The time is now to break all the rules and reshape the nonprofit sector - Generocity Philly


Jun. 16, 2020 7:13 am

The time is now to break all the rules and reshape the nonprofit sector

"Hundreds of thousands are in the streets telling us that a new reality is necessary and possible. We can let ourselves be part of making that happen," says guest columnist Sam Chenkin.

Black Lives Matter protest at the Philadelphia Art Museum on June 6, 2020.

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

This guest column was written by Sam Chenkin, an organizer and the founder of Reclaim the Sector.
Who would have thought that abolishing the police would be a mainstream idea in our lifetime? It turns out that we are not required to pursue incremental change. We can allow ourselves to dream.

We work at nonprofits because we want to help people. But at most of our organizations, that means we help people more fully participate in existing systems. We help people get exploitative jobs at corporations. We help people get poor quality subsidized health insurance from the marketplace. We help people minimize harm from the “justice” system. We treat the symptoms, not the cause.

Challenging these systems directly has been deemed “political” — especially if we want to name how they oppress Black people. And “political” is a bad word in the nonprofit world.

By now, many of us (as individuals) have a more nuanced analysis. More than ever there is an awareness that oppression is systemic, rooted in racism, and deeply resistant to change. We are starting to talk with each other and our clients about this reality. But steps to uproot white supremacy from our nonprofit services, governance, and funding remain small and incremental at best.

I know that this is a daily sadness for many of us. We want to help, but it seems like we never have the time, or the resources, or the skills. The need is always so much bigger.

Unfortunately, this is the system working as intended. Nonprofits were originally imagined as ways to help individuals participate in capitalism, not to change oppressive systems. We are still learning how to dream bigger.

I hope that this moment can help us find the way. Recent protests — ignited by the murder of George Floyd and fueled by hundreds of years of violent racist oppression — show us that boldness pays off. Today, there are mainstream movements successfully defunding the police and making the impossible seem within reach.

Hundreds of thousands are in the streets telling us that a new reality is necessary and possible. We can let ourselves be part of making that happen.

Nonprofits as a force for liberation

Our sector’s primary approach has historically been one of harm reduction, but we can do that and more. How can our organizations support the enduring liberation of our communities — particularly Black and Indigenous people?

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COVID-19 has forced us to press reset and think creatively in ways we’ve never had to. The Movement for Black Lives is showing us that fighting for justice can make the unthinkable possible. Let’s take this opportunity to break all the rules and reshape our sector:

  • Our funders don’t support radical change? We can organize and demand that funders distribute all of their wealth, not just 5%.
  • Our internal culture is racist? Let’s give our DEI committees a budget, hazard pay, and complete authority to change organizational policy.
  • Our staff is burnt out? We can experiment with non-hierarchical management models that allow for collaborative goal setting and make space for healing from trauma.
  • Our teams are out of touch with community needs? Why don’t we create paid committees of community members with veto power over every programming decision?
  • Our communities don’t know each other? What if every nonprofit employed community organizers to connect people, nurture organizing skills, and build power?
  • Our communities don’t have access to basic necessities? What about alternative economies and mutual aid networks that operate outside of capitalism? What if we fought directly for the end of racism and economic exploitation?

These are just a few ideas which would have felt wildly radical a few months ago but almost feel within reach today.

Radical accountability

I know that embracing a radical new reality is difficult. I spent more than a decade helping enable an “apolitical” nonprofit. I was told that “our job is to help other nonprofits, not to change societal issues.” We were explicitly part of the nonprofit industrial complex — existing only to perpetuate the current status quo and not to change it.

I chafed, but I stayed in line. I pushed back in meetings with my boss just enough to be labeled as a radical, but not enough to risk my political power. I took care of my team by ignoring rules I felt were unjust, but I didn’t push for policy changes that would support other (majority POC) departments. I sent my managers to trainings on systemic racism, but I didn’t prioritize a reckoning with our culture of white supremacy.

I failed to do my part in building an equitable organization because challenging the existing reality would have risked the power, comfort, and income I enjoyed as a white manager.

Most other nonprofits have a similar problem — the system is working well for those in charge. People of color comprise only 10% of executive directors, 10% of board chairs, and 16% of board members (BoardSource, Leading with Intent: 2017). This isn’t a mistake — it’s a reflection of the white supremacy that underpins our society.

Ultimately, regardless of the success of our work, most of us in positions of power at nonprofits will personally be fine (and so will most of the people we know). A more radical approach (pursuing systems change) would jeopardize our comfort. As a result, we focus on incremental change within the current system rather than dismantling the system itself.

The pervasiveness of racism and capitalism can makes clarity difficult. Even the most radical of us have work to do in navigating the tension between personal/organizational safety and community need. This work dismantling our internalized white supremacy is critical, but in the meantime we don’t have to have all the answers. We can simply release ourselves into the agenda of those who feel the day-to-day impact of oppression. And right now, that agenda is clear — dismantle oppressive systems, don’t mess around at the margins.

This is a time for boldness and reimaging. We are held back from change only by our inability to imagine something new. But others are showing us the way. All we need is the courage to take big risks and the skills to listen.

Let yourself fight for transformative and liberatory change. We can build a better world.


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