Movement Ferguson, Beware the Nonprofit Industrial Complex
by Netfa Freeman
“As our movement evolves and we remain dependent on major donors and foundations instead of building grassroots funding, we will always be hindered and misdirected away from the trek toward fundamental systemic change.”
An article in London’s DailyMail.com about the funding that Billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundation is giving to organizations in the Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter movement has sparked defense of Soros on social media and speculation that the article is part of an extreme right agenda or mentality to belittle the movement and discredit “funders committed to racial justice.” For sure, a quick web search shows there is hardly a shortage of rightwing extremists disparaging Soros’ bankrolling of liberally progressive organizations and programs.
But applying a more left than liberal analysis to the article and to Soros reveals there is a deeper, dare one say, warning for the left. The DailyMail.com isn't right wing by any U.S. corporate press standard. More revealing and to the point is that the history of his Open Society funding in all sorts of social justice efforts nationally and internationally (not just Ferguson) can be compared to the strategy used by formations like Stephen Currier’s Council for United Civil Rights Leadership that sterilized the Civil Rights Movement of its Black Power and other more radical elements that were legitimately elevating the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for human rights.
In Malcolm X’s eloquent fashion, he described how white philanthropy and white leadership influenced civil rights organizations at the time of the March on Washington:
“They had a meeting at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. The Carlyle Hotel is owned by the Kennedy family; that's the hotel Kennedy spent the night at, two nights ago; it belongs to his family. A philanthropic society headed by a white man named Stephen Currier called all the top civil-rights leaders together at the Carlyle Hotel. And he told them, ‘By you all fighting each other, you are destroying the civil-rights movement. And since you're fighting over money from white liberals, let us set up what is known as the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Let's form this council, and all the civil-rights organizations will belong to it, and we'll use it for fund-raising purposes.’ Let me show you how tricky the white man is. As soon as they got it formed, they elected Whitney Young as its chairman, and who do you think became the co-chairman? Stephen Currier, the white man, a millionaire. Powell was talking about it down at Cobo Hall today. This is what he was talking about. Powell knows it happened. Randolph knows it happened. Wilkins knows it happened. King knows it happened. Every one of that so-called Big Six--they know what happened!
“Once they formed it, with the white man over it, he promised them and gave them $800,000 to split up between the Big Six; and told them that after the march was over they'd give them $700,000 more. A million and a half dollars--split up between leaders that you have been following, going to jail for, crying crocodile tears for. And they're nothing but Frank James and Jesse James and the what-do-you-call-'em brothers.”
“We know in our organizations we have conversations and make decisions about the best ways to make ourselves more ‘attractive’ to funders.”
The Council for United Civil Rights Leadership also advanced the confining and prohibitive nature of to the Non-profit Industrial Complex as we know it today by centralizing donations and then discouraging tendencies toward building independent grassroots funding bases. The Counsel worked to oppose tactics like civil disobedience and boycotts by controlling distribution of funds and using connections to corporate media establishment.
Out of necessity Soros has obviously taken this strategy to a new level to be make it commensurate with today’s evolved political and ideological movement. While, of course, few if anyone may be “getting rich,” no one – particularly those of us working in the non-profit industry – can deny the influence funders have on what not-for-profit formations do or won’t do, what political positions they take or don’t take, etc. Even if, as the director of Soros's fund disclaims “they have no ‘direct’ control over the groups they give to, and said they are all trying to improve accountability.” “Direct” is the operative word.
If we think of this as funders literally dictating to organizations we will miss how this works. An organization or individual doesn’t have to be told anything directly. Those who do foundation fundraising know the first level of control is “fitting” within funders’ guidelines just to apply. The next level is how radical an organization will dare go after receiving money when they know (no matter if it’s a person who is a major donor or a foundation) funders are generally more politically conservative than those applying for funds and that they will invariably need refunding. We know in our organizations we have conversations and make decisions about the best ways to make ourselves more "attractive" to funders. These are just two ways funders can control social movements.
There is a radical element to the Ferguson movement that realizes the police and the whole judicial system are agents of the state and the power elite, corporate class. They realize this is not merely an issue of “accountability,” as framed by the Open Society Director in the DailyMail.com article. These radical and more politically clear elements see that this is about more than isolated incidents like that of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. They are calling and working for human rights, peoples’ empowerment which would ultimately threaten the status quo to which funders like Soros belong.
“This is not merely an issue of “accountability.”
Together with historical and political context, the DailyMail.com article affords us an opportunity to more critically analyze the role and influences of the non-profit industrial complex. For example, the article reports that, “One recipient of his funding is the Organization for Black Struggle, which in turned established a group called the Hands Up Coalition, that has helped make ubiquitous the 'hands up, don't shoot' slogan.” However, without disapproving of the slogan, the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience, or the Hands Up Coalition, there are also those in this national movement looking at the legitimacy of self-defense as was done in the 50s and 60s. They’ve questioned the “hands up, don't shoot” slogan and offered an alternative, “fists up, fight back.” While the politically faint of heart may want to reduce such a slogan as foolhardy and irresponsible, they would be reminiscent of those during the Civil Rights movement who denounced, criticized, and mischaracterized armed self-defense as well as the Black Power movement; of those who misrepresented or misunderstood the essence of what was at stake. Many of them today attempt to rewrite that history and sterilize it of its progressive examples and effectiveness of armed self-defense.
It would be naive to think the likes of Soros and his Open Society Foundation/Institute would ever fund an organization like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that pulled the covers off of the national epidemic of impunity for police murders with its 2012 report, “Trayvon Martin is All of Us,” showing that every 28 hours a Black person is murdered in the U.S. by agents of the corporate controlled U.S. government and those agents given impunity. We should likewise doubt Soros’ OS would support their follow up resource, “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: A Handbook on Organizing New Afrikan and Oppressed Communities for Self-Defense.”
The big picture to see are the broad and long term effects of rich people and all those with vested interest in the nonprofit industrial complex controlling the purse strings of our movement. As our movement evolves and we remain dependent on major donors and foundations instead of building grassroots funding, we will always be hindered and misdirected away from the trek toward fundamental systemic change.
Many of us recognize the easier said than done lessons from the Church about building a grassroots funding base. For centuries the Church has done this very well.
The difficult part of creating a grassroots funding base for politically radical action is raising the level of political consciousness among the Black masses such that we embrace the indispensability of funding our own work to realize true empowerment and self-reliance. Too many Black organizers think we need the Black elite but the masses outnumber the elite class by so much that it’s not unreasonable to envision 200 thousand people contributing and average of 5 dollars a year with which we could fund some independent and radical programs to the tune of millions.
This will require revolutionary organization and revolutionary consciousness. Sekou Ture of Guinea taught us, “Without revolutionary consciousness there can be no revolution. Without political education and revolutionary practice there can be no revolutionary consciousness.”
Dependence on the philanthropy of capitalists can never be revolutionary.
Netfa Freeman is a long time Pan-Africanist, human rights activists based in DC and a co-host/producer for Voices With Vision on WPFW 89.3 FM.