Funding Revolutions?

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

Aileen Anderson

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded:
Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.
Edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.
Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007
256 pages, $18 paperback.

NEARLY EVERY PERSON I have encountered who is seeking liberation from the various oppressive-isms of this world has asked the fundamental question, “How do I free myself (and others) from such an insidious system?”

For many, the answer has been to counter the profit/state paradigm through non- profit/non-government work. But even that option almost always comes with the contradiction of being sustained by the very system you are seeking to undo.

In The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, editors INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence explore this essential conflict in an collection of engaging, insightful and provocative essays. The book’s timing couldn’t be more pertinent.

The introduction, by INCITE! co-founder Andrea Smith, offers historical background on the non-profit complex and outlines the questions guiding the work. The book is divided into three sections: “The Rise of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” “Non-Profits and Global Organizing,” and “Rethinking Non-Profits, Reimagining Resistance.”

While the sectioning is somewhat useful, nearly all the essays contained elements of each: In the second section, for example, Project South’s contribution “Fundraising Is Not a Dirty Word: Community-Based Economic Strategies for the Long Haul” discusses justice work that uses a model which rejects traditional fundraising subject to the fickle trends and tastes of the elite-controlled foundations. (This essay seemed more qualified for section three.)

In the third section, Eric Tang’s “non-profits and the autonomous grassroots” even includes Project South and his evaluation of non-profits, the Left and the prospects in civil society. And similar to Project South, Nicole Burrowes, Morgan Cousins, Paula X. Rojas and Ije Ude relate Sista II Sista’s experience with moving beyond the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex” (NPIC) in their contribution “on our own terms: ten years of radical community building with Sista II Sista.”

As we face a potential political watershed in this country, and consequently the world, the questions of what direction will take us towards real meaningful change are of utmost importance. Also, at a time when the oppressions of the current dominating systems become more and more severe by the day (particularly economically in the United States), the critiques offered presage solutions that will not simply “manage” the symptoms but revolutionize the problem.

As the New York Times has reported recently, this country is entering what is, in effect, another Gilded Age. In her introduction Smith writes:

“When wealthy people create foundations, they’re exempt from paying taxes on their wealth. Thus foundations essentially rob the public of monies that should be owed to them and give back very little of what is taken in lost taxes. In addition, their funds are derived from profits resulting from the exploitation of labor.  That is, corporations become rich by exploiting their workers. Corporate profits are then put into foundations in order to provide ‘relief’ to workers that are the result of corporate practices in the first place.” (9)

This is a point I have been wondering about for years, and I think an important element of this volume. In Christine E Ahn’s “Democratizing American Philanthropy,” and Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande’s “The Filth on Philanthropy,” the analysis of how the non-profit complex allows for the perpetuation of the elite agenda under the guise of social change continues. From the unintended benefits for conservative foundations, to the actual profiting of those “serving” non-profits, to the perpetuation of privilege, the two articles dissect the NPIC as something that allows the facilitation of the very problems it purports to address.

Solution Preserves the Problem

Ahn focuses on the undemocratic nature of NPIC:

“It is ironic that the burden of our nation’s social problems increasingly falls into the laps of foundations, the most elitist institutions in our country, whose boards are almost entirely composed of wealthy people and highly paid professionals, and who — as study after study shows — benefit both personally and ideologically from the current social and economic order.” (66-67)

Concluding her astute criticism, Ahn keeps a hopeful attitude with suggestions for realizing the democratic potential for non-profits. Indirectly, Ahn’s showcasing of conservative foundation’s success provides a crucial component of the reform that could make the NPIC useful. It is essential that any meaningful revolution has the “political infrastructure” that conservative foundations built so well.

“These foundations were effective because they focused their grantmaking programs on shaping ideas by building strong institutions and granting general operating support, as opposed to project-specific grants. They also funded state and local-level advocacy, institutions and intellectuals that generated conservative ideas, and a broad array of institutions employing diverse strategies to advance a conservative agenda. But, perhaps most important, these foundations have been funding their grantees’ work for the long haul, some for even two decades or more.” (69)

Concluding with a reminder of the historical reforming role foundations have played, Ahn suggests increasing accountability through a combination of better regulation and more representative diversity within the members of NPIC institutions.

Many of the articles, King’s and Osayande’s in particular, discuss the partnership or cooperation of philanthropy with the state/corporate system as problematic, because of the oppression that system perpetrates. While not disagreeing with this critique, I favor Ahn’s work as an important component to this volume that hopes to consider itself complete. I think it is important to remember that the failings of our governments (and foundations/non-profits) should not necessarily cause us to entirely dismiss them; that is, it is important to remember that political change is possible and indeed necessary if we are to have any hope of a just world.

I have recently neglected keeping up with intelligent, honest, well-written, challenging and critical work, but this book is at the cutting edge of each of these, with sophisticated critiques that are both theoretical and experiential, reflecting the diversity and thoughtfulness of the essays’ authors.

The different styles of some of the essays provide a refreshing variety in what is a dense and often heavy work. Andrea Smith’s “The NGOization of the Palestine Liberation Movement” offers a poem and interviews to explore the impact of non-profits, and alternatives to the NPIC. The focus of the comments is around the struggle to operate outside those NGOs that refuse to acknowledge the fundamental belief of Palestinian liberation of the right of resettlement.

Hatem Bazian’s response to the question “How have non-profits impacted Palestinian and other Arab liberation struggles?” contains a succinct summary:

“In other solidarity movements, there is often the understanding that they exist to support liberation struggles, not to dictate the terms of those struggles. However, when it comes to Palestine, NGOs feel they have the right to tell Palestinians what to do. In their framework, the problem is not Israeli colonization and occupation; the problem is that Palestinians need to be trained to develop ‘civil society’ and learn to cooperate with Israel.” (173-74)

This is further articulated in Zeina Zaatari’s response to the question “Historically, how has the NGOization of the Palestinian struggle developed?”

“But Oslo isolated the Palestinian issue as unrelated to larger Arab-Israeli conflicts, and transformed the movement by shifting its focus from liberation to statehood and from decolonization to peace. Funders supported the Oslo agenda by rewarding projects concerned with mutual coexistence, and forced the collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian groups.” (176)

Paul Kivel’s “Social Service or Social Change?” offers a guide (questions included) for self-examination of one’s role in the NPIC.

Lately, I have been thinking of the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers.” After reading this engaging and readable book, and thinking about the main questions posed in it, I believe one addition to this phrase might be “that’s why they are beggars.” If those seeking justice focus more on what is right rather than perpetuating their own existence (the system creating the injustice), perhaps the begging can end.

Perhaps this volume can facilitate this change. As Smith explained in her introduction, the diverse perspectives the essays present are at times divergent and even at odds, but all inspired by the same desire. In doing the important work of social change, we must continually self-examine and ask if our work is actually changing anything.  As Ruth Wilson Gilmore states:

“I suggest that part of what helped secure a better outcome was that Reid and other critics pointed out what kinds of problems had materialized over the course of several decades, and people put their minds and hands to solving the problems without abandoning themselves.” (48)

Really, that is the book’s entire point, to catalyze the communication to find the plurality of answers that will ensure the work of liberation is truly liberating. It’s well worth picking up.

ATC 133, March-April 2008