How nonprofits gaslight you into the same self-sacrificing work as capitalist corporations
This guilt that we feel for taking a lunch break instead of finishing those mailers is an outcome of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex.
by Taneasha White
Nonprofit work is always seen as “God’s work.” Before they even know which organization I work with, chatty Uber and Lyft drivers immediately thank me for my service.
There are things that are commonplace within nonprofits that aren’t expected in corporate settings. The idea of “ice breakers” before meetings, flex time, or giving back to the community as a requirement, for example.
In the nonprofit field, corporate entities are often automatically categorized as greedy and self-serving. Those who operate as purely business models are shunned for having capital be their sole focus, and are shamed for treating their employees as pawns for their own gain, rather than as whole people with feelings and lives of their own.
Sadly, nonprofits often operate similarly, but the nefarious difference lies under the cloak of being “community-focused” or “progressive”; post-onboarding, a constant gaslighting ensues.
Working overtime is a trait that we have pushed off on corporate entities as a sign of “being a workaholic,” with misplaced priorities. Within nonprofit spaces, working late into the night is encouraged. You aren’t after advancement or money, you’re just dedicated to the work. You’re someone who gives your all for the cause. You’re community minded.
Pushing back against a corporation’s expectations of long hours and unreasonable tasks means that you’re against being treated like a cog in the machine that is capitalism. Hoorah! But pushing back against a nonprofit for the same reason means that you aren’t dedicated. You aren’t down. If your priority isn’t the movement, then what is it?
This guilt that we automatically feel for taking a lunch break instead of finishing those mailers is an outcome of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. According to Incite!, the Nonprofit Industrial Complex is a system of relationship between the State (or local and federal governments), the owning classes, foundations and the nonprofit and/or social justice focused organizations.
This uneven relationship leads to the nonprofits enabling the state to both monitor and control social justice movements, and “manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism; Redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society; Allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through ‘philanthropic’ work; and Encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them.”
It sounds heavy, and it is. It is also more common than many of us would like to admit. Values are suddenly malleable when recognition and funding are on the line, despite the collective public shaming of large corporations that do the very same.
I have been in meetings with a nonprofit that blatantly said that they were unwilling to hold an elected official accountable for their racist past. This white-led organization was completely on board when their efforts were public, and several other allied organizations were involved with calling for his resignation. Once they were forced to consider being one of the few to maintain a turned back, they folded. “We don’t want to give up all this power we’ve worked so hard to build,” leadership said.
Despite the mission statement and programmatic focal points claiming to center people of color, when it came down to legitimate active allyship, which entails doing the work even when it’s no longer sexy or easy, they chose convenience and clout. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was aghast at the blatant adherence to faux allyship and white history.
Though nonprofits are touted as the defenders of the “less-than”, we can’t ignore the fact that there is a serious disparity in who runs them. According to the Building Movement Project’s report, over the last decade, less than 20% of nonprofit executive leadership has been fulfilled by people of color, making this pattern of subjugation and exploitation explain itself.
Why would a supposedly important and inclusive cause push white leadership to truly value my Black, Fat, Queer body when they historically never have? What would force those in charge of their own salaries and titles to put anyone, let alone folks who have already been decided as underlings, before them when power, clout, and grant funding are on the line?
When you add mental illness and/or chronic pain into the mix, it amplifies the guilt that can arise for wanting to put yourself first. I have been fortunate in my past experiences, and my organizations have been receptive to my concerns around physical tasks, but there’s always a layer of guilt that exists prior to being open about my needs. And honestly, I still don’t sit every time I need to, or refrain from lifting every time that I should. The fear of not being a “team player” being proof enough that I’m disposable is pervasive, and unwavering.
It goes without saying that not all organizations are guilty of this. I’ve been involved with organizations that do a great job of living up to the standard they hold others to, both internally and externally—valuing the efforts that their staff puts in and having Boards that are heavily and regularly involved, voluntarily pulling the weight that is attached to their votes. I’ve been lucky to have experienced these positives, because these organizations, unfortunately, are the minority.
Though this idea of working yourself to death is indeed both Western and white, as with most “isms” and pitfalls of society, I have also had similar experiences within both POC-led community-based agencies and grassroots activism movement circles. The assumption is that these “for us by us” organizations would be where we find solace, but oftentimes it merely serves as an echochamber for heady theory but failing to actually utilize those same ideals.
Instead, I’ve encountered unbridled adherence to white supremacist practices. Clutching to hierarchical structures, the Rise and Grind theory, and placing your impacted staff on the front lines are literally using The Master’s Tools in an attempt to get us free—but we know it won’t.
Despite these internal workings, there’s a public push against traditionalism and capitalism. They receive accolades and handclaps from the community for the transformative work that they’re doing. This work is real and it’s valid, but if you were to ask the folks involved with the day-to-day processes, what would they say? Would they agree that it’s that vastly different structurally than a corporation? I doubt that many would.
If you lead an organization, and you are more concerned with clutching on to the power that you hold as a Director rather than the happiness of your staff, or you’re okay with silencing legitimate issues and concerns from the folks that are pushing the work along every single day, then you aren’t as transcendent as you purport.
Suffering is not an investment to a movement.
Taneasha is a lover of all things communications, with creative nonfiction and poetry tying for her first loves. She loves critiquing media and dissecting oppressive systems through a Black, Queer lens, both on paper and through her podcast, Critiques for The Culture. Taneasha loves to writes about sex positivity, Queer identity, and love in all of its forms.