The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

It’s time to liberate activists from the nonprofit industrial complex
from the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
March-April 2009
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This article is part of a package on rethinking charity in the economic crisis. For more, read  Giving When It Hurts Ladling Soup, Raising Hell : Nonprofit Insider Robert Egger Is Out to Reform Charities from Within; and  Tips for Practical Giving : Where to Give, What to Ask, and the Lowdown on Emerging Philanthropic Trends.

The nonprofit system has tamed a generation of activists. They’ve traded in grand visions of social change for salaries and stationery; given up recruiting people to the cause in favor of writing grant proposals and wooing foundations; and ceded control of their movements to business executives in boardrooms.

This argument—that reformers have morphed into cogs in the nonprofit industrial complex—is explained and explored in the fiery anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, edited by the INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence collective (South End, 2007).

One piece of the puzzle: “Foundations provide tax shelters for wealthy families and thereby take away tax income that could be used for social programs and entitlements,” Andrea J. Ritchie, an INCITE! member, told Make/shift. “And then [the foundations] dole out little bits of money for nonprofits to replace the services that the government no longer funds.”

The book brings together 21 experienced radical activists to explore the shortcomings of nonprofits as movement makers; here are excerpts from three chapters. —The Editors

 

Adjoa Florência Jones de Almeida

Sista II Sista Collective, Brooklyn, New York

What has happened to the great civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s? Where are the mass movements of today within this country? The short answer: They got funded. Social justice groups and organizations have become limited as they’ve been incorporated into the nonprofit model. We as activists are no longer accountable to our constituents or members because we don’t depend on them for our existence. Instead, we’ve become primarily accountable to public and private foundations as we try to prove to them that we are still relevant and efficient and thus worthy of continued funding.

In theory, foundation funding provides us with the ability to do the work—it is supposed to facilitate what we do. But funding also shapes and dictates our work by forcing us to conceptualize our communities as victims. We are forced to talk about our members as being “disadvantaged” and “at risk,” and to highlight what we are doing to prevent them from getting pregnant or taking drugs—even when this is not, in essence, how we see them or the priority for our work.

And what are our priorities? Perhaps the real problem is that we don’t spend enough time imagining what we want and then doing the work to sustain that vision. That is one of the fundamental ways the corporate-capitalist system tames us: by robbing us of our time and flooding us in a sea of bureaucratic red tape, which we are told is a necessary evil for guaranteeing our organization’s existence. We are too busy being told to market ourselves by pimping our communities’ poverty in proposals, selling “results” in reports and accounting for our finances in financial reviews.

In essence, our organizations have become mini-corporations, because on some level, we have internalized the idea that power—the ability to create change—equals money.

If nonprofit jobs are the only spaces where our communities are engaged in fighting for social justice and creating alternatives to oppressive systems, then we will never be able to engage in radical social change. Would the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Landless Workers Movement members in Brazil have been able to develop their radical autonomous societies if they had been paid to attend meetings and to occupy land? If these mass movements had been their jobs, it would have been very easy to stop them by merely threatening to pull their paychecks.

In this country, our activism is held hostage to our jobs—we are completely dependent on a salary structure, and many of us spend over half of our staff hours struggling to raise salaries instead of creating real threats and alternatives to the institutional oppression faced by our communities. Meanwhile, the imaginative and spiritual perspective that would allow us to question the “givens” dictated by neoliberalism begins to erode.

 

Amara H. Pérez

Sisters in Action for Power, Portland, Oregon

Foundations are ultimately interested in the packaging and production of success stories, measurable outcomes, and the use of infrastructure and capacity-building systems. As nonprofit organizations that rely on foundation money, we must embrace and engage in the organizing market. This resembles a business model in that the consumers are foundations to which organizations offer to sell their political work for a grant. The products sold include the organizing accomplishments, models, and successes that one can put on display to prove competency and legitimacy. In the “movement market,” organizations competing for limited funding are, most commonly, similar groups doing similar work across the country. Not only does the movement market encourage organizations to focus solely on building and funding their own work, it can create uncomfortable and competitive relationships between groups most alike—chipping away at any semblance of a movement-building culture.

Over time, funding trends actually come to influence our work, priorities, and direction as we struggle to remain competitive and funded in the movement market. For many activists, this has shifted the focus from strategies for radical change to charts and tables that demonstrate how successfully the work has satisfied foundation-determined benchmarks.

 

Madonna Thunder Hawk

Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, South Dakota

Women of All Red Nations (WARN) had tax-exempt status once, but we let it lapse. It was too complicated. No one wanted to sit in the office and write reports with time and energy that could be used to advance our movement.

How we organized was different from how activists tend to respond now. We didn’t wait for permission from anyone. We didn’t have people tell us, this is too big of a project for you to do—you should contact the state or some other governing power first. Nowadays, an organization might want to do something more creative, but its board of directors will tell them no. We did not worry if our work would upset funders; we just worried about whether the work would help our communities.

Before, we focused on how to organize to make change, but now most people will only work within funding parameters. People work for a salary rather than because they are passionate about an issue. When you start paying people to do activism, you can start to attract people to the work who are not primarily motivated by or dedicated to the struggle. In addition, getting paid to do the work can also change those of us who are dedicated. Before we know it, we start to expect to be paid and do less unpaid work than we would have before. This way of organizing benefits the system, of course, because people start seeing organizing as a career rather than as involvement in a social movement that requires sacrifice.

As a result, organizing is not as effective. For example, we first started organizing around diabetes by analyzing the effects of government commodities on our health: Indian communities were given unhealthy foods by the government in exchange for our having been relocated from our lands, where we engaged in subsistence living, and now damming and other forms of environmental destruction affect our ability to be self-sustaining. Today you can get a federal grant to work on diabetes prevention, but rather than get the community to organize around the politics of diabetes, people just sit in an office all day and design pamphlets. Activism is relegated to events. Many people will get involved for an event, but avoid rocking the boat on an ongoing basis because if they do, they might lose their funding. For instance, if the government is funding the pamphlet, then an organization is not going to address the impact of U.S. colonialism on Native diets because they don’t want to lose funding.

Activism is tough; it is not for people interested in building a career.

 

Excerpted from The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence; www.incite-national.org. Reprinted by permission of South End Press; www.southendpress.org.


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AshleyJohnMorton
8/18/2009 3:43:28 PM
I am not one who would generally be described as revolutionary. However, I do fundamentally believe in community-building (for me, it often takes the form of sports), and I had a real epiphany about "funded nonprofit work" a few years ago. The high school rugby league in the town I was in was organized by volunteers who did scheduling, field booking, refereeing, coaching, etc. It was imperfect, but awesome - taking hard young kids who have been told that it's wrong to be tough, and giving them a clean, positive way to be tough and proud without being a bully or a loner was great. Sure, some of us ended up doing a bit more work than we should have. Sure, we had the occasional coach who was a jerk. But overall, it worked. Part of WHY it worked was because no-one was paid. Then, the primary organiser moved away. He asked me to take over as the primary point of contact. I asked him why the province's "rugby development officer" wasn't doing it. The outgoing organiser really had his head screwed on right because he said (roughly) "I don't want someone paid to do this. If an employee fails, or has a problem at home, or just has too much to do, it would be really odd for a volunteer to pick up the slack, for no pay. However, if we are all volunteers, then we are all there to pick up the slack for each other." Also, he said, once a task is into the "paid domain", it seldom comes back - if funding is lost, and the paid position disappears, so that now we need volunteers again - they're often not there anymore. I'm not saying that all non-profits should work with volunteer labour all the time. However, I do believe that we who volunteer should maintain an ethic that it is actually preferable to have a volunteer do something, rather than a paid person, where possible.

namehere
5/14/2009 6:26:54 PM
olde news. no kidding. anyhow, I welcome rich family money and know i will make use of it in a good way and still be radical as possible. rich families should share more and we should use it more. not about 100,000$ year non profit development peoples salaries about keeping it real no matter what we are doing, it is not the ngo sector anyhow, it is our own daring we need to engage more. grow food and compost and bike and see what happens then. this kind of self righteousness is an even deeper level of compromise they purport to expose. it deep. examine it all, the 'art" world etc etc etc etc just do it, drect action gets the goods, like th single payer direct action network that disrupted the senate the other day, still they are also a non profit it is what you do and how you do it and you will do it no matter what some people can avoid slave wage labor and get a hustle in the "non profit" world and do crazy real work while being outside of it this pseudo radicalness flim flams people just as much as corporate marketing dont believe the hype on anyone or anything, if it got propped up, be skeptical, even by utne, im out!

namehere
5/14/2009 6:26:12 PM
olde news. no kidding. anyhow, I welcome rich family money and know i will make use of it in a good way and still be radical as possible. rich families should share more and we should use it more. not about 100,000$ year non profit development peoples salaries about keeping it real no matter what we are doing, it is not the ngo sector anyhow, it is our own daring we need to engage more. grow food and compost and bike and see what happens then. this kind of self righteousness is an even deeper level of compromise they purport to expose. it deep. examine it all, the 'art" world etc etc etc etc just do it, drect action gets the goods, like th single payer direct action network that disrupted the senate the other day, still they are also a non profit it is what you do and how you do it and you will do it no matter what some people can avoid slave wage labor and get a hustle in the "non profit" world and do crazy real work while being outside of it this pseudo radicalness flim flams people just as much as corporate marketing dont believe the hype on anyone or anything, if it got propped up, be skeptical, even by utne, im out!

Catherine _1
3/12/2009 10:52:09 AM
Hi, Here's what I think is a 'great news' story for someone at your end, at least it's a great story for this reader to try and express, with gratitude... I'm housesitting at a friends place. I see a copy of UTNE with President Obama pointing at me saying 'Yes. You Can'. It's the first time I've ever seen the magazine. I read about overcoming fear and genocide... I'm led to the website, I see an offer to sign up for an emagazine. Oh, I can pick one topic from a list of many... hmmm, what will it be? My first inclination is to click Spirituality because I am one who knows a strong connection and understanding of/with Spirit, I live in trust, faith and Love, but wait... politics feels right. Imagine, an objective view, could be refreshing. Click. And... the first article I have received is one that completely relates to my life right now. 'The Revolution Will Not Be Funded' could not be more perfect a first for me in that I am a person who, motivated by responsibility, compassion, concern and Love, has recently returned from Africa where I spent 9 months living alongside HIV/AIDS orphaned children to learn directly from them, how I could best serve and empower them, hand to hand. I sponsored myself because I just couldn't see my way to accompanying an NGO or non-profit or charity from the west. I couldn't find one that felt real to me ( not to say there aren't some...). I felt inspired to try and build a new bridge, try and blaze a new trail, even if it's one only ants can notice, one that has nothing to do with tax receipts and government, or religion and dogma, or solutions and dependancies imposed from abroad. I seemed naturally/energetically repelled by the 'big business' aspects that dominate/drive? the world of donor charity and aid, which feel nasty, perverse and toxic to me, and, obviously don't seem to be working either... well, on the outside anyways. ( 12,000,000 or








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