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The Buffer Zone

Looking beyond the nonprofit industrial complex

During the long overdue civil unrest after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and countless other Black people in recent weeks and months—but also throughout American history—at the hands of police and white supremacy, protests and marches have been held all across the United States and around the world. These demonstrations are not only in remembrance of those who have been taken from us too soon; they call for abolishing the systems and structures of American society that disproportionately disadvantage and harm Black people. And while these calls for change may have begun with the police, they have rung out through every industry—media, sports, beauty, travel, tech, and more. In response, brands, businesses, and corporations of all sizes—from Glossier to Amazon, Peloton to Apple, Disney to Fashion Nova—have been compelled to make public statements denouncing racism and injustice. These statements, often posted on social media, are usually coupled with the announcement of individual or company plans to donate to nonprofit organizations working in the fight for racial justice and social change.

But these donations are almost always made to the same big, national nonprofits instead of to local, grassroots organizations or mutual aid networks and bail funds. Nonetheless, some have greeted the donations as a good thing: corporations are “putting their money where their mouth is” and “opening their purse” for the supposed benefit of Black and other marginalized communities. While providing a veneer of progressivism, the donations actually enable these businesses, foundations, corporations, and wealthy donors—as well as the national nonprofits who accept their money—to perpetuate the very system that creates and sustains not only their wealth but the need for nonprofit services in the first place. 

The incremental services provided by these organizations take the place of a mass politics that would offer public goods to the American people through a social safety net as a basic human right.

According to Ceema Samimi, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, nonprofit organizations as we know them today have six defining characteristics: they are formal organizations; they are private entities; they do not distribute profits; they are self-governing; they are voluntary; and they provide a public benefit. The modern nonprofit model began with that baron of the Gilded Age Andrew Carnegie’s desire to change capitalism in order to “save it”—after accumulating vast amounts of personal wealth and witnessing labor strikes and violence toward “captains of industry” and their businesses. Carnegie believed inequality was an inevitable result of industrial progress but that traditional charity would not close the gap because indiscriminate handouts would only encourage lazy, drunk, and unworthy people to persist in their ways. Then, as now, the “undeserving poor” were assumed to be all people who are able-bodied yet unemployed: people who seemingly did not want to work or made poor choices that prohibit them from doing so. Rather than use his immense personal wealth to alleviate suffering, Carnegie urged his fellow millionaires to benefit the community by “[placing] within its reach the ladders on which the aspiring can rise,” inventing the notion of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps without acknowledging that some people do not even have boots.

Heralded by many as the father of modern philanthropy, Carnegie’s ideals actually further exacerbated the gap between equality of condition and equality of opportunity. The foundations begun by Carnegie and his contemporaries were to be used as vehicles for the “public good.” But that public good would no longer be defined by the public itself or won through direct action. According to Peter Dobkin Hall, it would instead be determined by elites, academic experts, professional bodies, businesses, and government entities; they studied conditions, generated and dispersed their findings to citizens with influence, and drummed up public awareness to bring social change—a model not very different from the one employed by nonprofits and their funders today.

Nonprofits operate in a system of relationships between the state, the propertied classes, foundations, and social service and social justice organizations: what the radical organizing network INCITE! defines as the nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC). The NPIC prevents nonprofits from actually meeting the needs they were founded to ameliorate by keeping them “beholden to their funders instead of their communities,” says Ceema Samimi. “Our government, our capitalist system uses nonprofits to placate people,” Samimi continues. The incremental services provided by these organizations take the place of a mass politics that would offer public goods to the American people through a social safety net as a basic human right. Instead, rather than giving everyone a living wage, access to quality health care, housing, healthy food, a quality education, and preparing them for the career of their choice, American culture blames the “undeserving poor”—which often translates to poor Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color—for their position in society, without acknowledging all the ways society has historically oppressed them and continues to do so.

 Through the services provided by nonprofits, the government, corporations, and foundations have together created a “buffer zone,” the job of which is ultimately to keep people apart. “The buffer zone keeps poor people in their place and keeps them from rising up and being seen,” Samimi says. They believe if we want to really change things in this country, “we’re going to have to figure out how to get rid of the middleman.”

Of course, getting to that unmediated future is complicated when opportunities and funding are so tied to the 501(c)(3) organizational framework, instead of going directly to the people and community organizations who do the work regardless of what paperwork they have on file. Asha Boston, founder of community organization turned nonprofit The Dinner Table Doc, is one such intermediary, but only because she saw a genuine need in her Brooklyn community and knew that existing as a community organization alone would not be financially sustainable. Through The Dinner Table Doc, Boston and her team create physical and virtual spaces—like an in- and after-school program and Eighteen Under 18 Awards—where girls can receive self-empowerment workshops as well as college and career readiness preparation. Since transitioning to an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2017, Boston says “opportunities for funding have changed tremendously, because there were so many grants we could not apply for before.” Though 501(c)(3) status has made The Dinner Table Doc eligible for more funding opportunities, it has not solved all their issues on this front because funding “is a lot about who you know, and who is willing to support you. For some corporations, foundations, or grants, you can’t even apply on their website. You have to be invited to apply to the opportunity,” Boston says. This of course privileges the kind of networks that nonprofit founders who are also members of marginalized communities may not have. At different times, Boston has found herself going up for funding against national organizations like Girls Inc. and Girl Scouts for grants that are “hyper-local,” an experience that does not really make sense to her given the difference in scope, size, and resources of the organizations.

Grassroots, local organizations often know what their community needs better than big national nonprofits do.

In spite of the challenges that come with running a nonprofit for Black and brown girls as a Black woman—in a world that provides no privileges to any of those identities—Boston is committed to serving her community through The Dinner Table Doc. She has created a virtual summer camp, The Miseducation of Brown Girls, for girls across the country who have been unable to go to school, prom, or other in-person events because of Covid-19. “Still, it would be so much more helpful if we had the funds to be able to truly support them the best way we can,” says Boston.

For as long as nonprofits must continue to fill the gaping holes in our social safety net, the least businesses, foundations, corporations, and wealthy donors can do is stop being lazy, let go of their white savior complexes, and find smaller organizations that are run by members of the communities they serve, like The Dinner Table Doc, to donate to. Grassroots, local organizations often know what their community needs better than big national nonprofits do; some of the latter are not even actually affiliated with the BLM movement despite their name, or function simply as a band-aid to maintain the capitalist status quo. Capitalism is built for the benefit of the (most often white, cis, and male) elite, and it requires a permanent underclass to function; brands throwing money at nonprofits who provide services or advocate for causes that should be guaranteed rights ultimately functions to keep that underclass subjugated.

And despite their social media posturing, brands, as well as the businesses and people behind them, cannot do meaningful anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, or anti-transphobic work while upholding capitalist systems and structures. But they can be more mindful of who and what they give their money to so that harm is genuinely reduced, instead of increased or maintained, in the communities they claim to care about. We must resist elite virtue signaling and empty public relations gestures and demand more. We have to let go of the lie of meritocracy—because the average person is not going to do so well that they become a billionaire too—divest from capitalism, defund the police, in order to get rid of the nonprofit middleman. In that world, nonprofits, their donors, the police, maybe even the government as we currently know it, would be supplemental, if necessary at all.