“The revolution will not be funded”

A report, albeit slightly belated, on "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex," a panel discussion last week at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago on the issues raised in the new anthology of the same name:

  • Moderator Beth Richie (faculty, University of Illinois at Chicago) began by introducing the work of anthology sponsor and panel co-sponsor Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, an organization "committed to challenging the white feminist agenda about violence," noting that it had enjoyed a brief period as a foundation darling until funders noticed Incite’s position linking intimate partner violence to state violence.  Thus: the revolution will not be funded.
  • Panelist Dylan Rodriguez (faculty, University of California at Riverside) presented the evening’s theoretical underpinning, urging the audience to take seriously the language used by those in power–the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on terrorism–and recognize that we are being warred upon.  He described a symbiotic relationship between the "establishment Left/Non-Profit Industrial Complex" (meaning foundations and social service agencies) and the political and financial elite, an alliance that controls public discourse.  This relationship makes nonprofits "the political arm of state-sanctioned violence."  Rodriguez condemned "the velvet purse of state repression" and charged charities with "amputing our political agenda" to maintain 501(c)(3) status.
  • Alice Cottingham (executive director, Girl’s Best Friend Foundation) then had the unenviable task of defending philanthropy, which she did largely by introducing facts: that her foundation (among others) had funded Incite’s radical critique of domestic violence orthodoxy even as some higher-profile philanthropies turned away; that foundations are the cheapest/easiest source of funds for large-scale activities, though there are certainly costs to taking their money; and that foundations are a diverse crew: "If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation."  As a result, "Having foundation support does not equal selling out, and not having it doesn’t equal purity or effectiveness," she said, noting that downstate Illinois is equally lacking in foundations and in radical social change.  She then raised some slightly less radical questions for charities to ask of foundations, including "Who is the foundation?" (staff, Board, donor); "What would it mean if foundations weren’t set up to last forever?"; and "Why don’t you give out non-501(c)(3) money when every foundation can?" (don’t accept "It’s too much trouble" as an answer).  She acknowledged that the fact that good people work at foundations is separate from the question whether the so-called Non-Profit Industrial Complex is a bad thing, but suggested "communities can hold foundations accountable by knowing their allies from their enemies."
  • Will Cordery (development director, Project South) recounted his community-organizing group’s discovery that taking foundation money soon resulted in following the money instead of the group’s own agenda, and that in fact Project South didn’t get more community organizing done with the extra money but just expanded its money-chasing bureaucracy.  He also argued that grassroots fundraising is part of movement-building: his group is accountable to the community because the community pays the bills.  "The base will stop contributing when they feel it’s no longer valuable–and it’s ok if a nonprofit doesn’t last forever, either."  He also noted that year-long grant cycles interfere with long-term change, while acknowledging that at the moment Project South gets 60% of its money that way, with the rest coming from membership and other grassroots sources.  He then made a series of arguments from practicality: the South has relatively few foundations so organized philanthropy isn’t a good source for Southern groups; individual giving is sustainable; foundation dollars produce pressure to grow that may or may not be appropriate to the group.
  • Paula Rojas (veteran of the Sista II Sista collective and member of the Pachamama collective, both in New York) suggested that Americans (and their charities) have a "cop in the head," that is, a tendency to concede power and ask permission of external forces before going out to get what they want and need.  In a society so replete with excess wealth, it may make sense to organize as a nonprofit to get hold of some of it, but that’s not a method of resistance or of making radical change.  "It’s like there’s a superhighway with SUVs on it, but then there’s also this smaller road and we’re on it in our hybrid cars and we’re using our bio-fuels and we’re very satisfied with ourselves for not being on the superhighway–until we notice that our smaller road just runs around and around and around in circles."  She offered her own organizing experiences, in Latin America and in collectives, as an alternative: the groups are independent of grants and sustained by everyone’s having another job or two or three, or perhaps by one person’s having a job to support the others, though she noted that even after years of working together there wasn’t yet enough trust in her collective for people to simply share all they owned (she thought forming relationships with non-US groups might provide the necessary jolt of collectivism).  She also acknowledged that there were two (at least) radical choices: one to change institutions, the other to create autonomous institutions that don’t rely on the Non-Profit Industrial Complex–"Divest from the state, live as if the revolution were here, and then ask questions: ‘How would we manage partner violence?’" 
  • Comments from the audience–

"Reform makes space for radicals."   (Charities and philanthropies have a role to play.)

"How do we get off the grid?"  (What’s the real-world solution to the need for funds?)

"We should pay attention to our own language–we’re not at war with each other."  (That was the Nonprofiteer herself, who for a complete change of pace was in a room where she was furthest to the right.  Professor Rodriguez responded that he’d chosen his language deliberately and that it was literally true: contemporary foundations had grown out of meetings with police authorities designed to suppress the anti-state radicalism of the late 1960s.)   

Additional conversations on the subject–entitled slightly less definitively, "Can the Revolution Be Funded by the Non-Profit Industrial Complex?"–are taking place throughout this week in Chicago and environs, sponsored by the Public Square program of the Illinois Humanities Council

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5 Responses to ““The revolution will not be funded””

  1. Sara Says:

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing. Sounds like this discussion brought up a lot of things I’ve struggled to make sense of as a fundraiser for a community education non-profit. I liked this: “symbiotic relationship between the “establishment Left/Non-Profit Industrial Complex” (meaning foundations and social service agencies) and the political and financial elite.”

    On bad days, I feel like my job is just reshuffling the wealth to fill gaps (via service provision) in what is truly a social justice issue. Why do we have to beg corporate zillionaires to give money so children can have basic services? Is this the most efficient way to meet community needs, or are we just playing chutes and ladders in the social-economic heirarchy? The way we operate without changing the larger structures all feels a bit stop-gap. Guess this is a bad day.

  2. Harold Says:

    NP — Thank you for a full and accurate report (I was there too).
    Sara — If you’re seeing the underlying structure (why exactly should the public good of children’s education depend on private fundraising?), maybe it’s a good day after all. That’s what the panelists would say, anyhow.

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I’m thrilled to encounter challenges to the cult of private money, and to foundations in particular; I was just taken aback by the tone of some of the attacks on them. Rather than spend our time bitching about foundations (which are, after all, by definition extensions of private wealth), let’s get busy restoring the estate tax so that the public sector can do its job.

  4. Sara Bumsted Says:

    I wonder if this discussion has ever touched upon leadership. This could be considered from the vantage point of nonprofits struggling against the complex or even how NPs orient themselves in communities. It is also interesting in light of how the Zapatistas define and deal with leadership within their power structure.

  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I’d like to hear more about the intersection of leadership and dependence on, or freedom from, institutional philanthropy. It would be great to think that ably-led charities would be able to support themselves by direct appeals to clients and their communities rather than by begging for crumbs from the foundation table, and indeed as a consultant I always encourage agencies to strengthen their leadership (in the form of Boards of Directors) to do just that. The best way to get off the grid, in other words, is to choose a new grid consisting of the wider community. Having said that, though, organizational development of that kind takes time, and time is precisely what the leaders of grassroots nonprofits have least of. (Well, I guess MONEY is actually what they have least of; but time is a close second.) So advocating that agencies rooted in impoverished communities develop their leadership means advocating that they get funding to do so–which sends them back to the so-called Nonprofit Industrial Complex! I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the subject.

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