The worldview, class outlook and methods of nonprofit organizations have dominated the landscape of the U.S. left for so long, most of us are hardly aware of them.
Movement elder Warren Mar, in this week’s Black Agenda Report, sheds some useful light on those matters in his indispensable article “Why Nonprofits Can’t Lead the 99%” sketching some of the effects and outcomes of the nonprofit ground rules and mindset upon unions and community-based organizations.
No peoples’ movement
Wherever the habits and worldview of the nonprofit world came from, it wasn’t the peoples’ movement.
Things were hard everywhere eighty years ago during the Great Depression. People were starving. Unions were often illegal, there was no minimum wage or social security, no anti-discrimination laws or unemployment insurance, and Jim Crow was the letter of the law.
Still, people managed to organize, to fight the power and to win some important victories, pretty much without the kinds of single-issue organizations people nowadays regard as essential.
So where did that model come from? The single-issue organization seems to be a creature of the 1960s and 1970s, a kind of blocking response to a broad-based movement on the part of elite funders.
They know nobody’s going to an anti-pollution meeting on Monday, a housing meeting on Tuesday, a school meeting on Wednesday, a police and prison meeting on Thursday and so on. And if all of them are in competition for the same funding dollars, so much the better.
Similarly, the nonprofit models of “movement” or advocacy organization led by self-selected, usually college-educated executive directors, senior staff, and self-perpetuating boards of directors with heavy representation from philanthropic funders are creations of funders – not of members or of a broad mass-based political movement.
If membership is defined in these sorts of organizations at all, it might consist of people who pay dues, or people who show up at meetings, or just people on a mailing list. Rarely do members get access to anything like transparency on how funds are handled, or have the power to replace their shot-calling directors and board members.
Truth is, the nonprofit model is anti-democratic, top-down and ideally suited to what Adolph Reed calls the “broker type” of leader, the unaccountable spokesperson purporting to be the mouthpiece of some united mass constituency with no real power over its alleged leader.
Energetic and charismatic leaders of nonprofit organizations often sustain impressive mobilizations, at least over a short time, but they inevitably fall short on educating their members out of dependence on self-selected or funder-selected leaders (if they define members at all) and on expanding the base of their leadership.
Nonprofit formations can make impressive use of Facebook and social media too, but these are mobilizing tools allowing you to communicate with other activists – those who already agree with you – not organizing tools one can use to identify potential leaders and win over audiences who don’t already agree.
All about the vote
Dependence on the nonprofit model is all that Democratic Party honchos desire from the left. They just need an Election Day mobilization. But if the vision of our movement extends to taking power, we have to train a broad base of people to wield power over their own organizations, and to contend for power over their lives, their economies, their communities with those who have that power now.
With only a week left in 2015, and a world still to win, it’s time for a new year’s revolution. It’s time to drop the habits of the nonprofit world; time to raise up organizations accountable to well-defined memberships. It’s time to focus on expanding our base, not talking to other activists on Facebook; not on keeping the same few leaders out front of the same few hundred demonstrators. That’s the difference between mobilizing and organizing.
Bruce Dixon is managing editor of BlackAgendaReport.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.