From Walking to Marching

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

In nine months, I will put on heavily cushioned socks and my best walking shoes and challenge myself to the most rigorous walk that I’ve ever done – 60 miles in three days.

I started walking – really walking – in March of this year. At first I was just trying to get to that magical 10,000 step marker, or about 5 miles a day. My goal was personal. I simply wanted to lose weight and be healthier. Now, my goal is bigger.

I want a healthier social profit sector. So I have signed on to walk in the first Charity Defense March.

This journey began in 2008 when I read Dan Pallotta’s book Uncharitable. It crystalized what I had been thinking for years, but was never able to articulate. Why did the environments in which I worked to address the horrible rates of infant mortality in the South, poor school success rates for vulnerable children, and the tragedy of the foster care system always struggle to raise the funds necessary to do this work? Societally, we didn’t want these situations to exist, right? I believed that they were issues to be solved with enhanced public will and the right resources. The problem: we never had the right resources. I finally came to understand that a key contributor to our lack of resources was general ambiguity about where these organizations fit in the social contract.

The organizations that I worked for were routinely given contradictory messages. “Be more business-like,” we were told, “but don’t forget that you are the NON-profit sector.” We were urged to be “outcomes-driven” while never having sufficient revenue to fully engage in the work to demonstrate real, tangible, game-changing outcomes. The social profit sector, as I prefer to call it, is expected to address huge societal problems – homelessness, bigotry, hunger – with limited resources and inherently skeletal infrastructures.

I want to change that. I believe that an important first step in that change lies in making more people understand that we inhibit the capacity of the social profit sector.

I believe that the manner in which the social profit sector is expected to underwrite the costs of doing its critical work hasn’t been truly thought about much by the sector or by the proverbial powers that be. It just is.

As an African-American, the issues of segregation and inequality have always loomed large in my life. They form my frame of reference for many things, and I think they apply here.  For decades, segregation just was. White America didn’t think about it too much and many in black America believed that they could only tinker around the edges of change.  The civil rights movement changed that and marching became a hallmark of the movement, as people quietly walked to their jobs during the Montgomery bus boycott or rallied at the larger 1963 March on Washington. Marching became a profound, visible way to elevate an injustice to a larger societal conversation and action.

So, I am walking June 26-28 as part of the inaugural Charity Defense March. Improving the world in which I live has been my calling throughout my professional life.  Now, I realize that in order to address those problems that I care so much about, I must first address the infrastructure in which social change agents work. I believe this March is a big step toward making a difference.