Forget the Foundations

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded shows how nonprofit fundraising hinders radical movements

Jeanine Plant

While working in a hospital in the 70s near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Lorelei Decora, noticed that many women were having miscarriages – so many that hospital workers had to put extra beds in the hallways. Meanwhile, Madonna Thunder Hawk was working with continuously sick children at the Survival School, an American Indian Movement (AIM) alternative school, which supports Native American values of sovereignty and self-determination. The two began to suspect a larger problem: water pollution from local uranium mining. So they decided to take action, and founded Women of All Red Nations (WARN).

Their actions” didn’t involve writing grant proposals, discussing their concerns with a board of directors or contacting state agencies. They tested water samples themselves, and, in 1979, produced a study revealing high levels of radioactive contamination, a high percentage of pregnancies complicated by excessive bleeding or terminated in abortion and large numbers of children born with birth defects. Despite their work, the Centers for Disease Control and Indian Health Services discredited the study, and WARN wasn’t vindicated until the South Dakota School of Mines substantiated their claims that same year.

But unlike Erin Brockovich, this tale of local activists fighting against faceless institutions doesn’t have a happy ending: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission simply raised the level of acceptable contamination,” and Indian Health Services started providing bottled water in one area. Congress authorized a new water pipeline to the reservation in 2002 – only to have the funding diverted by the financial demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hawk writes about this experience in the throw-down-the-gauntlet anthology, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2006). Edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence – a Redmond, Wash.-based collective of feminists of color founded in 2000 – these 16 essays examine how nonprofit fundraising hinders radical movements, the complicated role played by foundations and grassroots organizing. 

Hawk’s story is an example of the activism The Revolution Will Not Be Funded champions, one unhampered by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit system beholden to boards and budget salaries. Organizations today,” Hawk writes, spend more time on fundraising and administration than they do on organizing. In contrast, we put all of our effort into organizing and activism.” 

Nostalgic for the days when people organized to make change,” Hawk casts a harsh eye on careerist humanitarians who won’t work without a paycheck and who defer responsibility onto do-nothing organizations, only later to complain about their lack of agency. She deflects criticism that WARN could have accomplished more had it worked within the confines of a typical nonprofit. Hawk says: We did not worry if our work would upset funders; we just worried about whether the work would help our communities.” 

The authors in this collection argue that today’s activists are a conformist bunch. Since the late 70s, American social-justice organizations have operated within the 501(c)(3) nonprofit model in which donations are tax-deductible and foundation grants can be secured. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded argues that foundations perpetuate First World interests and free-market capitalism, thus preserving many of the problems radical activists wish to eradicate, such as the unregulated concentration of wealth. 

Foundations were created in the early 20th century by multimillionaire robber barons, such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, to evade corporate and estate taxes. By the early 60s, foundations were growing at a rate of 1,200 annually, and financial magazines were touting them as tax-shelter mechanisms. The problem, as Christine E. Ahn argues in Democratizing American Philanthropy,” is that foundations divert money away from the collective tax base. Monies that would have become public funds are instead private, controlled by trustees who benefit from the status quo and who are more interested in supporting milquetoast reformers than social-justice organizations. Due in part to this lack of tax dollars, federal and state funding for education and healthcare has shrunk, shifting the social responsibility from government to philanthropy. Ahn writes that an estimated 45 percent of the $500 billion foundations possess rightfully belongs to the American public. This is a culture of noblesse oblige, Ahn writes, where the privileged are obliged to help those less fortunate, without examining how that wealth was created or the dangerous implications of conceding such power to the wealthy.” 

One problematic consequence of this concentration of wealth, violence-prevention educator Paul Kivel suggests in his essay Social Service or Social Change?” is the power those with money wield over community leaders. The ruling class co-opts leaders from our communities,” Kivel writes, by providing them with jobs in non-profits and government agencies, consequently realigning their interests (i.e., maintaining their jobs) with maintaining the system.” This allegiance keeps community leaders from challenging the root causes of social inequities – the social-change work – at the same time that they pedal to keep up by providing for the needs of individuals devastated by institutional exploitation. Kivel concedes this is valuable work, but points out the inherent injustice of this paradigm: When temporary shelter becomes a substitute for permanent housing, emergency food a substitute for a decent job … we have shifted our attention from the redistribution of wealth to the temporary provision of social services to keep people alive.”

Such statements might give the impression that these contributors are unrealistic; but they’re not. In her essay In the Shadow of the Shadow State,” University of Southern California Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore urges contemporary grassroots activists to stop seeking a pure way of doing things.” Many are looking for an organizational structure and a resource capability that will somehow be impervious to co-optation,” she writes. But grassroots activism, like foundation grants, can and has been used by the right. After all, it was a women-led, grassroots effort in California that helped elect Ronald Reagan governor and Richard Nixon president.

The concluding essay – written by Nicole Burrowes and others from the Brooklyn-based Sista II Sista collective (SIIS), a non-profit that promotes community for young Black and Latina women – makes the strongest case for the feasibility of grassroots organizing. After 9/11, when the political climate became increasingly conservative, SIIS started asking the hard questions,” about the necessity of raising $300,000 annually from grants. In the transitioning from foundation support to a volunteer collective reliant solely on grassroots dollars, SIIS lost a few people. But is has grown in unexpected ways, fielding more requests for program development than the collective can handle. Yet the opportunity proved golden: Young women have stepped up and their leadership is more prominent than ever.”

We are not saying all foundations are bad,” the Sistas write. But once the chase for foundation dollars begins to seriously affect your direction and your energy, something has to change.” No longer trapped in an endless application process, they’re able to focus most of their energy on building up their community in a way that would make Hawk proud.

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