Joining Existing Organizations

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America is awash in private organizations devoted to one or more aspects of our political establishment. Many are tax exempt organizations (501(c)(3)) that cannot support particular candidates but may engage particular issues. We have 1.8 million of them now; 45% of them address problems of those in economic distress. Some are think tanks, some in the middle that just study things with a few recommendations flowing (the Brookings Institute), a few are left-leaning, but the vast majority are right to far right (the Heritage Foundation). Wikipedia lists around 140 such institutions, including some located on college campuses (say, the Hoover Institute at Stanford). There are large advocacy groups on both sides of the political spectrum—the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club on the left, the National Rifle Association among others on the right. However, these groups tend to want from their supporters money rather than direct involvement with their activities or policies.

But every large city and many smaller municipalities have numerous political advocacy groups addressing specific issues, such as rent control, renters support, and real estate support grinding it out against each other, neighborhood associations generally fighting excess development, groups supporting the homeless in many ways, groups supporting the arts, sports, parks, and groups working on affordable housing. San Francisco has 750 such organizations. Many smaller towns have proportionally larger numbers of organizations and participants because the towns themselves cannot support through tax dollars so many agencies. We should add the many private foundations that exist in America to provide capital for many of these organizations and the work they perform. In addition, there are around 380,000 churches in America, most of whom devote considerable effort toward improving community wellbeing.

If you do not belong to one of these organizations, and you do not want to invest your time on the elections side of the equation, joining one is a great place to start. However, you will find in most of these organizations three things: (1) a heavy dependence upon leadership and the work efforts of a small number of the group; (2) rules; and (3) a seeming slowness of motion. The last is particularly true for organizations working around problems of poverty and race. Homelessness, for example, feels like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, ever doomed to have it roll back down. This could be changed (we have a proposal in our education section). But instant gratification and overnight improvements are not part of the equation.

The upsides are the people you will meet and work with, the likely assurance of progress however slow, the sense of doing something worthwhile, and the opportunity to instill in the group more vigor in seeing things anew. The “rules” of each organization are often implicit, more like practices than commandments or restraints, often based on disposition of leadership expressed over long periods of time. They can get in the way. Fresh thoughts can often have significant impact.

Of some particular interest to you may be organizations that channel federal or state grant money into suitable projects. Project include affordable housing, a wide range of medical support programs, homelessness, poverty areas, and special education programs. Most of us are unaware that the vast majority of tax money we provide our governments is returned to the private sector in one way or another. Medicare and Medicaid are the two largest contributors, with very little used for in-house government administration (all billing is farmed out to private insurance companies). Most infrastructure money goes to private firms on a competitive basis. And most affordable housing money goes to private firms on a competitive basis. One can gain a level of respect for how these systems work, as bureaucratic as they are from the public side, to our benefit by joining an organization that manages the grant process, distributes the money, and often operates a managers of the outcome.