Nonprofit Nonstarter

I’m trying to figure out what I think about the nonprofit world. And where I want to go from here.

My gut reaction is, and always has been, that nonprofits do nothing to change the system, and also help perpetuate the system by putting band aids on social ills, instead of letting the public face the reality of their social systems together and hopefully do something about it. Non profits are a way to divide people, split people up with different focuses, different jobs, different competitions. Non profits don’t exist to help make the world better, they exist as a business, to get paychecks to their most of the time well meaning employees.

I’m tired of foundations that serve as a liaison between “do good” nonprofits and Wallstreet. I’m tired of politicians that try to sway the country and the world with their words and emotions, while status quo will continue on Capitol Hill regardless of who arrives in the office. Big business or big government, it’s all the same. We are ignoring the root of problems, and trying to solve them with big money, instead of understanding and acceptance of human beings as true equals.

And I’m not saying that everything in the world would be better if we all took classes and read books and actually got out to say hello to our neighbors in a non judgemental way. But I am going to confidently state as a naive 25 year old who still has not lost my ideas to the machine that a lot of the problems of the world would be solved if we took time to understand someone who we hated.

I was talking to my boss in DC today, and asked me if I had ever looked into getting a Masters in International Social Work. She told me that everything she knew about me, everything that I told her that I loved about my job, seemed to be leading to that career path.

I recently read a book called the “Nonprofit Industrial Complex,” which reinforced a lot of ideas BC and I had discussed throughout this year. Last year we worked at nonprofits in the woods, and this year we were hitting that 9–5 circulating around a desk. And we had noticed quite a few things that didn’t sit quite well with us.

One of the scary things about it all is, that the more you brush these seemingly tiny annoyances aside, the more you probably slide toward becoming a robot in that nonprofit industrial machine. You begin to live in the world of donors and board members and charity events that have more to do with how many rich people you know than actually engaging the city as a whole in a grassroots campaign.

Which was a surprise to me. I always assumed that nonprofits ran off of the goodness of other people’s paychecks and involvement. But now I have learned that nonprofits run off a lot motivation for tax write offs, and foundation money that sometimes grows money for corporation’s bank accounts.

Do I want to go and get a Masters in Social Work and be trained even further in what I believe should be a grassroots campaign? Progressive and radical theory around nonprofits states that the Nonprofit Industrial Complex could have started to take power away from the people. To make sure that people leading the movements were licensed social workers with college degrees from the right places and no criminal records of civil disobedience. In another sense, to make sure that the people leading the country, and world’s, social justice movements, were tamed down with the fluoride of traditional education. And to make sure that the people leading these movements also had pre existing privilege- as you need money to go to college.

And so the government broke down grassroots movements for the people and by the people and replaced our social justice scene with concrete institutions that resisted small change with the determination of a vegetarian at a BBQ. Institutions that didn’t progress or change. Institutions that simply stayed the same, institutions where maintaining the status quo was cause for celebration.

At a nonprofit, the more funding from foundations and corporations you get, the more obstacles and limitations you’re going to run into. But this foundation money is necessary, as the government gives a nonprofit only part of the money they need, expecting them to come up with the rest through donations. That’s why most nonprofits dogmatically stick to a simple mission, that is rarely intersectional. They can’t afford to be a food bank AND an advocate on the capitol for higher wages and easier access to food stamps. That’s too political.

You can’t be an advocate on the larger, world scene full time. If you want to work for a nonprofit, you work for the business, not the movement.

Not only do nonprofits isolate themselves from cooperation with other nonprofits to tackle the whole of a social justice issues with intersectionality of the issues, they also compete with these other nonprofits for grants, foundation money and private donations.

How sad is it that the organizations trying to help ease the world’s social ills caused by greed and a race for capital are going about trying to fix it with the same race for capital? If you ask people about it, they will tell you there is no other option. This is not an answer I will accept.

In the Nonprofit Industrial Complex world, there is no room for other options. If you’re leading a nonprofit, you have to have a lot of expensive education which means you probably didn’t come from the population that you are serving. You also have to go through all of the traditional hoops which include a lot of money spent on decorating the office for donors and taking them out to lunch, and then you have to be a shrewd business man and protect your own business because you assume that others are not there to work with you, but only discredit you.

If that sounds like a revolution you want to work for, then jump right into grad school. If this sounds like a revolution you want to cultivate, maybe jump into grad school, but keep your wits about you so that your desire to help others doesn’t accidentally land you as a young businessman with a thirst for more power.

That being said, it seems I can’t get away from nonprofits. Finding myself a few years deep in nonprofit work now, I realize it’s where I want to work if I have to have a job in the system. But it’s not where I’m going to find my fulfillment, or all of my social justice desires. I’ve got to look outside. But is it okay to earn a paycheck from the inside for now?

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Originally published at on August 26, 2016.



midwestern librarian, writer, activist

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