My name is Uzma, and I’m the resident sociologist at the Georgia Feminist, (you’ve already met Missy, our resident historian, and Savannah, our resident rhetorician). I wanted to share some of our thoughts about the nonprofit industrial complex with you, how it contributes to harm, and why we ultimately chose to be a nonprofit anyway—and how we’re thinking about nonprofits differently so we can better center community.
The world is a scary place. It has been for a long time. It was scary when the baby feminists that currently make up The Georgia Feminist huddled around a Tate Student Center desk discussing how one of the nation’s oldest and largest public universities didn’t have a women’s center in 2013 (and to this day still doesn’t). It was a scary place when we came back together to sell our shirts in 2020, amidst a pandemic, to support voting access disproportionately denied to people of color in Georgia. It continues to be a scary place right now, with access to safe abortion in jeopardy, with hate crimes that continue to perpetuate white supremacy that is allowed to thrive in this country. It continues to be a scary place amidst global, ongoing wars. We were a small and feisty group of undergraduate students in 2014, and we came together in part because we were scared, and when you’re scared, all there is to do sometimes is reach out a hand and hope someone is there to hold it.
Almost a decade later, our small group has grown up into what is colloquially known as “adulthood,” and our once-tiny student-led movement has become a tiny non-profit organization with fully fledged 501c3 status. We developed a mission grounded in the tenets that drive us toward healing:
Hope is a discipline - Mariame Kaba;
Community is where the ground is. - adrienne maree brown;
Love as the practice of freedom. - bell hooks;
In 2020, we sold our original Georgia Feminist shirts to raise money to allow voter access in our home state and raised over $6,000. And while we have so much to celebrate, we’re embracing the revolutionary tactic of rejecting binaries, and also trying to be very honest with ourselves about what it means to be a nonprofit organization in a capitalist society; we’re trying to create positive change in a system that fundamentally hurts us. Being honest with ourselves means being honest with you, too. So we’re sharing a little bit of context on what the nonprofit industrial complex is, why we chose to pursue nonprofit status, and how we’re trying to disrupt the complex by prioritizing what matters most to us: community and love.
The non-profit industrial complex (or NPIC) is a trillion dollar industry in the United States. and one of the largest in the world. It is defined as “a system of relationships between: the State (or local and federal governments), the owning classes, foundations, and non-profit/NGO social service & social justice organizations that results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements.”
However, many people in modern society perceive the positive benefits of a non-profit without understanding the way nonprofits actually work to prevent positive change. Nonprofits are supposed to represent the “work” outside of capitalism that can heal inequity. Yet, even with the existence of thousands of nonprofits, the material conditions of the world remain pretty freakin’ scary, suggesting that nonprofits do not exist to support much overall social change. In fact, INCITE describes the actual role of the nonprofit as a tool of the state, where the state uses the NPIC to:
...monitor and control social justice movements; divert public monies into private hands through foundations; 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 makes sense that the wealthiest men by net worth, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg also happen to top the list of America’s biggest charity donors. Bill Gates himself runs the largest charitable foundation on the planet. Charitable donations are a way to obtain tax credits that effectively allow the wealthiest to avoid paying taxes that could support more universal services. This reality helps us understand how the NPIC can harm those who need help most while lining the pockets of the ultrawealthy.
Nonprofits are structured to benefit the wealthy far more than they create positive social change for the non-wealthy; as such, they can be used to perpetuate capitalism. I have yet to hear of a nonprofit whose sole goal is to work itself out of existence. For nonprofits to exist, billionaire donors must exist; for billionaire donors to exist, the colonizer must accept; when the colonizer accepts, he engenders his sole role to promote better domination, whether through maintaining his wealth, or creating forms of technological rationality that — according to one of my favorite thinkers, Herbert Marcuse — “becomes the great vehicle of better domination, creating a truly totalitarian universe in which society and nature, mind and body are kept in a state of permanent mobilization for the defense of this universe.” Marcuse also says that the only way to deal with systems so entrenched in domination is to simply refuse them. He calls this The Great Refusal — a protest against that which is. This protest reflects so many others in a world where activists have been refusing existing systems of domination and oppression for centuries. Marcuse’s theory is to refuse, and as many of us know, theory is an important aspect of making sure our practices don’t recreate the systems we’re trying to dismantle. One theoretical solution, then, is simply to refuse the very concept of the NPIC, as Anand Giridharadas writes in his 2020 work, Winners Take All:
In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power balances. Their actions contend that society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they “seek” to solve. The broad fidelity to this principle helps make sense of what we observe all around: the powerful fighting to ‘change the world’ in ways that essentially keep it the same, and ‘giving back’ in ways that sustain an indefensible distribution of influence, resources, and tools.
In sum, Giridharadas suggests that refusal is a way to challenge the NPIC.
We also know that while praxis without theory can recreate systems of domination, theory without practice is self-indulgent. The Georgia Feminist is a project attempting to bring together the theories of disruption with the practice of the very real world we live in with a community that supports us and holds us accountable as we fumble towards repair.
To bring it back to the point of this article, you might be asking, why are we still a 501c3? To be perfectly honest, none of us as individuals are in any financial place to get taxed for the monetary donations we receive. Without nonprofit status, we would otherwise have to hold this money in our personal bank accounts. We’re a group of students, teachers, and otherwise non-billionaires that know that, even though money isn’t technically real, it’s an important resource for so many members of our community. We believe in supporting local organizations doing on-the-ground work that direct supports victims of sexual assault, gives people access to safe abortions, and increases voting access. We use our own gifts to build community, share the educations we’ve had the privilege of receiving, the life lessons that shaped us and taught us how to connect to our own everyday love ethics, and our own personal magic, with you. We’re also working as hard as we can to uphold the tenets of mutual aid practices such as these from Big Door Brigade, and we will share more on how we’re trying to engage in mutual aid in a future newsletter.
To be clear, we are not suggesting that nonprofits and mutual aid are one and the same; they are not. However, as a community, we want to consider how we can maintain our 501c3 status to facilitate fundraisers for issues we care about deeply while also offering ways to engage in and contribute to mutual aid.
Even as we work to uphold these values, we know that we are not a mutual aid network just by virtue of being a nonprofit. Mutual aid networks already exist, and all we do is support them where we can. There is a lot of valid critique that says that mutual aid can’t exist within existing systems such as the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. Mutual aid is a deeply historical, often subversive system, and the networks exist already. For us, not having tax-exempt status was a logistical barrier. Although having a corporate bank account could be an unethical move, going without one was risky for our personal finances should we have tried to use our personal accounts to facilitate fundraisers.
The biggest point, however, might just be that we believe support and care exist beyond resources, even as financial resources are some of the most important ways to help others in a capitalist economy. Support and care are synonymous with community, love, having someone to talk to, and feeling that, in the end, we’re not alone in this increasingly scary world.
To that end, profits from our sales are split across a 70/30 model, with 70% going to the existing on the ground organizations doing incredible local work, and 30% towards running the operating costs of the basics we need to build community — a Zoom account, bank account, tax and registration fees, web service hosting, and more. None of our members receive any of that 30%; in fact, all of us have actually contributed monetarily so we could keep this organization afloat. We’re writing all of this down for two reasons: (1) to be transparent with you, but (2) to hold ourselves accountable. If we want to practice the everyday love ethic that we think will ultimately change the world for communities we love, then we have to be open to accountability from you and from each other.
At the Georgia Feminist, we refuse the idea that help is only available in market-friendly ways, that the underlying economic system must be preserved, that the wealthy deserve their inordinate power. But by refusing these ideas, we have to fill their void with something new — foundational beliefs that we create together on an ongoing basis.
We believe that selling merch won’t change the world, but fashion aesthetics can be forms of revolutionary expression. We love wearing our Georgia Feminist shirts to the voting booth and beyond. We believe that you deserve to thrive simply because you are alive, and we are here to help you do that in community. We believe that community and mutual aid and taking care of each other is our destiny, but that living in a society where the construct of time makes it hard to do anything outside of work and school, makes that hard. And so we build intentional spaces for community. We believe that mistakes are inevitable, but can be met with loving accountability. We believe that, together, we can create a world where we keep ourselves safe and no longer rely on external systems to do so. And even if we aren’t there yet, we’re here to help and uplift our community, and we believe that we have the power to find everything we need to take care of ourselves.