Charity vs. Solidarity Work

the-words-transparency-accountabilitySettling in after a short but intense trip to Standing Rock, I took to Facebook, curious about what had transpired at the camp during my 10-hour drive home. Expecting to see updates regarding activities of the thousands of water protectors and their allies, I was instead startled by a Facebook post advertising tee shirts.

The Standing Rock tee shirt actually had no clear connection to the tremendous effort at the camps. There were thousands of “likes” to the post, and hundreds of comments about the $25 trendy shirts. One such comment pointed out that the shirts were probably made in an offshore sweatshop. Someone responded that even so, they bought a shirt because wearing it was a way to educate people about the effort to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The Meaning of Nonprofit Work

Beyond the obvious frustration inherent in using social media as a tool for activism, this experience illustrated for me deeper issues regarding accountability and transparency. Even more than that, it underscored the differences between solidarity and charity, and how crucial it is to be critical and mindful when we choose to become involved in social justice groups or donate to organizations.

Nearly a decade ago, activist experiences lead me to question the meaning of nonprofit work in the context of neoliberalism, our current iteration of capitalism. Our system only appreciates those things that have a dollar value. Therefore, how does this affect the way funders give money to organizations? I was led to an honest and difficult body of work, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, by a group called INCITE.

INCITE taught me that the U.S. nonprofit sector is a $1.3 trillion industry and one of the world’s largest economies. It can accurately be characterized as the nonprofit industrial complex. For many people with enough accumulated wealth to set up foundations, which then fund nonprofits, there is no great incentive to provide grants that work on systemic change. After all, the system is working just fine for those with great wealth.

INCITE’s anthology, which I was pleased to learn is being updated for 2017, is comprised of honest discussions by social justice organizations struggling with ways in which to navigate all of these factors. Some organizations have dissolved their IRS 501(c)(3) tax designation, while others feel a need to keep the status in order to maintain a sustainable donor base. The status allows people who donate to organizations to write those donations off of their taxes. It also provides access to grants from larger foundations as described above, bringing in much-needed funds to do social justice work. But it also binds organizations to an inherently problematic system.

Our system only appreciates those things that have a dollar value. Therefore, how does this affect the way funders give money to organizations?”

Solidarity vs. Charity

Please hold that thought for a moment, while I bring another concept into the fold. An essential component to this discussion is the critical examination of the difference between charity work, which tends to keep our system in place and solidarity work, which focuses on systemic change. In order to do this this, I’ll pull from Tim Wise. Wise suggests looking critically at the following three criteria to ascertain the difference between charity work and solidarity work:

  1. Who creates the problem? Charity work is often based on the premise that marginalized people have some sort of deficit. Those who work in solidarity, on the other hand, understand that conditions of inequity are created by the dominant culture.
  2. Who holds the knowledge? Charity work flows from the premise that the giver has the expertise to decide both what the community needs and how to provide it. Solidarity work, however, assumes that the recipient community is in the best place to determine its own needs, and they have the right to determine how and when and if a service will be provided and by whom.
  3. Where is the accountability? Charity work turns accountability inward so that the organizations providing services are ultimately only accountable to themselves and their funders. Yet, solidarity work turns accountability outward so that served populations decide whether or not the work is beneficial.

Thankfully, the Classism Exposed blog attracts folks coming from a place of good intention, who often want to get involved in organizations that are working to challenge systemic inequities. Whether that involvement is by way of financial contributions or by way of our time and effort, we can best impact social justice work if we critically analyze not only what organizations are doing, but also the ways in which they are carrying out their work.

4 Responses

  1. Really interesting post. Although I’ve thought on this topic before, I haven’t thought of it in these terms: charity vs. solidarity. As I think about these two words, though I definitely feel an inherent connection between charity and money. If I’m donating, I’m donating to a “charity.” I don’t think of it as a verb. It’s a noun, and it’s a recipient of volunteer time or money or some sort of physical donation. Solidarity, on the other hand, really jumps out at me as being something you *do*. You stand up, and beside, someone when you’re in solidarity.

    The first image that comes to my mind when I think of solidarity is the night a woman on our block in Detroit was having a fight with her partner. It had spilled out onto their front porch and several neighbors likewise stepped out onto their porches, including myself. We just stood their, watching. We all knew that everyone has a right to argue. But the moment her partner raised a hand to her, that’s when we made our presence known that we were there, and we would call the police if need be. We weren’t going to interfere in their lives. If they wanted to fight, so be it. But neither were we going to stand by if it escalated beyond that. That’s how I think of solidarity. We recognize that someone else’s way, or situation, or response might not be our way, or situation, or response and that’s OK. They have a right to their lives and we respect that. But there’s a tipping point where violence can be done (either overt such as in the form of a blow, or subvert in the form of withholding something due to someone else). And that’s when those in solidarity add power and strength to the person in the endangered position.

    I think the t-shirt is an interesting example. I suspect most people would say that buying such a t-shirt is a form of showing solidarity. And in this case the person said that would be shown through education. … I suppose education can be a form of showing solidarity. The first step towards empathy is understanding what is going on and the first step toward understanding is being educated about what’s happening. But more likely than not, buying the t-shirt has more to do with assuaging one’s own conscience. And to the extent that that is the case, then a person is paying money in order to ease their own pain. And they’re really doing absolutely nothing in the way of charity or solidarity. And to the extent that the t-shirt is being used as a political tool (people who support those in Standing Rock are on the right side of politics and those against them are on the wrong side), then I’d say the t-shirt is doing more harm than good by simply being yet another wedge hammered into a community of people who are becoming increasingly divided.

    This is just my initial thoughts. Thanks for the interesting ideas to continue cogitating on this morning while I take my dogs out for a walk. 🙂

  2. Alison D

    Your comment about our society only valuing things that have a dollar value is so true and so frustrating when working in social services. Every month, we are required to provide data that we are providing enough ‘units’ of time to the people we serve. However, sometimes these ‘units’ do not reflect any time spent on systemic advocacy and thus, agencies become less likely to focus on systemic advocacy because it is not something that funders ‘get’. Maddening. The other thing I have seen is this very condescending attitude towards marginalized populations, the idea that the ‘professionals’ know better than the people they are working with is also incredibly detrimental to another human beings sense of autonomy and personal choice. You also addressed that in this post and I definitely agree that it is probably one of the biggest issues I see in the nonprofit world. There is often this ‘self congratulatory’ attitude as well on the part of the professionals, instead of real acknowledgment of the receiver of services strengths and abilities. Anyway someday I hope to work with or start an agency that focuses a lot more on personal autonomy and solidarity as opposed to charity! Thanks for continually being a source of inspiration!

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