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Posted on December 20, 2007
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is a riveting anthology of essays written by seasoned activists, thought leaders, scholars, and nonprofit professionals working in a range of social justice fields. Inspired by a 2004 conference of the same name that was co-organized by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and the Women of Color Collective of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the book continues the "conversation" that began at the conference. "This historic international gathering provided an opportunity for activists and organizers to share their struggles of organizing within the context of the non-profit system. While providing no simple answers, it did encourage a conversation on new ways to think about organizing and activism," writes Andrea Smith of INCITE! in her introduction to the book.
Smith's opening essay provides an overview of what she calls the "nonprofit industrial complex" and examines its impact on social justice movements in the United States, the role it has played in global organizing, and the prospect of re-conceptualizing the role of nonprofits in the twenty-first century. "Despite the legacy of grassroots, mass-movement building we have inherited from the '60s and '70s," she writes, "contemporary activists often experience difficulty developing or even imagining, structures for organizing outside this model. At the same time, however, social justice organizations across the country are critically re-thinking their investment in the 501(c)(3) system."
It is a theme, and concern, sounded throughout the collection. "We are so trapped into hierarchical, corporate, non-profit models," argues Adjoa Florencia Jones de Almeida in her essay, "Radical Social Change: Searching for a New Foundation," "that we are unable to structure ourselves differently, even when our missions advocate empowerment and self-determination for oppressed communities." And she echoes the thoughts of many when she muses, "Where are the mass movements of today in this country? The short answer — they got funded. While it may be overly simplistic to say so, it is important to recognize how limited social justice groups and organizations have become as they've been incorporated into the non-profit model."
Again and again the question is asked: Is the existing nonprofit model truly the answer to strategizing and mobilizing real social change? Madonna Thunder Hawk offers the perspective of an activist in the Native American rights movement of the '60s and the '70s. "How we organized was different from how activists tend to respond now," Thunder Hawk explains. "We didn't wait for permission from anyone....Before, we focused on how to organize to make change, but now most people will only work within funding parameters...people are too busy building organizations."
The negative consequences of organization building and the "professionalization" of the social justice field is another recurrent theme in the book. In his essay, "Social Service or Social Change," Paul Kivel pulls no punches when he lists the questions we should be asking ourselves, questions like "What are the historical roots of the work that you do?" and "In what ways does funding influence how the work gets defined?" Kivel also cautions the reader that "As we become dependent on this work for our livelihood, 'professionalized', and caught up in the demands of doing the work, there is a strong tendency for us to become ever more disconnected from the everyday political struggles in our communities for economic, racial and gender-based justices...those social justice issues which our work originally grew out of."
The essays in the book are full of lessons learned, unresolved issues, and perspectives on the future of social justice movements and the nonprofit sector. We discover, for example, that there is difference between social service and social change, and that making this distinction can be helpful in assessing the viability and appropriate use of the 501(c)(3) model. We're also told that reliance on foundation and/or government funding adversely impacts the course of community mobilizing and organizing; that having a strong individual donor base and a portfolio of diverse funding streams, including earned income, is key to an organization's financial stability; and that there are alternatives to the 501(c)(3) model, including some that already exist outside the U.S., that may be better suited for social justice causes.
Through it all, the essays in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded challenge the reader to keep an open mind. Some are likely to annoy and maybe even anger readers with their unapologetic, often scathing criticisms of private foundations and the role they have played in the history of social movements in the United States and abroad. Others are likely to strike the questioning reader as thought-provoking and refreshing.
Despite the diversity of perspectives and writing styles, however, the authors all share a common interest in posing tough questions that demand to be addressed as the nonprofit sector moves into the 21st century. Often while dipping into the book, I was reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous injunction: "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now."
In the spirit of Dr. King, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is a call to all social justice organizations and movements to examine their assumptions and models. And, if you're like me, it may even cause you to reflect on the "professionalizing" of your own passion and sense of injustice over the years and to ask, "Am I still an activist?"