Fighting the Co-optation of Resistance

Reviewed by Chris Keefer

Reviewed in this article

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (ed.), South End Press, 2007.

The Revolution will not be Funded is a collection of 16 essays from activists and scholars that deals with the contradictions of operating within the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC), a system that has rapidly come to characterize the organization of civil society. The NPIC has been characterized as the “elephant in the room,” a largely ignored factor in shaping, derailing, and managing political discourse and social movements. It is a woefully under-investigated phenomenon; perhaps the lack of criticism about its activities stems from its status as a source of funding for organizations across the political spectrum that represent what we think of as civil society. One of the key achievements of this book is that it brings to the forefront an understanding of the NPIC among the progressive left. For this reason, this much-needed anthology is timely.

My personal encounter with the NPIC occurred in 2006 when I was thrust into the belly of the beast as a radio journalist covering the 16th International AIDS conference. I was stunned by the fact that the conference was dominated by individuals who were materially, socially, and financially most removed from the disease of poverty that is AIDS. The hype generated by the world’s richest couple drowned out the voices of grassroots AIDS organizers and their innovative ideas born from living and struggling with the epidemic firsthand. While billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates announced mega-funding for corporate-friendly pharmaceutical-based “solutions” and continued support for anti-trafficking organizations, sex workers demonstrated for the decriminalization of sex work, for workers’ rights, and for an end to the economic war crime of patent laws designed to keep the price of AIDS drugs artificially high. The clash of ideas was palpable, and the line between stakeholders and beneficiaries was obvious. It was also apparent how resource-poor the “non-aligned” grassroots movements were compared to the sleek army of foundation-funded NGOs. International health NGOs dwarfed the health departments of AIDS-ravaged countries. It was evident that a major power shift had occurred, one that had overtaken our ability to even develop the proper vocabulary to challenge it. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, while arising out of the slightly different context of the United States, provides important insights for the Canadian left to understand and resist the implications of the non-profitization of civil society.

The non-profit sector in the US is estimated to be worth USD $1.3 trillion. It is the seventh largest economy in the world, and employs 10 percent of the country’s work force. Collectively, it is a system of funding relationships that intimately ties the interests of the capitalist class into the financial survival and sustainability of the organizations of so-called civil society. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded demonstrates that the NPIC serves several seemingly contradictory but ultimately complementary functions that assist in the maintenance of a capitalist world order. The NPIC operates as a tax haven for the ultra rich, a generator of hegemonic neoliberal and neoconservative discourse, a provider of social services and, perhaps most importantly, a tool with which the capitalist class effectively manages social unrest and political opposition to capitalism and imperialism.

In 2004, the Ford Foundation defunded INCITE!, a radical and visionary women of colour anti-violence organization, for refusing to back down on their support for Palestinian national liberation as part of their critique of gendered violence. This withdrawal of a promised USD $100,000 grant put the organization into a financial crisis and sparked a lively debate. The experience led INCITE! to initiate a broader dialogue within the US left to explore the effects of the rise of the NPIC on movement building and community organizing.

Throughout this anthology, US organizers share their frustrations with the NPIC: the politics of foundation funding, the corporate structure imposed by non-profit status, and the professionalization of organizing. Contributors argue that the effects of the NPIC have been to control, manage and subvert resistance to systemic oppression. This has been accomplished through the transformation of grassroots, broad-based and autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist organizing into a multitude of fractured single-issue groups that abandon aspirations for fundamental social transformation. These groups in turn are dependent on – and compete with each other for – funding from ruling-class foundations that are the ultimate source of the problems that progressive movement builders confront.

In the US, the context in which this book is grounded, most of the financial resources behind the NPIC’s minimally-regulated economy begin with foundations as a tax-free source of capital. This situation is slightly different in Canada, where the government is relinquishing its role in funding the non-profit sector to private foundations at a slower rate. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded reveals that foundations are perhaps the greatest tax haven for the capitalist class. The ultra-wealthy are faced with two choices as their biological mortality sinks in: either they pay the estate tax, roughly 50 percent of their fortunes, or they create financial immortality for themselves by diverting what would otherwise become public money into the institutional form of philanthropic foundations. Foundations can therefore be understood as simultaneously depriving the public purse of a huge amount of tax revenue and starving social programs, while also creating the conditions for the strategic and manipulative funding of “civil society.” The power and legitimacy that foundations lend to the ultra-wealthy is such that multi-billionaire George Soros is sometimes described as “The only American citizen with his own foreign policy.” He is now joined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a global health budget that rivals that of the World Health Organization.

In her essay “Democratizing American Philanthropy,” Christine E. Ahn illustrates the ways in which foundation funding has played out in an environment of a neoliberal divestment from social service provision. In the face of de-funding and privatizing public services, allegedly progressive foundations and NGOs have steered the vast majority of their energies towards patching the holes opened in the social safety net. Right-wing foundations, on the other hand, have quite happily ignored the “humanitarian work” that is necessitated by their Fourth World War waged against the world’s poor. Instead they have invested wholeheartedly in dominating political discourse (and consequently, policy) by funding a national infrastructure of think tanks, advocacy groups, and conservative publishers and academics. In this manner, the capitalist class has had a profound impact on popular discourse and has been able to frame neoliberal, laissez-faire, and “free-market” capitalism as “common sense.”

Another interesting theme explored in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, notably in Paul Kivel’s essay, “Social Service or Social Change,” is the role of the non-profit sector in service provision. Noting that social service provision such as the breakfast program of the Black Panther Party can play a very important part in movement building, Kivel critiques provisioning that occurs in an ideological vacuum. He criticizes non-profits for picking up the slack created by neoliberal governments’ divestment from social service provision. He argues instead for organizing those most affected by this policy of divestment; organizing to win back the basic human right to government-provided social services from a political system that has been hijacked by corporate interests. However, Kivel misses important critiques of the political economy of the NPIC. Take, for example, the enormous inefficiency of non-profit services. It is a familiar story that the private sector provision of services often leads to a ballooning in administrative costs, yet the non-profit sector is not often understood as sharing these characteristics. The sheer amount of resources and effort that organizations sink into competing for funding from foundations, government, and corporations through grant writing creates more inefficiency in this form of service provision.

Several essays within the anthology call for a return to community-based fundraising initiatives that put organizers back in touch with the grassroots, and that also solidify accountability to the people who are genuinely invested in social change. Although fundraising is often seen as a cumbersome and time-consuming practice with a comparatively small financial reward, Stephanie Guilloud and William Cordery argue in “Fundraising is Not a Dirty Word” that this method accomplishes the much more important goal of cementing the relationship between organizers and their constituency, the poor and oppressed. The alternative, of course, involves schmoozing with the mostly white, ultra-rich donors and trustees of foundations for scraps from their overflowing tables.

Adjoa Almeida addresses movement subversion in “Radical Social Change, searching for a New Foundation.” She asks what happened to the great civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and provides a short answer: “they got funded.” While this is a simplistic answer to a complex question, the manner in which movement organizations have lost touch with their constituencies by accepting a professionalized model of organizing and seeking funding from capitalist-class foundations has had a profound impact on their capacity to intervene in processes of social change aimed at benefiting their bases. The nature of foundation fundraising has created the need for a highly-educated and professionalized leadership within non-profit organizations. This has created an organizational culture that rejects the endogenous development and renewal of its own leadership from the grassroots. Almeida notes that it is telling and perhaps not coincidental that the areas of the world with the most powerful social movements have the least developed non-profit sectors “strengthening civil society.” Indeed, many social movements such as the Landless Peasants Movement in Brazil have identified NGOs as being one of their primary obstacles. Of course, there is a place for these NGOs in a strictly complementary and supportive role. Exemplary human rights NGOs such as Canadian-based Rights Action have worked collaboratively with social movements to bring abuses occurring against their membership to international attention. However, far too often NGOs seek to shape social movement policy and challenge the decision-making capacity of the grassroots.

An important aspect of this book is its emphasis on the organizing efforts and challenges of its authors, many of whom are women of colour. The reader therefore becomes acquainted with a grossly under-represented sector of the US left. For example, Madonna Thunderhawk writes as a co-founder of Women of All Red Nations, an offshoot of the American Indian Movement, contrasting her experience of grassroots organizing with the professionalized and funded models that prevail today. Andrea Smith facilitates a conversation between Palestinian liberation activists about the NGO-ization of their movement and its effects on defusing and controlling the struggle. In her essay “We Were Never Meant to Survive,” Ana Durazo challenges the logic of the criminalization of domestic violence within the context of communities of colour singled out for over-representation in the Prison Industrial Complex.

Although The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is based almost exclusively on the US context, there are many lessons that can be learned and applied to social justice work in Canada. Several factors differentially pattern the Canadian NPIC. Although the Canadian non-profit sector is quite large, employing a similar proportion of the workforce, it is far less dependent on philanthropic inputs, and receives a much larger portion of its funds from government agencies. In addition, the neoliberal environment of government divestment from social service provision is significantly more advanced in the US compared to Canada. However, as the Canadian polity continues its rapid integration into the US model, and corporate and foundation grants displace shrinking government grants, the lessons of the American NPIC gain greater relevance for Canadian activists. The Revolution will not be Funded therefore provides a useful starting point; however, a similar anthology from across the Canadian left would be a useful and much-needed tool for understanding our particular context.

One of the most retrograde tendencies occurring within the Canadian non-profit sector has been its increasing collaboration with Canadian imperialism, notably in Afghanistan and Haiti. The Canadian Haiti Action Network has been extensively involved in exposing Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) funding and support for pseudo-human rights groups that have been used by the occupation forces and comprador Haitian elite to justify the detention of political prisoners such as Father Jean Juste in Haiti. Closer to home, in December 2006, political refugee and former Lavalas parliamentarian Jean Candio was detained at the Canadian border and accused of terrorist acts. In this instance the only evidence used to justify this political detention was a discredited report from the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, a CIDA-funded sham human rights organization.

Canada’s first ever and recently unveiled official counter-insurgency strategy also points to the alarming imperial ambitions of Canada’s NPIC. The so-called 3-D strategy emphasizes “Defense, Diplomacy and Development” as key elements of a successful counter-insurgency campaign. NGOs framed deceptively as “independent expressions of civil society” serve as perfect engines for the “development” portion of this approach. We can expect to see an ongoing and increasing involvement of the Canadian NPIC collaborating in regime change and occupation and this will continue to be an important area for activist challenges. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded provides us with the tools to analyze, break free from, and one day change the perverse notion of the ruling class “funding” the social change that is so necessary to build a more just and equitable world.