What’s Wrong With the Nonprofit Industrial Complex?

Several interviewees agree that the industry ultimately rewards wealthy nonprofits with connected leaders over smaller, grassroots nonprofits. Gracie Willis, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), succinctly describes the industry for Teen Vogue as a “closed loop.” She says further, “You don’t get the funding if you don’t have the clout, but you don’t have the clout if you don’t have the funding.” 

In terms of working conditions, nonprofits and corporations aren’t that different. As former nonprofit worker Amy Piñon tells Teen Vogue, “Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model.” Multiple interviewees from across the nonprofit sector report to Teen Vogue that long hours and low pay are expectations in the nonprofit sector, and that the good will of an organization’s mission can be weaponized to quash attempts at accountability.

For the SPLC, an organization that specializes in legal civil rights advocacy, workers say their low wages conflict with the organization’s values. Employees at the SPLC have been negotiating for more equitable working conditions for about 18 months, and finally reached an agreement for a new contract in July. Rose Murray, an attorney who works for the SPLC, tells Teen Vogue that higher-ups have said the organization’s hefty endowment will not be used to increase worker salaries. (Teen Vogue has reached out to the SPLC for comment.)

“Black women who’ve been working at this organization for decades are still making under $50,000 a year while executives are making, probably, four times that, if not more,” Murray points out. “It’s such an incredible disconnect. How do you not see [fair pay as part of] eradicating poverty?”

In a comment to Teen Vogue, the SPLC says it is “committed to being a socially responsible employer and we continue to partner closely with our employees to create a great workplace.” The organization adds: “All of our employees, including those represented by the union, should receive fair compensation and working conditions. The SPLC looks forward to reaching a collective bargaining agreement soon and hope — for our employees, stakeholders, and community partners in the South and beyond — to keep making significant progress and contributions to racial justice and equity.”

There are also barriers to getting a job at a nonprofit in the first place. Many positions require degrees in nonprofit management or social work and potentially require staff to keep up with that astronomical cost of living in large cities like New York and Washington, DC.

As with many industries, the nonprofit sector has seen increased interest in unionizing since the beginning of the pandemic, confirms Katie Barrows, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union. 

But this isn’t a problem that’s confined to the United States. K, a Canada-based nonprofit worker who has asked to remain anonymous, tells Teen Vogue that her organization withheld raises from unionizing employees. “[For] a program that’s supposed to be supportive of mental health, and [their] whole thing is helping youth at risk, to go to very extreme union-busting moves is really unfortunate,” she says.

What are alternatives to the NPIC?

In addition to pointing out the pitfalls of nonprofits, INCITE!’s anthology contains radical prescriptions for the NPIC. Indigenous activist Madonna Thunder Hawk drew inspiration from 20th-century Native organizing, which relied on community generosity for resources. Paula X. Rojas and Adjoa Jones de Almeida of the Sista II Sista Collective spoke of the need for organizers to build their own infrastructure outside of state control, referencing the Zapatista movement.

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