Why non-profits can’t lead the 99%


Warren Mar has written a provocative piece on the role of Community Based Organizations and Worker Centers in the working class movement. He explores controversial issues of the funding and democratic control of these organizations which have filled a vacuum in organizing particularly among immigrant workers.

The author entered community and labor organizing in the late 60’s and early 70’s during the second resurgence of a left alternative to capitalism. Many new left activists entered the labor movement during this time, hoping that American Unions would finally represent the entire working class, and not only those workers under a specific work place contract.

Even at its peak in 1953 the AFL-CIO unions only represented 33% of American workers. This year coincided with continuing legal Jim Crow segregation in the South, excluding African Americans from unions, and years of Asian and Latino exclusion from unions on the West Coast. Therefore the 33% reflected on longingly by union old-timers may have represented a majority of white males concentrated in heavy industry and the skilled construction trades of the Midwest and Northeast. This was the geographic concentration of the majority of union members during the height of the AFL-CIO. Not until the late 60’s and early 70’s when public sector unions were formed and – and public sector civil service jobs were integrated – did large numbers of women and minorities become card-carrying AFL-CIO union members even in the most liberal of northern cities.

The above serves as a context to what we are seeing in liberal urban areas today. Unions, even those that survive, are too insignificant to have a large impact on organizing and popular culture. At 6% density in the private sector, most young workers have no chance of stepping into a union job, so the benefits of union membership is an ideological abstraction. In contrast, many baby boomers were able to step into private sector union jobs, fresh out of high school in the early 1970’s. My first union job allowed me to rent my own apartment, in San Francisco, by making five times the minimum wage. I also had a full medical plan, paid vacation and holidays off, something my immigrant parents never obtained in the era when they were excluded from most unions and specific industries. While I fought against the racism and cronyism of unions I never faltered in my support of them. Even in liberal San Francisco, the difference between a union job vs. a non-union job meant a real living wage. I learned to work union whenever I could right out of high school because it allowed me to pay the rent and later carry the mortgage on my first home in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.

What has stepped into the void with the demise of unions?

It would take another long article to discuss the demise of unions in this country and in particular urban areas. That is not the purpose of this article. Rather, I want to look at the rise of Community Based Organizations (CBO’s), all of whom are chartered as Non-Profit Organizations. They have stepped into the void left by unions as the main and sometimes only organizers of low wage immigrant workers. Some organize workers explicitly through the moniker of being a “workers center”. Many started by representing workers that traditional unions would not touch such as transient immigrant workers who moved from industry to industry or who lacked documentation. The day laborer programs come most readily to mind and they have sprouted up in all urban and agricultural areas where a concentration of Latino or Asian migrants seek casual work, without the benefit of documentation. Others have arisen to redress violations of local progressive workers ordinances such as increases in the minimum wage, paid sick days, private contributions to health care, etc. These progressive policies, usually enacted in left-leaning urban areas, came into being without any enforcement mechanism and when there were written regulations they were remanded to municipal departments woefully understaffed and often with a history of civil service staff lacking the bi-lingual or bi-cultural ability to serve immigrant workers, the most likely victims of non-compliance by intransigent employers.

How have CBO/Non-profits done in representing the most exploited among the working class?

Many progressives and leftists, who did not come from the working class, saw the importance of working in unions in the 60’s and 70’s. Many did so by taking jobs in factories, hospitals or in the service sector, after their tenure as campus activists came to an end. Campus activists who leaned towards socialism saw the need to become workers themselves, “integrating with the masses”, moving into inner city neighborhoods to work and live amongst the working class. They often sacrificed the earning potential of their college cohorts and the high hopes of their middle class parents. Ironically many of their middle class professional ambitions were fulfilled when they rapidly transitioned from the shop floor to positions of paid union staff and full time officials in the inner sanctums of the American labor movement. A number of the top leaders of the union affiliates which led the ascension of John Sweeney and Richard Trumka in the “New Voice Movement” taking over leadership of AFL-CIO in the mid 90’s had entered the union movement in the 70’s fresh out of college. The rapid rise of college educated radicals in the leadership of unions raised many contradictions for those who believed that the working class should and indeed could run their own organizations. This was especially true if one professed an adherence to socialism – where workers were supposedly able to run all of society. In practice, this meant the working class should be able to run their own union, if the goal was to give them power over an entire country.

But the inequalities of capitalism are not so easily overcome. In most of the first unions I was a member of in lower level service work — warehousing, garage work, retail, the phone-company, restaurant and hotel work — many of the workers who came directly from the rank and file spoke English as their second language. Some could not read and write English, many could read only at the primary school level in their native language, the result of class inequalities in their countries of origin. Others had never typed a letter and with the advent of computers they were the least acquainted with these new contraptions. So, while some unions conspired to hire college educated non-workers as a means of controlling their staff, who had no ties to the rank and file other than their staff positions, the harsher reality was that even for the most democratic unions the increasing bureaucratic legal codes and the increasing corporatization of Human Resource Departments in firms coinciding with the formal assault on unions in the 1980’s meant that the ability of rank and file members to rise in staff positions became limited by their formal education. It was easier for unions to have representatives with a college education sit across the table from their equally educated counterparts representing management. Whatever we want to think about working class democracy in a highly industrialized society such as the United States, most people learn how to read, write and compute by attending school. In post-industrial America attending better schools or a better university or college made a big difference.

California, which had the best public post-secondary education system in the United States in my adolescence, reflected the class tiers in the three public higher education systems represented in the Master Plan. Community colleges, started out as trade schools, where some licensed workers (nurses, real estate agents, and accountants) could get better working class jobs or transfer to a Baccalaureate institution. State Colleges (formerly referred to as teacher’s colleges) were the first rung on the professional ladder, emphasizing the training of school teachers, social workers and later middle management in the private sector. Finally the University of California system or their private counter parts like Stanford University trained the elite representatives of the ruling class in the sciences, law and business, including the children of the ruling class.

Today, most professional union staff who do not originate from the shop floor and the core staff of non-profits come from these elite universities, not the first two tiers of community and state colleges. This has widened the contradictions among workers and the staff who purport to represent them. Historically progressive unions have had to deal with the racial divide as working class demographics changed the labor force to a significant number of women and people of color. Today’s non-profits have huge class divides between their staff and member/clients.

The problem is further exacerbated in the non-profit sector because at least in unions the staff and officers are financially accountable to the members. Unions after all are still membership organizations. Union members pay dues for officer and staff salaries. In theory, if not practice this meant that the membership is the highest decision making body and while there have been reams of articles and books written about how unions often try to subvert their membership by fixing elections, general meetings, conventions etc., the point is they still need to hold these gatherings. Sometimes, conventions, elections, and meetings don’t go as planned and radical changes may occur. This means that there is still some structure which allows for working members to wield power in a truly membership based organization. Unfortunately most non-profits today do not have the structural requirements most unions must adhere to. There is little in the way of by-laws governing non-profits, for membership election of leaders and oversite of executive directors and staff.

Many non-profits founded as mass based organizations no longer exist – The example of the Chinese Progressive Association

A mass based organization was the term coined in the 60’s when community based organizations were first formed, mostly in communities of color to fill a void where, most of their working class immigrant members lacked union representation. They also formed to deal with issues that unions considered off limits at the time, such as tenant protections when many communities of color where faced with bull dozers at the height of urban renewal, lack of public services in their communities, and lack of access to jobs both private and public which had the best chance of earning a living wage and moderate working conditions. As an example of this type of mass organization, the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), which formed in San Francisco in late 1973, existed without outside funding well into the 1980’s. It had a large membership base of several hundred, which was dues driven. But the main source of sustainability was the in-kind contributions of the active membership. There was no paid staff. Rent was paid through weekly Sunday dinners where members and non-members alike gathered and paid a few dollars for the meal. Other contributions came in for movie showings and annual celebrations. Regular storefront hours were kept by retired members who, also helped clean the premises, and performed a wide array of handy-man repairs. More important, all of the organizing campaigns were led through volunteer committees which included direct participation of the affected residents of Chinatown. Longstanding committees included a women’s committee, workers mutual aid committee, tenants committee, youth committee, pro-China support committee and cultural committee. I may have forgotten a few. The committees were led by chairpersons and represented on the steering committee, led by English and Chinese speaking co-chairs. We incorporated a Chinese speaking co-chair to guarantee immigrant representation.

Being membership driven in the early years meant that elections of co-chairs and steering committee members were at times contentious, as were decisions to support other nationalities and engage in support work outside the community. Even on international issues and pro-China work, the membership was often at odds, especially when China entered into a border dispute and war with Vietnam in the late 70’s. None of these issues could be dictated and decided by the leadership without many contentious meetings. In hindsight I think this was a fair price for being membership based. Throughout this period we remained critics of local government and shied away from government based funding.

In San Francisco many public sector unions and skilled private sector craft unions fought affirmative action hiring programs initiated by CBO’s at a time when the demographics and language needs of the city were changing, and the people of African American, Asian, and Latino’s were woefully under-represented in government jobs as we became the numerical majority in the city. Organizers realized that local government was the protector of the status quo and whatever discriminatory policy or services were allotted at the state and national levels usually fell on local government to implement. This was true of dishing out low rent housing, summer jobs for youth, government building contracts, etc. In San Francisco, as in many large urban cities, local government was also the largest employer. CBO’s who wanted a share of good civil service jobs knew local government was the historical arbiter of political cronyism and nepotism.

Post mass base CBO’s: From government challenger to government sub-contractor

During the 1980’s when unions were under major assault and public services started sliding into privatization, CBO’s that survived and thrived underwent two major changes. First they negated their membership base to the back burner, no longer relying on their financial or in-kind contributions, and second, became increasingly reliant on local government funding as the primary sustainer of their organization. The rest is supplanted by corporate donations or foundation grants. They may have a paper membership, but this membership is not empowered to have direct elections or financial oversight. In most non-profits you will be hard pressed to find a governing board that looks like their constituents/clients. Most non- profit boards are made up of professionals and often representatives of private corporations who are major donors. Second, there are few non-profits that are member supported financially with any significant dues base. This has transformed many grass roots CBO’s founded in the 60’s-70’s from local government critic and watchdog to local government sub-contractor.

Many CBO/Worker’s Centers receive the lion share of their funding from liberal foundations. Ironically they are enforcing worker’s rights through donations from the heirs of the wealthy. Today, local government contracts have replaced foundation grants as the largest source of funding for many CBO’s in liberal enclaves such as San Francisco. Workers Centers are the recipients of these contracts because local worker rights ordinances such as living wage ordinances, sick day ordinances and medical care contributions are relatively new local policy initiatives. But the lion’s share of non-profit funding comes not from protecting workers rights but from subsidizing housing for the poor, which has gone through decades of privatization. The majority of money granted to CBO’s originates from municipal government, through housing grants. Non-profit CBO’s receive huge grants to build housing but they have also been given grants as property managers on government owned property that was managed publicly in the past. Ironically in pro-tenant San Francisco, the majority of tenant rights have fallen on groups with direct funding from the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH). Sometimes the same group can serve as both landlord and tenant rights advocate, both sides funded by the Mayor’s office. There has been more than one local news article where non-profits have turned on their own tenants. In one of the most audacious examples a non-profit church tried to sell off its low rent housing to a private developer, who wanted to transform these low rent housing apartments to market rate units in rental hungry San Francisco. With government pulling out of its responsibility to serve the poor, non-profits have stepped in as a private sector alternative of choice. This is especially true of housing where, just last year Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco turned over all formerly HUD federal housing to private non-profits.

Staff and Member Class Divide

Some unions put up barriers for non-rank and file staffers by creating rules against professional staff holding elected office. Some unions liked the separation of staff from rank and filers, because if they fired a college-educated staffer these outsiders could not return to the shop floor to foment dissent against a sitting officer.

The class divide among professional staffers in CBO’s, are even wider than they were inside unions who had staff from mixed backgrounds? Few if any of the non-profit staff and leadership reflect the class background of their member/clients. Today, we would be hard pressed to find an Executive Director of a non-profit, program or lead organizing staff without an elite college education. Even the contradiction of a wide class and educational divide between staff and membership felt by unions is not at play in non-profits, because they don’t have any pressure from an active membership. Most of their funding comes from foundations or now local government contracts. If they have a board of directors, it is usually a self-perpetuating board of like-minded professionals. Like corporate boards in the private sector many CBO/Non-Profit boards share members. There is also an easy transition from staff to board membership. Most non-profit CBOs function under the authority of a strong Executive Director model, where the entire staff is hired by the Executive Director. Many board members also serve at the pleasure; explicitly or implicitly of the Executive Director. So unlike unions there is ultimately no membership to answer to.

This separation of staff, board and member clients has had a chilling effect on the ability to really build a grass roots movement. It definitely has a chilling effect on trying to sustain a movement. Rather mobilization has taken the place of empowerment and organizing. Mass demonstrations have become a prop for media coverage. Turn-out is a lobbying effort to impress city hall. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tenant’s rights work in San Francisco. San Francisco has one of the most stringent rent control ordinances in the country. But to get relief from the local rent board, both tenants and landlords by necessity need to show up with a lawyer. All hearings eventually come before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), making any direct participation a fool’s journey. There are now no real tenant unions or collectives although one group still holds the name. A web search of their board will show a preponderance of attorneys. They lobby city hall, sometimes by turning out their tenants/clients whom they manage. Even if the eviction fight is righteous, the tenants are more their clients than the ones empowered to sit down and discuss housing and land use issues with the government or their landlord. Often the CBO-Non-profit groups lobby not only city hall but for-profit developers about whether or not they will support a project. In exchange the developer agrees to a fee which goes into a pot for low income housing which city hall can then transfer to the appropriate non-profit.

San Francisco’s main Non-Profits involved in housing gave up on a demand that housing developers build a percentage of affordable housing on-site long ago. Rather developers can legally not build a single unit of affordable housing in a project for in lieu of fees, which the non-profits are then reasonably confident City Hall will remit to them. This had the effect of re-segregating entire neighborhoods. It also had the effect of allowing non-profits in Chinatown and the Tenderloin to benefit off fees by developers in the Dog Patch/Mission Bay and the South of Market neighborhoods that wanted 100% market rate condos. This gentrification has depopulated African Americans Latinos and Filipinos from these two neighborhoods. It was legal bribery and City Hall and the larger non-profits were happy to play. Much of the current gentrification ravaging the East Side neighborhoods of San Francisco started with these policies hailed by progressives as a victory in extracting monetary concessions from for profit developers.


While unions have often been estranged from their members through undemocratic officials and a technocratic unaccountable staff, the potential of the membership to take back power is inherent in their financial contribution (dues), and their codified right to exercise direct power. These two factors are not in play for a majority of non-profit CBO’s currently working with lower paid workers and immigrants. More troubling is the move from direct fundraising and foundation grants to local government contracts which serve as the back-bone of organizational viability for many non-profits today. This has served to allow local government, like federal and state government before them, to privatize previous government services to the poor, at the same time creating a huge client base for the expanding non-profits. Led by People of Color educated from elite universities, many non-profits can avoid the intentionality of dealing with the class question. It also ties many non-profits to neo-liberal Democrats such as Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco. They can no longer serve as the watch-dogs and critics of government abuse of low income working class residents. This does not serve grass roots organizing, nor does it train the poor and working class on how they should manage their own institutions and maybe some-day the world. If CBO’s and workers centers want to build a long term grass roots movement, they must be able to sustain themselves with a real membership based on dues and volunteer activism. Most importantly they must cut their umbilical cord of government funding, or they will never be able to challenge the state representatives of the ruling class.


About the author

Warren Mar

He is a labor organizer and was long active as a member of Local 2 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE). Before joining labor Warren Mar worked for a decade as a community organizer. He was the co-founder of two organizations which are still in existence today in SF Chinatown: Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) founded in 1973 and the Chinatown Youth Center (CYC) founded in 1969. He has served on the board of the CT Resource Center and helped organize , as an unpaid organizer, tenants at two Chinatown SRO’s. View all posts by Warren Mar →

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13 thoughts on Why non-profits can’t lead the 99%

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  2. Dear Laura,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. First of all the article could not address many points and some generalizations may easily be misinterpreted. I don’t think it is bad or undesirable for educated professionals to work in non-profits. On the contrary, I believe it is one of the best options for those who want to do something meaningful and make a living.

    However, your point on internationality, given that we live in such a classist/racist society is one of the points I was trying to make. It is very easy for educated folks, especially educated white folks to take over in any sphere in which they inhabit in this country. If we want to build a grass roots people’s movement this must always be kept in mine. We must also self educate and cross educate so that those who did not have the benefit of the better schools and colleges can do this with us. With people like yourself.

    I always appreciated being a part of a left organization in the 60’s and 70’s because it educated me. I was introduced to college educated people that in my previous world I would never have been in the same room with. In the best case scenario this is what a real movement does. But even in the left the inequalities of class and race are not easily overcome. Some people just read, write and talk better than others. As you know I myself went back to college and graduated when I was 41 and I use to joke with my old friends from high school, most of whom were Teamsters or construction workers, if not dead or in jail, who were surprised that I even went on to a master’s program because I told them that if you can read Lenin and Mao you can read anything.

    And now I can read and even write a little for the Stansbury forum. I still prefer motorcycle magazines but I know I need more than that.

    Sadly we don’t have a big mass movement or a big left now so the pressure on professional folks is not the same as it was on the comrades who worked with me back in the 70’s to not only make room for working class people but to actually follow their leadership. This is not normal in the USA. Hence the need for intentionality with the recognition that there is not a big left or mass movement to keep everyone in check.

    Respectfully and in solidarity, Warren

  3. Hi Warren!

    Thanks for this piece, I think it’s so helpful in crystallizing so many of the frustrations many of us growing up in an era of “professional organizing” have experienced working in nonprofits. In particular, as a middle-class, educated, professional person of color, this article highlights the importance of intentionality and how those of us with privilege should work/serve within social movements in different settings. As a lawyer and having gone to school with many folks who struggle with how to engage in radical lawyering, or how to be a “community” lawyer, given the inherent disempowering nature of legal work, how best can we serve? I’m currently finishing out a fellowship in house at a union, and I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot in the sense that my role is limited, the legal strategy is never the most important one, and legal counsel is always taken in an organizing context. Perhaps there is a role for movement lawyers to help hold organizations accountable to their memberships, or particularly to encourage the democratization of labor unions. (Or perhaps lawyers can take a hard look at their work and their roles and think about how to democratize the practice of law…)

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  6. This is a great discussion. Two things I want to quickly add to the mix. First, the decline of unions did not necessarily result in an upsurge of CBOs or others that obtained non-profit status. I am from Michigan – where the political emasculation of industrial (and now service) unions was as much in evidence as elsewhere. There was no such development in that state, at least not in terms of CBOs that really were able to make much of a difference politically. Part of the reason for that could in fact be that the UAW and others even in decline maintained a strangle-hold on electoral politics. Another could be that every left group imaginable chose to attempt to move unions to the left precisely when the auto and related industries began rapid disinvestment in Michigan. In my greater experience – with the SW Organizing Project in New Mexico, the last thing on that organization’s mind was a need to address any vacuum left behind by unions there. Rather, it was precisely a need to pick up the task of organizing for power after such work was left undone by a Chicano movement that attempted to turn to what key people and leaders in that movement considered a form of revolutionary leftism beyond nationalism and revolutionary nationalism. The result was that people were steered away from organizing in their own communities. In the words of one Albuquerque-area veteran, “when SWOP was formed in the early 80s everyone was waiting for some kind of organization of a new type to come together to better address the needs of the Chicano community.”

    Second, what we built with SWOP and what others built around the country served to develop an infrastructure of sorts that became a destination (now, sadly, more of a career stop in some cases, at least) for new generations of young people of color who wanted to dedicate their lives to social justice work. The ensuing dynamic in and of itself needs to be examined more. What I’ve seen is the development of something quite different than what was desired at the beginning – a space that encourages careerism and that, as alluded to in the piece and some of the responses, requires as much effort simply to keep the institution alive as it expends on actually organizing people. There is in fact some value in all of this. However (in the context of NM) how then is it really different than the manner in which the neocolonial structure – historically accommodating to New Mexicans as part of the social contract put in place when the US moved in here – has operated all along? These are burning questions, and discussions like this do help folks to think them out to one degree or another.

    I find this discussion to be quite refreshing in light of the “non-profit industrial complex” debates that have been getting play of late. Those I find completely ahistorical. What is needed is more conversation about what “is” that references “how” it came to be, and then, as pointed out by one commenter here, what do we do to change things. Within that is another burning question – do those who are involved in such organizations have the wherewithal and vision to actually use those organizations to transform the scenario?

  7. Response to comments from Buck Bagot:

    Buck, thanks for your response and looking at the article. Just a couple of thoughts on what you wrote. As your comments was rather long, I will not respond to everything, especially what I feel there is not much contention over.

    On me being too hard on a lot of folks, especially some of the people of color running the non-profits. Guilty as charged! You are not the first to raise this but I would like to put this in a context. First, I’m a person of color, came out of a community of color (Chinatown), when I was organized, and later became a community organizer myself (unpaid) and founded a couple of CBO’s, a few of which exist today as non-profits. You are correct when you say CBO’s like Unions are in trouble due to the lack of a political left in this country. But to be more specific I would say the national movements are in trouble, as are all progressive movements. As a ex. revolutionary nationalist, I was never worried about organizing white folks, so to me when I speak of CBO’s most were based in the national movements. And it is not ACORN that I was concerned about but where are all the radical POC organizations that existed when I was a youth? SNCC, CORE, Panthers, YLP, Brown Berets, Even the Muslims were more radical than the ones running around now and their radicalism was in the context of day to day struggles in the POC communities. And don’t get me started on the Christian churches color or white, who have all sold out with few exceptions. Sadly, this lack of leadership in the radical nationalist movements has affected the middle class leadership now running many of the CBO’s. So, as a POC and especially as an organizer who is a POC, we need to call out the problems in our communities. Often white liberals and radicals alike give POC leaders a pass and to me this is the height of paternalism, and does us no good.

    Specifically, I don’t agree that it is good the the TL has a lot of non-profit housing now or that CCDC is still mass based. The TL may become gentrified to the extent that it will have only poor people in non-profit housing next to hipsters from Twitter and Facebook in condo’s. That is the lower east side and Brooklyn coming and I don’t think that is progress in San Francisco. I also do not think the CCDC today, is the same as the CRC/CCDC which I served as vp on for over a decade, is the same organization. Their ability to mobilize is great, but I do not consider their tenants organized……. Their major donors are now, Wells Fargo, PG&E and the host of characters you fought in Occupied Bernal.

    in solidarity, warren

  8. Great piece, Warren. Another point – the difference between organizing and “advocacy.” Of course, advocacy means speaking for or on behalf of people. Organizing requires building organizations that give people the power to win on issues, and speak for themselves. The dirty little secret of virtually all organizing is the central – and often dominating – role of the paid organizer. In Bernal, we foolishly attempted to combine more typical “non-profit” functions – senior and youth social services and affordable housing development – with the organizing function. The non-profit prerogative took over, and the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, despite serving hundreds of low-income residents, and having a dues paying membership of hundreds, ceased to organize. And you are right about having a membership not solving the problem, although like in labor, a membership at least gives folks the opportunity or structure to assert themselves. BHNC has hundreds of members, but they didn’t step up to change its direction. The only time community residents ever tried to use membership was when hundreds of NIMBYs signed up to try to keep BHNC from developing affordable housing. Nothing beats an organizing approach, a membership, and Left leadership. Even if and when low income people and people of color get elected to the Board of Directors of non-profits, they rarely exert much influence if they don’t get proper training and support. I have come to respect the old Alinsky model – having a strong grass-roots community organization that spins off captive nonprofits. It’s much, much harder, but the best way to go. Not that I can think of any organization that does it, although I believe that ACORN used to.

    Regarding elite-educated people of color who head “advocacy” non-profits: you’re a bit tough on them. At least they try to fight the system. They follow what they perceive as the best model. They’d likely do better if we gave them the opportunity to – or if there was an actual Left in America that did. If folks think that the labor movement is in trouble, check out community organizing in the US. We haven’t had a strong national organization since the hey days of ACORN, which of course fell under oligarchic pressure, as well as internally sewing the seeds of its own defeat. Even the neo-Alinsky faith-based model has faded, and it hurt its organizing by so often rigidly demonizing politics, especially electoral politics. It all comes back to the lack of virtually any Left in the US, let alone a broad-based, non-wacko sectarian left party.

    The history of housing and community development corporations is even more bleak, and telling. Many groups, like BHNC, started as relatively mass member-based organizations that fought gentrification from a race and class perspective, and had to fight their way into existence in the face of local government opposition. Then the pressure to pursue their non-profit prerogative – building affordable housing – took over, and they morphed into good little – or even big – housing development corporations, albeit ones that developed, owned and managed affordable rental housing. The fact that 25% of the Tenderloin in SF is non-profit owned and managed, and will remain permanently affordable, is no mean feat. But it’s different than building, maintaining a growing a fighting community organization. The Central City SRO Collaborative in the TL comes as close as any group to doing so. Virtually all non-profit affordable housing developers have become absorbed – or grew – into citywide, regional and at times national affordable housing non-profits, to better pursue their primary task – which isn’t building community power, but rather affordable housing. As the head of a statewide and successful affordable housing developer/owner/manager of rental housing told me, “we can’t be community-based in every neighborhood where we work.”

    Mobilization of hundreds of people, often members, to fight eviction and at City Hall is also no easy task. And it has led to wins for the tenant and anti-displacement movement in SF, and real political power. But it remains far from the type of community organizing you describe and recommend. I do believe that you are too hard on these folks, though, and frankly dead wrong in stating the “It was legal bribery and City Hall (true) and larger non-profits were happy to play” in regards to in lieu fees for inclusionary zoning. Even the larger non-profits have fought over issues in which they have a direct interest, primarily winning the extraordinary amounts of subsidy from public sources needed to reduce the cost of non-profit housing to what poor and working people can afford to pay. The problem is that they don’t often fight politically, even in their own laudable but too narrow self-interest in the development of affordable housing.

    But in any case, thanks for taking on this issue. Lord knows it is rarely even raised let alone addressed by our coterie of non-profit affordable housing developers and “advocates.” BTW, the Chinatown Community Development Corporation is the strongest, most effective, most political and most politically powerful non-profit in SF. It seems to combine development/ownership/management with advocacy, and even organizing. But they are the rare exception.

    PS S comment of one darling of the “progressive” funding folks – Causa Justa/Just Cause (CU/JC). They masquerade as the tough, left, fighting mass-based community organization. They’re not, and are no different from the non-profits you describe. And at most they can only even “mobilize” scores of members. They deserve credit for using the millions in public and foundation dollars they raise to provide good services to low-income people, primarily of color. But that’s it – they don’t have the real political power of the better tenant and anti-displacement organizations in SF. That they were 10% as right on as they tout themselves to be! But don’t get me started on the neo-Community sons and daughters of Van Jones and SPARK!

  9. Reply to Mike Miller,

    Mike thanks for your reply accompanied with your article. You are so prolific that it is difficult to answer all the points you raise but I would like to comment on a couple that stand out for me. By necessity I wanted to keep my article short, therefore I will forgo all the points you raised in yours that I agree with.

    Re. funding, While taking money from rich folks or the heirs of rich folks is problematic, I don’t have as much problem with that as government funding. There are two reasons for this. One is that much of what we fought for in the 60’s and much of what we lost in the 80’s was government responsibility to the poor and in the 60’s in was the lack of things whites had that People of Color did not. Better schools, red lining in housing etc. etc. So a socialist part of me still believes that the government is responsible, for health, housing and education. Any privatization is a slippery slope and while some of the non-profits do a fine job, there is no accountability or guarantee that they will continue to do so. Government funding has also served the purpose of co-opting mass movements into an electoral focus. I am not opposed to participating in elections, but I believe non-profits have over emphasized the electoral process at the expense of other organizing at a time, when there is no bases to do so. They also hail electoral victories, especially in liberal enclaves like San Francisco, when in reality while it makes a difference who is on the board of Supervisors, probably not as much as the non-profits would lead us to believe. This has the affect of having the masses over rely on government reforms and chosen elected leaders, rather than radical grass roots organizing.

    So, as an unrepentant socialist, I feel private organizations, even non-profit privates responsible for basic human needs is a slippery slope that we are quickly moving down without the ability to return from. Another part of my article spoke to how these services are being used as a means of controlling a poor population, which Roy does a good job speaking about re. NGO’s the international form of non-profits. An example I gave in my article is: I do not believe it is ethically or politically defensible to have the same organization be a property manager, or property owner representing the tenants in their own buildings. This is what many non-profits do.


  10. Response to Joe Berry,

    Joe, thanks for your comments and your work. I am still a big supporter of CBO’s and understand structurally why they need to incorporate as non-profits. No escaping capitalism there. However, I do believe that they need to be more self sustaining, including having a real membership dues base, even if it is a modest one. More important, I believe if they are to really maintain their grass roots independence they need more in-kind or voluntary work from their membership. I do not believe all organizing work should be paid work, nor should all leadership positions be paid staff positions. Even many unions have un-paid executive boards. When I served on the Local 2, HERE executive board I was “paid” $50. for a meeting, which required me to miss a days work. I can assure you that even in the 80’s my 8 hour shift as a hotel cook paid more than $50., so I lost money by being an elected officer. That is something I think more non-profits can expect from their members if they are really organized.

    In return I believe that there must in institutional safe guards for CBO’s, as there should be for unions guaranteeing membership rights, such as voting, running for office etc.

    thanks again for your comments, in solidarity, Warren

  11. Good piece Warren. Now what can those of us whose work spans both non-profits (especially of the worker center/advocate variety) and unions to do to change this situation?


    What Warren Mar writes about labor is equally, if not more, true about community organizing. Some years ago, I wrote “The Plague of the Nonprofits” which is about the impact of these nonprofits on community organizing.

    Since that time, this powerful summary of the while issue came to my attention:

    In “Capitalism: A Ghost Story,” Indian novelist, essayist, peace prize winner, and nonviolent activist Arundhati Roy writes:
    In the NGO [non-governmental organization; the international equivalent to non-profit organizations] universe, which has evolved a strange anodyne language of its own, everything has become a “subject”, a separate, professionalized, special-interest issue. Community development, leadership development, human rights, health, education, reproductive rights, AIDS, orphans with AIDS [I add housing, employment, environment, and many other categories]—have all been hermetically sealed into their own silos with their own elaborate and precise funding brief. Funding has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could.
    Roy (2012) continues by writing:
    Having worked out how to manage governments, political parties, elections, courts, the media and liberal opinion, there was one more challenge for the neo-liberal establishment: how to deal with growing unrest, the threat of “people’s power.” How do you domesticate it? How do you turn protesters into pets? How do you vacuum up people’s fury and redirect it into blind alleys?

    SHELTERFORCE The journal of affordable housing and community building
    WINTER 2010 » FEBRUARY 07, 2011

    The Plague of the Nonprofits

    The familiar transformation from volunteer organizing effort to established nonprofit needs an overhaul, or it will keep sucking the life out of truly grass-roots organizing. By MIKE MILLER

    It’s easy to condemn corporate power, profiteering, and executive officer greed; for-sale politicians; and unresponsive bureaucracies. It’s not so easy to criticize innovative, small-scale, community-based, progressive, entrepreneurial, relevant, low-budget nonprofit organizations. And yet, that’s what I propose here to do.

    Some years ago I studied the relationship between community organizing and community development corporations. North, south, east, west, the pattern was the same: the former disappeared as the latter appeared.

    In New York City, I spoke with a former Harlem tenant union organizer. This once-promising effort of the 1970s had disappeared. “What happened?” I asked. He replied, “The organizers became executive directors and program staff; the leaders became boards of directors; the members became clients.”
    In the mid- to late-1960s, I was lead organizer for San Francisco’s Mission Coalition Organization (MCO). Its housing committee organized building-by-building tenant associations that militantly confronted abusive landlords. Its community maintenance committee aggressively dealt with street maintenance, abandoned buildings, and redlining. Its planning committee blocked high-density developments that would have altered the character of the neighborhood. Together, the MCO and its predecessor blocked urban renewal bulldozers from demolishing a community. Parallel action by jobs, education, and other committees yielded similar results.

    Model Cities funding ended it all. What had been committees of one organization became separate nonprofit organizations. What had been an organization with an annual convention attended by 1,000 delegates and alternates from 100 organizations with a combined membership of 12,000, who elected their leaders and held them accountable, became self-perpetuating boards of directors unaccountable to anyone. Power-based negotiations with decision-makers, backed by direct action when needed, gave way to supplication and “influence” as these groups first received government funding then had to transition to foundation grants.

    The Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, a major leader in East Brooklyn Churches (EBC), a broad-based community organization, told a December 1995 funders conference, “Thirty winters ago … we were witnessing some of the key early struggles of the civil rights movement in this country. … It was a time of disciplined demonstrations, civil and mostly civilized disobedience. Thirty winters later, … there are thousands of agencies and programs and development corporations and so-called job training efforts. There are hundreds of conferences and reports and studies. But no war, no battle, no front fully engaged against the forces of deepened poverty and hardened discrimination.”
    Youngblood said he “would title his remarks a little differently from the conference theme of ‘collaboration, coordination and community building.’” He preferred “a call for organizing, confrontation and community building.” The funders’ theme of “public-private partnerships,” he said, “usually involve the private sector and the government sector, with a token community advocate or preacher on the board for window-dressing. This kind of response tends to be tame and non-confrontational. … It tends to be small in scale. It tends to be acceptable to funders. … And it tends not to have very much impact.” The sad fact is that what Youngblood said then is still true, if not truer, today.

    The case I want to make is not about thinly disguised corporate money expressly trying to undermine social justice work. That happens, but I’m concerned about a subtler, more nuanced problem.

    The Slippery Slope

    Imagine you are the board of directors and executive staff of a national progressive, even radical, foundation. Your grants are relatively modest: in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. At a major evaluation and planning retreat you decide to make a five-year commitment to racial justice. But you want to make a difference, and that topic is too broad. So you narrow the focus to prison reform. But even that is a wide lens, so you narrow even further and announce a new program thrust—grants for innovative prison-to-work transition projects.
    Because your grants are relatively small, your rule of thumb here is that you don’t want your grant to be less than 10 percent of a total project budget, so it makes a difference. Let’s call your organization “Advance Foundation.”

    Now imagine you are Kwame T. Jefferson, a committed leader in People First, a predominantly voluntary community organization. The focus of People First is building the power to hold public and private institutions accountable and, if required, to transform them so that they better embody values of social and economic justice. You have a “day job,” but your real passion is involvement with prison reform work through People First, to which you give about 20 hours a week. You have become increasingly convinced that you know a key to solving the prison-to-community transition problem. You think a new agency of government ought to be established to establish halfway houses where former prisoners would live with resident counseling teams, therapists, and other support staff to assist them with the transition to mainstream society. And you think that in-prison transition counseling should begin one year before prisoners’ release. In the present political climate, you know that what you want to see happen is not likely. Your organization, and its allies simply lack the power to get the state legislature to adopt a program like this.

    Imagine now that Kwame T. Jefferson decides he wants to quit his job and start a nonprofit organization that will let him work on his vision of halfway houses. He knows he will have to keep it small to start, but he thinks if he can just show how well the idea works he can then convince policymakers to adopt it for wider implementation. With help from a nonprofit community-based law firm, he gets his nonprofit started. He and Advance Foundation’s Carmen Huerta start talking about his ideas. She knows he is a smart, effective worker. She suggests some sympathetic “citywide” people for his board of directors to augment those he now has from his low-income neighborhood base. The organization is federally tax deductible (a “501{c}3” in IRS parlance). To assure stability and continuity, the nonprofit’s bylaws provide for an internal nominating committee that can propose new members to the board—a self-perpetuating body. Huerta introduces Jefferson to some cutting edge thinkers in prison reform; a couple of them join his board.

    Increasingly, Jefferson’s time is taken with writing grant proposals, meeting with policymakers, lawyers, researchers, experts, grant-makers, and others in the prison reform field. In his community, more and more community-based nonprofits are being formed by innovative community thinkers who are seeking funds from innovative foundations—both in the prison reform field, because it is now a hot topic in funding circles, and in other issue areas as well.

    Indeed, there is substantial competition among them as the foundations want to maximize the impact of their relatively small amounts of money and are, therefore, seeking the most cutting edge groups. Seeing Jefferson’s nonprofit taking off, Barbara Washington decides to start a women prisoner’s nonprofit. Her focus is different: the gender discrimination dimension of prisoner release experience. She and Jefferson used to work together in the People First Criminal Justice Reform Committee, so they are friends. But they now barely see one another because each is spending 60 hours a week just keeping his/her organization going. Within their community, the families and friends of prisoners who used to be a major constituency of, and active participants in, People First’s Criminal Justice Reform Committee now come to the respective offices of each program as clients seeking help for their incarcerated relative or friend. The two nonprofits each have a small, overstretched, counseling staff.
    And there’s now an edge that creeps into the conversations between Jefferson and Washington as each is forced by the need to be innovative to distinguish what each does from the other.

    At regional and national meetings of progressive funders Carmen Huerta likes to talk about “her projects” and how innovative they are. And at progressive gatherings of the affluent, Advance Foundation board members offer their cutting edge ideas on prison reform as part of an evening cocktail party’s talk. Other staff and board members from other grant-making organizations like to do the same thing. A climate of constant, unhealthy differentiation is unintentionally fostered as both applicants and grantors want to be unique.

    Meanwhile, the largely voluntary People First organization has lost a number of its most talented leaders to executive and program staff positions in community-based nonprofits. And their perspective on how change comes about has changed. Leaders used to understand that they have to change the relations of power in order to effectively pursue their values and interests. Politically, that involves building support both at the base and among elected officials.
    Economically, that involves strategies and tactics that affect profits in order to compel owners and managers to engage in good faith negotiations. For bureaucracies, it means disrupting business as usual. In people power organizations, leaders learn that whatever the particular issue might be they will be unable to do much about it without power.

    But now their perspective has shifted from one of building people power to building innovative programs that will be “models” or “pilot projects” to demonstrate what could be done if the political will was there to do it, and to empowering individuals.

    The step-by-step process of building power—get people together; win something small; use the victory to train leaders and create confidence in the efficacy of collective action; reflect on the meaning of what was collectively done from the perspective of basic democratic principles and the social and economic justice teachings of the world’s great religious traditions; use the victory to recruit skeptics (either individuals or organizations) who now see that this organization might know what it’s doing; take on a more recalcitrant target because now you have more people power to negotiate, boycott, disrupt, get out the vote, or otherwise affect institutional power—all this is necessarily abandoned by organizations that are focused now on the competent design of programs.

    In the context of community-based nonprofit organizations, different lessons are learned. They are not the lessons of power. Instead of looking at the different self-interests of those with institutional power, self-interests that have to be affected if change is to come about, the focus becomes one of convincing decision-makers “on the merits” of the case. Or, if the language of self-interest and power are still used, sometimes even militantly, there is a sham quality to it because there is no people power army behind the threats. It is “uncle talk tough,” the devil’s advocate in a forum that knows it looks good to let the devil have his say.

    Funding Feudalism

    The pattern I’ve described is ubiquitous, and its result is separation rather than unification. Rather that finding the lowest significant common denominators that offer the opportunity for broad-based action, there is specialization, particularization, and invidious distinction. Instead of finding ways to build relationships that cross historic lines of division, there is an emphasis on particular identities and the uniqueness of their special form of oppression or exploitation. No form of the left can begin to exercise power in this country if this problem is not tackled. We have no equivalent to the right’s organized base. At present, the sum of our activities is less than the parts.

    Who is doing it right? It’s not a mystery: independent community organizing groups, with a membership that pays dues, engages in member-based fundraising activities, elects leaders, democratically determines program, participates in action to change the relations of power, and generally creates a democratic public life. My experience with such groups began as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and as an organizer with Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. There are a number of organizing centers that build on similar kinds of experience. They are known and their accomplishments have been evaluated. The principal national organizing “networks” are DART, Gamaliel, IAF, National People’s Action, PICO and US Action; there are spin-offs from ACORN. The National Organizers Alliance can provide a longer list. There are regional and local counterparts to, or affiliates of, these organizations.

    How do we strengthen these organizations and stop the slide into particularized program-based nonprofits? First, we need to address the erosion of the social infrastructure that constitutes the civil society base for a progressive politics.
    Neither single-issue campaign mobilizations nor narrow identity group organizing is sufficient to remedy this. We do not have an equivalent to the right’s rich social networks of theologically and politically conservative evangelical, Pentecostal, and Holiness churches, and homeowner, taxpayer, small business, realtor, and civic associations (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc).

    We need to build base communities, whether through religious congregations or secular counterparts (tenant associations, block clubs, food-buying clubs, baby-sitting pools). Their members need to pay dues. They need to be part of something larger, but unique and independent in their own right. This is not a quick-fix solution. In California, for example, it took almost 30 years of tax revolt before conservative homeowner, property owner, small business, and allied civic associations could win Proposition 13. The tax revolt began as a city-by-city fight against assessments and tax rates. It grew to passage of a statewide proposition whose consequences continue to be felt throughout the country.
    Reweaving the fabric of community cannot be accomplished by a single national issue campaign. Community organizers should talk with friendly foundations about this problem and challenge their general preference for issue campaigns.

    Second, we need to face the fact that the foundation/ external donor to community grantee relationship is essentially a feudal one. Those with money are neither accountable to the market (dollars aren’t spent here by consumers), nor to the electorate (votes aren’t counted by foundation boards of directors). Instead, the relationship is one of a patron. Many valuable things happened historically as a result of wealthy patrons supporting good causes. But it is a relationship fraught with danger for both donor and recipient. And little is now being done by either party to achieve greater accountability of the donors to recipients, or to the community organizing groups representing the constituencies of those recipients.

    One way to increase that accountability would be for autonomous, multi-issue, bottom-up, democratic community organizing groups to form intermediary bodies at the metropolitan level that would receive funds from program and advocacy nonprofits to organize the communities those nonprofits seek to serve and in whose name they claim to speak. This should be viewed both as an investment and a tax. These groups could suggest to grantors that their program-, service-, or advocacy-oriented grantees be required to support this intermediary through a line item in their budget. In some cases, there might be a specific agreement by the organizing groups to organize beneficiaries of the other nonprofits, as in residents in a nonprofit housing development.

    A new relationship needs to be defined between community-based nonprofits that are program-driven and power-building organizing efforts. Without it, we will continue to win battles but lose the war.

    Mike Miller directs the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE! Training Center and is author of A COMMUNITY ORGANIZER’S TALE: PEOPLE AND POWER IN SAN FRANCISCO, and co-editor of PEOPLE POWER: THE COMMUNITY ORGANIZING TRADITION OF SAUL ALINSKY. Visit his website at http://www.organizetrainingcenter.org.

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