Rooting Nonprofits grew out of the wreckage of my short-lived nonprofit career. In my five short years in the nonprofit sector, I’d burnt brightly, trying to make all the social justice changes I could make all at once. I was exhausted, and bailed just as the US economy tanked. I was so burnt that getting out was more important than being sure I could pay my bills.

I was just burnt out. My friends had it worse.

The Smile of Freedom

The Smile of Freedom

Despite being burnt out, I still cared about the work and left it on good terms. I had it good compared to my friends working in nonprofits.

  • One friend got 30 days notice that she was being evicted from her home where she took care of a developmentally disabled woman because her organization was selling the house.
  • Another was asked to “volunteer” to quit her job. This happened after putting in months of extra unpaid work in lieu of hiring another staff member.
  • A third worked 50 hours a week while “volunteering” an additional 20 hours of on call time. She only got paid for 30 hours of work.

These were all organizations who in theory seek “justice” for people who are marginalized because of disability, gender, and violence.

Trying to Reform Nonprofit Culture from the Inside

I struggled as I watched justice organizations treat our people so injustly. As director of an anti-sexual violence organization, I’d worked hard to try to make some structural changes. My co-workers and I worked together to build a strong team that recognized our different strengths as a team rather than relied on a hierarchy. We questioned our analysis of violence, and expanded our understanding that sexual violence was used as a tool of multiple oppressions. We raised money and expanded projects to build our community organizing base rather than be so focused on social services.

No matter how much we tried to change our structure, we constantly bumped into barriers to change. Our board and our funders were concerned about our changes to the status quo. And we worked so hard to make changes while maintaining services, we were quickly burning ourselves out with the amount of work we were doing with just a small staff of people.

Reform? Or Revolution?

After I left, I still thought about the changes we’d made and the struggles that remained. I read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex and wondered whether it made any sense to reform nonprofits or if we needed to level the nonprofit structure as we know it and build something new. This is most true for nonprofits seeking social justice, seeking an end to racism, homophobia, gender bias, and the violence that perpetrates all these oppressions.

Rooting Nonprofits is a place to explore this question – if we seek social justice, do we reform nonprofits or do we need an entirely different structure for our movement building? As with most either/or questions, the answer is probably both/and. Here at Rooting Nonprofits, we explore both reformist and revolutionary ways to build social justice movements inside and outside nonprofits. While I love theory as much as the next geek, I most want tangible examples of how we’re trying out different models, analysis of what’s working and what’s not, and re-imaginings of how movements might be built and rebuilt. We’re going to have to do a lot better than we’ve been doing if we’re going to change the world.

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