The Plague of the Nonprofits

How do you talk with your friends about a problem you think they’re causing?  First:  get their attention.  That’s what my title’s designed to do.  But I don’t want to make you mad:  so I’m sorry to be confrontational.  It’s easy to condemn corporate power, profiteering and executive officer greed, for-sale politicians, and unresponsive bureaucracies, but not so easy to criticize innovative, small-scale, community-based or advocacy, progressive, entrepreneurial, relevant, low-budget nonprofits.  That’s what I propose here to do.

Some years ago I studied the relationship between community organizing and community development corporations.  North, south, east, west:  the pattern was the same.  I spoke with a former Harlem tenant union organizer.  This once-promising effort of the 1970s disappeared.  “What happened?” I asked.   He replied, “The organizers became executive directors and program staff; the leaders became boards of directors; the members became clients.”  And all the funds came from “community-oriented” foundations and government programs designed to improve housing, employment, education and other opportunities in inner-city areas.  With time and the growing success of the right’s anti-government crusade, government funding declined, but foundation grants now fund an almost endless proliferation of “community-based nonprofits.”

This proliferation turns bottom up, grassroots, organizing on its head. (Note:  I’m not talking about “sell-outs”; I’m talking about people who are still, or at least still claim to be, on “our side.”)  Let me exaggerate (but only slightly) for purposes of analysis.  On the one hand, a group of neighbors in a low-to-middle income area tire of problems their community faces.  They start talking with one another and decide to form an organization in the “x, y, z” neighborhood.  They adopt rules for governance, enlist members, charge dues, elect leaders and adopt a platform of action on their concerns.  They meet with various public and private decision-makers seeking changes in the way street maintenance, schools, health care, policing, child care, employment opportunities and other concerns are addressed by “downtown” and “city hall.”  They negotiate; they lobby; they picket; they make alliances with similar groups in other parts of town; they might get involved in elections.  With a combination of their dues, grassroots fundraisers and a small grant-along with a friendly church that agrees to be their fiscal agent-they hire an organizer to assist them to be more effective in planning and implementing their program.  But their organization is a voluntary association; its lifeblood is the activity of the members.

Now let’s imagine the organization’s president and some key elected leaders tire of this work or are convinced there is a better way.  They are frustrated by the lack of responsiveness from most of those with whom they deal, the promises that candidates make before elections and ignore upon election, the endless battles with profiteers who could care less about their lives, the intransigence of big bureaucracies with which they deal.  Their small victories seem like a minor dent in a growing litany of problems.  They agree, and convince the organization, that they should apply for foundation grants so they can themselves operate programs that will address the problems of their community.  To obtain grants they have to incorporate as a 501(c)(3).  They are told by likely grantors that their board of directors will have to demonstrate greater continuity than is possible with an annually elected board.  The membership agrees to a self-perpetuating board of directors with a nonvoting membership.  Dues and grassroots fundraisers wither because the money they raise is such a tiny portion of the newly configured organization’s budget.  The organizer is fired and an executive director who can write foundation proposals is hired.  Rather than assisting members to be more effective, the executive director wants a board that will adopt policy that she will implement, and that is based on proposals made by the director to the board.  “Needs assessments” and occasional focus groups are substituted for committees, monthly membership meetings and an annual membership meeting.

What was once a largely voluntary organization has undergone fundamental change:  active members have become passive consumers; the orientation of the board has changed from looking to its membership for direction to looking to its director who, in turn, looks to funders and their current interests.  With that change old board members are dropping off and new, more middle-class in orientation, members are being appointed; the executive director is skilled at taking what is learned from needs assessments and focus groups and turning the information into what is marketable in the foundation world.  The organization’s perspective on how change comes about has changed, shifting from one of building people power to building innovative programs that will be “models” or “pilot projects” to demonstrate what could be done if the political will was there to do it, and to “empowering” individuals by training, counseling, education, motivation and other programs-but not by strong collective action on democratically determined goals.

No viable left can begin to exercise power in this country if this erosion of voluntary associations is not tackled.  While we have mastered internet technology, we have no equivalent to the right’s organized base.

The foundation-external donor-community grantee relationship is essentially a feudal one.  Those with money are neither accountable to the market (dollars aren’t spent here by consumers), nor to the electorate (votes aren’t counted by foundation boards of directors).  Instead, the relationship is one of a patron.  Many valuable things happened historically as a result of wealthy patrons supporting good causes.  But it is a relationship fraught with danger for both donor and recipient.  And little is now being done by either of the parties to achieve greater accountability of the former to the latter, more particularly to the community organizations representing the constituency the latter represents.

We who want to bring about transformative change in the country have a problem.  The hundreds, if not thousands, of community-based nonprofits that offer glimpses of the world as it could be are, in some aspects, obstacles to beginning a process of change that must start with the world the way it is.  It is a conundrum.  Can we benefit from what these examples have to teach, yet at the same time avoid the pitfall of their draining us of the power required to make these benefits more than little islands of exception in a sea of despair?

I have some modest proposals:

* The central problem we face is the erosion of the social infrastructure that constitutes the civil society base for a progressive politics.  Neither single-issue campaign mobilizations nor narrow identity group organizing are sufficient to remedy this.  We do not have an equivalent to the right’s rich social networks of theologically and politically conservative evangelical, Pentecostal and Holiness churches, and homeowner, taxpayer, small business, realtor and civic associations (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc).  This is not a quick-fix solution.  We must re-weave the fabric of community; that cannot be accomplished by single-issue campaigns, advocacy or development.  Community organizers should talk with “progressive” foundations about this problem and challenge their preference for issue campaigns.

* In metropolitan areas, real member-based community organizations could form an intermediary body that would receive funds from community-based and advocacy nonprofits to organize the communities those nonprofits seek to serve and in whose name they claim to speak.   This should be viewed both as an investment by and tax upon the nonprofits.  In some cases, there might be an agreement by the former to organize specific beneficiaries of the latter, as in residents in a nonprofit housing development.

* Community organizations that are funded in substantial measure by their members’ dues or fundraising activities could meet with and make proposals to grantors regarding a guideline requirement that program (service, development or advocacy) oriented grantees support autonomous, particularly multi-issue, bottom-up, democratic community organizing, and require a line-item in a nonprofit’s budget for its contribution to the organizing pool.

Who are the independent community organizing groups?  It’s not a mystery.  It is a relatively simple task to determine whether an organization has a membership that pays dues and engages in member-based fundraising activities, elects leaders, democratically determines program, participates in action to change the relations of power and generally creates a democratic public life.  There are a number of organizing centers that build such organizations.  They are known, their accomplishments have been evaluated.  (The principal national organizing “networks” are DART, Gamaliel, IAF, NPA, PICO and US Action; there are spin-offs from ACORN; from National Organizers Alliance one can obtain a larger list.) There are regional and local counterparts to, or affiliates of, these organizations.  They deserve support.  In fact, without it we will continue to win battles and lose the war.


Mike Miller directs the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE! Training Center, and is author of the recent A Community Organizer’s Tale:  People and Power in San Francisco.

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