What do you think of when you hear that an organization is not-for-profit? When opposed to for profits, we are guided to understand not-for-profit to mean for the public good. Growing up, we were taught to think of non-profit work as inherently good and social change as an occupation. So, like millions of non-profit workers, many of us at Both/And began our careers in the non-profit sector in hopes of making a positive difference in the world. This was where society told us we could participate in work that bettered people’s lives and contributed to social change.
And yet, what we found in the sector was something quite different. Early on, we realized that much of the work we were doing was attempting to mitigate the harm of the so-called ‘help’ our organizations were providing. We learned how philanthropy controls what work is done and by whom, how non-profits are primarily focused on their brands and the continuation of the institution, and how white supremacy and capitalist logics are embedded into all of the work with so-called ‘frontline’ communities. Working for our paychecks, we learned lessons about hierarchy and modeling organizations after businesses in a sector that offers cover for abuses because of the ‘good work’ being done. We learned how it is much less about the ‘people we serve’ or actually shifting material conditions. We learned to follow the money to understand the power structures. Later, in our work through Both/And as racial justice consultants, we saw these patterns repeated over and over again and grappled with our complicity in maintaining some of these structures through the cover of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Although we had frameworks on racism and white supremacy to understand much of what was happening around us and our role in it, it wasn’t until we studied works such as The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence that we began to have a systemic analysis of the ways philanthropy and the state use the non-profit sector as a method of social control. Over the last five years, we’ve run workshops on the non-profit industrial complex for funders and non-profit staff. For many it is their first time hearing the term or engaging in a systemic and material critique of their impact. Still, despite witnessing many people learn to do a systemic critique, we’ve seen firsthand that increased awareness does not equate or lead to taking action in non-profits.
Inspired by the work of abolitionist organizers and thinkers on the prison industrial complex and movements in the global South, we identified that one of the largest gaps in our analysis is identifying and experimenting with non-reformist reforms; meaning what are the concrete steps that we can take to chip away at the NPIC, rather than strengthen it? In order to do so, we hope to deepen our analysis alongside others, create spaces for research and study, and convene spaces for organizers to take collective action against the forces of the NPIC.