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The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool

Notes on the Road
to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool

Orientation

Many of us active in social movements work closely with nonprofit organizations. The nonprofit system is the way much of our movement infrastructure is organized in the U.S. We take a critical look at the nonprofit system, arguing that reproduces practices, ideologies and material conditions that are in opposition to our goal of a socialist society. We argue that the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) is not a neutral tool, but one that is structurally and ideologically aligned with racial monopoly capitalism.

Moved by the Black Feminist principle that the personal is political, our decision to write this response to the strategy document was informed by our need to make sense of our experiences doing social movement work within nonprofit structures. We have done our best to practice emotional intelligence throughout this process. Boldly confronting the questions we tackle in this article is scary, but we try to be as direct as we can with our arguments.

Within LeftRoots, we are guided by Mao’s conception of unity-struggle-unity as a means of principled engagement as we grow toward the goal of winning 21st century socialism. Engaging criticism about the NPIC challenges much of the work and the material security that many social movement leftists depend on. As such, we expect that reading this will bring up feelings and reactions. As you read, we invite you to breathe and ground yourself in your body, notice what comes up for you and engage with those thoughts and emotions. What do they mean for your work and for our goal of achieving 21st century socialism?

We offer this piece to invite an assessment of the NPIC’s influence on our collective imagination, our prefigurative practice of 21st century socialism, and our day-to-day material reality. We believe that developing this analysis allows us to create strategy that is responsive to the conditions in the NPIC. We look forward to collectively strategizing about what this means for our ambitious plans to achieve 21st century socialism.


Poem: Some Bullshit AKA Another Way

Every day? Maybe every month this year, a friend, comrade, fellow fighter
Kicked to the curb of the industry that dons the lingo and calls itself The Movement.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Talk about being “let go”, fired, severance maybe, push out, union busting, contract not renewed, blocking unemployment really? funding dried up, too loud, too black, not enough
Some bullshit.

Cuts to the core
Of who we are, what we stand for,
Ties severed.
Irreparable.
Harm.

As vicious as the corporation that extracts profit from the worker,
Worker’s body discarded
Disposable, worthless.
We sit for years, trying to put the pieces back together, regain a sense of ourselves, wonder where we went wrong.
Devastation, breakdown, relapse, collapse.

It sounded too good to be true. A paycheck to fight for our collective liberation?
Lulled into complacency, trust
Mission, vision, values sounded right
Thought our relationships were tight.
Trusted that we were in this together, that all of us includes us.
Capitalist logic, hierarchy and control, quieting dissent, targeting and tokenizing the vulnerable.
Turns out,
“Collective liberation” is just what the funders want to see in the proposals.
Empty, hollow, full of shit.
This is not the movement.
The movement is not separate from us, is not something we need to apply for, interview for, get exploited by.
It’s not a secret club for Harvard grads or social enterprise fads.

The movement is ours. All of our deepest longings for freedom, for wholeness, for justice, for truth
Bound together in an unbreakable trust, a forgiving trust, a friendship that is conditioned on realness, loving accountability, not on titles and frequent flyer miles.
Connection to each other, to the planet, to ourselves.

Outside those walls there is magic blooming,
Tears of joy rolling,
Songs raising,
Healing, dignity, and action.
Familiarity, awkwardness.
Action every day. Toward survival, toward resistance, toward love.

There is another way.
Deepening community, relationship, connection.
Taking action. Together.
On the street, at home, when the garbage man passes by, in the Lyft, on the bus, at school, at work
At work.

This is our work:
To be the movement
Our humanity in tact
Everywhere we go.

Introduction

We formed the Nonprofits and Revolutionary Strategy study team to deepen the analysis presented in We Believe That We Can Win, with a focus on the role of the nonprofit sector within the U.S. left. Given that so many LeftRoots cadre do their movement work through nonprofit organizations and the majority of movement infrastructure is housed in nonprofits, we felt it was essential to deepen our collective analysis of the role of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) within racial monopoly capitalism. Our study group wrote this piece in an attempt to bring our lived experience as social movement leftists in the U.S. together with our tools for Marxist theory and analysis into conversation with We Believe That We Can Win.

This piece consists of a poem written by one of our members during this process, a case study of patterns within social justice nonprofits that expose the tensions of doing social justice work within the NPIC, a response to We Believe That We Can Win grounded in Marxist theory, reflection questions, and an annotated bibliography of the resources we used in the development of this analysis.
We use the term Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) as described in Incite! Women of Color Against Violence’s book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.1 The book defines the nonprofit industrial complex as a system of relationships between the state, the owning classes, foundations, and nonprofits that links together political technologies of the state and the financial power of the ruling class, in order to surveil and control public political ideology, especially emergent progressive and left social movements.

The nonprofit industry2 includes a wide range of tax-exempt charitable organizations as designated by the Internal Revenue Service. Within this system are nonprofit organizations of various sizes in terms of budget, staff, and capacity. It also includes public and private foundations and the families and boards that run them, intermediaries and movement support organizations, and the banks and asset managers that manage the wealth of foundations and large nonprofit organizations.

For the purposes of this piece, we focus on social movement nonprofits within the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, who would describe their work as doing or supporting community organizing, social justice, or social change work. These organizations are severely limited from doing political work. Even within this segment, this is a wide variety of organizations, from the foundations that fund progressive organizing to the grassroots organizations that do “on the ground” base-building work, and the intermediaries, consultants, and capacity building organizations that often work between funders and the work on the ground.

Following the destruction of many left organizations and leaders through COINTELPRO, organizers and activists used nonprofit organizations to do mass work, capacity building, and political development to advance and support social movements in the U.S. since the 1980’s. Nonprofit organizations are often the entryway for individuals looking to serve their community or transform society, and have offered social justice movements important opportunities for networking, political education, and training. People who have been trained by or work in social justice nonprofits play key leadership roles in today’s leftist social movements in the U.S. However, we argue that the function of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) in racial monopoly capitalism is to leverage resources to advance neoliberal ideology and the interest of the ruling class in opposition to socialist liberation. The NPIC developed at a political moment when the state had succeeded in destroying left organizations and leaders in the 1960s and 1970s and has since been under the control of capitalist classes to shore up racial monopoly capitalism. The development of the NPIC as we know it today, was a reaction by the capitalist class to contain and liberalize radical movement forces from the 1960’s and 70’s. Alongside the prison industrial complex, the NPIC plays a social control function. With the growing financialization of late stage capitalism, the NPIC is another tool to contain the dispossessed masses. There is a close relationship between the rise of the NPIC and the rise of neoliberal capitalism. As a former League of Revolutionary Struggle cadre and current LeftRoots cadre argued, the response of the ruling class to intense revolutionary upheaval in the 1960s “was to create nonprofit organizations, to show that the systems could take care of people… and to tamp down the rebellion…” Since tools and technologies are never ideologically neutral it is crucial to understand the work of social justice nonprofit management in upholding racial monopoly capitalism. The logic of neoliberalism is clear in the form of income and status maintenance for NPIC bosses and in the dissemination of meager resources that appear more substantial in an era of austerity. The NPIC consists of organizations driven by inherited wealth and replaces the mass membership organizations of earlier eras. The NPIC is a material result of the owning class capturing government power beginning in the 1970s and then destroying government along with mass based, member driven organization (i.e., unions) in order to amplify the power of capital.

The principle contradiction of doing social movement work within the NPIC structure is that the capitalist class will not fund their own demise. As social movement leftists, we must understand the function of the NPIC within the system of racial monopoly capitalism, and have no illusions that this tool is neutral. In fact, the NPIC structure is a key way that the ruling class maintains hegemony within U.S. social movements, limiting our ability to vision a future beyond capitalism. A secondary impediment is that many social movement organizations are seeking to do inherently political work in a system that bans or severely limits their ability to engage in the electoral and political processes. Another barrier is the cooptation of capitalist logic, models, terminology, and other elements of corporate practice within social movement nonprofits in an attempt to be more professional and efficient, leading to a stifling of revolutionary imagination and practice. Furthermore, social movement nonprofits, in their acceptance of this form of organization, cause harm to the workers and members, and weaken radical social movements.

NPIC as Neoliberal Market Solution to Crises of Capitalism

The nonprofit sector performs a role made necessary by the diminished role of the state and social safety nets. Neoliberalism gutted the state’s social welfare capacities and simultaneously accelerated an NPIC funded by wealth extracted from the earth and the people, that in the Keynesian era3 would have been taxed. In lieu of the state, non-profits (and for-profits) perform (some of) the previously governmental social functions (i.e., charter schools instead of public schools, food pantries instead of food stamps, homeless shelters instead of public housing, prisons instead of mental health hospitals, for profit colleges rather than state-financed higher education, etc.).

Privatization is a key element of neoliberalism, and an analysis of the NPIC reveals how deeply the system is implicated in providing private solutions to social problems. In Decolonizing Wealth Edgar Villanueva argues that : “The basis of traditional philanthropy is to preserve wealth, and that wealth is fundamentally money that’s been twice stolen, once through the exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor, and the second time, through tax evasion.” Foundations keep the wealth of the 1% under private control to avoid the redistributive role of public taxation. In fact, foundations are a tool for concentrating capital by transforming surplus value into additional capital: the majority of foundation assets are reinvested in the stock market, generating an average of 8% in investment income, while only 5-6% total goes toward their operating costs, staff salaries, and a meager percentage to grants. Nonprofit organizations are limited in their political work in order to maintain their tax-deductible status granted by the state. For example, 501(c)(3) organizations cannot engage in explicit electoral work, endorse candidates, and can only educate lawmakers on issues. Foundations and nonprofits are structurally unaccountable to the base that they purport to serve or organize. Operating within this privatized system based on tax avoidance limits our ability to make demands on the state, or envision the role of a socialist state as a tool for wealth redistribution.

Ideologically, the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) has emerged as a neoliberal approach to social change, prioritizing ‘return on philanthropic investment’. As the NPIC has grown in the last few decades (there were 1.41 million nonprofits in 2013 and 1.6 million in 2016), the sector has been increasingly legitimized by the ruling classes as a career. In parallel, the sector has been increasingly legitimized by the movement left, as the ‘organizer’ career is institutionalized. As the sector is professionalized, some of the movement left’s base are excluded from nonprofits (e.g., due to low wages, mismatched skills). Without a nonprofit badge, ideological leftists and radical activists are sometimes pushed to the fringe in a political moment when we need to recruit and sustain a much broader base.

Nonprofits are currently a dominant vehicle for movement leftists to engage in politics, capacity-building, and relationship-building in the United States. Yet, that vehicle is also serving as a gatekeeper to social justice movements, one that is specifically shaped to advance neoliberal goals (e.g., short-term reforms) and entrench neoliberal management structures (e.g., executive and managerial hierarchies). A market-based solution to activism not only compromises our outcomes, but also the underpinning ideologies. These tensions limit our revolutionary potential.

The NPIC produces the cultural and ideological conditions that maintain racial monopoly capitalism by limiting the vision of the social movement left that is organized within this system. In arguing against simplistic notions of base and superstructure in the process of production, Raymond Williams analyzes a “footnote in the Grundrisse [by Marx] in which it is argued that a piano-maker is a worker, engaged in productive labor, but that a pianist is not, since his labour is not labour which reproduces capital.” Highlighting the inadequacy of “industrial materialism,” Williams points to the material production of culture “with “specific conditions and intentions.” Marx’s inability to see the work of the piano player as productive reflects a slippage between notions of production in general and capitalist production in particular. With the example of the piano player, Williams points out that Marx ignores the ways the pianist’s labor4 can reproduce capital depending on how it is commodified. We find this discussion of cultural and ideological production useful for our analysis of the US Nonprofit Industrial Complex. Williams argues that the piano player is no less a producer of commodities and that ignoring the role of cultural production obscures the “whole material process” and the myriad ways in which racial monopoly capitalism sustains itself.

Reproducing Power through Class Structure

The class structure in We Believe That We Can Win alludes to the nonprofit system by locating philanthropic foundation officers in the operative layer of the professional managerial class. Below we describe how the class structure is reproduced within the nonprofit system and how power of different class sectors plays out within this structure. As with any sector within capitalism, the goal of the NPIC is to extract as much from workers as possible. Each level of the class structure is reflected in and reproduced within the Nonprofit Industrial Complex:

The capitalist class engages in the nonprofit system as founders, donors, and trustees of tax-exempt foundations, which, alongside individual donations from this class, provide the vast majority of funding to social justice nonprofits. The capitalist class acts as the funders for social movement nonprofits within the NPIC, often shaping movement strategy through their investments. Funders co-opt movement language to draw in movement leaders to believe that their financial resources are a necessary ingredient to build working class power.

Within the operative layer of the professional managerial class are organizations that act as political operatives, such as the Center for American Progress which serves as a think tank closely aligned with the Democratic Party. This layer also includes political strategists and NPIC lobbyists who see major donors and funders as their key targets, and seek to influence the financial investments of the capitalist class in their issue areas. Within the executive layer of the professional managerial class are foundation program officers, lobbyists, think tank intellectuals, and the board members of large nonprofit organizations. Within upwardly mobile segments, this class sector derives from many different class origins, including the most and least privileged layers of the working class. In the U.S. there is a privileged layer identified in WBTWCW as the professional managerial class working in the non-profit sector. In the social justice wing of the NPIC, these managerial professionals have elevated status and relatively comfortable incomes and must operate within the narrow confines of a 501(c)3 and (c)4 structure. The managerial class in nonprofits earn disproportionate income derived from the intellectual and emotional labor of nonprofit workers and unpaid members within the working class tier.

Together, the capitalist and professional managerial classes comprise “the exploiting classes of racial monopoly capitalism, and represent the core opposition to socialist liberation”. The exploiting classes that fund nonprofits and drive their strategy are acting in the interests of maintaining capitalism. This class drives the ideological agenda of left social movements through nonprofits. These entities are the main source for studies and reports on the organizing landscape and they seek to drive strategy by encouraging or requiring collaboration among their grantees. No wonder WBTWCW assesses that, “Overall, there is not a coherent national left strategy, leaving people to do their own thing either as individuals or as organizations and networks that are overly shaped by philanthropy.” In fact, the hegemony of the social justice nonprofit system means that the most coherent strategy on the left is coming from the exploiting classes of racial monopoly capitalism.

Within the social movement nonprofit sector, the small scale capitalist class is represented by consultants through firms or independently who contract their work to nonprofits doing anything from strategic planning, grant writing, facilitation, communications, or organizing work. As in the broader economy, the conditions of this class may be very similar to the working class, and is defined by the selling of their labor.

In the upper layer of the working class are professional salaried nonprofit staff at organizations that rely on foundation funding. The middle layer of the working class includes paid organizers and administrative staff and the lower levels of the organization, often working on an hourly, temporary, or contract basis. The least paid layer of the nonprofit sector includes temporary workers, volunteers, and service clients and members of the base who often contribute significant unpaid time to organizing and movement work. There is a trend toward paying members to do work for these organizations through investments in travel, leadership development programs, stipends, short-term contracts, or hourly pay for work like canvassing. However, the majority of members of the base, who are often within the hyper exploited layer of the working class and the least class privileged within the NPIC, do their movement work without pay.

Case Study: Being a Worker Inside a Social Movement Nonprofit

We were drawn to a study of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex by our lived experiences as workers in social movement nonprofits. We want to be explicit about the harm that nonprofits are capable of within our movement. We argue that this harm is unavoidable under the current nonprofit environment and that our experience reveal symptoms of a system rotted by its relationship to the ruling class and the state. We recognize that some nonprofits are reducing harm and doing good work by making hard choices towards accountability and self-awareness over financial sustainability and growth, but this has not been our experience. While many of these dynamics around bosses and workers are the same as with any job in capitalism, the “mission-driven” set up of social movement nonprofits obscures power relations and encourages social justice nonprofit employees not to think of themselves as workers.

This case study is based on two authors’ experiences working for social movement nonprofits. It includes our observations and experiences after working at three different social justice nonprofits in California, with annual organizational budgets of under $3 million and staff sizes ranging from nine to thirty people. The nuanced narrative exemplifies the contradictions we explore throughout the larger piece and how they play out in real life, harming nonprofit workers, members, and our collective power for revolutionary change. As workers who entered the full-time workforce after the 2008 recession, at a time when the nonprofit sector is at its largest in history, we argue that our experiences in social movement nonprofits offer important insight to understanding our current conjuncture. We are also carrying experiences of struggle within nonprofit organizations including unionizing and other forms of opposing oppressive dynamics.

Trigger Warning: we uncover some hard and ugly shit that might resonate with you if you’ve ever worked for a social justice nonprofit.


Did you experience collective decision-making at your social justice nonprofit job?

In the organizations we’ve worked for, hiring, campaigns, actions, and budget tend to be decided by Board of Directors or Executive Director.

Did you feel the Board of Directors at your last nonprofit job felt accountable to the base of the organization?

Some Board of Directors members, because appointed, feel unaccountable to a base. We have seen them make decisions based on their knowledge without consulting with staff or the base. On more than one occasion, Board members chose to conduct feedback sessions with leaders without consulting or involving the organizers who developed and executed the program they sought to evaluate.

Talk to me about who gets hired for the type of work you do and the level of support you felt.

The last organization I worked for put anti-oppressive hiring practices in place. However, when it came time to apply these practices there was no accountability. The Executive Director exerted her power to make a hiring decision that a majority of staff were in disagreement with, hiring a white woman with class and educational privilege at a housing justice organization with a leader base of predominantly poor Black women.

Additionally, the women of color on staff were not offered opportunities to move up in the organization. The only time the organization diligently applied anti-oppressive hiring practices was when hiring for community organizer positions because it was understood that those working directly with the base should reflect the base. Once hired, there was little to no mentorship for these staff members. The diverse staff members in lower-level positions and their ‘commitment to hire from the base’ were flaunted to funders and ally organizations while not meeting these staff’s basic needs much less supporting them to thrive (financially and otherwise).

Did you ever consider unionizing?

We have witnessed many unionizing efforts shut down by management. In our own inquiry effort with people we knew at these organizations, we learned that employees seeking to unionize were gaslighted and eventually pushed out of the organization. Employees are sold this idea that self-sacrifice for the sake of the non-profit’s work is necessary for the movement and that their desire for better working conditions are selfish, immature and not grounded in revolutionary strategy. We full-heartedly believe that the self-determination of non-profit employees should be uplifted and respected and that unionizing is a key strategy for this within our current context.

Talk to me about the limitations and consequences of the decision-making structure.

At the last non-profit organization I worked for, big campaign decisions had to go through our Board of Directors. Our Board of Directors was made up of high-level staff at other non-profit organizations with more centrist politics than ours. Often they would curtail staff and member leader efforts to push for more radical measures and to make bolder strategic moves to move our campaigns forward. For example, we couldn’t take up a fight that the base wanted (tenant rights) because it was a challenge to the work of Board members (some of whom were landlords).

What was the most frustrating part about relying on funders to do the work?

During our time in the organization there were times when the leadership pushed to be part of coalition efforts not because the spaces were transformative or would get us closer to making necessary shifts in the systems that we were targeting but rather because funders were looking at the issue at hand as the new thing to fund. This led to organizations working together to access funds and to show funders that they were working together. This creates a tear and halts the work that is needed to envision and it even more so, we witnessed leadership losing track of the organization’s vision that then impacted the overall work of the organization. It leads to a cooptation of the work, tokenizing member leaders, and overall hurting the fights we take on because there is no grounding in purpose.

We saw that once there was a small win the funders move on to funding something else and this creates more harm to our member leaders and staff as well because that win doesn’t really create the impact that it needs to. There is often a lack of follow through on implementation because that work is often not funded.

What did you understand about what it took to be valued in the organization? Did you feel valued in the organization?

During my time as a community organizer I often got feedback about the timeliness of my emails. During evaluations, I was always assessed on emails, spreadsheets, how I implemented tasks in general but seldomly was I checkedin about my visions and strategies. This told me that if I respond to emails right away meant that I was doing my job well, that sending emails was more of a priority than spending time thinking about the vision of the organization.

This also extends to how black and brown staff’s behavior is policed and regulated. I remember one of my co-workers constantly being asked if she was upset because she wasn’t smiling and wouldn’t extend friendship to others on staff. I along with her were not taken seriously because of the ways we would speak, communicate and ultimately not fit in the organization’s culture which was rooted in white professionalism.

What was something about the work that really surprised you?

The emotional labor required of organizers is not often detailed in the job description, much less compensated. It is however an implicit expectation and is essential to win campaigns and increase the base. Organizations exploit employees’ commitment to larger societal transformation to squeeze out this labor.

I realized that because I care about the issue and also the leadership of member leaders because they are my community I was putting in more than 40 hours of work, had late night meetings, worked evenings in the weekends and threw down in whatever else the organization needed because I believed in the work. I began to notice that It was becoming hard to say no and personal/professional boundaries were blurred and not respected.

What stifled your growth?

Because all the energy is focused on winning campaigns and reaching the mission of the organization there was no focus on dealing with and setting structures to engage in the trauma that members and staff that are impacted by the issues have. This created a culture where staff and members are exploiting the experiences that have been traumatic to reach others and add passion to the work and the organization benefits at that expense.

Did you feel limited in the work that you were able to do at your nonprofit?

Because of the role that the organization held in movement and policy spaces we were often asked to take clear stances on the side of justice and join left-leaning coalitions. However, stances and some of the coalitions we were asked to join were seen as a threat to our donors and their goals so we had to refuse to participate or take a stand. When we refused we were not allowed to be honest about why and often hid behind “strategy”.

Did you feel the organization was accountable to the base they organized?

During one of our coalition meetings, facilitated by a staff member at an ally organization that provided funding to the non-profit I worked for, I noticed that member-leaders were continuously shut down when expressing their ideas and offering solutions that should have been prioritized in our struggle. The member-leaders that I worked with continued to share their strategy proposals and eventually got yelled at and made to feel that their knowledge was of no value to the coalition. Following that meeting, I requested a meeting with my supervisor to propose that we leave that space because of the harmful way leaders were treated. The response that I received was that because they funded our organization we couldn’t step down from the coalition.

As a community organizer I experienced the difficulty of devoting time and energy to supporting the continous growth of our leaders. There was an expectation that our member base would multiply in size year after year, and resources for a leadership program for new members, but we had to advocate to create leadership programs for existing leaders and resources to our staff time in supporting cadre development. Money flowed in to support recruitment but not retention of member leaders.

Talk to me about what you learned from how social justice nonprofits compensate workers?

The organizations we’ve worked with have huge wage gaps between program staff (organizers, direct service providers) and higher level staff (managers, directors) and don’t put resources where their values are at. They pay organizers below living wage salaries while managers and directors take home 10-50k more.

What was something about the way that resources get allocated that really surprised you?

We often got resources allocated for specific campaigns, like passing a ballot measure or a legislative effort, but not for general political education or member development. Campaign timelines and the inconsistent flow of resources meant that we couldn’t focus on intersectional social justice efforts with other organizations, our work was often siloed and coalition efforts that pushed our work to the left was often underfunded and understaffed. For example, because we worked on housing justice issues, our political education focused on housing justice and there was little room for connecting the dots or working on efforts that were just as relevant as tenant rights to the struggle for housing justice.

How did this impact members?

It contributed to the underdevelopment of leaders was that organizations sometimes hogged leaders, wanting their full capacity to be dedicated to their organization because of the ‘investment in their leadership’. Signaling a scarcity vs. abundance mindset as well as ownership/ exploitation of member leaders.

In your experience, what is the expectation that your nonprofit organization had around work hours?

One of our directors came in to speak with me. Someone had just been fired and as her direct supervisor the director was making the rounds talking with staff in an attempt to explain, and assuage fear of this happening to them. She explained to me that there were no bad feelings towards this person, and that she simply wasn’t a good fit. She went on to tell me that a good employee does the work of five people, and letting someone go because they didn’t meet this standard was the right thing to do for the organization’s long-term sustainability. I pondered on this, knowing that although I probably do the work of five people it’s not fair to hold people to this standard. I smiled and gave her my appreciation for taking the time to speak with me on the matter.

Additionally, the last organization I worked for had a two-person organizing team. I learned that after my coworker and I left (the two organizers on the team) they hired one person to do our job. The leaders I keep in touch with reach out constantly to express their dismay at the lack of support and some have decided to drop out after feeling that the lack of capacity keeps them uninformed and feeling like they are no longer a priority.

What do you feel that the expectation to work as if you were multiple people was rooted in?

At the non-profits I have worked for we often have funding deliverables that require us to work uncompensated overtime. As salaried employees we come in on the weekends to meet the numbers or simply have to work long hours to meet deadlines. We meet promises but the resources don’t cover staff time.


Class suicide

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Audre Lorde

One of the defenses of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex from leftists who run nonprofits is that nonprofits are just a tool we can use to do revolutionary work. We argue that the NPIC is not a neutral tool, but rather a master’s tool as Lorde describes it. Working in a social movement nonprofit puts us squarely in a neoliberal institution, within the master’s house, where our interests as a working-class are obscured and our strategies and practices become aligned with the capitalist class interests that drive the system. For those in professionalized movement work, the NPIC may feed pessimism5 that there is no alternative social and economic system.

We argue that the class sector of the professional managerial class and small-scale capitalists within nonprofit management and consulting is most strongly correlated with Cabral’s notion of the petty bourgeoisie. Like Cabral’s nationalist petty bourgeoisie, the nonprofit managerial class is closely connected with the ruling class and plays a mediating role between capital and the working class within a structure that ultimately serves to keep the capitalist classes in power. In Cabral’s view, in order to align with the working classes to achieve national liberation and ultimately socialism, the petty bourgeoisie had “to strengthen its revolutionary consciousness, reject the temptations of becoming more bourgeois and the natural concerns of its class mentality.” To not betray the revolution, the task of the petty bourgeoisie was to identify with the working classes to such an extent that they committed class suicide. Cabral said that committing class suicide was necessary for the petty bourgeoisie to be reborn as revolutionary workers, “completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.” Because many cadre within LeftRoots exist within this class position in the nonprofit system, the issues raised by Cabral in “The Weapon of Theory” are relevant to the development of strategy and the process of cadrefication toward the goal of winning 21rst century socialism.

To choose class suicide, the development of our class analysis and class consciousness is necessary. We have little practice doing grounded assessments or analysis of our class positions and the interests of our class. Class in the U.S. is complicated, but as social movement leftists it is necessary for us to have a strong class analysis. This also means understanding our own class position, interests, and influences. In many cases our revolutionary work and vision of a 21st century socialist society goes against the self-interest of our class position. Our current class position may be different from the way we were raised, or even during childhood our class experience may have changed due to a parent losing a job or getting a new job. For example, someone raised in a working class household who attended an elite private university and works as a staff organizer at a nonprofit with a budget of $1 million is likely navigating multiple class interests and influences within their own life and thinking on a daily basis. Similarly, someone raised working class or poor who is now in a role of Executive Director of an organization and spends time fundraising from wealthy donors and professional foundation representatives is also navigating multiple interests and influences. Of course class experience and position is compounded by our experience of white supremacy, class oppression, cisheteropatriarchy and other oppressions.

It is crucial to question the function of the NPIC in the development of revolutionary strategy. What is the effect of NPIC structures, which mimic the structures of corporations, on our revolutionary potential? In what ways does doing social movement work within the NPIC limit our ability to develop leadership and capacities to enhance our chances of winning 21st century socialism? As cadre argues, truly revolutionary work will not be funded in the long run within this system “if it’s independent and if it’s really pushing against things in the way it needs to. So, there will be fewer and fewer of those jobs and we have to transition into an understanding of our organizing work as what we do, without our jobs at the center.”

What’s Next

Many of us are engaged in movement work within the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, and this system is an integral part of objective conditions in our conjuncture. We argue that the NPIC is a master’s tool that reinforces class hierarchies, and we recognize that there is much more analysis to be done to tease out the strategic implications of this argument. Developing our analysis of these issues will develop our capacities as cadre, strengthen our development of revolutionary strategy toward the goal of 21st century socialism in the U.S.

In the short-term, we believe that there are opportunities to use social movement nonprofits that we work within to test radical governance, develop political analysis and strategy development, and build revolutionary capacities. At a minimum, nonprofits aligned with social movements should support and encourage unionization, limit unpaid overtime, pay a living wage, establish equitable pay scales and invest in collective care resources and practices that support the hard work of staff organizers. Different organizational models such as organizer co-ops and voluntary associations should be explored as viable substitutes for the 501(c)(3) as new social movement groups are forming. It is crucial to explore grassroots fundraising and other ways of leveraging resources outside of foundations. It is also important that organizations develop strategy about what foundation funding to seek and to be clear about the tensions between organizational growth and sustainability, on one hand, and the advancement of revolutionary work on the other.

It is our hope that this piece will generate debate and strengthen our collective analysis of racial monopoly capitalism. The Nonprofits and Revolutionary Strategy Study Team will continue to meet to further explore contradictions and tensions. We are heartened by the interest LeftRoots cadre have expressed in this question and we look forward to engaging cadre with different experiences within and outside of nonprofits on these questions.


Reflection Questions

  1. What emotional reactions did you have as you read this piece and what meaning do you make of these emotional reactions?
  2. Where does this case study speak to your own movement and/or work experience? Where does it differ?
  3. If the NPIC is a tool for suppressing radical movement, what does this mean for how we struggle within this system?
  4. What can we learn from formations organizing outside of state-recognized NGO structures in the U.S. and Global South in the past and present?
  5. How do leftists currently use nonprofit organizations to build revolutionary capacities? What are the possibilities and limitations?
  6. Where have you been positioned in this class hierarchy? Does this argument challenge your material reality or source of income? How has your positionality impacted how you navigate the NPIC?
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