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

Social Service or Social Change?

(PAGE 2 of 3)

Co-opting Social Change

During the latter half of the 20th century, multiple groups were demanding—and, in some cases, gaining—crucial changes in US society, such as better access to jobs, education, and health care. The ruling classes recognized the need for new strategies to suppress dissent among the oppressed and to curtail demands for structural change.

One strategy used by the ruling class to maintain the social order has been to fund social welfare programs through government and non-profit agencies. This creates the appearance that the government is responsive, creating an illusion of “progress” while recruiting buffer-zone agents from the groups of people demanding change of the system. But more often than not, the programs are severely underfunded, overregulated; more, they merely provide services, without addressing the structural issues as required to actually eliminate the injustice or inequality motivating people to organize in the first place. In addition, hiring community leaders into paid program and administration jobs separates them from their communities by making them beholden to the governmental and non-profit bureaucracies that employ them, rather than to the communities they are trying to serve.

An example of how this process of co-optation works can be seen in the 1960s civil rights movement, a grassroots struggle led by African Americans for full civil rights, for access to power and resources, and for the end of racial discrimination and racist violence. Significantly, the civil rights movement did put pressure on the government, those in middle management and academic jobs, corporations, and non-profits to hire some African Americans which has created a small Black middle class. But while those struggles succeeded in dismantling legalized segregation, many forms of structural racism still exist and the broader goals of political and economic justice have largely remained unfulfilled.

Indeed, the issue of racism is now frequently “addressed” in our social institutions by a multiracial group of professionals who work as diversity or multicultural trainers, consultants, advisors, and educators. Although the ruling class is still almost exclusively white and most African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color remain at the bottom of the economic pyramid, conservatives and the media advance the illusion that substantial change has occurred because there are a few very high-profile wealthy African Americans and a larger Black middle class—“proof” that any person of color has the opportunity to become rich and powerful if they work hard enough.

The civil rights movement is not the only arena where demands for social change have been co-opted by the ruling class. Another example is the battered women’s movement, the organizing by battered and formerly battered women for shelter, safety, resources, and an end to male violence. Again, gains were made in identifying the issue, in improving the response of public institutions to incidents of male violence, and in increasing services to battered women. But systematic, large-scale efforts to mobilize battered women and end male violence have not been attempted. Instead, we have a network of (still largely inadequate) social services to attend to the immediate needs of battered women, and a new network of buffer-zone jobs in shelters and advocacy organizations to administer to those needs.

Neither the roots of racism nor the roots of male violence can be addressed by the present network of narrowly focused social services or the new cadres of professionals administering to the needs of those on the bottom of the pyramid. In fact, I would argue that in combating racism and male violence through the engines of the NPIC, we have lost some ground because we now have more controlling elements—more police, security guards, and immigration officials than ever before monitoring, interfering with, and criminalizing the family lives of people of color, as well as poor and working-class white people. We need to examine the impact of our work very carefully to make sure that it does not perpetuate a narrow social service perspective and that we, ourselves, have not been co-opted by the jobs and privileges we have been given in the non-profit industrial complex.

Questions to ask yourself
What are the historical roots of the work that you do? 
What were your motivations or intentions when you began doing this work?
Who are you in solidarity with in the pyramid? That is, who would you like to support through the work that you do—people at the top of the pyramid, people in the buffer zone, or people at the bottom?
Who actually benefits from the work that you do?
Are there ways in which, through your work, family role, or role in the community, you have come to enforce the status quo or train young people for their role in it?

The Role of the Non-Profit

The ruling class created the non-profit legal status primarily to establish foundations so they could park their wealth where it was protected from income and estate taxes. The foundations allow them to retain control over their family wealth. The trade-off they made with the government was a legal mandate to distribute a very small percentage of each foundation’s income every year for the public good. A vast network of non-profits was set up to receive and distribute this money. The non-profit tax category grants substantial economic benefits to the ruling class: even today, most charitable, tax-exempt giving from the ruling class (either as direct donations or through foundations) directly benefits those at the top of the economic pyramid by going to institutions and programs such as ruling class think tanks and foundations, ruling class cultural institutions (e.g., museums, operas, the theater, art galleries), elite schools and private hospitals.

In 2000, non-profits controlled over $1.59 trillion in financial assets and had revenue of over $822 billion.[6] Non-profits also control significant amounts of federal and state monies through contracts for the provision of public services such as health care, education, housing, employment training, and jobs. The ruling class, through the non-profit sector, controls billions of dollars of private and government money ostensibly earmarked for the public good, but subject to virtually no public control.

The non-profit industrial complex was not always so huge. During the civil rights period, when there were large-scale marches, sit-ins, protests, and demonstrations, policy makers at the largest foundations decided that they should fund some of the more moderate leadership in the Black community both to elicit their cooperation and to provide some measure of services that might lessen dissent. Money began to be funneled into “acceptable” (that is, non-radical) community groups as a way to forestall and co-opt further protest and to steer public policy towards the provision of individual services.[7] Until that period, most activists and community members working for social change were not employed by non-profits. Although some were paid for their work, most worked voluntarily in neighborhood associations, unions, church groups, cultural and other civic organizations.

During the 1970s, the NPIC increased dramatically as a response to the continued protests of anti-war, women’s liberation, queer liberation, and other social movements. Soon it became common for people to be paid to do “good work” by providing services for people in the community. Non-profit management became a career path and many subspecialties of non-profit programming were developed such as youth work, violence prevention work, senior services, domestic violence services, housing services, and job training programs.

Organizations on the right also used the non-profit sector to advance their agenda. But as Jean Hardisty, quoting labor activist and author Beth Shulman, notes, “Right-wing funders invested in the building blocks or skeletal structure of their movement, such as publications, research centers, think tanks, and academic fellowships and chairs designated for rightist scholars, campus organizations, and youth groups.” Hardisty goes on to comment,

Instead of underwriting movement-building, liberal and progressive foundations funded social service programs and advocacy programs that promised to ensure better living conditions and promote equality and tolerance. Much of this funding could be classified as humanitarian aid…. Unable to ignore need and suffering, liberal and progressive funders lacked the ideological single-mindedness of the right’s funders. The right’s funders got greater political mileage for each dollar invested, because the organizations and individuals funded focused on a strategic plan for seizing power.[8]

Beginning in the 1980s with the Reagan-era cutbacks in social services, many non-profits experienced even more pressure to provide basic human needs services to growing numbers of people. As they became completely reliant on private donors, private foundations, or dwindling amounts of government dollars to cope with ever-increasing demands, many non-profits began spending inordinate amounts of time writing proposals, designing programs to meet foundation guidelines, tracking and evaluating programs to satisfy foundations, or soliciting private donations through direct-mail appeals, house parties, benefits, and other fundraising techniques. Their work had to be developed and then presented in such a way as to meet the guidelines and approval of the ruling class and its representatives.

Today, funders generally support non-profit programming that fills gaps in the government’s provision of services, extends outreach to underserved groups, and stresses collaboration among social services providers to use money and other resources more efficiently; that is, to stretch less money further to cover greater need. Although many took jobs in this sector to avoid working in the corporate sector and to work in solidarity with those at the bottom of the pyramid, the professionalization and corporatization of the non-profit sector, coupled with the expanding needs of the population and decreasing government funding, meant that many became disillusioned and burned-out from the demands of the work.

Co-opting Community Leadership

The ruling class co-opts leaders from our communities by providing them with jobs in non-profits and in government agencies, hence realigning their perceived self-interest with maintaining the system (i.e., maintaining their jobs). Whether they are social welfare workers, police officers, domestic violence shelter workers, diversity consultants, therapists, or security guards, their jobs and status are dependent on their ability to keep the system functioning—and to suppress potential opposition from community members—no matter how illogical, exploitative, and unjust the system is. The existence of these jobs serves to convince people that tremendous inequalities of wealth are natural and inevitable. Institutionalizing soup kitchens leads people to expect that inevitably there will be people without enough to eat; establishing permanent homeless shelters leads people to think that it is normal for there not to be enough affordable housing. In his discussion of co-optation, sociologist Raymond Breton makes clear that integrating the leadership of our communities into the bureaucracies of the buffer zone separates the interests of those leaders from the needs of the community:

Co-optation is a process through which the policy orientations of leaders are influenced and their organizational activities channeled. It blends the leader’s interests with those of an external organization. In the process, ethnic leaders and their organizations become active in the state-run interorganizational system; they become participants in the decision-making process as advisors or committee members. By becoming somewhat of an insider the co-opted leader is likely to identify with the organization and its objectives. The leader’s point of view is shaped through the personal ties formed with authorities and functionaries of the external organization.[9]

Ruling class policies, including development of the non-profit sector and support for social services, have led to the co-optation of substantial numbers of well-intentioned people. In this group I include all of us whose intention is to “help” people at the bottom of the pyramid, but whose work, in practice, helps perpetuate their inability to change the circumstances which force them to need this assistance to survive the conditions of our society in the first place. Ultimately, our efforts end up benefiting the ruling class by actively supporting the current exploitative structure. Rather than helping others, we need to develop ways to work together to create community power.

Questions to Ask Yourself
Do you work in a government-funded or non-profit organization?
Where does the funding come from for your work?
In what ways does funding influence how the work gets defined?
How much time do you spend responding to the needs of funders as opposed to the needs of the people you serve?
In what ways has the staff of your program become separated from the people they serve because of the following: the demands of funders; the status and pay of staff; the professionalization of the work; the role of your organization in the community; the interdependence of your work with governmental agencies, businesses, foundations, or other non-profit organizations?
In what ways have your ties with governmental and community agencies separated you from the people you serve?
In what ways have those ties limited your ability to be “contentious”—to challenge the powers that be and their undemocratic and abusive practices?

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  1. National Council of Nonprofit Associations, The United States Nonprofit Sector (annual report, Washington, DC: National Council of Nonprofit Associatons, 2001). [Return to text]
  2. Kivel, You Call This a Democracy? (New York: Apex Press, 2006), 120-124. For a detailed look at
    the role offoundations, see Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003). [Return to text]
  3. Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence From the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 16. [Return to text]
  4. Raymond Breton, The Governance of Ethnic Communities: Political Structures and Processes in Canada (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990), quoted in Taiaiake Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press Canada, 2000), 74. [Return to text]