The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Behind the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Ed.)
South End Press (2007)
Reviewed by Noel Hawke

This book review was originally published by Theory in Action, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2010 (© 2010) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.10011


The Revolution Will Not Be Funded confirms and explains the strings attached to philanthropic grants while presenting a global cross-section of modern political discontent. This book of sixteen essays edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence following their 2004 conference of the same name, lays out the history of the development in the U.S. of philanthropic entities whose eventual tax-favored status increased their size and influence worldwide. Revolution was published as George W. Bush’s second term was ending and the worldwide recession had begun. Progressive thinkers were reeling from years of conservative social policy, erosions in affirmative action and cultural backlash against multiculturalism.

The introduction by Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE!, includes a clear and concise history of the American non-profit system which provides essential context for the rest of the book. Missing from the introduction is guidance as to who besides social justice organizers and activists should read this book. Though it is not a blueprint for action, the book could benefit socially conscientious investors, workers in social service organizations, and students of political science. How strongly and clearly the writers make their case isn’t uniform, which affects the book’s impact. Readers must persist through essays less well organized, some of which imply but do not substantiate significant assumptions, and abandon the opportunity to offer guidance or issue a call to action.

Part I, titled “The Rise of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” begins with Dylan Rodriguez’ polemic essay connecting the racist state designed to maintain brutal inequalities with the incorporated organizations of the alleged Left, between which he sees symbiosis that supports the state’s ongoing absorption of organized dissent. His emphatic concern is that the assimilation of “the establishment Left” into a non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) enables more vicious forms of state repression. Citing two dozen books, articles and speeches, Rodriguez lays out a pattern of criminalization and repression of people of color through federal and state initiatives from the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program to the more recent California anti-gang statutes. He decries George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, despite acknowledging its “breathtaking number of left-of center grants over 20 years,” as “formulaic, naïve and conservative” because it marginalizes radical forms of dissent and exerts a disciplinary force on social movement organizations. Rodriguez does not comment on how the Open Society Foundation does this, but implies that it is by selective funding. Rodriguez lists the incentives available to the NPIC including postal privileges, tax exempt status, and quick access to philanthropic funding apparatuses. Ties of financial and political accountability keep the NPIC’s organizations tethered to the state. The state, in turn, uses clandestinity and deception to persuade people that violent enforcement are necessary to preserve a free way of life, and teaches them that consent is necessary. Further, control of social movements by neoliberal state and philanthropic organizations is accomplished by forcing upon them reactive planning due to policy changes, and stringently quantified monitoring, which compels organized dissenters to replicate the bureaucratic structures of businesses and government agencies. The murkiness of Rodriguez’ writing nearly undoes points he wants to make. He shrugs off the opportunity to present a guiding conclusion, asking instead what activists, scholars, writers and intellectuals enmeshed in the disciplinary restrictions imposed by the NPIC should do. Just before closing with five more pages of polemics on colonialism, he suggests that “We might, for a fleeting moment, conceptualize the emergence of the NPIC as an institutionalization and industrialization of a banal, liberal political dialogue that constantly disciplines us into conceding the urgent challenges of a political radicalism that fundamentally challenges the existence of the US as a white settler society.”

“In the Shadow of the Shadow State,” by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, expands our understanding of the NPIC by discussing other industrial complexes, military and prison, which have been promoted by ideologists who wish to gain or keep state power, becoming “antistate state actors.” Gilmore says these aggression agencies become so accepted that “people imagine that locking folks in cages or bombing civilians or sending generation after generation off to kill somebody else’s children is all part of human nature.” She points to the increasing shift of non-profits away from supporting people’s pursuit of full incorporation into the body politic and toward supporting people in the throes of abandonment, using “twice-stolen wealth – (a) profit, sheltered from (b) taxes.”

In a chapter reprinted from his book Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert L. Allen contributes a history lesson on the takeover in the late ’60s of black political momentum by the Ford Foundation. Allen describes coalitions and struggles among groups representing both black masses and the black middle class. The new liberalism endorsed black power, black separatism and black capitalism as a means of sidetracking revolution. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) published a radical agenda including revolution, but by 1967, CORE’s agenda had been recognized and dismissed as angry words that were not accompanied by conspiracy to commit violence. “The reformist or bourgeois nationalism…will not ease the oppression of the ordinary ghetto dweller.”

In the final essay in part I, “Democratizing American Philanthropy,” Christine Ahn quantifies the widening gap between the richest and poorest in this country. She calls piecemeal volunteering no substitute for a systematic public approach to eliminating poverty because inequality, not scarcity, is at its root. The wealthy escape a disproportionate share of taxes through creating and contributing to charitable foundations which are, in turn, allowed to distribute only 5% of their assets annually. She quotes a report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy: “It is as though philanthropy exists for its own sake, rather than for the communities it is intended to serve.” Ahn cites cases of negative outcomes of the use of philanthropic power – conservative foundations’ influence on the media, the undoing of a traditional agrarian model through its replacement by scientific farming techniques, and the prevention of shipments of free AIDS drugs to Africa due to U.S. intellectual property rights laws. Ahn concludes with a few proposals: requiring foundations to pay out more of their assets, providing closer government monitoring, and diversifying foundation boards and staff.

Eight essays in the second part of the book, “Non Profits and Global Organizing,” are the distillation of years of experience within movements for social change and organizations for social service. Writers draw on experience in both settings as they describe the nfluence on mission and methods exerted by sources of funding. Of these eight, Madonna Thunder Hawk states in “Native Organizing Before the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” how the American Indian Movement operated without grants, accepted in-kind donations, traveled without expectations of comfort, shared resources communally, did not organize on the basis of single issues, developed links and traded support with other groups. She observes, “Once you get too structured, your whole scope changes from activism to maintaining an organization and getting paid, [and] people start seeing organizing as a career rather than as an involvement in a social movement that requires sacrifice.”

Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande explain in “The Filth on Philanthropy” how people of color are used to maintain the status quo by progressive philanthropists, and that philanthropy is not and never has been progressive. Amara Perez, in “Between Radical Theory and Community Praxis,” narrates how SPIRIT in Portland, Oregon, struggled with funding dependency with a resulting clarity of mission and methods.

In an upbeat, short article, “Fundraising Is Not a Dirty Word,” Stephanie Gilloud and William Cordery describe Project South, an Atlantabased organization founded for racial and economic justice which balances grassroots and foundation funding sources with fees for service and non-foundation dollars. Forty percent grassroots funding mitigates exposure to the fickleness of foundations’ grant-giving and the competitive pressure among applicants. Project South shares the cost of community events with other local groups. Building a support base committed to social justice is key to their ongoing success.

A different voice, that of Ana Durazo in “We Were Never Meant to Survive,” takes the stand that all violence toward women is political, interconnected, and an attempt to mark domination. In her work with battered women’s groups over more than a decade, Durazo calls it an act of racism to sequester concern for a particular population in one program of an organization. She also warns that treating violence against women of color as an intracultural phenomenon ignores the source, which is the racism of the state and of society. Furthermore, forcing doctors to report domestic violence exposes immigrant women to instant impoverishment and deportation. Durazo’s essay does not put forth remedies or alternatives.

Social service workers may pay special attention to “Social Service or Social Change,” by Paul Kivel. As a worker for 30 years in agencies addressing men’s role in domestic violence, Kivel questions whether such work will ever effect lasting change. He draws an economic pyramid, at the bottom of which 80% of Americans get by on 9% of the nation’s wealth while producing wealth retained by others. This 80% includes the middle and working classes, the unemployed, welfare recipients and the homeless The average annual household income of this 80% is $41,000. Of the rest of Americans, 19% of households average $94,000 annually and 1% average over $374,000 a year. Kivel says, “The role of the NPIC is to keep our attention away from those in power and to manage and control our efforts to survive in the bottom of the pyramid.” He posits the  existence of a “buffer zone” of people at the bottom who are employed in jobs which carry out the agenda of the ruling class and keep them from having to deal with those on the bottom. Kivel urges struggling for a redistribution of wealth and power, and refusing to serve as buffer-zone agents against our communities. Throughout, Kivel poses questions to raise awareness of work, roles and opportunities for change, and he closes with a call for accountability.

Closely embracing a radical vision of social change while holding onto government funding was the accomplishment of Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) in Seattle. Alisa Bierria writes that CARA found ways to represent the organization to funders by creating a dual identity and by developing solidarity with other community groups who advocated for them during critical funding campaigns. Acknowledging that there are contradictions inherent in their practice, Bierria defends it as resistance and creativity which enables continuation of a program that employs, empowers and transforms the lives of people in their communities, rather than just dealing with isolated incidents of assault.

Readers unfamiliar with the personal impact of sudden landlessness and voicelessness will find insight in the essay, “The NGOization of the Palestine Liberation Movement.” Interviewing four Middle Eastern activists who work and write in the U.S., Andrea Smith provides a history of the Palestine Liberation Movement, then asks how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have impacted it. Most Palestinians can barely find paid work except in NGOs, where donor dollars shape policy in favor of allowing Israel to control land Palestinians used to own and inhabit. International law securing the rights of refugees to return to their homeland, which was upheld in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere, is being ignored in the case of Palestine. The Left movement has become stagnant there, leaving an opening for the promises of Hamas. Meetings of NGOs are closed under the excuse of concern over infiltration, which cuts off access to decision-makers and blocks dissent.

“Rethinking Non-Profits, Imagining Resistance” is the third and final part of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Four essays address ways to remain progressive despite the hegemony of the NPIC. “Radical Social Change: Searching for a New Foundation” by Adjoa Florencia Jones de Almeida declares the need to return to being accountable to constituents, not funders; to diffuse solidarity to all involved; to opt out of the state’s systems (as with the Zapatistas’ creation of their own schools in the peasant revolt in Chiapas, Mexico); and to avoid replicating the damaging, hierarchical behaviors of corporations and the state when crafting policy and practice in social change movements. Paula X. Rojas lays out in “Are the Cops in Our Heads and Hearts?” the spirit of inclusive responsibility and sharing (“entre todos, todo” – among everyone, everything) that permeates recent Latin American uprisings. Rojas warns against internalizing capitalist notions, and offers the contrasting Latin American model of diffused and consultative consensus-building achieved in the streets. She espouses compensating paid staff according to need only, and reminds organizers to avoid a patriarchal, hierarchical style in a confused drive for militancy. “Ultimately,” she holds, “political involvement that comes at the expense of our relationships with loved ones and the larger community is not truly liberatory.”

Eric Tang identifies in “Non-Profits and the Autonomous Grassroots” the ways in which social change has been derailed in organizations that have adopted a management style which is antithetical to the base. Board liability, limits on tactics due to terms of a grant, and coverage limits on an organization’s insurance are but a few examples of the funding ties that bind the hands of a movement which accepts the red tape that comes with foundation funds, posing as many challenges as it does solutions. Tang delivers a capsule history of changes wrought by the availability of funds from family foundations begun by “baby boomers with loot,” to fund antipoverty programs in the Kennedy-Johnson “Great Society” before being cut off by Reagan. The Left then tried “donning a suit and grabbing a seat at the table to win big.” Tang mentions a resulting burnout felt especially by women faced with the internal politics and sexism of self-identified revolutionary movements. Tang takes the example of Project South (described in the earlier essay, “Fundraising Is Not a Dirty Word”) as an organization resistant to foundation funding for its first ten years, then resistant to changing its mission or methods despite obtaining 501(c)(3) status, insistent on salary parity for all staff, and bent on publishing ideas in bold and unequivocal language which cautious nonprofits might eschew. Jerome Scott, of Project South, declared, “We made a conscious decision to keep on doing the work in the way we believe it needs to happen. If this means that we’re not following the 501(c)(3) rules, well then they can just come right over and take our status away from us.”

The final essay by Nicole Burrowes, Morgan Cousins, Paula X. Rojas and Ije Ude, “On Our Own Terms: Ten Years of Radical Community Building with Sista II Sista,” provides a summation of the book’s message in describing Sista II Sista (SIIS), the Brooklyn, N.Y. organization that combined social change with social service by providing a space in which young women of color take leadership in transforming themselves and their communities. SIIS evolved from an all-volunteer organization to an incorporated non-profit which received its first grant in 1999. They saw their constituents faced with a “braid” of oppression—racism, sexism, capitalism, ageism and more—which was complex to challenge and required creativity to cut through. They learned to offer many types of actions and activities to engage constituents in their own liberation and put into practice how communities should address violence, childcare, health care, education and other pressing issues. For ten years they accomplished community projects with the help of foundation grants, expanding their reach and their staff. After Sept. 11, 2001, however, the funding world changed. SIIS decided to stop pursuing foundation grants in favor of continuing their work against war and police brutality, which some foundations found distasteful if not downright “unfundable.” Its organizers gradually acknowledge the drain on their human resources of grant writing, administration, site visits and reports, “the rejections, the waiting, and the constant explanations of our work to people who just didn’t get it, yet greatly influenced its direction.” SIIS returned to their roots as an all-volunteer organization, operating again through grassroots fundraising and the support of those who believe in their work. Slower, smaller, still extremely busy, SIIS with its core organizers and volunteers credits this conscious return to the grassroots with the deeper satisfaction they feel once more. Leaders continue to emerge from their programs. They continue to enjoy occasional support from a few program officers with foundations, but spend fewer days on the chase for dollars and devote more time to the mission of social change.

With volunteerism being supported by the Obama administration’s agenda, and foundations’ loss of endowment value in chaotic global markets, the insights and counsel contained in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded can help a new generation of activists stay true to their missions and decide carefully before seeking funding which can undermine them.