I am by nature an optimist.
I believe one person can make a difference. I believe people working together can overcome great challenges. I still believe that we are making progress in becoming a country that is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I believe that CDP will make its budget and accomplish its goals this year. I still smile when I hear Annie sing the sun will come out tomorrow.
Yet, I’m paid to be a realist. The world is a crazy place. There are many tragedies and injustices. People have widely differing opinions and diverse sets of values. I’ll even be the first to acknowledge that CDP has weaknesses, as well as strengths. Hope is not a business plan.
I’ll leave it to the pundits to analyze the results of this year’s U.S. elections and the Brexit vote. Suffice it to say that many voters are unhappy, angry, and restless. Underlying this turmoil are some significant societal trends at play that have the potential to have a considerable impact on CDP’s goal to lessen human misery by advancing better disaster planning, supporting stronger recovery efforts, and building resilient communities.
I see three big trends this year that could have an impact on disaster philanthropy:
1. Inequality, Nationalism, and Resentment
The columnist Tom Friedman recently observed that we are living in one of the greatest periods of change since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. He argues that “the three largest forces on the planet—technology, globalization, and climate change—are all accelerating at once.”
There is a growing sense that income gaps in many western democracies are now a serious challenge to stability, with growing imbalances between those who are succeeding in today’s economy and those who are making few gains or falling behind. New technologies are disrupting traditional patterns of communications and employment. Many blame globalism, which they see promoting free trade policies resulting in lower wages and a dramatic transfer of jobs from developed countries to developing countries, primarily in Asia. Coupled with this economic malaise is growing support for nationalism and antipathy, resentment, and even anger towards political and economic refugees.
What to watch: Will these trends diminish support for international efforts to help political and economic refugees? Could there be decreased support for international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank? Will countries decrease their support or international aid and even disaster relief as they turn more inward? Will individuals decrease their individual charitable giving for international disaster crises?
2. Lack of Trust in Institutions and Experts
A second major trend affecting our work in disaster philanthropy is a growing lack of trust and respect for government, institutions, and experts. The lack of trust is across the board: religious institutions, government at all levels, and mainstream media to name only a few. Even nonprofit institutions have seen declining levels of trust, although less than that of other institutions. Along with declining levels of trust in institutions, we are seeing a growing disrespect and declining appreciation for elites, academics, and experts.
What to watch: Could lack of trust in government lead to less compliance with government rules and regulations about disaster planning, for example, or procedures for rebuilding after a disaster? Will growing skepticism about experts mean less acceptance about climate change or other government programs? Could this lack of trust result in less support to nonprofit organizations providing services and/or raising money for disaster-related activities?
3. Changes in Government Priorities
The incoming Trump administration and leaders of the new Congress have pledged to reduce taxes and cut government services. There will also be a determined effort to reduce or amend government regulations. Since government is the single largest source of funding for nonprofit organizations, this could have a deleterious impact on organizations that act as first responders or provide other disaster-related services. It could also disrupt current models of funding disaster work.
What to watch: What will happen to the budget of USAID, the U.S. government’s primary way to support international aid? How will FEMA funding and its regulatory structures be altered in the new administration? How will budgets for nonprofit organizations providing social services be affected?
What We Can Do
In a recent letter, Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation reminded us that a “a person can simultaneously feel righteous anger about the world and radical optimism for it.” In other words, it’s a fight worth having. This is no time to withdraw. Our nation and the world’s vulnerable populations need us now more than ever.
Change is not always a bad thing. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of room for improvement in how we deliver and pay for disaster-related services, both domestically and internationally.
Here are three ways we can embrace the New Year:
Look for opportunities to get involved in discussions about how to change policies, procedures, laws, and regulations. There’s no reason to defend old ways of doing things when there are better approaches. At the same time, this is also a good time to be bold in educating and informing decision-makers about what’s right with the current approaches to disaster-related activities and support for vulnerable populations.
Be Transparent and Accountable
Provide reliable, dependable, quality services to earn the trust of the American people. Be transparent and accountable. Listen to those in need and understand how we can best support to build mutual respect.
Engage and Guide New Donors
Cuts in traditional government-centric approaches could also increase the demand for disaster related philanthropy and perhaps increase the demand for CDP’s services. We see a likely increase in growth in the number of foundations, a continuation of the growth in donor advised funds, and an acceleration of the unprecedented transfer of wealth over the next decade or two. We have the opportunity to help these new donors be more effective and strategic in their approaches to disasters.
Perhaps Garrison Keillor’s wry sense of humor sums up my approach best:
“Idealists don’t do as well in politics as gamers do. Idealists are in a grim struggle to save mankind from itself, and gamers are just trying to capture your bishop with two pawns. A crafty old fox can beat the goddess of light two out of three times. But one out of three may be good enough.”