitchen boot camp taught in rotating locations. They recruited students among Just Food clients and from the Lawrence Community Shelter – the class is open to the whole community.
They approached the Douglas County Community Foundation about funding it, and DCCF approached the Chestnuts, and got a swift, "Yes!"
“Students learn everything they need, from sanitation to knife skills, how to price a menu, order food, and cook it, how to conduct yourself in a professional kitchen,” says Rick.
“And at the end, we do a ‘Fit in Fast’ lecture. I remind them that they don’t have to attend culinary school, they don’t need the experience or pedigree. I tell them, ‘You can walk in and be the best employee today if you show up with a great attitude, on time, ready to learn and contribute.’ We work on resumes, I remind them to wear nice clothes, to show up ready for an immediate interview, because lots of kitchens need help right now.”
Graduates receive a ServSafe certification and a knife set – and many find jobs in local restaurants.
Both Liz and Rick tell the story of one student, an Indonesian immigrant:
“She’d had bad experiences in the US. She didn’t understand the culture and was very unhappy. She found out about our KitchenWorks class, took it, and really excelled.
We connected her with a local restaurant owner who hired her immediately. That was nine months ago. Now she makes all their noodles – she loves it, they love her. Her life has really turned around.”
SOMETIMES, THERE REALLY IS A WIN-WIN
Giridharadas is appropriately skeptical of the win/win solution. But on a local level, it can be pretty remarkable.
From the chef’s perspective: “I started out at Just Food wanting to teach people to cook, to help them feed their families with healthy food, affordably. If I can also give them experience, a trade, help them to get a job, that’s another level – not just feeding your family but getting a paycheck as well. That’s changing a life.”
From the nonprofit director’s perspective: “25% of Just Food’s annual operating budget comes from events hosted by our culinary community. The opportunity to support them and empower our clients was a no-brainer. It has been incredibly satisfying.”
From the donor’s perspective: “Sometimes road blocks just need to be removed. We wanted to go beyond emergency services and provide the basis for real empowerment. And we are so honored and pleased. I didn’t know people like us could do something like this.”
All of this happened because there was a community foundation whose job – and privilege – it was to put it all together.
TOWARD A MANIFESTO
Generous people are pretty near a miracle. After decades of fundraising for nonprofits, I still can hardly believe that people who could do anything else with their money part with that hard-earned dough to make life better on this planet, usually for people they’ll never know.
Nonprofits make our lives immeasurably richer. Most of us are born in nonprofit hospitals, play sports in nonprofit youth leagues, attend nonprofit universities, enjoy all kinds of nonprofit arts from museums to ballet to community arts centers, benefit from nonprofit environmental activism (because these days who else is looking out for the planet), and ultimately die in nonprofit hospice.
Community foundations are one of the last viable public squares in America. This is where liberal and conservative come together for one reason: to make their own communities, the places they love and live in, better. Many community foundations are convening hugely diverse citizens to decide what to do and how. This is philanthropy with a little “p,” democracy with a little “d.” And it is inspiring. It is peculiarly American.
Don’t tell me government could do this better – I don’t believe it. Systemic approaches matter, a lot. But this is not an either/or game.
Small is where experiments happen. Local is where relationships live. The solution to our troubling national division lives in actual places where people know each other, come together, talk it out, and invest in optimism.
Let's do more of that.