Turning the Complex Upside Down: Rethinking Nonprofit Structures
By the Rank and Filer, March 2011
Here I explore various strategies for nonprofits to be more accountable to their constituents, drawing on the Revolution Will Not Be Funded and its accompanying debates. Activists within currents of U.S. social movements have recently expanded and deepened a debate on the limitations, merits and history of nonprofits as an organizational form. For social service workers concerned with building change movements to address the underlying causes of social issues, the debate offers significant challenges and insights. This essay proposes a range of organizational strategies and examples of potential use to social service agency administrators. These interventions work to shift organizational accountability downwards towards the constituent communities a social service agency might serve, and leftwards towards autonomous social justice organizing projects.
In the last few years, a debate has exploded in left social movements on the role of nonprofits in social change movements. With the publication of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (2007), broad discussions have deepened and spread throughout progressive foundations, nonprofit staff, and nonprofessional community organizers and left organizations. At heart, this book foregrounds the historical expansion of nonprofits as `the main institutional form in U.S. social justice movements, the limitations this form has imposed, and the need for social justice organizing outside of the formal structure of foundation-funded and tax-exempt nonprofits. It also, however, opens up a range of difficult questions for nonprofit staff, particularly social service providers. This essay reflects on specific strategies nonprofit staff and administration could incorporate to support the development and expansion of left social movements not subject to the particular limitations of nonprofit structures. This is essay, while highly prospective in its form, is more meant to encourage an ongoing and emerging dialogue on the relationship between nonprofits and broader social justice movements.
(Throughout this essay, I use the term “nonprofits” to refer to the particular non-governmental organizations pervasive in U.S. society delineated by the IRS tax-exempt code 501(c)3. These organizations are largely funded through private individual donations, private foundation support or government grants. Nonprofits include a whole range of community-based organizations, culture and arts organizations, educational and religious institutions, social service agencies, social justice organizing nonprofits, and policy research think-tanks. While INCITE!’s book largely focuses on progressive nonprofits that fill social change advocacy roles that constitute much of the U.S.’s social movements, this essay deals primarily on social service agencies with some social justice commitments. INCITE!’s anthology predominantly uses the term “non-profit industrial complex,” including both nonprofits themselves and the constellation of foundations, government, consultants, and allied organizations closely linked to nonprofits. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is the widely-used term for similar organizations in an international context.)
In particular, this essay is organized across three broad interventions to nonprofit staff and management practices: 1) Developing internal practices to increase organizational accountability and leadership by constituents. 2) Identifying, supporting and allying with the leadership of social justice organizing projects rooted in communities a social service agency serves. 3) Critical political education of nonprofit staff members, administrators and constituents.
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
In my 12 years of grassroots movement building, I have never seen a book have such a dramatic and rapid impact as The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. More than 500 people attended the workshop of the same name at the United States Social Forum in Atlanta in June of 2008; hundreds more were turned away. One progressive philanthropy network I work with spent months discussing the book, with near universal agreement it had major implications for our work.
The book emerges from INCITE!’s conference sharing its name in Santa Barbara, California in 2004. Among the far left segments of nonprofits, activists have been discussing the problems of nonprofit structures since their emergence on a large scale in their current form in the 1970s and 80s. At the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, for example, many anarchists were openly critical of the dominance of nonprofits in shaping the media messaging, strategies, and organization of the protesting social movements. Outside of the United States and the global north, many left activists are deeply suspicious and critical of the growing power of NGOs in shaping progressive political discourse.
The Revolution Will Not Funded offers a rich array of arguments and perspectives on the “non-profit industrial complex” (NPIC). In particular, I highlight three core reoccurring elements as useful for rethinking nonprofit social service management: (1) structural accountability to funding sources as a limiting form of control, (2) the need for broad social change organizing by autonomous movements not subject to the restraints imposed on nonprofits, and (3) the current structural location of social service agencies. My examples and analysis are largely drawn from my own professional practice in LGBT service, HIV/AIDS agencies and tenant organizing.
Nonprofits are often heavily constrained by grants from private foundations and government agencies. This financial dependency often heavily influences and constrains the day-to-day work of nonprofit agencies based on the political priorities and perspectives of their donors. Nonprofits are largely unable to pursue substantive social change strategies, protest tactics, or even a deep critique of white-supremacist capitalism because of the subtle restrictions imposed by funding systems.
Second, several essays in the volume argue genuine, effective, revolutionary social change movements require leadership by those most affected, as well as structural autonomy from ruling class interests—elements often impossible in nonprofits.
Here I use autonomy in a very specific sense: formations that are able to fully and authentically represent a marginalized community without external control from the ruling class. Marxists theorists have explored how the interests of wealthy corporations can shape and structure institutions of liberal civil society (Day, 2005; Elbaum, 2006). Foundations are largely dependent on ruling class concentrations of wealth. Some foundations, notably the Funding Exchange network, have taken significant strides in prioritizing the voices of marginalized communities in making funding decisions. However, in most foundations, ruling class donors and their representative staff continue to make nearly all funding decisions. This poses significant challenges for nonprofit agencies attempting to comprehensively address social issues linked to the distribution and organization of wealth.
My own professional career includes a powerful example of how ruling class interests can narrow social justice organizing when they are replicated through foundation-based funding. In 2008 and 2009, I served as the Executive Director of a coalition of the major tenant organizing projects in New York City. Before my arrival, the coalition had decided to focus its strategy on the defense and expanse of rent regulation as a strategy to preserve New York’s affordable housing stock. This decision, however, created dramatic and ultimately irresolvable problems in our fundraising. Nearly all New York City foundations include board members with major residential real estate holdings, and hence with a direct financial stake in the undermining of rent regulation. One program officer went so far as to discourage me from including any mention of rent regulation in grant proposals, despite its immense importance in the landscape of New York affordable housing. Ultimately neither I nor the more experienced Executive Director that replaced me were able to, adequately fundraise, which necessitated a transition to a coalition that functioned without any centralized staff. Meanwhile, foundation and banks continued to support a range of other affordable housing projects that benefit fewer tenants, but also avoided undermining landlord profits.
Many progressive activists have taken up strategies to affect fundraising and fiscal support for nonprofits. Some nonprofits are using alternative fundraising strategies to mitigate vulnerability non- to control by foundations. Other advocates are pushing reform of foundations to increase community control and disbursement rates. These crucial topics on fundraising and foundation reform are outside the scope of this paper.
Despite the problematic dependency on granting bodies that safeguard ruling class priorities, nonprofits have an integral role to play in supporting the development of autonomous social change movements. Nonprofits control the bulk of technical expertise, financial resources, research data, and political access related to a wide range of social issues. For better or for worse, many of the most committed and brilliant social justice leaders of the insurgent grassroots movements of the 1960s and early 1970s have continued their organizing work as nonprofit administrators.
Among the players in the NPIC, social service agencies occupy a unique and crucial position . Left critics have argued that social service providers can act as systems of social control to suppress popular uprisings (Piven & Cloward, 1971; Kivel, 2007), It is certainly true that social service providers often provide individual solutions to social problems, without addressing underlying structures that might fuel social issues. Yet social service agencies have a undeniably broad and long-term engagement with the lives of poor people of color and others directly affected by the horrors of empire, capitalism, and injustice. Far more of the people who are most hurt by capitalism are incorporated into service infrastructures of some kind than into any left organizations. For these reasons and others, left activists and nonprofit staff committed to a project of social justice must not only critique the NPIC and envision large-scale viable alternatives, but also imagine how the currently existing nonprofit infrastructure could shift to support such alternatives.
Section 1: Constituent Accountability
Nonprofit constituents, administrators, staff, boards, and funders can be an integral part of transforming the NPIC. Through developing a critical analysis of the limitations of nonprofits to lead social change movements movements, we can begin to explore strategies for encouraging and supporting movements for social change led by and accountable to poor and working class communities.
At the core of such a realignment, nonprofit staff and administrators must re-conceptualize who we are working for. Nonprofits, including service agencies, are overwhelmingly not accountable to the communities and people we claim to serve. Instead, at the end of the day, we answer to our funders, either in the form of foundations, major donors or government grantors. It is funders who have the ability to evaluate, redirect, and circumscribe the form of service provision. In nonprofit service administration circles, even the phrase ‘accountability’ has become a short-hand for describing detailed record keeping and close surveillance by funders. Funders are often the only external presence able to call the shots for how nonprofits do their work. Comparatively, constituents (more often termed clients, consumers, or participants) often have virtually no administrative control over the operations of the agencies in which they access services.
For those familiar with the legacy and forms of effective social change movements, this poses considerable problems. While poor people, working class people and people of color have often led movements demanding and wining profound and extensive social reforms, many foundations and government agencies have little interest in supporting major changes in the political and economic landscape of American wealth.
Nonprofits must shift accountability downwards to the people we serve. We must turn the NPIC upside down. As it stands, agencies have the strongest accountability to those on whom we economically depend. Too often, agency clients are accountable to their case worker who controls their access to services; line staff are accountable to their supervisors who have the power to hire or fire them; agency administrators are accountable to the ruling-class funders who can withdraw their access to financial resources. Most of the nonprofit administration theory centers on ways of improving, enforcing, and streamlining this hierarchical form of accountability, on the questionable assumption that administrators and funders are better positioned to direct an agency then clients, affected communities, or line staff.
Instead, we can develop practices that value the organizational leadership of those we serve. While many people living in poverty might not be able to directly manage a large nonprofit agency, they could nonetheless play significant and roles in defining its direction. In order to encourage such a shift, nonprofit staff and administrators can begin by acknowledging that self-reflection, insight, and perspectives emerging from life experience and community connections are a crucial form of expertise. This form of expertise can deeply enrich all nonprofit management and organization. The expertise of life experience as an integrated part of marginalized communities cannot be replaced by academic study, work experience with a population, or research studies.
Broadening from such a valuing of the direct experiences of clients as a form of expertise, nonprofit administrators and staff can collaborate with clients in developing concrete practices of prioritizing constituent voices. This could include 1) progressive hiring practices, 2) substantial constituent advisory boards, 3) membership-based organizations, and 4) non-hierarchical collective-based organizational structures.
First, nonprofits and service agencies can prioritize hiring and promoting from the communities they serve. The actual personal experiences and community connections of individual staff, particularly in executive management positions, can have a huge impact on the shape of the nonprofit work. Staff who share life experiences and communities with their clients are far more likely to relate in ways that are accountable, respectful, and strategically transformative.
There are, however, ways that shared personal experience is often not enough to ensure effective and dignified service. As the drug treatment industry makes more than clear, staff can continue to treat clients from their own communities in demeaning, patronizing, and disempowering ways. Rehab programs are often staffed and run by people in recovery; they also use one of the most condescending and dehumanizing service modalities around. Further, the pressures of funding, hierarchical decision-making, and professionalization can all work to distance nonprofit and service staff from the communities in which they live. Nontheless, progressive hiring practices of people from marginalized communities can be a positive step.
Client Advisory Boards
Second, social service agencies can expand and deepen the use of client advisory boards (CABs). HIV services widely use CABs, in part because of the federal guidelines on the administration of AIDS funding. Each major urban area has a city-wide CAB that decides on the distribution of Ryan White Care Act funding to local agencies. Further, to be eligible for some forms of Ryan White funding, some agencies are required to have CABs representing agency clients. Often, agency CABs have relatively little power compared to agency administrators. Such groups, however, could play a significantly expanded role in agency management
CABs should be made up of individuals directly affected by the social issues and oppressions an agency is addressing. In the case of AIDS agencies, this would, of course, be people living with HIV. But too often the most privileged, stable, and professionalized of such individuals end up occupying the leadership positions. To truly shift the management of nonprofits in a progressive direction, CABs should actively include the leadership and participation of those constituents who are most marginalized. In the case of AIDS service organizations, this could include people of color, homeless people, people who are using drugs, sex workers, women, and queer and trans people. This valuing of marginalized voices can be linked to more substanative inclusion of clients in decision-making processes, through CAB members developing broader networks of accountable relationships with community peers. CABs should prioritize a collective and democratic process, an organizational structure that gives these internal voices real power.
Third, CABs must both be autonomous and powerful on order to have a real impact on nonprofit management. Often nonprofit administrators are open to ‘feedback’ from clients, but have resistance to being accountable to their own clients. CABs must have the opportunity to gather collective experience, critically reflect on their work, manage their internal decision-making, and forge new perspectives and policies independent from current agency administration and staff. Further, CABs must have the ability to actually include their perspectives and policy recommendations into the administrative process, even when unpleasant and unwelcome to management. To realign the loyalties of nonprofits to deep social change efforts, CABs must have the ability to effect agency policy and administration.
As a variation on this theme of CABs, some nonprofits have deliberately formed Boards of Directors made up of communities affected by the social oppressions they address. This can be a very powerful and extremely worthwhile step. In some cases, such a strategy can succumb to a similar problem as many CABs: a Board of Directors can end up having little actual administrative authority; board members might be discouraged from bringing their community affiliations and life experiences to the process; or the more privileged board members might dominate. Often agencies want to pack their Boards with the most privileged individuals possible as a fundraising and public legitimation strategy. Since boards often have a major role in directing agencies, having Boards be representative of a client base can have a major impact on realigning agency priorities to correspond to communities served.
The world of social justice nonprofits already provides one viable model of prioritizing constituent leadership: membership-led organizations. Here in New York, many left nonprofits are structured as membership-led, base-building projects. In the AIDS advocacy world, Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-NY) stands out as a particularly remarkable example of membership-led organizing. VOCAL-NY recently changed its name from the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN).
Early in VOCAL’s inception, homeless people with AIDS moved into leadership, challenging the assumed authority of AIDS housing providers (Flynn, J., personal communication, 2007, October 10; Cooper, S. personal communication, 2007, May 9). In over a decade of organizing, VOCAL has been one of the only AIDS groups to be led by the constituencies it represents. In recent years, its constituency has broadened to include low-income people directly impacted by drug use and mass incarceration (Cooper, S., personal communication, 2007, February 1; Saunders, J., personal communication, 2011, March 10). This membership base has set the priorities for campaigns throughout its work. As VOCAL’s mission statement reads:
Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL) is a statewide grassroots membership organization building power among low-income people who are living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use, and incarceration, along with the organizations that serve us, to create healthy and just communities. We accomplish this through community organizing, leadership development, participatory research, public education and direct action.
In a membership-driven model, constituents join an organizing agency as members. Members then collectively participate in shaping the direction of new campaigns, key strategic decisions, and are incorporated as leaders into as many aspects of agency operations as possible. Because members are not paid staff, they are not accountable in the same ways to the internal hierarchies of authority in nonprofits, or to the same pressure from funders. While funders might still exert some control, and while chronic underfunding often constrains the size of membership agencies, the organizations can still maintain some measure of direct, structural accountability to an autonomous client base. The work of staff, then, involves facilitating, structuring, and providing access to leadership from members.
This model is not without limitations; often, highly marginalized communities lack the economic resources to be able to pay the full budget of an organization with paid staff. The agency, then, continues to be dependent on foundation support for the bulk of its funding, creating a host of internal contradictions and struggles. However, the potential of building constituent power through member-driven organizations is clear and it is a model that nonprofit agencies should draw from and incorporate into major elements of our work.
Some nonprofit agencies have gone so far as to use non-hierarchical, collective-based decision-making in agency management and administration. I had the extraordinary privilege of serving on the Board of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a New York City agency that provides legal services to low-income trans people of color. SRLP is an inspiration for this entire essay, and uses many of the tools that I recommend here. They are also structured as a consensus-based collective, made up of both paid staff and volunteers. SRLP’s collective handbook is available online on their website, and carefully maps out the rationale and structure of the collective. As SRLP says of the value of a collective structure:
SRLP functions as a multi-racial, inter-generational collective of people committed to a broad understanding of gender self-determination. As a collective, we recognize that it is essential to create structures that model our vision of a more just society. We believe that in the struggle for social justice too often change is perceived as a product and not a process. We seek to use a non-hierarchical structure to support work that aims to distribute power and wealth for a more just society. We also strongly believe that our community-based structure, which maximizes community involvement, will support the sustainability of our work and the accountability of SRLP to its constituency. (Sylvia Rivera Law Project)
This last point is particularly salient for the argument here. Not only does a collective structure reflect the value of embodying a just society, it also increases the channels of accountability to a constituent base. Collective structures include diverse modes of expertise, value multiple forms of experience and recognize the importance of the voices of each member. Many service agencies include in their ranks line staff and members of directly effected communities who might be particularly in touch with the perspectives and needs of the constituent base. Despite this deep resource of experience, decisions are too often made by administrators whose work is much more tied up with funders than clients. By dissolving this hierarchical distinction and spreading administrative and management responsibilities across the agency, the voices of those closest to clients can be equally included and prioritized to that of funders.
Many agency administrators, unfortunately, actively resist democratic and collective decision-making management models. As a result, an increase in the decision-making power and influence of line staff can sometimes only happen through direct challenges to administrative policies and control. This can take many forms; among them, staff unionization. Through collective organizing, agency line staff can push policies and visions drawn from their day-to-day work with clients. This can offer many of the advantages of collective, democratic, and non-hierarchical structures when cooperation from administration is unavailable. Often social service unions are a major force in drawing attention back to the core mission of an agency and the needs of the clients they serve as administrators succumb to business-based models of management.
All these points seek to shift the attention, accountability, and authority of nonprofit administration away from funders and the ruling class, and towards oppressed communities. In many cases, these communities are made up of clients themselves; in other cases, this might be the families, neighbors, or peers of clients. At the core of this shift is a change in imagining who we, as nonprofit service workers, work for. At the end of the day, we must be unwavering in an ethical commitment to not work for our funders, but to instead work for the communities we serve. While it is likely that nonprofits will need to continue to appeal to funders to pay their staff, we can maintain a critical understanding and administrative structure that balances this upward accountability to funders with a downward accountability to those most marginalized. This is not a shift we can make all at once; but it is one many of us have already begun, and all of us could take much further.
Section Two: Movement Leadership
Beyond internally restructuring nonprofits to prioritize and value the leadership of constituents, nonprofits can also take direction and leadership from social movements that operate with greater independence from foundations and greater embedded leadership in marginalized communities. While there are more limited examples in the U.S. context, international movements can provide more substantive illustration.
On January 1, 1995 the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, or the Zapatistas) seized five towns in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The Zapatistas have waged a 16 year battle for indigenous rights, land sovereignty, and the democratization of the Mexican state. Their organizing model has prioritized grassroots, democratic and collective governance models rooted in indigenous municipalities (Marcos, 1995, 2004; Ross, 2006). Through the late 90s, Chiapas became a center of international solidarity efforts. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from Mexico City, the United States, and Europe set up operations to support the Zapatistas, rural development efforts in Chiapas, and the indigenous people’s movement (Ross, 2006).
The Zapatistas understand very well the potential dangers of co-optation from NGOs not accountable to the autonomous communities. Subcomandante Marcos has spoken widely on the absurdity of many NGO-driven aid projects (Ross, 2006). As the indigenous communities of Chiapas do not have the economic resources to fund the professional nonprofit infrastructure of the region, these NGOs continue to be accountable to Mexican and international ruling class funders. At the same time, the Zapatistas have understood the potential value of solidarity and development projects run by NGOs in the construction of local infrastructure, community education projects, aid, and international attention to their struggle.
The Zapatistas developed a specific model of working with NGOs. NGOs are required to submit proposals for their intended projects to the governing councils of the autonomous municipalities. These are reviewed by the organic leadership of the communities. If approved, the NGO can operate in an autonomous Zapatista community. The NGOs are not welcome, however, to influence or control any aspect of the community’s governance, leadership, or organization (Tang, 2007). In one incident during my second stay in Chiapas in 2005, the Zapatistas asked all NGO workers to leave the indigenous communities while they considered some key, movement-wide strategic decisions. Three weeks later the NGO workers were invited back in, and the Zapatistas released the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona Jungle, launching a major national and international campaign against neoliberalism (Marcos, 2005).
The experience of Zapatista-allied activists in the NPIC has offered one of many possible models for the future of nonprofits in the US. Their work foregrounds the value of an autonomous, independent, and democratic infrastructure for community governance of political and economic decisions that is in no way dependent on ruling class funding. Such autonomous spaces can then provide leadership, guidelines, and supervision to nonprofits and NGOs. Such a structure creates a new balance of downwards accountability to offset the upwards accountability created by funding patterns.
The United States largely lacks such a well-organized infrastructure of community control separate from private business, government, or the NPIC. Many movements in the 1960s and 70s offered such a vision of social change organizing free from dependence on funding. Today, many of those movements have disappeared, under the violent repression of FBI and police counterinsurgency; others have become institutionalized into nonprofit agencies. In the context of HIV/AIDS services in New York City, one organization continues to engage in strong organizing without government or foundation support: AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP). ACT-UP is not, however, able to marshal the broad membership base, working-class leadership and developed political power of small membership-based organizing nonprofits like VOCAL-NY. Further, such completely autonomous and non-funded groups can struggle with leadership and control by more privileged individuals who have the economic resources to give large amounts of unpaid free time.
Social service agencies can do a great deal to support the development of mass autonomous movements. Service agencies could begin to develop supportive allegiances with organizations that are more membership-driven and membership-led. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, for example, has developed a close relationship to FIERCE!, a social justice organizing project by and for queer and trans youth of color. While working as the Community Organizer at a large NYC HIV service agency, I often followed the lead of VOCAL in campaign work. The sophistication and scale of their membership-driven process could ethically guide other agencies with fewer forms of institutional accountability to a constituent base.
The many NGOs who support Zapatista organizing have gone even further, recognizing the legitimacy and authority of a large-scale, highly-organized, para-governmental structure representing marginalized people. Through their relationships to the EZLN, many of these nonprofits cannot help but recognize their limitations as organizations based in the global north and dependent on ruling class funding. Instead of trying to control and direct the movement based on a narrow notion of professional expertise, the more ethical and thoughtful of these NGOs recognize the EZLN is a far more legitimate source of direction and authority then the Mexican or US government, or their supportive donors.
While predictions on the future are often inaccurate, it is possible the U.S. will again see the broad emergence of autonomous mass social movements. As nonprofit administrators, we can take leadership from these movements as they take shape.
Part Three: Left Political Education
The extent of our political aspirations, values, and commitments should not be limited to the currently existing terrain of identifiable organizations. As nonprofit workers, we can broaden our analysis and vision beyond the constraints of our current organizations towards developing critical left analysis, long-term revolutionary strategy, and the imaginative process of envisioning alternative social relationships. Without such broader thinking, we will never be able to imagine or actualize substantive solutions to fundamental social problems. We cannot count on foundation support to fund such educational work.
Here I address three techniques to deepen the political analysis of staff beyond the often limited perspectives of funders: anti-oppression trainings, study groups, and left revolutionary organizations.
Anti-oppression trainings are already common among the more progressive of nonprofits, and worth broadening to a wider range of service programs. Ranging from a few hours to several days, these trainings use popular education techniques to link participant’s personal experiences and critical self-reflections to the development of power-based analysis of social injustice, privilege, and their effect on agency practice. Such trainings often focus on a single axis of oppression understood as unusually relevant to the social issues an agency addresses (like race and racism in AIDS movements, for example), or a form of oppression an agency has historically neglected and ignored (like disability or immigration status). Such trainings are often best done by professional consultants with strong activist roots and personal connections to marginalized communities.
Agency study groups are outlined in Social Service and Social Change: A Process Guide, published by the Building Movement Project (2006). They describe a step of “learning,” distinguished from training, explicitly locating learning as a process of critical reflection, as “a process of examining and discussing how your work fits into a larger vision of change” to “question and challenge the ways [you] have typically analyzed and addressed problems, which opens the door to new ways of thinking about [your] work” (Building Movement Project, 2006, p. 11). They suggest forming “learning groups” of staff, with possible inclusion from constituents and the board. They outline a few key features for these learning groups, including support from agency administration, structured time, and the ability to share their insights. The learning groups are charged with asking “why?” and exploring the basic underlying root causes of every issue an agency addresses (Building Movement Project, 2006). These learning groups offer a rare opportunity to develop critical analysis and insight within the nonprofit structure.
Nonprofit professionals can also engage in study groups outside of their places of employment. Here in New York, I have worked with two recent formations: the New York Study Group and the Radical Social Work Group. The New York Study Group met over eight years, bringing together hundreds of community organizers and member leaders from major campaign-based nonprofit organizing projects throughout New York to study Marxist analysis, the history of revolutionary social movements and the role of left organization. The Radical Social Work Group engages social workers, social service employees, volunteers, psychologists and others in ongoing volunteer organizing, discussion and study on social movement building and radical practice.
Lastly, many staff at nonprofit organizations can choose to join a left organization, often in the radical ideological traditions of Marxist-Leninism, anarchism, or revolutionary nationalism. These organizations, while often relatively small and under-engaging the nonprofit sector, can provide a powerful space for developing political analysis, organizing skills and maintaining ongoing relationships of accountability to left movement.
Many nonprofits are already using the techniques I outline here. Others have developed a much broader and extensive range of strategies to address these questions. Many of the organizations that provide the best example of alternative models of nonprofit leadership are rooted in a firm commitment to their mission, to a social change project, and to a vision of social justice. Some, like Project South, explicitly locate their political commitments as far more important then their ongoing survival as a nonprofit organizational entity (Guilloud, et. al., 2007). Those movements accountable to their base and with a clear political project can and do skillful use the nonprofit structure.
The NPIC is a recent historical phenomena, in response to a nexus of factors in the collapse of the insurgent liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s, progressive baby boomers entering into wealth, and the large scale withdrawal of government from providing basic social services (Kivel, 2007; Tang, 2007). Unfortunately, the large professional infrastructure for social change and social services that nonprofits has offered have also come at a cost: a shift of accountability on the left towards private foundations, major donors, and government, and away from marginalized communities. We are left with thousands of nonprofits and NGOs in the US and internationally that fail to inspire the revolutionary social movements we so desperately need. Many of us in the States have become so interpolated in nonprofits, it’s difficult to imagine any other model of social change movement. But imagine we must, and there are activists around the world ready to help.
As social service workers, we must think bigger. Individual service provision and policy advocacy are not enough; this world needs broad, democratic revolutionary movements led by those most brutalized by the horrors of capitalism. Nonprofit workers can change things about how we do our work now. Nonprofits, as the Zapatistas demonstrate, can support the formation of truly autonomous movements without necessarily trying to co-opt and control them. If nonprofits are to be anything besides an obstacle to the revolutionary transformation of society and the liberation of humanity, we must move beyond thinking as professionals, managers, and dutiful employees.
In justice struggles to come, social services can play a major part in developing infrastructures for people to address basic social problems in ways that do not depend on authoritarian coercion or capitalist exploitation. But to do so we must change who we work for, we must change who we listen to, and we must change who we answer to. As social service workers, we must align our loyalties, our vision, and our day-to-day work with those communities that have long led liberation struggles.
- Building Movement Project. (2006). Social service and social change: A process guide. Retrieved May 5, 2008 from http://www.buildingmovement.org/process_guide.pdf.
- Day, R. (2005). Gramsci is dead: Anarchist currents in the newest social movements. Ann Arbor: Pluto Press.
- Elbaum, M. (2006). Revolution in the air: Sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che. New York: Verso.
- Gilmore, R.W. (2007). In the shadow of the shadow state. In INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, ed. The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the nonprofit industrial complex (pp. 41-52). Cambridge: South End Press.
- Guilloud, S. & Cordery, W., Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide. (2007). Fundraising Is Not a Dirty Word: Community-Based Economic Strategies for the Long Haul. In INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, ed. The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the nonprofit industrial complex, (pp. 107-112). Cambridge: South End Press.
- Holloway, J. (2002). Change the world without taking power: The meaning of revolution today. Ann Arbor: Pluto Press.
- INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, ed. (2006). Color of violence. Cambridge: South End Press.
- Kelly, R. (2002). Freedom dreams: The Black radical imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Kivel, P. (2007). Social service or social change? In INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, ed. The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the nonprofit industrial complex, (pp. 129-150). Cambridge: South End Press.
- Lavaca Collective. (2007). Sin patrón: Stories from Argentina’s worker-run factories. (Kohlstedt, K., Trans.). Chicago: Haymarket.
- Marcos, S. (1995). Shadows of a tender fury: The letters and communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Marcos, S. (2004). Ya basta! Ten years of the Zapatista uprising. Oakland: AK Press.
- Marcos, S. (2005). Sixth declaration of the Selva Lacandona. Retrieved May 7, 2008 from http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/5922.
- National Network of Grantmakers. (2001). Grantmakers Directory 2000-2001. San Diego: National Network of Grantmakers.
- Piven, F.F. & Cloward, R.A. (1993). Regulating the poor: The functions of public welfare, 2nd ed. New York: Vintage.
- Rodriguez, D. (2007). The political logic of the non-profit industrial complex. In INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, ed. The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the nonprofit industrial complex, (pp. 21-40). Cambridge: South End Press.
- Ross, J. (2006). ¡Zapatistas! Making another world possible chronicles of resistance 2000-2006. New York: Nation Books.
- Sitrin, M., Ed. (2006). Horizontalism: Voices of popular power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press.
- Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Collective Handbook. Retrieved May 5, 2008 from http://www.srlp.org/documents/collective_handbook.pdf.
- Tang, E. (2007). Non-profits and the autonomous grassroots. In INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, ed. The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the nonprofit industrial complex, (pp. 215-226). Cambridge: South End Press.
About the Rank and Filer and other contributors.