Progress Without Profit: Leaving your mark on the world

Hands holding up a globe with a city sunset background
(Alyssa Shao | Daily Trojan)

When I glance at news headlines, I often feel ill-equipped to make a difference.  Last month, for example, I read that MacKenzie Scott donated $275 million dollars to Planned Parenthood, the largest-ever contribution to the organization. 

Flashy, multimillion dollar donations attract attention because they instantaneously impact an organization. While I applaud giving away excessive wealth, most people do not have hundreds of millions of dollars to spare. This singular focus on philanthropy fuels the misconception that only millionaires and billionaires can afford to make a difference.

Lucy Bernholz, a research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, said, “Most books written about philanthropy [are] about rich people and I wanted to know what was happening with everyone else.” 

Although my column focuses on large nonprofits, politics or public figures, most of the important work happens day-to-day within small interactions. 

People do not need power, influence or an outrageously large piggy bank to enact change. Instead, they need persistence and the genuine desire to do good.

Even when a person cannot support an organization financially, they can still volunteer time and energy as many understaffed organizations depend on voluntary support to fulfill their missions. There are many opportunities for USC students to volunteer such as USC’s Volunteer Center which helps students get involved with local organizations through events such as Friends and Neighbors Day. The Joint Educational Project on campus also connects students to various volunteer programs such as schools, community-based organizations, healthcare facilities and legal clinics. 

Oftentimes when no current organization exists to solve a specific problem, people team up with others and create their own organizations to fill the gap.  In summer 2020, at the height of coronavirus, USC students Aria Cataño, Kate Montanez and Catie Cummings began Water Drop LA, which brings water to people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row. Currently, through its fully volunteer-run organization, Water Drop LA distributes more than 2,000 gallons of water each week.

I’d be naive to assume, however, that everyone has time to volunteer extensive hours. Although my column focuses on nonprofits, the problems of bureaucracy, formality and on boarding can make them an inconvenient, slow-paced option. In fact, as I’ve shown throughout my column, the nonprofit sector’s faults limit its effectiveness. 

We can take every day as an opportunity to do something positive, even in the smallest way. Doing good is as simple as picking up a neighbor’s groceries or dropping off a can at a food drive or maybe listening to a friend and comforting them on a particularly bad day. Small acts add up.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that while individual acts are powerful, they cannot solely lead to broad transformation without parallel changes in institutions and systemic issues. But, if we believe every ounce of progress needs to be a grand act worthy of a history textbook, nothing would get done. Change does not only happen drastically but also progressively. In reality, most people who make a difference don’t leave a legacy or work for a prestigious nonprofit. Behind every famous activist are hundreds of people working tirelessly without recognition. 

I know my outright optimism in this article feels vastly different to my more critical arguments about the nonprofit sector. Don’t worry, I still love to be a hater. To criticize something means to believe improvement is possible. I wouldn’t bother writing if I thought the nonprofit sector or any of its issues are beyond repair. Understanding how society falls short allows us to dream bigger for the future. It helps me to maintain a balance between optimism and criticism. 

As my graduation nears, I am faced with a lot of endings, with one of the most difficult being this column in the Daily Trojan. In the last two years, writing “Progress Without Profit” gave me the courage to share my thoughts, take up space and argue for the things I want to see change. Because of this, while I’m still not exactly sure what life will bring post-college, I am sure of who I want to be, and the kind of work I wish to accomplish — and that is enough.

 Here’s to all of us leaving a positive mark on this world. 

Sophie Roppe is a senior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice. Her column, “Progress Without Profit,” runs every other Monday.