choosing between two options in an inequitable world

An artificial ancient mammoth half submerged in the watery tar of La Brea (the the tar pits tar pits). Its sculpted cry of anguish is apparent even in suspended animation. Past the weirdly tranquil scene into the background are modern-day buildings, a streetlight, and a palm tree.
An artificial ancient mammoth half-submerged in the watery tar of La Brea (the the tar pits tar pits). Its sculpted cry of anguish is apparent even in suspended animation. Past the weirdly tranquil scene into the background are modern-day buildings, a streetlight, and a palm tree. It’s not too tortured a metaphor to say that I ask myself often what is the tar that we are stuck in today. I mean, it’s racism, misogyny, capitalism, ableism… and I could go on. At least there’s hope for whoever is standing nearby watching us. It’s octopus, right?

My organization brought on a handful of new partners during the first phase of the COVID-19 response. Our network grew by about 10% in a few short months. Many of these groups were the kind of partners who aren’t often represented in our network. Others, we were bringing on board before COVID halted our usual onboarding process. Then, facing the urgent need to get food to more people, we brought some of them in on a temporary emergency basis.

Now we are contemplating a gradual but eventual return to normal. My team has started talking about how to keep all these new partners within our network. But as is the case at most non-profits not named after a billionaire, resources are finite (they probably think resources are finite there, too). It’s during this pondering that a super-common question comes up. Someone has asked it at least a dozen times since I started here, and it’s always the same hypothetical. If we had two potential partners and could only choose one, which one should we choose?

the aforementioned unknowably different options
Say there are two food pantries. One is small, focused on meeting the needs of a specific cultural group or neighborhood. The other is large, serving five hundred to a thousand people in a single day. The smaller pantry serves 50, tops, each week. The larger food pantry has a few paid full-time staff, the smaller group is all-volunteer. The larger pantry is big, yes, but that also means their resource needs are much greater. The smaller one has few donors and fewer partners. The larger pantry knows someone on our board, who said they were eager to join our network. The smaller pantry doesn’t know anyone on our team. They completed our partner interest form, but they don’t have a truck and might need a delivery. And of course, we only have the resources to bring on one partner this year.

who would you want to partner with? why?
This question has vexed me for a long time, but I only recently realized why. The question, “who do you choose,” is difficult to answer because I already know the answer. I should choose the larger organization, right? The question feels uncertain to me because I want to choose the smaller organization. My professional instincts tell me I should be seeking the biggest bang for my buck. But I’m starting to think that the opposite is actually true.

why do we pit these organizations against each other?
If I had to choose between these two agencies, I should first want to choose both. Vu Le describes the alternative as the Non-Profit Hunger Games. In the ideal world, both food pantries have advantages, and I should want to bring them both in. In the long term, I should be working to expand my resources or find partnership opportunities for both food pantries.

rethinking what I know
But in this world with finite resources, I should invest mine in the smaller food pantry. I’d start by asking different questions. What do I know about the respective agencies’ impact? How much support do both agencies receive? Which organization is filling a niche in their community? Which organization dedicates itself to serving “all people equally”? Would a person receiving food at the smaller organization find what they need by going to the larger one? What about vice versa? What would my support do for each organization? What perspectives would they bring to our work? How might those perspectives be different from mine?

in an inequitable world, decisions based on equity may feel wrong
In a zero sum game, we always choose the larger organization. The one that feels like they have their shit together. The one who is already doing well. The one that fits our culture. But that means the same organizations always thrive, and the same ones always struggle. Organizations that have been around the longest almost always get the limited resources, because the resources are always limited.

Choose the smaller organizations first. Choose the new partners first. Think about how we’ve always done it, and ask what it would look like if we did something else.

We live in a society that is unjust to its core, one that has always favored the powerful. Sometimes we should strive to pick the bet that we’re conditioned to believe is the bad one.