February 3, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 4°F


Commentary: Non-profits are not accountable to the public they serve

The Occupy Wall Street protests have led many students to develop a more critical view of potential corporate employers and to look to the non-profit sector for more ethical career options. Yet graduates may be wise to scratch beneath the surface of seemingly social justice-oriented organizations.

Alicia Swords

“The Revolution will not be Funded,” a book by the INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence collective, examines what it calls the “non-profit industrial complex,” a concept that implies non-profits and charitable foundations are an important part of social control, not social change.

According to this research, non-profits and foundations that are intended to correct the ills of capitalism do not benefit the poor, disenfranchised and dispossessed. In fact, these groups often manage and control dissent and demobilize political movements by slowing down more radical, structural change.

When charitable giving began during the era of robber barons, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Russell Sage created foundations to shelter their profits from taxation. They put money they should have paid to the public treasury into their own foundations where they could control it. Author and scholar Andrea Smith, who studies the history of non-profits and their impact on social justice, points out that foundations have focused on activities to “ameliorate social issues — in a manner that [does] not challenge capitalism.” As a result, organizations like the Ford Foundation have helped shape the course of social justice movements in more conservative directions.

An Ithaca College graduate recently expressed her frustration to me when she learned the organization where she works receives funding to end homelessness for children. Her boss, however, considered any work to raise awareness about the root causes of homelessness as “too radical” and outside her job description.

Katie Zimmerman ’10 works for Central Arizonians for a Sustainable Economy, a group that works to address the root causes of social issues. Courtesy of Katie Zimmerman.

Other graduates find the job that pays their rent may not match their values as much as they would like, so they get involved in social movement work “after their nine-to-five.”

Does this mean college graduates should give up the hope of finding work in which they can express their values? No. But I would recommend investigating carefully before taking a non-profit job. The following are questions to consider: Who funds the organization? How do the priorities of the funder differ from the priorities of the organization? Does the work of the organization get at the root causes of social injustices? To whom is the organization accountable?

Non-profits that were created to divert funds from public coffers to protect profits from taxation endure today. We must recognize that radical talk, critical perspectives and glossy brochures cannot transform our society. Most non-profits do not organize people or build cores of leaders. They are often more accountable to their funders than their members.

But this is not a call for political correctness. Let’s ask questions about possible non-profit jobs as we seek work that is deeply respectful of those our society has dispossessed.

A global wave of protests is bringing the underlying inequality in our society to light. Let’s join with and listen carefully to those who are downsized or foreclosed upon, who are bankrupt from a health care crisis or from student loans, whose hometowns have been destroyed by this economic crisis. There is still a great deal of dignified work to do that is accountable to the public.

I wish December graduates and all those searching for jobs in the New Year good luck and clear thinking. Today, students are entering into an economic crisis, but that doesn’t mean they have to give up their values and their big dreams.

Alicia Swords is an assistant professor of sociology. Email her at aswords@ithaca.edu