Opinion: On the inequity of social impact work

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An Open Letter to the Philanthropy and Impact Investing community. Regarding the equitable treatment of the Impact workers community

Dear foundations, philanthropists and impact investors,

About a week ago I was on a call with the fund manager of an impact investing organization. We had a great call they asked tons of questions about the work I’ve recently being doing around local investing and a particular model I’ve created for it. They said thanks for how informative and useful the call was. During this call I kept having this odd feeling yet trying to be nice and helpful I kept answering their questions.

A few days later I got a request to share the documents of the model I’ve created and research I’ve done. To be honest, the call and request made me deeply uncomfortable and taken advantaged of.

This was one of dozens of situations like it. We, the impact workforce, find ourselves in these awkward situations much too often. As part of what is expected of us in our profession. It’s one thing to help out a project, a tiny nonprofit, a friend on a small thing. It’s a whole different issue when free/cheap labor becomes a formal and key part of the workforce culture for impact workers. We need a re-imagining of our social and economic relationships.

Over the past five years, I have self-funded the creation of knowledge, experience, and a network at great expense. I have built what you’re requesting through many plane tickets, bus tickets, nights spent on friends and random peoples couches, tons of volunteer hours, hours of late night online research, and a plethora of conferences, workshops, events and community meetings.

I did all of this self funded. Throughout, I have asked more than a dozen foundations, philanthropist, city governments and impact investors if they would help fund this scouting; every time, I have been told “no” as this did not fit their funding criteria.

Now that I have a value creating resource, the same kind of folks (often the very same) who turned down my request for funding, wish to talk with me to learn what I learned. None of them ever offer financial compensation in return. Oblivious to the enormous financial, personal and economic sacrifices we made to obtain what we have, they expect folks like me to volunteer the value we have created in the service of the greater good (often to consultants being paid by these organizations).

When I hear, “We’re always on the lookout for innovative fund models that may be applicable to our partners [and funders],” I feel like a foundation sitting on millions of dollars, or working with people of considerable wealth, is asking low-paid change agents to help them help wealthy people profit from helping poor people.

This extends far beyond long phone calls, coffees and email exchanges. I see it in lowly-paid jobs in change-making organizations that pay less than minimum wage when you compare compensation to hours worked. I see a whole class of impact workers on 1099s, with no benefits or ability to save or prosper. I see unpaid internships, in direct violation of federal labor laws, all with promises of this will gives us more experience, more exposure, grow our network… any number of vague offers and promises that cost the organization we are creating value for next to nothing if anything at all.

Ultimately, building up the top of the change-making pyramid — the foundations and consultants who serve them — at the expense of the bottom does not serve the greater good, philanthropy, social entrepreneurship or impact investing. I see the exploitation of a whole worker class who makes ton of sacrifices to create a better world for all 7 billion of us by the philanthropic-industrial complex that serves the wealthy who are achieving their goals of “giving back”, “making an impact”, lean and “high impact” scale…

Social justice, or even social impact, can not exist in the absence of economic justice for all those involved in the value creation supply chain.

Those who make no real sacrifice by offering their excess financial capital build their benevolent legacy on the backs of those who are asked to give every form of capital so they can work to building a world with more social and economic justice.

We, the impact sector, need to open up clear, direct and honest lines of communications to that lead to healthy and productive conversations about how we conduct our profession with the highest degree of moral and ethical conduct, respect for the value of every stakeholder brings to the table.

We need a new type of social change and investment dynamic — one that is not doing this for “social impact”. One that is doing it because they realize that we are all in this together and therefore are hitching their wagons together. Interdependent investing.

We are quite happy to share what we have learned, but the change we seek is only sustainable if it is personally sustainable for everyone involved.

Let’s start this conversation.


Martin Montero and thousands of impact workers


Martin Montero, originally from Austin, has been working in the impact sector for 15 years, in both non profit and for profit organizations, He has spent the past five years traveling across the United States researching models of innovative social and economic change, working with and for various organization. His focus on social entrepreneurship and impact investing has led to a concentration on local living economies, social entrepreneurship as economic development for community value and wealth creation.

Martin consults with entrepreneurs and creates cross sector collaborations to help communities foster holistic economic development via a multi-disciplinary approach.

1 Comment on Opinion: On the inequity of social impact work

  1. definetly keen to start that conversation with you.
    Will send you more links tomo, but please check my most recent two blog posts on our website.
    I have a similar drive. And I have a model.
    Look forward to the conversation

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