Not-for-Profit, Open for Business

One summer in college, I got a job canvassing for Greenpeace. We spent the morning getting pumped up by our supervisor about how we were really going to make a difference, then spent the afternoon on the sidewalk downtown asking passers-by for donations. As new hires, we had three probationary days to “make staff”: anyone who didn’t meet the quota would not be kept on, and those who did would be fired if they didn’t continue to deliver.

Every Monday, a new crop of fifteen or so recruits showed up. A week later, all but two or three would be gone. Almost nobody lasted more than a month. There was no union, the training wage was lower than the advertised staff wage, and the large bulk of the money we raised was brought in by trainees who never made staff.

While few nonprofit workplaces have conditions quite so extreme, low pay and long hours are par for the course at most NGOs. Union density in the field is quite low, and many nonprofits expect their employees to accept the conditions they impose in the name of “the mission” and a “nonprofit ethic” of selfless service. Often, members of the activist community see nonprofit jobs as very desirable – a chance to make a living by living their values and to do progressive organizing full-time. And, indeed, on-the-ground progressive politics frequently depends on the resources NGOs offer, including funding, legal infrastructure, and staffers’ time and labor. Certainly, when I worked for Greenpeace, few canvassers complained about the draconian quotas or extreme precarity – at any given time, any given worker would more likely than not be fired within a week, but we were “doing something real.” In comparison, retail didn’t seem to cut it.

Our jobs may have been precarious, but Greenpeace’s funding was not. While Greenpeace does not accept government or corporate contributions, most NGOs do, as well as foundation grants and individual “membership” donations. “Member,” of course, is an ambiguous word. A member of a book club will generally get to help choose the next book, and a member of a labor union will (in theory, at least) get to vote in internal elections and on contracts. However, a “member” of an advocacy group like Greenpeace donates money and doesn’t do a whole lot else. As a canvasser, I certainly wasn’t voting for candidates for the Board of Directors. Neither were the “members” I was signing up. And while Greenpeace is typical of policy-focused nonprofits in that it claims to speak for a broad constituency, it’s also typical in that those constituents don’t really get a say in the organizational and political decisions that determine the group’s activities. For most nonprofits, “joining” means donating (and occasionally receiving a mailer asking for even more donations).

So why do people join? Between them, groups like Greenpeace, the ACLU, and NARAL Pro-Choice America can claim a total membership of millions. But if joining doesn’t mean having a say in the group’s decisions, what’s the incentive? As most members will tell you (and as the nonprofits themselves all emphasize), in exchange for their money a donor gets to be someone who supports the organizations’ campaigns – the people I signed up didn’t get to vote for the Executive Director, but they got to be a person who funded environmentalist lobbying and protesting. And while my own work involved soliciting donations, less-unstable employees elsewhere were actually doing all of the things that featured in my pitch and that people wanted to financially support.

Now, nonprofits carry out an enormous portion of the on-the-ground organizing done by progressives (broadly defined). Beyond the specific activities they engage in, they also often have enough clout to set the agenda for social movements in which they participate. No one attempting to resist oppression and exploitation can get around their presence and power. But, for a moment, let’s set aside the specific content of their political work. What were the defining details of the process that was playing out on Greenpeace’s shop floor?

An NGO hired people who, through their labor, produced a particular service. (In this case, it was largely carrying out education and organizing protests; for many nonprofits, it also includes providing social services, disaster relief, lobbying, and plenty more.) My co-workers and I then found people who were willing to give money in exchange for the feeling of being someone who funded those services. In order to get as much as possible of an ultimately finite amount of potential donor money, the organization needed both programs that donors found appealing and publicity to get their attention. (As sidewalk canvassers, our work was one small part of that larger effort.) The Board of Directors and top-level executives then decided what to do with that money. Some of it went to them in the form of salaries, and the rest was invested back in maintaining and expanding the programs, including paying employees to actually carry everything out.

In other words, a nonprofit corporation paid workers to produce a commodity (namely, the expression of a particular set of values through documented activist work), which was then sold in a de facto marketplace (while donors to nonprofits rarely receive a tangible product in their hands, it was through the donation that they received a psychological sense of being part of the expression of the values they believe in). The money thereby acquired (in technical parlance, the realized value) was then either kept by the people in charge through executive pay or re-invested in the corporation to expand its work. That amount of money exceeded the amount paid to the staffers. However, it was the staffers and unpaid volunteers who did the actual work that produced what got sold to donors. Since this nonprofit successfully competed for donors, it could accumulate money and further develop its operations. If it had not succeeded, then it would have had to scale back its work and, if need be, lay off employees.

So, despite its on-paper not-for-profit status, in practice this nonprofit exploited its workers, turned a profit, accumulated capital, and sold a commodity in a competitive marketplace. In essence, is that any different from Boeing, Verizon, or Union Carbide? Like smoke and fire, where there’s exploitation, there’s class. The organizational motor of the progressive opposition, it turns out, is just another segment of capital.

Nonprofits are profit-making capitalist companies.

But what about the good work they do? What about their commitment to progressive politics? If they’re no different from any other employer, why do dedicated activists so often seek staff jobs, and why do their staffers so frequently consider the pay and hours worth it “for the cause?” Why did my co-workers overlook unmeetable quotas and zero job security – isn’t there something fundamentally different about the work? Do people need a union if they’re fine with being exploited?

Well, what profit-making corporation doesn’t want its workers to believe that their jobs are satisfying and meaningful (and therefore worth putting up with poor conditions)? Target tells us that their workforce “feels like a family” and that people “love” to work for them. Should anyone believe them? Sure, some industries have generally been more successful at pushing that type of propaganda, including not only NGOs but also healthcare firms. If nonprofits and hospitals are often better at selling those claims than retailers and restaurants, does that then magically make it all true? A Target checker or Sierra Club staffer may well feel like their workplace is a family, but they’re still selling their ability to work because they don’t own a business and have no other way to survive. Progressive nonprofits do progressive organizing because that’s the commodity they’re selling, no matter how sincerely their workers support it. Exploitation is a material condition, not a feeling.

But what about the nonprofits that aren’t multimillion-dollar, high-profile affairs? What about the hundreds of smaller local or regional nonprofits that do lots of activist work but barely have any paid staff? Nobody’s getting rich off of those.

Well, is anybody getting rich off of most small businesses? I once worked for a home healthcare company with very few employees. The owner put in as many shifts as any of us. However, the decisions were still made by the owner unilaterally. They were in charge, but nobody voted for them. Even if the profit margin wasn’t very large, it was still generated by the work of people who did not get to control it (even if some of it also came from the work of the one person who did). Low-level exploitation carried out by a personal friend without any intention to exploit is still exploitation. Production for the market under a company’s control does not change its nature for the sake of anyone’s sincere intentions, personal satisfaction, or desired political impact. To form a nonprofit corporation is to accept a type of organization that cannot, in practice, be prevented from operating as a capitalist enterprise, even if good intentions are paving the road.

But if “movement” nonprofits are actually capitalist firms exploiting their workers, how should we approach them, given their domination of the activist scene?

There are a few steps that socialists, communists, and anarchists ought to take:

  1. We need to drop any lingering illusions about NGOs. They are capitalist corporations, different in branding but not in essence from those whose power we organize against. Whatever strategic relationships we form with them should not be treated as different in principle from an alliance with, say, a retailer whose CEO invokes “ethical capitalism.”
  2. Given that nonprofits have enormous presence and power within the activist community, we must call that community what it is: a subculture, not a mass movement. The work done within the subculture is a type of commons (a collectively-controlled communal resource), and the way that NGOs package that work to sell to donors is a form of enclosure (the takeover of a commons by a private entity that wants to turn a profit with it). It’s fundamentally the same relationship that record labels have with punk rock and that New Age retailers have with hippie culture.
  3. We must revise our strategies and analysis to break away from this form of capitalist control. Specifically, we need to acknowledge that orienting around protests and demonstrations just reproduces “the movement” in its current form as an insular subculture. Part of the needed strategic break will mean ignoring subcultural shibboleths – instead of “creating spaces that center the discourses of marginalized bodies,” we’ll have to re-orient around our co-workers and geographic neighbors. That means we ought to reach out less through social media, friendship networks, and college campuses and more by introducing ourselves to the people at work or in the apartment next door, talking about material threats and injustices that hurt us, and deciding to find collective solutions to collective problems. Coordination and solidarity across geographic communities and workplaces are absolutely necessary, to be sure. But what does solidarity between neighborhoods even mean if none of them has an internal revolutionary base?
  4. We should understand not just that NGOs will always show up and try to take charge, but why. They are companies that commodify progressive political work to make a profit. Our causes are their raw materials. If Walmart sent a representative to an antiwar march who claimed their employer spoke for the community, would we give them any decision-making power or think they were credible? Of course not – we’d know they were there opportunistically to sell us something, and that giving them power would cause so many more problems than it could solve. Well, nonprofits talk differently than other firms, but they operate the same. They’re instruments of the ruling class no less than Comcast or Caterpillar.
  5. Concretely, that means we should not accept NGOs’ money, promote them, fund them, treat them as credible, let them take the lead, or refrain from publicly criticizing them when they claim to be radical or to “represent the community.” We must reject their approach to organizing and, in the long term, seek to thoroughly marginalize them.
  6. At the same time, we should not treat the people who work for nonprofits as villains or as personally immoral. They’re workers too, and they’re generally underpaid and overworked; an NGO is no less brutal than any other boss. Staffers aren’t embodiments of their employers any more than a fry cook at McDonald’s. We should approach them as what they are: members of the same exploited class, surviving by selling at a loss their ability to work.

But won’t a neighborhoods-and-workplaces approach just create NIMBY situations: unaccountable privileged people turning against those who are worse off due to racism, anti-LGBT sentiment, immigration status, etc?

Only if it’s not done right and/or done within the middle class. (Middle-class, in this context, doesn’t mean any particular income bracket – it means middle managers, private practice professionals, education administrators, small business owners, and students who reasonably expect to be in those positions when they graduate.) One of the largest impediments to the formation of a mass socialist movement within the working class in the US is the existence of the activist subculture. It’s an essentially middle-class scene whose ideas are created by academics (and what is a university but a capitalist idea factory?) and whose activities are controlled by NGOs. However, it retains a sociological monopoly on radical ideas, which helps preempt the emergence of an independent socialist base in the working class.

There’s an implicit notion that members of more privileged groups (men, whites, straights, etc) do not meaningfully stand to benefit from doing away with racism, sexism, etc. That underlies the moralistic connotations of “allyship” – you support struggles in which you yourself have no personal stake, because that’s what an ethical person would do. Now, if you’re middle-class, that assumption is basically true. You aren’t part of the ruling class, but you have a degree of security, comfort, and control over your life. If you’re middle-class and white male, then pro-male or pro-white inequalities are pretty unambiguously good for you. So, the only reason you’d oppose them would have to be ethics, not self-interest. But the working class has neither power nor security under capitalism. The fact that different parts of the working class are treated comparatively better or worse along racial, gender, etc lines does not change the fact that the whole class is exploited, oppressed, and ultimately powerless. However, white workers, male workers, and straight workers could not possibly defeat the ruling class alone. After all, it’s the middle class that is disproportionately white, male, etc – the working class has more people of color, women, and social minorities in general than other classes do. White men are only around 1/3 of the total US population, and an even smaller portion of the working class. So, because racism, sexism, etc exist within the class system and (combined together) directly oppress the large bulk of the working class, no working-class politics that rejects or ignores them has the ability to succeed. They’re components of the operation of the class system in practice, serving both to allow extra-high exploitation of female and non-white workers and to undercut the political potential of the class as a whole, which deepens all workers’ exploitation. Racism and sexism are components of capitalism, and all “capitalism” means is the exploitation by business owners of everyone else. So, when a white male worker understands capitalism as a class system that exploits the class of which he is part, it’s only through externally-imposed propaganda that he’s convinced that he has no stake in getting rid of racism and sexism. Economics is not a separate issue floating alongside others. Nothing that exists in capitalism is outside of capitalism.

Of course, such externally-imposed propaganda does exist, along with propaganda that denies that capitalism is an exploitative class system and that treats the middle class as if it were the majority. It pervades the education system, the media, cultural institutions and – as a result – common sense. It also pervades the worldview shared by most activist NGOs. And make no mistake – it is not a class-free worldview, but rather a worldview that’s natural for the middle class and that gets promoted because it serves the ruling class. That’s the worldview that sets up a false opposition between economics and everything else. It’s what accuses any attempt to treat sexism, racism, etc as rooted in the class system in which they exist as somehow denying their existence entirely. After all, what else is at work when single-payer healthcare and raising the minimum wage are dismissed as issues for “the white heterosexual man” (never mind that policies such as those disproportionately benefit people of color and women)? Only the assumption that what’s true for the middle class is true for everyone could make it sound reasonable to oppose economic leftism in the name of the people who need it the most. But from the nonprofits’ perspective, it’s quite sensible to cater to middle-class logic. The working class has much less money to spend, and giving money to NGOs is an excellent way to “be an ally,” isn’t it?

Of course, because sexist and racist ideas receive the massive institutional sponsorship they do, working-class whites do have deep-seated racist notions and working-class men are often profoundly chauvinistic. The struggle against such beliefs and practices, even (in fact, especially) when they manifest within the working class, is not an adjunct to class struggle. It’s a central and necessary part of it. But when activist nonprofits and their supporters use an exaggerated account of working-class bigotry to dismiss working-class politics and a class struggle worldview entirely, they aren’t benevolently defending the marginalized. They are playing a useful role for the system that brings bigotry and privilege into being. Neighborhood and workplace organizing, inside the working class and outside of the activist subculture, must include breaking down racism and sexism, within the class and everywhere else. But the self-interest of each part of a class is in the ultimate self-interest of the entire class. Even white male workers have a material stake in abolishing white and male privilege, despite the fact that it’s a long-term interest that isn’t acknowledged by mainstream ideas. Middle-class white men, of course, do not have that same stake. If a socialist movement is healthy, it’s not a middle-class affair. If we do create a strong working-class revolutionary movement, then the middle-class activists who currently run the scene will necessarily be pushed to the fringe (and, we can expect, more than a few of them will end up on the other side entirely). At any rate, why should we buy it when NGO activists claim that accountability can only happen in a middle-class movement that they themselves control? Of course they believe that. It’d be bad for business not to. But working-class radicals should not cede that ground.

Currently, though, “the movement” is not controlled by the working class. Its domination by profit-making corporations (that falsely claim to be not-for-profit) has helped keep it that way for a long time. When dissent is a commodity, those promoting it do not want to win – you can’t sell the work you’re doing to solve a problem if the problem actually gets solved! Instead, they’d rather “work to dismantle” problems created by capitalism while defusing any threat to capitalism itself. They’re very good at that, and NGO control won’t be easy to break away from. Nevertheless, we have to try – otherwise, we will continue to fail.

The revolution shouldn’t be for sale.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission