On the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

I’ve worked for nonprofits almost exclusively for my entire post-college adult life so far. I used to work at an organization that provides employment services to disabled folk – which I talk about in a previous post – and I’m currently working at my second non-profit school. After taking abuse from non-profits for so long, I’m looking for a way into the public sector.

For all that nonprofits do, they are still given too much credit. One factor is their weakness, both the staff and the organizations themselves; although some do have reasonable social missions, their methods are typically informed and thus constricted by the capitalist logic of our economy. The other factor is that many of them whore themselves out to powerful groups who stand to gain from the nonprofit’s work, whether directly or indirectly, and those groups typically do not have issues of social justice in mind. I wanted to tackle the issue of nonprofits because many autistic folks receive services from them. Because nonprofits play critical roles in the lives of many autism families, it is easy to drink the nonprofit Kool-Aid, especially when public services have failed to meet their needs. Nonetheless, we need to examine the place of nonprofits in our society, whether they actually serve the greater good or not, and how the reality of our political and economic climate weakens them, despite the growth of the nonprofit sector.

The Non-Profit Minions and Their Philosophy

Non-profits typically attract people who at least ostensibly care about social justice issues and give them opportunities to work on these issues for a modest salary. The kinds of people who work for non-profits are usually upbeat yet naïve; they overestimate the social value of their jobs and their organization’s commitment to systemic change because they either sincerely believe in what the organization does or are cynically trying to climb the corporate ladder while gaining social capital in social justice communities (yes, corporate ladders do exist in the non-profit world and are possibly even more competitive than in the corporate world). They’re go-getters who believe they can make the world a better place by being kind to everyone, even neo-Nazis. These are people who will tell you that they are the least racist people you’ll ever meet and then call the cops on black men for ‘loitering.’ They want to confront the oppressors of the world but they are too scared to confront the oppressors in their own lives, particularly bosses or parents, which leads to a distorted sense of what oppression is. It’s easier for them to simply believe that they are good people than put in the work of examining their own ideas in relation to reality.

Nonprofit people are brimming with good intentions; they would like to house the homeless, give everyone healthcare, and dismantle all of the systems of oppression. However, they typically interpret these challenges using a political/economic lens that ironically created such challenges in the first place. This lens that I speak of is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the principle that the private sector and the free market should have the primary role in shaping the lives of citizens. When problems arise, a company will eventually come along and selflessly solve those problems…for money. This emphasis on private activity leads to policies such as free trade, austerity, deregulation, and the privatization of essential services that would be publically funded in a more enlightened society. With these policies typically come a set of elitist beliefs, such as that you deserve being poor if you are poor and that some people are innately more capable of success than others – you know, beliefs that establish morally dubious hierarchies, like racism, sexism, ableism, and all those other isms – because a society fueled by neoliberal ideology excludes downtrodden groups of people by design. It puts power in the hands of a small elite and it increases their power over time without stopping, even when the power imbalance created is so extreme that it is no longer sustainable. This creates problems such as income inequality, climate change, mass incarceration, and other such crises of the 21st century.

With all that in mind, you are probably wondering (rightfully) what exactly nonprofits do that create these problems. Yes, some places are providing job support for disabled folk or providing specialized education for certain kids that you likely won’t get in public schools but before we get into that, I want you to think about this question: why are these services not covered by public funding? If the social role of nonprofits is to serve the greater good, why doesn’t federal funding cover the greater good in the first place? Unfortunately, since the American working class is in the middle of a class war with the federal government and the corporations that have bought it out, there’s naturally not enough money to go around for the work of nonprofits to be absorbed by public institutions.

The Non-Profit Minions and Their Masters

In considering how nonprofits contribute to the class war and the problems associated with it, the next question to think about is this: if the idea of nonprofits is that they do not profit, how do nonprofits sustain themselves in an economic system fueled by the drive for profits? After all, the money to fund a nonprofit comes from somewhere, right?

Nonprofits can receive government funding but due to the bad spending habits of the government and the co-opting of such by private interests that I mentioned earlier, you typically need more than government funding to make your nonprofit functional. The bulk of the money comes from donors and investors; such people are typically rich, old, white men, often times from “the 1%.” How do you get a rich, old, white man, possibly from the 1%, to give you money? You appeal to his racist, sexist, pro-capitalist, pro-other-beliefs-that-benefit-him-personally sensibilities, of course! The danger of accepting the money is that your work becomes defined by your donor’s expectations, which could undermine even the most radical mission statements while he (and it’s usually a he) gets a sweet tax deduction. Do you question why he is donating to your cause? No, because you need to be able to pay the rent for your office. Do you risk saying something controversial or doing something he may not like with the money he *so graciously* gave you? No, because you also want to pay for next month’s rent, along with utilities, everyone’s salary and benefits, including your own, supplies needed to do the job, and other stuff too.

Nonprofits are privately run and therefore not held to the same standards as public institutions. Public institutions are (ideally) accountable to their community while private institutions, nonprofit or otherwise, are accountable mainly to their donors and investors or their board of directors, whose interests are typically different from the population that the nonprofit is serving. Private schools, for example, can turn away high-needs students who can bring down a school’s overall test scores so they can continue to justify their existence to any donors who benefit from educational policies that emphasize standardized testing as the ultimate marker of student progress.

In other words, even the most radical nonprofits are prone to being watered down by donor money. Nonprofits that do not serve the needs of the most powerful in our society, whether directly or indirectly, will wither away because no one with substantial money (and therefore substantial power) would be interested. The notable exceptions are nonprofits that are funded and sustained primarily by the contributions of ordinary citizens and hold themselves accountable to those people only. To the best of my knowledge, these sorts of nonprofits are rare if they exist at all.

What About Public Institutions?

Public institutions aren’t perfect either; they are prone to corruption too. While public institutions are built to serve their community, they are still at the mercy of the government, who are themselves at the mercy of private interests and petty partisan politics. As an educator, the most vivid example I can give are public schools. Even though public schools are free and provide education for all, the amount of federal funding they receive is, by virtue of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act and Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, contingent on their test scores. This effectively punishes public schools whose students do not score well and the students who do not score well are typically low-income, special needs, etc. These schools become further punished when parents decide to send their children to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run so they are free to only accept kids that will maintain their high test score average. With the quality of public services deteriorating, it is tempting to take your business to privately run institutions instead and as more people opt for private options, this gives Congress a reason to justify slashing funding for public services, which deteriorate further, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With that said, the amount of nonprofits in proportion to the rest of the workforce in a country compared to the country’s GDP could be indicative of how well a country is serving its people. The more nonprofits a country has and the higher the country’s GDP, the clearer it is that the country is not adequately serving its people to the best of its ability. The most charitable interpretation of nonprofits is that they clean up the mess of the society that they inhabit using tools that have not been upgraded in 40 years. This isn’t to say that we should uncritically support public institutions – as long as they are under the control of a corrupted elite, public institutions will continue to weaken. We need to take them back and make them truly ours.

Conclusion

As critical as I have been regarding nonprofits, this is not a plea for you to quit your nonprofit job or pull yourself or your loved ones out of a nonprofit program, especially if you or they depend on them. Even under a neoliberal framework, there are some nonprofit people and organizations who actually care about the work and the world is better off with them than without them. Some provide needed services to people with various complications at little or no cost, some work to fight different kinds of systemic violence such as racism, and some nonprofit schools adopt innovative curriculum and pedagogical methods that work better than those typically used at public schools. For example, the Rebecca School, one of the nonprofit schools I worked for, is famous in the autism community for its use of Floortime, a developmental approach that places emphasis on emotional development and affect as the backbone of human maturation, and studying the Floortime approach as applied to education and mental health was a complete game-changer for me.

Even with all of this positive experience, I will not rely on nonprofits to change the world for the better. In a well-run society, the work done by nonprofits, including innovative ones like the Rebecca School, will be made more accessible through public funding. As such, the need for nonprofits will be limited to localized problems or as testing grounds for new approaches to various social problems that could potentially be employed by public institutions in the future. Based on that observation, one might even say that you can tell how efficient and inclusive a society is by seeing how many non-profits exist in it. If there are a lot, especially if many of them cover the same issues, you can bet your sweet ass that that society has some serious shit to work out.

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