The Nonprofit Industrial Complex: How the Politics of Funding can Hijack a Movement

October 13, 2007

I am one of the many radical, idealist youths, who, fresh out of college, trekked my way to the Washington, DC progressive world, to get a job at a nonprofit that could, hopefully, reconcile my desire to improve the world with my desire to make a living. When I got there, I thought I was unbelievably lucky to actually get paid to do work that falls within throwing distance of my political beliefs. Now that I have finished my one and only year in the DC nonprofit world, I must say I am a bit disillusioned.

During my time in that city, I learned that the DC nonprofit system is a tangled mess of good intentions, damaging compromises, and political contradictions. In a capitalist society, DC nonprofits must do what it takes to survive – often by making their goals, agendas, and cultures palatable to funders, and by narrowing in on niche social change markets – a distinction that is always somewhat arbitrary. In this nuts and bolts city, nonprofits focus on getting things done within their narrow fields, drowning out much needed discussions about political ideas and visions. The survival of the organization, furthermore, often becomes an end in itself, making it rather difficult for nonprofits to admit when they have outlived their usefulness. While many DC organizations start out with radical intentions, once they have been processed through the nonprofit system, they often no longer pose a threat to the status quo.

Recently, there has been an explosion of criticisms of the “non-profit industrial complex” coming from left magazines like Adbusters, and even former nonprofit organizations like Incite. And while it is exciting that this issue is being thrown out into the open for open criticism and analysis, we are still left with the question: what do we put in its place?

There are undeniable advantages to being a part of the nonprofit industrial complex, namely, survival. Volunteer activists must scrape together what little free-time they have outside of their regular jobs to devote themselves to their cause. Not only is this exhausting, but it simply does not give them the time and resources they need to develop their movement to the point that it can be at all effective. Becoming a nonprofit, and getting funding, allows you to have an office, supplies, and time to spending working on an issue.

But there are other models for funding radical projects. Organizations could do what labor unions have been doing for years: build membership and collect member dues. Not only will this provide funding, but it will also provide a base of support for an organization’s efforts and give its members a measure of ownership of the project. Nonprofits could also have an entirely separate business just to fund its efforts, like a cafe or a bookstore. This would allow it to act with total autonomy; it would not be beholden to any corporate foundations. Another option, though it might seem somewhat impractical, is that certain “legitimate” nonprofits could act as front groups for more radical nonprofits. They could solicit funding and then secretly embezzle it to fund more radical projects.

We live in world with complex problems that demand thoughtful, nuanced solutions. We cannot afford to base our plans of action on what gets the most funding. We need to start building models for organizing and agitation that allow us to truly act on our beliefs without compromise. While there are undeniable advantages to securing funding for radical projects, there are also considerable costs, and we must ask ourselves, Is it worth it?

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5 Responses to “The Nonprofit Industrial Complex: How the Politics of Funding can Hijack a Movement”

  1. davids04 Says:

    I tend to agree with you. You are a radical, idealist youth.

    I fine that the title “nonprofit Industrial complex” an inappropriate one since you are talking about politics and Washington. I think of industry as applying to manufacturing, not politics, unless you are talking about the manufacturing of politics, which Washington does a lot of.

    If you are so idealistic, believing one doesn’t have to compromise on one’s beliefs (you sound like Ayn Rand), Washington is not the place for you. Stick more to Main St.

  2. transmissions1 Says:

    So are you arguing that people who do not wish to compromise on their beliefs should simply stop being involved in political movements? Isn’t that the very problem?

    Your point about the title is well taken.

  3. davids04 Says:

    When one is involved in politics one has to compromise. The business of politics is compromise. One can keep their beliefs and compromise.

  4. RR Says:

    I’d like to comment on your offhand suggestion, I’m sure it wasn’t serious:

    “Another option, though it might seem somewhat impractical, is that certain “legitimate” nonprofits could act as front groups for more radical nonprofits. They could solicit funding and then secretly embezzle it to fund more radical projects.”

    This is not an issue of practicality, it is just plain wrong. You should not ask people to donate money under false pretenses as to how it will be used.

    I suspect that this happens a great deal in parts of the non-profit industry.

    People donate money to the “legitimate” non-profits instead of “more radical” ones for a reason. Presumably, they fear extremism, are donating to be socially acceptable, or actually agree with the middle ground and disagree with the radicals.

    Eventually, people figure out where the money goes, or at least begin to suspect it. Then they become disillusioned and suspicious, furthering a social collapse that is probably the opposite of what you want.

    Some people have observed that guerilla type insurrections, when deprived of the support of a large majority, become focused making money to continue their guerilla operations. They rob banks of the enemy, kidnap the enemy’s family members, and gradually focus more and more on getting money via crime and less and less on the revolution, until they are just a mafia (the scilian mafia started as an underground resistence to occupation).

    Perhaps something similar occurs in non-profit institutions. More and more staff and effort is devoted to maintaining the fund raising mail list, entertaining the big donors, recruiting executives with the right social appearence, getting photo-ops with lawmakers to prove to the donors they are doing something, and at somepoint it is all a business and not a movement at all.

    I suspect the most successful social change movements have some of the following characteristics:

    1) a narrow goal, that you know when you have achieved it — getting a particular law repealed, ending bus segregation, etc

    2) a loose structure, with no salaries and few full time volunteers

    People who are deeply into spending their entire life revolutionizing and raising awareness and etc are likely to be disillusioned when the narrow goal is achieved, and all the volunteers vanish.

  5. lowerpericles Says:

    Sure enough people have thought about all these mechanism before.


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