Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

At the Limits of “By and For”: Space, Struggle, and the Nonprofitization of Queer Youth

In the fall of 2010, I received an email solicitation that began: “It’s been said that the act of coming out is a political act. I disagree. Hardly a week goes by when a sports figure, actor, musician or another celebrity comes out with little fanfare. The political act has become a more personal act. What was once ‘I am gay—deal with it’ in 1988, has now become ‘I am gay, and I am no different than you.’”[1] To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. For whom is coming out no longer political, I wondered. These words, written by the executive director of a Midwestern LGBT youth nonprofit, District 202, mark a fascinating change—a change within a particular organization as well as a broader change in queer social movement politics.[2] This statement illustrates the shift toward what Lisa Duggan calls “homonormativity,” the neoliberal politics of domesticity and recognition that now dominate contemporary LGBT politics, in which accessing the mainstream through formal equality and hollow tolerance has come to replace justice as the goal of the movement.[3] This small Midwestern queer youth organization offers a fascinating window into this political shift and the role that the nonprofit structure has had in it.

Founded in 1990, District 202 provided a drop-in space as well as various kinds of youth leadership development programming, street outreach to homeless youth, HIV prevention programming, and extremely popular drag shows and other social events organized by youth. District 202 was envisioned as a “non-profit youth community center committed to providing social, cultural, and educational opportunities by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth and their friends.”[4] Early organization materials always began with the Audre Lorde quote: “Without community there is no liberation.”[5] By the mid-1990s, District 202 was an incredibly vibrant organization, making “in excess of 10,000 contacts [with youth] a year,”[6] and regarded as a national model among what was then a relatively small number of organizations working specifically with LGBT youth. Taking a stand that would prove difficult to maintain and that always remained somewhat contentious, District 202 was unique in that it did not provide social services, instead focusing on youth leadership development through its mission to be driven “by and for youth.”

Despite its incredible popularity among queer youth in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, District 202 was also plagued by financial instability and protracted struggles over its political mission. In 2009, District 202’s board of directors fired the youth staff and the executive director, closed the drop-in space, shut down for six months, and finally reemerged as a social entrepreneurship organization for LGBT youth with a marketing professional as the new executive director. In 2011, facing a great deal of community critique and without the skills to manage a struggling nonprofit, District 202 finally gave up its nonprofit status and became a program of a large social service agency. Today, District 202 is simply a support group, but one that continues to use the logo of the former organization, which provides a kind of brand memory and cachet.

These shifts are startling—somehow to change in the span of 20 years from a youth space invested in liberation and community struggle to an organization that asserts that coming out is no longer political is remarkable. But this shift is not isolated—it is, in fact, a useful illustration of a widespread shift in queer social-movement organizing toward homonormativity. In what follows, I will explore the experience of this organization in order to illuminate the intersection of a set of critical processes—specifically, the homonormative turn in queer social movements and the marketization of the nonprofits that increasingly manage (and largely constitute) those same social movements—processes that are themselves located within the rising dominance of neoliberalism in both political economy and cultural politics.[7] Located at this juncture, I ask a set of interrelated questions: How did the nonprofit structure itself dovetail with, or even facilitate the rise to dominance of homonormative politics? How have neoliberal modes of financialization and marketization affected LGBT organizations? More broadly, what can the example of District 202 tell us about the current state of queer social movements; the complicated roles of nonprofits and private foundations in those movements; and the resistance practices of queer youth of color, transgender and gender nonconforming youth, and their allies?

The closure of District 202’s community center and the dispersal of the bodies that once occupied it is both a subject of this piece and a key methodological difficulty. Therefore, this project is not served by traditional site-based ethnography, as the lack of a site is a central problem under analysis. This loss of space is a form of social violence, connected to a series of other forms of social violence that are disproportionately experienced by youth who already have little access to space. This social violence haunts the public narrative—the official memory—of District 202. To grapple with this challenge, I have conducted one-on-one interviews with individuals who engaged with District 202 with a range of different perspectives: staff, youth, board members, outside consultants, and community members. Each individual offers important perspectives that at turns contextualize, interrupt, contradict, or echo the official story District 202 tells—and sells—about itself.

In what follows, I will analyze struggles over power and meaning at District 202 in order to highlight the ways that its nonprofit structure facilitated the homonormative transformation of the organization. I begin by placing District 202 within the nonprofitization of social movements in the United States. I then trace significant snapshots—flash points—from its 20-year history that illuminate the structural forces at work in the nonprofit form that precipitated shifts in this organization’s form and politics. How did an organization that once called forth Audre Lorde’s vision of liberation become a “social entrepreneurship organization” that seeks “mainstreaming” through “corporate partnerships?”[8] My intent is to show that District 202 did not become this organization overnight—that the nonprofit structure itself contributed to its current form—but also that its transformation was contingent and never inevitable. In doing so, I will locate District 202 as a site of ongoing struggle.

The Nonprofitization of Queer Social Movements

By arguing that the shifts undertaken by District 202 were by no means isolated, and that these shifts are particularly illustrative of the turn towards domesticity, consumption, and incorporation seen widely in queer social movements in the United States, I am centering the nonprofitization of queer organizing as a key, and often overlooked engine of the homonormative turn in queer politics.

In 1960, there were approximately 3,000 501(c) nonprofits in the United States. In 2011, there were 2.3 million nonprofits operating in the United States, with the largest sector, public charities, holding 2.71 trillion dollars in assets. The total assets held by nonprofits increased by 106% between 1998 and 2008, reflecting a level of growth that far outpaced both the state and the business sector.[9] This expansion included a veritable explosion of gay community centers, rights organizations, youth programs, antiviolence projects, health agencies, and other nonprofits explicitly working by and for LGBT communities. Rather than simply understanding this explosion as the product of activism on the part of the LGBT community, it is critical to place this emergence within the larger context of the expanding nonprofit system, which is, in turn, a feature of late capitalism.

This expansion of the nonprofit system both coincides with and illustrates a profound shift in how the material needs of people living in poverty are—or are not—met. Although initially spurred by Great Society funding in the 1960s, the exponential expansion of the American nonprofit system in the 1980s and 1990s reflects the demise of the social safety net in the United States and the discursive tools that were used to facilitate it. At the same time that right-wing politicians were mobilizing narratives that demonized poor women of color as welfare queens gaming the system, a parallel discursive project championed volunteerism, charity, and community togetherness—organized and articulated through nonprofits—as alternatives to the big bad welfare state. Nonprofits were regarded as bastions of good work and volunteerism, while welfare was demonized as bloated and habit-forming. Jennifer Wolch asserts that this welfare state reorganization has produced a nonprofit-based “shadow state,” “administered outside of traditional democratic politics and charged with major collective responsibilities previously shouldered by the public sector.”[10] Dylan Rodríguez terms this the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC): “a set of symbiotic relationships that link together political and financial technologies of state and owning-class proctorship and surveillance over public intercourse, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist movements, since about the mid-1970’s.”[11] The massive expansion of the nonprofit system in the United States since 1960 has had a substantial impact on social movements, as activist organizations are incorporated into the nonprofit structure and therefore become reliant on corporate, state, and foundation funding for their continued existence. All nonprofit organizations, even small, politically radical grassroots organizations are implicated in this web of state power, private wealth, and the disciplining function of charity. This is the history and function of nonprofits that District 202 encountered when it opened its doors in 1991, inheriting an already contested relationship to social movements, the state, and people living in poverty.

The Optimism of “By and For,” The Cruelty of Capital

Key to understanding the dramatic organizational shifts at District 202 is an analysis of the struggles over mission, youth power, and space that surrounded those changes. In particular, I will analyze the conflict between the organization’s structural orientation towards capital—an orientation in many ways demanded by the nonprofit form—and a political mission that invited youth empowerment. This conflict has, in fact, been central to the foundational and ongoing struggles over what kind of queer youth District 202 imagined to constitute the youth community and what their empowerment would mean and look like. Although the organization has always represented itself as by and for LGBT youth, and, in the early days, expressed a commitment to liberation through youth power, in practice expressions of such power were often met with resistance from staff and board members, and limited in paternalistic or outright punitive ways. By and for youth was—and still is—quite a radical vision in the context of youth-serving nonprofits that retain the “save the children” approach of charity in the United States. It is an explicit challenge to the compassion narrative on which so many social service organizations rely. Instead, District 202 was asserting that youth could be more than victims, more than objects in need of discipline.

District 202’s first executive director, Paul, described what “by and for” was intended to mean when the organization was created: “It meant that youth are going to name the agency, youth are going to help define what it looks like, so they were on hiring committees, so youth are going to define hours of operations and programs.” But, he noted, “what became difficult is that as you become bigger, there is the business end and defining the culture, and they aren’t the same body.”[12] From his descriptions of that early process, the power dynamics embedded in the nonprofit form were either underestimated or ignored. Paul’s recollections about these early days reveal core assumptions about nonprofits themselves: that they are essentially good and of the community, and that they are the kind of places where power falls away and shared identity is paramount.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the business end that Paul mentioned. He was referring to more than just payroll and insurance—the entire development and fundraising apparatus is included in the business of nonprofits. The nonprofit sector is funded by charitable contributions from individuals, from private foundations, from corporations, and from the state. Of those sources, individual contributions are by far the most significant. For instance, in 2013, the largest source of charitable giving came from individuals at $241.32 billion, or 72 percent of total giving.[13] This is followed by foundations, at $50.28 billion, bequests at $26.81 billion, and corporations at $16.76 billion. In fact, individual giving has increased every year since 1973, with the exception of 2008-2009, due to the impact of the financial collapse. This increase in private giving is due in part to the focus on narratives of charity and volunteerism popularized by the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations as alternatives to the welfare state.

Over this same period, the business end of the nonprofit also developed and professionalized into the highly complex technical apparatus that it is now. For instance, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which began in 1960 with only 197 members, cites the 1980s as a period of “impressive growth and an increasing sense of professionalism” in the sector.[14] Further, in the 1990s, they write, “fundraising and the nonprofit profession became a critical part of the economy.”[15] During this period, fundraising became a professional and decidedly technical endeavor. Gone are the days of passing the hat: fundraising professionals now utilize complex donor-management databases to track a donor’s history of giving as well as personal anecdotes about donors, enabling them to produce the effect of personal connection. Fundraising professionals can check the database to remind themselves of a donor’s hobbies, children, and interests, and can target their ask directly to a particular donor’s motivation for giving, whether a specific issue, a general sense of community involvement, a desire for personal connection, or status. Development now entails prospecting for major donors, using high-touch donor cultivation, even buying lists of donors from similar organizations in order to widen the net. There are multitudes of training options available that teach how to target an appeal letter, and even how many bullet points or phrases in bold are necessary to keep a prospective donor’s attention! Nonprofits create development plans with yearlong calendars of activities intended to raise money: events, strategic communications, and individual donor cultivation, as well as grant-writing to foundations.

An organization like District 202 may have had only some of these capabilities, especially during its early years, but it existed within a discursive and material landscape that was oriented toward capital. Success looked like more donors, more major donors, and a more robust system for cultivating and managing them. This is also due, in part, to the fact that donors increasingly expect this kind of system and to be cultivated in a certain way as a mark of professionalism and respect. Donors also expect a particular narrative from an organization like District 202, an appeal that produces in them particular affective responses that cue them to give. Overwhelmingly, that narrative is about compassion or community, or often both. Donors either want to help the children, or experience themselves as part of a gay community by supporting a resource they wish they had had when they were young. Teresa, a former grant-writer for District 202, described how one of the main constituencies was “gay men, sometimes lesbians, who became donors, who definitely had a sense of identification with District around healing their own experiences of being young and gay.”[16] District 202 then had to speak to and craft the particular narrative of identity, community, and compassion that would appeal to donors, a narrative that was often at odds with the “by and for” mission of youth political power.

District 202 might have thought of itself as a new and unique kind of nonprofit building on the energy of an emergent social movement, but in its “notprofitness” it was always already tied to the uplift narrative of proper citizenship that is structured into the nonprofit. For social movement actors, activists who invest enormous amounts of emotional and political belief and energy in these organizations, nonprofits are examples of what Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism, in which that which you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.[17] This cruel orientation is a function of the circuits of capital on which nonprofits rely, and the power of the moral economies of that relationship of dependence. The historical function of nongovernmental organizations in the United States—managing the deviance of poor people and immigrants and educating them as to the ways of middle-class citizenship, while serving as a more punitive and less redistributive alternative to a welfare state—does not disappear simply because nonprofits have been discursively recoded under neoliberal anti-welfare-state narratives as spaces of community.

The primary reason this orientation has not, and cannot disappear is that it was always more than simply a set of feelings about poverty; it was and is a structural relationship between those with wealth and those without it—a relationship built on policing, surveillance, and control, and a relationship facilitated by nonprofits through their use of, and reliance on, private funding. That reliance demands that organizations appeal to major donors, private foundations, and corporations, all of which have a vested interest in maintaining the present system to which they owe their wealth. Foundations are fundamentally tax shelters for families and corporations; they are required to give much less money in the form of grants than they would otherwise pay in taxes. These foundations can choose to support whichever cause is most deserving, maintaining a centuries-old relationship of dependence in which those with wealth determine how best to use their money to remake society in a way that benefits them and reflects back to them their merit and power by positioning poverty as a personal failing rather than a byproduct of the same system of capitalism that made them rich. Despite this cruel relation, actors on all sides of the nonprofit nexus remain attached to the nonprofit form as part of what Berlant calls the “good life,” or the moral, intimate, and economic fantasy that keeps people invested in institutions, political systems, and markets even when evidence of their fragility, ineffectiveness, or outright failure is apparent.[18]

To be clear, I am not arguing that this structure of power within nonprofits is inescapable. On the contrary, District 202 is a clear example of the ways that the power of wealthy board members, foundations and corporate donors is not absolute, and is mediated and interrupted by the very people they see as their objects of intervention. Instead, what District 202 reveals is that the problem lies in letting this relationship of power go unmarked, understanding it as ordinary, which is very different than necessary.

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  1. Carl Dunn, “It’s never too late to come out … again,” email to the author, 11 Oct. 2010. [Return to text]
  2. While the organization’s name is accurate, all interview subjects have been given pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. [Return to text]
  3. Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. (New York: Beacon, 2003). [Return to text]
  4. District 202 pamphlet, undated, Tretter Collection, University of Minnesota. [Return to text]
  5. Ibid. [Return to text]
  6. “Looking Back,” District 202 News Winter 1998. [Return to text]
  7. Here I am using David Harvey’s definition of neoliberalism, which he describes as the reigning political economic framework in the United States, which holds that “social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and . . . seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.” See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005). [Return to text]
  8. James Sanna, “District 202 Names New Executive Director,” 26 Oct. 2009. [Return to text]
  9. The Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics. [Return to text]
  10. Jennifer R. Wolch, The Shadow State: Government and the Voluntary Sector in Transition (New York: Foundation Center, 1990) xvi. [Return to text]
  11. Dylan Rodríguez, “The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex, ed. Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, (Cambridge: South End Press, 2007) 21-22. Available in this issue here. [Return to text]
  12. Paul, personal interview, Jan. 2011. [Return to text]
  13. National Philanthropic Trust Charitable Giving Statistics. Available at [Return to text]
  14. Association of Fundraising Professionals, “AFP: The First 50 Years.” Available at [Return to text]
  15. Ibid. [Return to text]
  16. Teresa, personal interview, Jul. 2012. [Return to text]
  17. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). [Return to text]
  18. Ibid. [Return to text]