In many parts of the country, nonprofits are the only place to access essential products and services. Sometimes, nonprofits fill in gaps in the state’s safety nets. Other times, they work in coordination with governments to deliver necessities. Often, nonprofits organize and advocate for marginalized communities. Many of us donate time or money to these organizations because we’re compelled by the work they do to feed the unhoused, bail people out of jail, or provide vital healthcare services. We depend on nonprofits to advocate on behalf of a righteous cause or uplift the plight of a community. As we do, it’s important to understand the expanding nonprofit sector has limitations and strengths.
Nonprofits are tax-exempt organizations. Unlike for-profit companies, they don’t accumulate and distribute profits to their investors or owners. Because of this, they aren’t required to pay income tax. Like for-profit companies, many nonprofits have CEOs, boards of directors, and paid staff but often depend on grants from charitable foundations or well-off donors to cover operating expenses. Homeowners associations, chambers of commerce, and fire companies are usually nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations. Still, the word “nonprofit” commonly invokes 501(c)(3)’s: charitable, service, and community organizing groups (National Council of Nonprofits, IRS).
In 2014, I ran an afterschool program for working-class Latinx youth for a nonprofit that provided services from immigration legal support to food distribution. As someone from a working-class immigrant family, supporting students from very similar backgrounds was really exciting, and I was proud to do such crucial community work.
When local police violently arrested presumed gang members with no evidence, my nonprofit’s director coordinated a town hall with the police department. The town hall was an attempt by the police department to quell the residents’ outraged questions and restore the department’s legitimacy in the community. Since the police victimized many of the people we worked with, this was confusing and concerning for some coworkers and me.
We later found out that the nonprofit had no choice but to host the event. Much of our funding came from the city government, which insisted we invite the police to “mend relationships” with the community. The organization ultimately had to be accountable not to the community but its funders, despite how the police had discriminated against the people we served.
Many groups have grappled with this tension. INCITE, an intersectional feminist organization, filed to become a nonprofit to easily receive grants from donors and foundations. In 2004, they received a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, which was withdrawn when they found out that INCITE supported Palestinian rights. INCITE learned that “foundations indeed can control your organizing,” but also “there are other ways to resource movements when we think outside the foundation universe” (INCITE).
INCITE is no longer a nonprofit. Instead, it depends on the financial support of their communities. As a nonprofit, the professionalization of activism shifted their priorities to reporting to donors instead of organizing to end violence. They found that much of their vision for change was limited by the strings these donors attached. INCITE decided to abandon their 501(c)3 status and forego funding to organize against violence on poor, immigrant, women, BIPOC, and queer communities, whether in the U.S. or Palestine (INCITE).
Because government contracts and donor money are major funding sources for nonprofit organizations, they often need to prioritize their relationship with politicians and wealthy donors. In another example, many community-oriented Silicon Valley nonprofits deal with the effects of the housing crisis like homelessness and displacement. Confusingly, many of these same organizations support tech developments projected to make the situation worse. Many nonprofits endorsed a new Google megacampus, hoping to benefit from generous grants the company was offering in exchange for support (KQED, CNBC). These nonprofits’ public support of a project likely to harm the communities they worked in was crucial to the development’s eventual approval by the local government (San Francisco Chronicle).
The nonprofit model resources are important and sometimes crucial work, but there are limitations on how these organizations can demand structural change for a more profoundly just world. Whether it is opposing gentrification, policing, racism, incarceration or any other cause, we should uplift grassroots efforts that empower poor, immigrant, queer, and BIPOC communities with explicitly anti-racist, abolitionist, and anti-oppressive policies and practices. Organizations like INCITE that are committed to movement building are always in need of funds or promotion. A movement needs all of us. We need to support organizing beyond nonprofits.