Malnourished in the midst of plenty

I watched A Place at the Table a few weeks ago. Yesterday, a friend mentioned the adage that if you are not at the table then you are likely on the menu. In this society of excess, imbalance and unroofed eating habits that is not a desirable place to be.

It occurs to me that the same imbalances ailing food systems affect the nonprofit sector and civic life. Both have a dire unevenness of diet, there is a fixation on certain elements to the detriment of the broader, holistic wellbeing, and we chase some short-term goals that afflict harm when not aligned with long-term health and vitality.

The ills of the corporate good system are reasonably well known. My focus here is how the food system is a metaphor for a cancerous, blighted nonprofit sector.

Inputs: The over-reliance on foundation grants equate to the dominance of carbohydrates in nonprofit’s heavy and heavily imbalanced diet. Instead, of a plethora of sources for nourishing foods, fresh foods rich in vitamins and minerals, most nonprofits depend on a few starches. Grantwriting is essentially highly processed foods composed with strange ingredients, cumbersome production processes and deceptive packaging. What goes into an organization’s coffers is the result of great manipulation resulting in an unnatural shelf life, where the taste, texture and quality are an afterthought.

Energy: This imbalanced diet is exacerbated by where most nonprofits direct our attention. Evaluation is the nonprofit form of cholesterol — it is talked about a lot, with little bearing on overall vitality. In nonprofits, certain information gets monitored and is the basis for evaluation. The fixation with an academic style of evaluation is a distraction from the original factors motivating a small group of people to start an organization. Book knowledge trumps street smarts because there is a logic mind bias against learning from our lived experiences as much as from books. And in a crisis-saddled society, we scurry from one crisis to the next giving ourselves little space or patience to reflect on how we use our energies.

A Place at the Table summarized the profound changes to the food system that have occurred in the last 30 years. Hunger and food insecurity have skyrocketed in spite of the proliferation of food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency food providers, which numbered [a few dozen?] in the early 1980s and exceed [40,000?] today.

The most insidious manifestation of the food/nonprofit mimicry is our habitual concern with problem diagnosis, rather than problem solving. Instead of pursuing solutions, the sector is mired in recording social dysfunction. This mirrors the national attention on illness and manifestations of physical health, environmental degradation and how sick, obese, diabetic, cancerous we are.

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Just as grassroots alternatives to the traditional food system of the late 20th Century exist, alternatives to a grant-heavy, evaluation-fixated and problem-saddled social profit paradigm are expanding.

Alternatives for the here and now begin with:

  • an asset-based approach (rather than problem-based)
  • recognizing access and privileges that each of us have (instead of running from or denying them)
  • embracing the many identities and multiple issues alive in each of us (instead of the myths that there is most important issue or single most affected community)
  • embarking on radical changes that occur at many levels simultaneously (rather than the faulty and imposed notion that change happens in an incremental, sequential fashion)
  • aligning efforts across different groups, populations and industries (rather than perpetuating silos)
  • recognizing that faith, people power and humility are as important, if not more so, than money
  • yet making tremendous financial investments in experiments to spawn wholly new approaches, ecosystems, paradigms, and ways of living, working and being
  • harnessing the lived experience of our bodies and the wisdom of the Earth (instead of preferring the logic-mind).
  • The choice is ours. To continue on the same old, same old do loop. Or we can embark on the paths less traveled.

on cholesterol rather than general

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