Lightspring/shutterstock
Lightspring/shutterstock

I struggled to eat some days. At other times I grappled with pain and guilt as my mother needed help with rent and other essentials. All of these struggles occurred as I took advantage of what I saw as (and now know to be) the opportunity of a lifetime, working for and representing a small international NGO all over the world—in Ghana, Thailand, Laos and Jamaica. Obsessed with the idea of work that made a positive impact on the world, I wanted nothing more than to work in charity and philanthropy.

As I’ve shared these stories in my book, “Dreams Deferred: Recession, Struggle, and the Quest for a Better World,” I’ve been heartened to hear from readers who are reporting that my stories resonate with their lived experiences. At the same time, I’ve heard from so many people without means—notably including but not limited to people of color—who continue to struggle with their careers in philanthropy and nonprofits.

They struggle to understand why certain work is being done or prioritized over other work, many times to purportedly benefit their own communities. They struggle to access networks that can help them uncover opportunities. They struggle to finance unpaid internships or to take care of their families, let alone create wealth in their communities that could, over time, help to address systemic inequities. They often struggle with low pay that belies the complexity of work in the philanthropic and charitable sectors, charged as they are with solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The data is clear that there is a lack of diversity in charity and philanthropy. Despite the fact that these fields are full of people who genuinely aim to make communities, and our world, better, the recipients of grants and the ranks of program officers and other decision-makers within our space often don’t contain voices from the communities they hope to change.

At the same time, the nature of what it means to do work that makes the world better is shifting all around us, expanding beyond charitable giving and 501(c)(3) activity to include new types of practices and entities such as social enterprises. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, corporate social responsibility teams, like those I advise and build products for, were creating new structures to make an impact. They were providing grants to minority-owned businesses, creating pro-bono programs to help those businesses build capacity, and examining their supply chains to assess representation. In some cases—such as the work I and others engaged in with Sean Combs and the Combs Enterprises team on the recently launched Shop Circulate—companies were even looking to have an impact by building new platforms or functionality to allow minority entrepreneurs to showcase their products.

Evidence of this shift in what it means to do good in the world, to have an impact, is more than just anecdotal. New research from Fidelity and others is shedding light on a new paradigm in which the definition of “philanthropy” is shifting to encompass any perceived act of social good.

For a field constantly fighting for proper resourcing and respect, this can be a scary transformation to contemplate. Yet for a field that has also struggled to change the story on its diversity, to welcome in new voices, this shift could offer some new opportunities not only to get more innovative about what impact truly means, but about who really gets to sit at the table when impact happens. To my mind, there are at least four ways to take advantage of this opportunity in this unique moment in our history.

First, expanding the definition of philanthropy opens up new roles, in new organizations, and accordingly, new opportunities for new pools of applicants. If work in philanthropy includes not only traditional roles but roles supporting the technologies that are increasingly essential to getting anything done, building sustainable small businesses that give back to communities, or even things like evangelizing new sustainable products, we can recruit new and more diverse candidates and networks to get this wider array of jobs done.

Second, embracing work from anywhere as a sector would allow organizations to hire any passionate applicant from anywhere in the country. This could increase access to jobs in big philanthropy and CSR, which tend to congregate in big, hard-to-afford cities. In my case, I begin my book recounting an experience just out of graduate school in which I wandered the streets of San Francisco hoping to find a safe spot on the street to sleep for the night.

Third, this shift presents an opportunity to talk about our sector in new venues and in front of new audiences. No longer must talk of social impact be limited to particular settings. Philanthropy and impact can happen anywhere. In recognizing this, we could bring in and lift up new voices excited about the impact they could help drive through a multitude of new careers.

Finally, research from places like Cause and Social Influence is showing that salary is increasingly more important than mission for young Americans (age 18–30) deciding whether to work in nonprofits and philanthropy. For nonprofits in particular, this presents a challenge in remaining competitive and vital in the competition for talent in this new world. It also makes addressing diversity and inclusion more difficult. The result is that it’s more important than ever that we have a conversation as a sector about how the overhead myth, and the low salaries that can be driven by it, exacerbates inequities within the sector. This dynamic will make it increasingly difficult for many diverse applicants to take jobs that simply don’t pay enough for them to escape poverty, support their families, or achieve their dreams.

Diversity, equity and inclusion in philanthropy is a challenge that depends greatly on how we define charity, philanthropy and social impact. For so long, limited definitions, networks and opportunities have made it hard to get in the door for so many like myself—people who have passion, ideas, first-hand knowledge, and energy that can help drive solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. My hope is that the shift we’re seeing isn’t temporary, but rather a movement that makes stories like mine a thing of the past and fully embraces all the work that can contribute to the creation of a better world for all of us.

Brandolon Barnett leads Corporate Social Responsibility Industry Solutions for Salesforce.org Philanthropy Cloud. He is an angel investor and social entrepreneur based in Washington, DC, as well as the author of “Dreams Deferred: Recession, Struggle, and the Quest for a Better World.”

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