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Beyond Nonprofits, Toward Change

Oct 22, 2019

October 22, 2019 18:34

By Annabel Vera

As we try to figure out what DSA chapters should even be doing, it’s tempting to borrow shelf-ready trainings, campaigns, governance structures, leadership styles, and even philosophies from the nonprofit world. But this is a shortcut that ultimately jeopardizes the political mission of DSA and wastes some of our greatest strengths. It’s been asserted that the nonprofit industrial complex is a handmaiden to neoliberal capitalism and overall serves to stifle radical movement s with patronizing sleights of hand developed by a highly trained managerial layer of professional organizers also known as the coordinator class. Despite their individual intentions, members of this coordinator class typically take direction from wealthy elites in their efforts to advance benevolent social controls over the dispossessed poor using methods modeled after private business. It is thus unlikely that materials from the nonprofit world can be reappropriated for DSA’s radical purposes.

Most nonprofits are structurally unable to address the roots of social problems because, as entities, they are far more similar to businesses than anything else and have motivations as such.

  1. They would not work toward their own obsolescence. Nonprofits want to stay in business and want to stay relevant, thus they will seek “symbiotic solutions” to social problems that ensure their own survival as much as for the populations they serve. They are driven to make themselves indispensable within their marketplace by becoming the sole providers of critical services.
  2. Most nonprofits are grant- and donor-funded, which means they are beholden to the wills of established institutions and moneyed elites, not to the population they serve or to an independent political program. Often times these grantors and donors have their own political agendas and use nonprofits as foot soldiers to conduct their world-building, and when nonprofit workers push back or fail to comply, they’re choked of resources by grantors and threatened by their boards with layoffs, reorganization, or liquidation.
  3. Most nonprofits receive direction from advisory boards or boards of directors made up of these top donors and influential “stakeholders,” further increasing elite influence over the material output of these nonprofits and subjecting impacted populations to the wills of a small patronizing few.
  4. Nonprofits extract surplus value from their employees just like any business and tend to have abnormally high rates of worker exploitation that they justify by claiming moral righteousness and alleging that their clients depend on them for survival, despite their hand in creating these patterns of dependence for their own profiteering and longevity in the first place.

Beyond the clear conflicts of interest that limit nonprofits’ ability to affect change, there’s an underlying philosophy within the nonprofit world that idealizes addressing social problems using the logic of commodity markets and technocratic social controls. Nonprofits aim to direct advocacy, resources, and behavior modifications (sometimes framed as education, skills training, or wellness workshops) on an individual basis as if they’re consumer goods and services, all the while avoiding direct political conflict. In this landscape, coordinator class professionals function as gatekeeping resource brokers or expert concierges for those seeking services. And nonprofit workers can internalize these ideas, seeing themselves in a savior role, paying it forward to their less-privileged clients.

They also fit conveniently within a neoliberal schema of privatization because they are designed to be stopgaps against the myriad social crises that emerge after universal public assistance programs are decimated by austerity. Nonprofits exist to replace democratically determined, universal redistribution programs with elite-controlled, quasi-feudal patronage. In short, nonprofits capitalize on crisis by resolving social problems on behalf of those they serve in place of the state. Radicals are often allured to the nonprofit world in hopes they can contribute to a good cause and even alter their organizations for the better, but nonprofit workers with radical politics usually can’t resist the roles and structures they find themselves in.

So why would DSA seek to borrow from the nonprofit world? Aren’t there better institutions and legacies to borrow from?

Despite our circumstantial collaboration with nonprofits toward shared short-term goals, the means and ends of DSA run distinct from those of the nonprofit industrial complex. DSA seeks to dismantle institutions and power structures that give wealthy elites the power to determine workers’ lives. DSA seeks to win worker self-determination, institute political democracy, and redistribute wealth by means of a mass popular movement. DSA seeks not only to relieve the suffering of the working class but to empower the working class by and for itself. Meanwhile, nonprofits fill the gaps of our decimated social safety net in a way that sustains our dysfunctional status quo political system and gives unaccountable social control to a wealthy few over the lives of countless dispossessed people.

Instead of taking shortcuts by borrowing ideas and materials from nonprofits, DSA should do the hard intellectual work of studying the legacy of the socialist movement and seeking wisdom and inspiration from our predecessors. We should also look to our many international counterparts who are building socialist political parties now. DSA should critically assess our opportunities for victory in class struggle and invent appropriate practices in response. We should seek to discover our abilities as agents of change for our own liberation, not managers of a paint-by-numbers social movement determined by self-ordained experts-slash-saviors. We should also look to DSA’s unique quality of being member-funded as a source of strength and independence. Rather than being at the whims of wealthy do-gooders and shadowy boards of directors, DSA is accountable only to ourselves. DSAers should look beyond the nonprofit model and realize our power and potential for collective liberation using our leverage as socialist workers.

And if you do work for a nonprofit, recognize that you are an agent of change – but not because of your expertise, or your access to resources, or your special passion for humanitarian aid. You’re an agent of change in the same way the rest of us are – in your social position as a worker. So if you are a nonprofit worker, consider contributing to the movement for socialism by fighting for your own liberation from wealthy elites by waging class conflict at work and starting a union.

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