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NYC conference deconstructs the non-profit industrial complex / by Chris Lee

What do we talk about when we talk about the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC)? When we talk about the non-profit sector, we’re talking about a trillion-dollar industry with a GDP the size of a developed country. We’re talking about 10.7 million employees, who make up 10.1 percent of the national workforce. We’re talking about a glaring contradiction, a shaky rhetorical basis on which a massive machine presumes to work for the people, against the logic of return on investment, all while enforcing and policing the politics of economic necessity.

These are the jarring truths we face, so long as we strive to provide social services within the framework of late capitalism. The human impact, the reality of human participation and implication, is worth noting. Non-profit organizations concern enormous amounts of capital and commodity. They also concern local communities, our friends and families, our allies and partners, activists and organizers subjected to the perpetual Ponzi scheme of grant-writing, fundraising, and deferred aspirations for meaningful political reform.

The ongoing problem of non-profits and its ever-growing dominance in the practice of activism is at the heart of a conference held a month ago at the Columbia School of Law. Sponsored through Barnard’s Center for Research on Women, “Queer Dreams and Non-Profit Blues” engaged the vexed matter of an increasingly-corporatized mechanism for care, asking what happens to social aid when we cede it to the governance of executive boards, trustees, and foundations.

Over the course of the two-day conference, panelists were divided into a number of concurrent workshops detailing methods of resistance against the non-profit industrial complex: ‘Restructuring Leadership Beyond Diversity and Tokenism,’ ‘Funding and Fundraising Across Class Divides,’ ‘Abolishing the NPIC.’ The scope of these workshops, which represented an impressive range of organizations and interests, highlighted the urgent project of resisting the non-profit industrial complex’s growing impact on the practice of LGBT politics.

The program of speakers was bookended by plenary addresses that strove to build social movements outside the narrow ideologies of the non-profit model. Many panelists detailed the tendencies of government sponsorship to defang radical projects through the promise of state funding. Others pointed out that the organizational structures of the NPIC mirrored the topdown structure of corporate hierarchy, relinquishing control to those with the most financial backing, and promoting wage disparity along traditional lines of gender, race, and class. While no consensus narrative determined the conference’s direction, the central problem was clear. The non-profit model is not enough for advocates of radical change. It exerts normalization and compliance, swinging back to the status quo.

With organizers and attendees coming from a variety of backgrounds in social justice and academic research, Queer Dreams was rich with stories detailing the perils of acceding to the NPIC. In her portion of the first plenary address, feminist activist and scholar Andrea Smith recalled her own experiences with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, an organization she’d co-founded. Smith detailed how the intervention of non-profit funding led to institutional cooptation of the anti-violence mission, with stipulations deeming survivors ‘sick’ and in need of ‘healing,’ while dismissing the central ideology of patriarchy. Smith further specified that the government’s funding of INCITE! drove at its appropriation by the criminal justice system, resulting in increased police involvement and longer prison sentences. “We ended up with a system,” Smith argued, “where many anti-violence programs are now located in police departments, and are actually effectively operating as arms of the State.”

Smith’s story is not an isolated one, but it does serve as a cautionary example for an all-too-familiar pattern. Grassroots groups and community-driven projects are lured to non-profit organizing through the promise of state funding, only to be coerced into political positions that support neoliberal notions of accommodation and assimilation. Smith’s experiences with the non-profit industrial complex led her to compile, alongside other organizers, an anthology of essays and anecdotes detailing the failures of the non-profit industrial complex, the title of which issues forth a succinct logic: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. A powerful slogan, but one that belies the difficult reality that many radical projects, and indeed, even “Queer Dreams and Non-Profit Blues,” can be traced back to the non-profit industrial complex.

The dilemma is built into the title of the conference: utopic ‘dreams’ for a future free of ideological infrastructures paired with the dystopic ‘blues’ of being actively implicated and exploited by those same systems. This was a fairly obvious juxtaposition, and one incorporated into the staging of the event itself. As many participants noted (some very loudly), universities such as Columbia epitomize the problems of the NPIC.

While higher education institutions (alongside religious organizations) are often excluded from statistical surveys of the non-profit sector, they most assuredly reap the benefits of tax-exemption. The endowments of the most prestigious institutions total in the multibillions, most of which goes towards hedge funds, predatory property acquisition, and the salaries of highly paid executives. Hosting an event aimed at dismantling the nonprofit industry at an Ivy League school highlights the immediate conundrum of accepting institutional resources in order stoke radical desires. Thus Columbia Law professor Katherine Franke opened the conference with a séance of sorts, an incitement to queer possession of this small pocket of the Ivory Tower. “Please,” she entreated, “leave behind a little piece of your radical queer selves, such that they may seep into the walls, and then leech out in the coming days, months, and years, to infiltrate, in a sneaky way, our students here at Columbia, producing all sorts of delightful mayhem.”

Is it any wonder that the attendees of this radical conference, myself included, felt called to confess? To summon and channel our composite histories? As students, faculty, organizers, former or future workers in the non-profit sector, we’d all had admissions to bear. Apologies for implication initiated many comments and questions—the disclosure of perceived conflicts of interest.

It’s difficult not to get hung up on the supposed problem of coordinating identity and organization, in part because we’ve been conditioned to see such contradictions as personal impediments to holding systems accountable. We’re most likely to look inward or lash outward. Grappling with our manifold complicities and those of our peers challenges our socialized understanding of authenticity. In turn, we question ourselves and our social relations, finding fault in the truth of our commitments and the degrees to which we posture around them.

Organizers are made to feel conflicted about wanting non-profit jobs, coveting credentials, and aspiring at financial security. They’re made to feel guilty for being at the behest of the systems they wish to smash. But this is a produced crisis that works in favor of oppressive structures. The obsessive fixation on complicity puts organizers at odds in otherwise productive areas of discourse. In reality these desires, these concerns for economic self-sufficiency and a totalizing autonomy, these feelings of not being good enough, not bad enough, not queer enough, betray the effects of a system that exploits identity politics. They were put there to limit our organization.

Layers of implication are easy to expose for reasons that support those systems that implicate us; it’s much easier to hold individuals accountable than it is historical ideologies and infrastructures, just as it’s easier to point out the culpability of people rather than the terrible conditions they find themselves boxed into. We are conditioned to feel helpless and fraudulent, to worry about our practices as conscientious consumers and free agents, and to point fingers at each other and at ourselves.

Acknowledging the moving target of complicity doesn’t erase accountability, but it does suggest that agonizing over a purity of radicalism or queerness does a disservice to the work of social justice. To append a regime such as the non-profit sector with the term “industrial complex” is to gesture at its exceeding the scope of personal politics. We are entwined with corporate powers, its exploitation of labor, its production of a problem that is at once contained in the subjective formation of identity and then concretized in the enduring constructs of ideology, worldview, and perspective.

How do we smash the non-profit system? Certainly not with the symbolic flourishes of neoliberal planning, which so easily cede to a politics of accommodation and accumulated capital. This is not a problem that will be fixed with boycotts or letters to our political leaders. Those are, after all, institutional tactics, which only serve to bolster the tenuous theory that consumer choices or government regimes might provide us with methods of resistance.

It’s no surprise that many prison abolitionists see the non-profit industrial complex as an ideological analogue mirroring the limits of popular concern. Those who work against the prison industrial complex are used to hearing about political concessions, of complaisant interest with no follow-up. Industrial complexes have this weight about them. They disallow the practice of imagination, and close off alternatives before they’ve even been posited. So goes the public handwringing: how else can justice exist without mass incarceration? How else can social causes receive funding without state sponsorship and tax exemption? How else can nations protect themselves without a standing army? Even amongst self-declared allies, the establishment enforces restrictions on alternative thinking. It regulates the ways we connect with each other, and stokes paranoia against our better and more patient wishes.

A brief review of the conference post-proceedings, which meander back to the NPIC: shortly after Queer Dreams, a number of speakers and attendees gathered at a nearby bar, encouraged by the closing speaker— “a family tradition,’ she’d suggested. Some few hours later, we’d come to a semi-official house party. A Bed-Stuy apartment blasted reggaeton over claims of solidarity and decolonizing the dance floor. After midnight, a final stop, a caravan of queers towards parts unknown. A few shots of whiskey and I’d driven away the ghosts of institutional implication. Outside, familiar figures gathered to complete their dismantling of the NPIC. Or so it felt. By then I’d embraced the political stakes, the impossibility of the task ahead.

If the NPIC is in desperate need of rapid and radical dismantling, how do we hasten its demise? Silent auctions will not be enough. Nor will walk-a-thons. Not even conferences directed at the dilemmas of the NPIC, though the conversations there might voice the frustrations of those caught in its sweeping influence. The crushing conclusion is that that these systems are comprehensive and complicated, that they may and probably will exist throughout our lifetimes, or throughout several lifetimes. Direct action offers concrete modes of resistance through the production of independent media and the practice of consensus process, but direct action also means forgoing a system of care that equates capital investment with levels of commitment. It means building connective networks of support. Many meetings were made through Queer Dreams, many names learned and many numbers exchanged. Somewhere along the way I’d forgotten where I was and why I’d come in the first place. This was a good thing.

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