Cyndi Suarez: When I read your book, I read the first chapter and the last chapter first because that’s where you lay out the argument you’re making. I was like, “Ooh, this is really interesting.” And then I went back and read all the middle chapters, which is the story of how you got to your argument, the case study, and takes place in Boston, which is where I’m from. And almost every organization you mentioned, I’ve worked [with].
It was just so amazing to read it. I’m just gonna gush before I ask you questions, I guess. But I always had a sense of those organizations when I worked there, an internal critique of what kind of social change were we really bringing about. Going through the middle chapters, I knew almost all the people you talked about. It’s really fascinating to have that kind of really high-level analysis and to have confirmation of all the feelings I had while I was working at those organizations. I kept thinking, yes! My whole trajectory through the nonprofit sector and analysis of race and power comes from working with those organizations and having the reality of that work hit up against the visions for liberation that I had. Your book gave words to that personal history. I want to express how important I think this book is. I want everyone to read it.
So, what led you to write this book?
Claire Dunning: So many things. So, I’m humbled that you see your professional trajectory in this book, because many of the questions came from working at the Boston Foundation.
CS: You worked there, too?
CD: Yeah. So, I was at TBF from 2008 to 2010.
CS: What did you do there?
CD: I was a program assistant working with Geeta Pradhan.
CS: I know Geeta! Her office was right next to mine. I worked with Charlotte Kahn when she was starting the Indicators Project. I came in in 1999, I think.
Nonprofits were the frontline response to the financial crisis, but they were also weak. I thought, that’s a problem. And my colleagues certainly knew this at the foundation, but it seemed like this open question that I wanted to explore historically. Why did we rely on small organizations to solve big problems? And why did we rely on private ones to solve what felt like public problems? Why was the nonprofit sector doing this?
CD: I was there when the financial crisis was hitting. I got to read grants and schedule all the meetings. There was a lot of administrative work, but then I also got to sit in on some of the meetings. And your description of power analysis…It was my first introduction to power, that I was a very unimportant person at the foundation, but when I made phone calls to grantees to set up meetings, executive directors would take my call. And that felt so inappropriate. Here I was, a young, White, privileged woman calling from the foundation, and it was all those inversions and reaffirming of privilege and power that I didn’t have a vocabulary for but made me feel uneasy. That when the foundation called, people took my call. And these were people who were doing really important work and should have been in the meeting but took my call because I represented the resources behind the organization where I worked. So, I was both really inspired by what we were doing at the foundation and troubled that the questions that we were working on, the neighborhoods that we were funding, we were talking about the same things that had persisted for decades, and we were talking about it like it was new. And we were talking about these issues in three-year grant cycles. And we knew that poverty and racism were deeply entrenched, and that takes more than three years. So, there were these big questions and specific strictures of grantmaking that really felt like this big question that I couldn’t understand.
It was the financial crisis. People were losing their houses. People were losing their jobs. And we were relying on nonprofits that at the same time were losing their balance sheets. All the CDCs were starting to go through the same foreclosure problems that residents were. So, the organizations were vulnerable at the same time when communities were vulnerable. And this felt like, again, a puzzle that I didn’t understand. Nonprofits were the frontline response to the financial crisis, but they were also weak. I thought, that’s a problem. And my colleagues certainly knew this at the foundation, but it seemed like this open question that I wanted to explore historically. Why did we rely on small organizations to solve big problems? And why did we rely on private ones to solve what felt like public problems? Why was the nonprofit sector doing this?
We know it’s a story of extraction, [of] government reliance on the nonprofit world, but that felt like a whole lot bigger than TBF. It was bigger than our list of grantees. There were structural relationships that I wanted to understand because, again, we were thinking in three-year grant cycles, and we were trimming $5,000 here or there. And this felt like something so much bigger, and not about individual organizations.
So, I went to graduate school, and I brought with me from the foundation all this knowledge about thinking about the sector as a space and as a whole set of structural relationships. I entered a history department because I wanted to understand this as a product of history, as not inevitable but the product of choices that people had made. And all the historian faculty, when I was a grad student, didn’t know how to think about the nonprofit sector. The notion of this was really foreign in political and urban history. We can’t tell a history of a city or any place without nonprofits being key characters, but to think structurally about those funding relationships, about their ties to policy and government, to foundations and donors, to activism and political rhetoric, was a surprise to a lot of the people I was working with. And that was a signal to me that there’s something here. That is where the book came from. I will say that there was this one particular meeting right before I left for graduate school, where James Jennings shared a series of maps that I became obsessed with, where he had mapped what he called neighborhood distress. Have you seen these maps?
CS: Yes, I’ve read that report.
CD: He did it for the Barr Foundation. It was a series of maps of neighborhood distress, and then he layered all the nonprofits on top of it and said, all the nonprofits are located in neighborhoods of distress. So, we can tell a lot of different stories, right? On the one hand, that’s nonprofits meeting and being in places of need, which isn’t necessarily the case. It can be a story of failure. Or we can think at a historical level about why we see the growth of inequality and the nonprofit sector. We wouldn’t expect that, right? We would hope and expect that nonprofits are reducing poverty and reducing inequality. But if they are in the same neighborhoods where, over the past half century, inequality is rising, and we’re relying more on nonprofits, that’s something that needs to be talked about. And so that, for me, was this key moment, and I’ve emailed James and shared a copy of my book. I said, you asked this really specific question in this report, and it set off all of my thinking for the next decade.
CS: So fascinating. I remember going as a young person to so many different meetings and hearing people talk about the role of Boston in their work. It was a constant. I remember a Kresge Foundation staff giving a presentation and saying, “When we get a proposal from Boston, we look at it twice.” That was the story I kept hearing during my time working in Boston nonprofits—that Boston was a model.
But I wasn’t hearing the full story of, why Boston? How did it fit into the larger nonprofit landscape? I think your book is unique in talking about the history as a history of power. When I was coming out of college, there was almost nothing about the sector for the sector. And I remember thinking, “I’m going to write about this someday.” How could there not be literature for this field? How can there be knowledge and practice that are not just taken from the for-profit sector?
So, is there something you learned in the writing of this book that surprised you?
CD: It wasn’t surprising, but it was hard. As a writer, one of the things I really struggled with is how do you tell a true story without placing blame? This came up particularly when writing about neoliberalism. How do we think about and tell a story where individual organizations and some of the leaders I write about are talking increasingly over the 1970s and the 1980s about markets, about market-oriented policies, about celebrating the private sector? And there’s a way that that language gets co-opted as anti-government. So, how do I write that story without pointing fingers or sort of punching down, as it were? And one of the things I kept challenging myself with was, well, why are they saying that? Not about holding individuals accountable, necessarily, but looking at the context in which they are saying or writing or promoting those ideas.
So, when Mel King, in the 1970s, is talking about trading the limitations of government funding for the possibility of market-oriented funding models of the CDCs, what the hope of that model might have been. It’s not that he’s sharing this neoliberal vision that ends up undermining what his ultimate radical vision was. He’s responding to a deep problem where even government funding—something that in some ways, in many ways, creates more, in theory, equality, if done adequately—isn’t creating equity. When that’s not happening, when Black groups, Black-led groups are being disciplined in a different kind of way, when the funding is so limited, we have yet to see what a better vision would be.
So, I think what surprised me was how to tell a story that recognized choices that individuals made without blaming them for the lack of outcome. And that’s hard, right? How do I deeply respect what these groups are doing and the struggles and challenges to secure meaningful programs and recognize their inadequacy? A handful of affordable housing units is an achievement when there is no affordable housing. And it’s not enough. So, one of the central arguments of the book is this notion of inadequacy and how to write that story without blaming people or judging efforts to extract just a small piece of the pie. That was really hard and something that I continue to struggle with and try and balance as the book is out in the world. And I’ve gotten some pushback.
CS: Really? Like what?
CD: I wrote a piece in the Ideas section for the Globe in the fall of 2022. It was in response to one of the CDCs in Jamaica Plain securing the conversion of an old church to some affordable housing units, which is great. Really important. But I wrote an op-ed saying…this is not a policy-based response to the affordable housing crisis in JP. This is not going to hold back gentrification. This is going to keep some families housed, and that’s really important. And we’re really patting ourselves on the back in liberal Boston for having it be nonprofit led. That looks good and feels good and is important, but let’s not kid ourselves. This is not the full solution.
And it got some strong pushback on social media, some of the comments, saying that I was being way too dismissive of local leadership, of grassroots efforts, fundamentally don’t understand CDCs and their value. And that hurts. And there are degrees to which maybe that’s true, and we need to have a bigger conversation. Organizations are structurally incentivized to carve out one church, 10 units. Those are decades-long fights, and I don’t want to be dismissive of it. And we’ve been doing that for decades. It’s not enough. We need to have a bigger conversation. It’s structurally incentivized—foundations and government funders are keeping this inadequate system churning. And so, that’s been something that surprised me, and it’s been hard, both in the process of writing this book and talking about it.
CS: That’s actually one of the things I love about your book. We need the rigor. We need those big questions, and they almost never get asked. I’ve seen Boston really change over the last 30 years, and yet it’s still the same.
CD: I’ll just say to your point, I also like to say…people know this, right? There’s a degree of familiarity, as you were saying, that plenty of nonprofit leaders know their inadequacy. And so, what I’m saying is not revolutionary, but I have the authorial and credentialed and positionality to say it in ways that nonprofit leaders can’t. It’s really awkward to bite the hand that feeds you. And so, one of the ways I think about academic research is that it has a degree of insulation and credibility—earned, unearned, there’s a whole lot of problems with that—but to raise those critiques. Plenty of the people I write about knew exactly the inadequacy of what they were doing but didn’t have a choice but to go after it anyway. That’s bigger than any one individual. And so, I think the critique is also important, from an academic standpoint. That research has a degree of distance from the nonprofit industrial complex of funding that keeps it all churning.
CS: So why did you choose Boston as a case study?
CD: A couple of reasons. One is highly pragmatic, that the archives were there. I lived in the city. I knew it through some of my professional work. And Northeastern University has collected this incredible collection…they had all these organizational records from big ones to small ones that included board minutes, correspondence, grant minutes, budgets over such a long period of time. So, their collection is what drove this.
Boston, I also think, is on the forefront of a lot of the trends that I’m talking about. So, one of the challenges was, how do you write a story about one city that’s both specific to that one place and a stand in for broader processes. So, Boston, because it’s reputation as a liberal city, which is both earned and unearned. Boston likes to see itself as far more liberal than it actually is, but the presence of places like Harvard and MIT, relationships with the Kennedy family and Kennedy administration elevate Boston. It punches above its weight, creating more visibility in…federal programs.
Boston does really well in federal grantmaking programs. During the 1960s in particular, when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations are growing these grantmaking initiatives, Boston is really competitive and does really well. It’s on the forefront of some of these trends. And what’s happening in Boston—they’re experimenting with making grants to ABCD, to thinking about urban renewal through nonprofit organizations, groups like Freedom House. They’re being elevated onto the national scale. Stories from Boston are then shaping federal policy and being exported to other cities. People come to Boston to see what’s happening and then export it nationally.
So, in some ways, Boston is ahead of the trend, and then helps define the trend. What’s happening in Boston begins to percolate outward from the city. And if one of the goals of the book is to situate nonprofits in broader policy and political contexts…the War on Poverty is happening in Boston, it’s happening in cities across the US. The broader processes of government funding, of grant administration, of what those public/private partnerships look like, have their unique manifestation in Boston but are happening elsewhere. So, this notion of nonprofits becoming more centrally involved in urban governance, they’re deeply intricate ties to addressing the “urban crisis” that’s happening elsewhere, too. So, I want Boston to be both on the foreground and representative of processes that are happening around the country.
CS: I gave many such tours. Thinking back on my career, people would come from all the world, and we would give them tours. I was like, wow, what we do must be really important.
CD: It is, and it isn’t. And some of its earned and unearned. For whatever reason the city has this reputation and has a really good job of promoting and marketing itself. So, there are all these federal publications that talk about the Bromley-Heath Public Housing Development and neighborhood patrol. It’s a really small program, but it makes it onto the federal write up of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. They’re very proud of funding this public housing, little community security group. And so ,it makes it onto the national stage.
CS: And there are so many colleges here. So many people come here to go to college—that’s another thing—and then take what they learn somewhere else.
So, I have some questions about some of the things that you bring up. Are nonprofits designed to prevent structural change? It’s something that you almost say, but don’t say. I love that you distinguish between systemic change and structural change. This is so important because we don’t even talk about structural change. Everyone thinks systems change is the gold standard.
CD: So yeah, that comes from an article by Clayton Christensen. He talks about catalytic disruption.1 He’s a Harvard Business School professor who writes about private-sector disruption and social-sector disruption. It was an article that I taught for years, and something about it really irked me. And my students helped me put my finger on it. He’s talking about changing all these systems, and there’s no discussion of power. There’s no discussion of politics. He talks about it in this neutral way, and it avoids the structural underpinnings. So that’s where that framework came from. I have to credit my students with helping me think through some of that.
One of the things I tell my students is that nonprofits are really boring. We’re talking about a line in the tax code that confers certain tax status on a subset of organizations. What we do and what we park in that space is up for debate. Are they designed to limit structural change? I think they function that way, largely. Many of them do. Not exclusively. Social movements happen in and through organizations, and social movements are where change happens and where push for structural, policy-oriented reform happens. But one of the core arguments of the book is that the growth of the nonprofit sector is precisely because it avoids structural change.
The way that funding is structured, it’s politically popular to support a nonprofit organization because it elevates voices and sheds a degree of control while still maintaining a hierarchical power funding relationship, whether between foundation and nonprofit or government and nonprofit. Mayors love to talk about partnerships with the community and that they’re supporting these organizations. And part of that’s real. I don’t want to be dismissive. And organizations in communities fought damn hard to even get that, so, again, not dismissing that. But the popularity of the nonprofit sector is because it’s constrained, is because it’s embedded in these funding dependencies. And because they are told and reinforced to be an apolitical space. But of course, identifying something as not political is a political choice. The policing of what is or is not fair game or what is or is not political is an expression of reinforcing the status quo.
CS: I titled the article that I wrote on your book, “Nonprofits as Battlegrounds for Democracy,” and I see it as part of a larger thing that’s happening right now in social movements. Did you see the piece that Moe Mitchell did that we published along with two other outlets, called “Building Resilient Organizations?”
CD: I flagged it for my class next fall, but I haven’t read it yet.
CS: What he’s basically talking about is the challenge to leaders of color of these nonprofits as they step into positions that were formerly held mostly by White leaders being challenged that there isn’t enough democracy in the organizations. The spring issue of our magazine is our racial justice issue. And we just finished looking at the articles that came in, and democracy in organizations comes up in those as well. I notice that there is an assumption that these places are supposed to be democratic. These are institutions. They are not democratic spaces, necessarily. We are seeing articles about all the things that executive directors of color need to do in order to make organizations democratic. Your book gave me language and context for that assumption.
I went to grad school to study nonprofit management with a focus on alternatives to hierarchy, and…I started to really study hierarchy. In the book, Requisite Organization, Elliott Jaques writes about how to build functional hierarchies.2 And I realized that much of what people critique as not being democratic in an organization is really that they’re dysfunctional hierarchies. His core argument is that there are only seven levels you can have because there are seven levels of thinking, and the only reason you would keep adding levels is that each level does more complex thinking. And if it doesn’t, it’s dysfunctional. At the top level you’re able to design the system. And if you don’t have EDs that can design a system, then you actually don’t have that function.
Why are these places supposed to be democratic, as opposed to functional hierarchies? I’m not advocating for either, but it’s a question that I have. Do you have any thinking on that? Have you seen that? It’s the biggest critique around leadership and racial justice right now, the critique of hierarchy and the conflation of it with the need for organizations to be democratic, even though there’s no sense currently of what that actually means for an organization.
CD: I mean, this, Cyndi, is always a sort of perennial question of the nonprofit sector. It’s a public purpose with a private organization, a private organization for a public purpose. And what part is the public part and what part is the private part is always muddled, so expecting nonprofits to be democratic spaces, they shouldn’t substitute for our broader public. We’ve condensed and expected the democratic processes to happen within these nonprofit organizations. And on the one hand, I want to emphasize the public part of a nonprofit, and on the other hand, you have to emphasize the private, the functional hierarchy. These are organizations that are private and are making decisions. They are not a substitute for a fully democratic, robust public.
CS: Yeah, when I was at the conference a few years ago in Detroit, I remember going to a session about how neighborhoods are organizing almost against the nonprofits in the neighborhoods. They are saying, you don’t speak for us.
CD: So, this notion that nonprofits “represent people,” they’re not elected. They’re private entities. And there are ways in which the processes I trace over time, they’ve been elevated into those positions as stand-ins for an actually democratic public sphere. And it’s coming from an unequal place. We have never had a fully equal democratic public sphere. Our public has always trended White. It has trended male. It has trended elite. And now nonprofits have helped expand it, but also condensed it in weird ways. And I think we’re dealing with the consequences of that, of an unequal public sphere, and nonprofits have been taken for and made to be where more democratic processes happen. And that’s not enough, because they remain private organizations.
CS: That can become particularly problematic when boards import leaders. Especially at local foundations. Powerful institutions oftentimes import leaders from other cities and other states, and it becomes a big problem because they’re disconnected from the community.
We can’t talk about these relationships without talking about power. And we can’t talk about a response to the “urban crisis” without talking about race, which is a discussion of power. And we can’t talk about why certain people or places are seen as problems without talking about legacies of extraction and white supremacy and power.
CS: To me, this book is a study of power, very much in line with the kind of work Foucault did: archival digging that allows us to make sense of the hidden assumptions that drive our forms and subjectivities. Do you see it that way?
CD: I would not have said Foucault was an influence, but I do think that discussions of power, of funding power, grantmaking power, are central here in calling out what is hidden in the shadows and unnamed in these relationships. And the language of partnership is so pervasive and designed to be neutral. Partnership implies equal footing. When we’re talking about public/private partnerships, there’s nothing equal about it. If we’re talking about a neighborhood group and the government, those are not on equal footing. We can’t talk about these relationships without talking about power. And we can’t talk about a response to the “urban crisis” without talking about race, which is a discussion of power. And we can’t talk about why certain people or places are seen as problems without talking about legacies of extraction and white supremacy and power. And I think so much of the nonprofit sector is designed to negate that or to quiet that part. Again, the language of partnerships, the language of opportunity.
CS: I love that you problematize these words.
CD: Yeah, right? And the notion of innovation, right? All of the buzzwords are about quieting these discussions of power. The discomfort, fundamentally, in the sector of talking about race. The sector is doing better than it had been, but goodness, there’s a long way to go if we’re talking about who has access to wealth as a donor, as a funder, all of these are discussions of power.
So, I think that power analysis in the sector—and not just at the individual grantmaking relationship but the sector as a whole—is something that I’m really trying to talk about, to get us out of how to finetune an organization’s budget, or talk in three- to five-year grant cycles, to recognizing the absolute mismatch in scale between what we’re holding organizations accountable for and then assuming that we can measure it within five-year grant cycles. The whole impact-evaluation approach is part of this. That only things that are measured are worth doing. How do we measure the things that are actually needed?
CS: There’s so much in what you’re saying. At the end of your book, you talk about the lack of power ultimately being the thing that isn’t there, and that you don’t get that through process. It brings up a lot of questions that are practical. It makes me think of a time when I was at the Interaction Institute for Social Change, which is national, but based in Boston. It’s a collaborative facilitation and consulting firm. I remember there was a competition for a big initiative. I think it was around environmental change. The Interaction Institute put in a bid, and we thought we had a good chance because we had done the previous initiative that this one was building off of. I remember being there at the presentation, and this firm from New York won. They didn’t know as much as we did about our city. It was easy to see that from their presentation. But they were big and had figured out how to work these processes. We couldn’t believe that they won, but the public process created a veneer of fairness, these competitions. And there’s no reason given. There’s no one that answers your inquiries about why you lost. I think that part of what happens in the sector is this illusion of fairness through these competitions, these processes
When I finished reading your book, I wondered, what could nonprofits have done differently?
CD: I don’t know. And in some ways, I think the answer isn’t on them. When you take into account the power analysis, the work is at the funder level, whether government or philanthropic. That’s where the quieting effect is happening. On the one hand, it’s the role of the funders who are quieting the politics, who are operating from a place of scarcity, who are co-opting language around private nonprofit as preferable to government. I’d say that the problem is upstream. But we can’t expect upstream change to happen without pushback. And so that’s where I then get caught.
I don’t know if the answer is within organizations. Protest and long-term investments in organizing—the very things that are not getting funded—are what move the needle, challenge at a deeper level, and interrupt those power dynamics. So, should nonprofits have gone after grants knowing that they’re going to be short term? It’s not for me to say. I think they did really important work. Who am I to discount improving individual lives? We can also say that’s not enough. I hope it’s a both-things-can-be-true kind of argument.
When I think about talking about this book, I’m trying to talk to funders and people with power and authority over nonprofits, even more so than to nonprofit leaders. It’s a message for people at the top of this system as much as possible, around how we design policies that recognize the dynamics at hand.
When a nonprofit says, our efforts are better than a public provision, what are the consequences of that? How have we so shrunken public provision by government? That a charter school here or there can do really important work is not the same thing as investing at a deep level in public education. Celebrating a few affordable housing units here and there, really important. Not the same as creating a deeper policy understanding of what affordable housing can and needs to look like in a city that is rapidly gentrifying, deeply unequal, with wealth continuing to be hoarded among a small, racialized few.
CS: When I was at the Boston Foundation, they were just wrapping up their Civic Engagement Initiative, which had gone on for seven years and which they thought was a failure because it should have ended in three years. They made the decision to pass it over to another organization. And I remember, they asked me to come in—I was somewhere else at the time—to talk make a presentation to the staff on the value of organizing. There was another presenter who was representing advocacy. The question they were grappling with, after having funded organizing for a few years, and very successfully, was, why should it fund organizing when advocacy works so well and is cheaper? They could fund a mostly White organization to push policy in three years or less, so why wouldn’t they? It didn’t compute. The cognitive shift that would have had to happen for it to see the value in organizing just didn’t happen. So, it stopped funding organizing.
And when I talk to Marcus Walton, who leads GEO (Grantmakers for Effective Organization) about this kind of stuff, he says that what he hears from funders and donors about their challenges in addressing racial inequities, the main thing that they tell him is that it’s very hard for them to do their work because they don’t really know people like the people they seek to support. They don’t have intimate relationships with people of color and low-income people. So, there’s such a gap in intimacy and in cognitive frameworks that I wonder how the change needed could happen.
CD: And philanthropists are impatient, and I get that. We should all be impatient. But we’re not going to know—to your point on civic engagement—is that the civic engagement initiative, CEI? Right at the end, when Marta Rivera was running it?
CD: That was part of my docket, too. You had to be patient around what change looks like, right? History teaches us that so much of the impact and effectiveness of stuff comes from economists—that you can measure everything. And as a historian, we think about social change over much longer periods of time, and it’s harder to put your finger on. And things are quiet before things happen rapidly. Like the Movement for Black Lives, right? People were talking about that for a really long time, and now all of a sudden, it’s everywhere. There was a moment. But we couldn’t have anticipated when that moment and appetite and push would happen. And so, I think about funders who are quick to leave things because the victories aren’t apparent, and they pull out before the real change happens.
The notion of efficacy, I think, is also deliberately imported from the business world by business leaders who see the nonprofit sector as chaotic, undisciplined. That is heavily racialized, obviously, around who’s leading and pushing and operating in these spaces. And that’s a deliberate push to put a certain set of values, of ROI, efficacy, efficiency over things like justice, change, and equity. That’s a moment of choice, and the money is tied to that. And so, nonprofits adopt that language, too. When it’s tied to money, you say those words. And now, it’s the only thing we say, that everything is about efficiency and efficacy as if those are the primary values in our society.
CS: You say improving outcomes is not the same as eliminating causes. Do you have ideas about how we can make that shift in language and how we think about the work? Because obviously, people know that, but it’s not legitimate talk yet.
CD: I think it’s easier to claim responsibility for outcomes. It’s easier to point to things to your own board, to a funder. Root causes like White supremacy and structural racism, no one organization can claim at an outcome level that they’re dismantling that. There’s a reason it is so embedded in our society, and no one organization can say, we undid that, or we got rid of the wealth gap. But, if you need to justify your own activities and seek funding, it’s easier to talk about improving outcomes and let the broader context fall away. But I think if we’re improving outcomes and not talking about the broader context in which—again, improving outcomes is really important—but if we’re not talking about the broader context, it will persist.
Whose job is it to take care of the most vulnerable? And why are they the most vulnerable? Is that the role of the nonprofit sector or not? And on whose plate does that fall? I think [these] are the most important conversations….we’ve been having them passively. Let’s have them actively.
CS: So, I stay with this question, what can we do differently? In a recent conversation I had with Javier Torres and Darren Isom, we talked about the three types of organizations in the field currently: the organizations that are at the frontlines helping people, the organizations that are forward looking and are creating the next thing, and the organizations that will not exist in the future and need to be composted and turned into something else. We started the conversation trying to dig deeper into that, but it went into the need for space. Meanwhile the staff had started to notice that almost all the articles in the upcoming spring 2023 issue of the magazine called for space. People want space. They might be shackled in some ways by the ideologies, but their minds and hearts yearn for something different. And so, that’s where we are right now, trying to figure out how we create space as opposed to new forms, which is fascinating to me!
CD: I think that’s really interesting. And one of the things that history, for me, is really powerful about is that our norms, the operation, the role of the nonprofit sector, there’s nothing inevitable about that. There’s nothing inevitable or natural about what government business or nonprofits do or about the current constellation of public and private in our society, or any of that. It’s the product of choices that people made both purposefully and not in the past. We’re just the inheritors of that. On the one hand, the weight of history can feel really heavy. On the other hand, I think it enables us to recognize that choices that we make really matter. And that we can disrupt—and I hate the word disruption—but we can interrupt, maybe that’s a better choice, these norms. And so, I think that notion of space, that notion of being in a moment of rethinking, not just program models but rethinking, the allocation of labor and responsibility. Whose job is it to take care of the most vulnerable? And why are they the most vulnerable? Is that the role of the nonprofit sector or not? And on whose plate does that fall? I think [these] are the most important conversations….we’ve been having them passively. Let’s have them actively.
CS: So, you talk about meaningful participation. What is meaningful participation to you?
CD: I think meaningful participation is giving voice and having it be taken into account. It’s a degree of decision-making authority. Because a lot of what has happened historically is that nonprofits are invited, in a marginalized way, to offer perspective and input. And then actual decision making happens in the way that it would have anyway. So, when government programs solicit input on what programs or government policies should look like, but then make the same decision anyway, that’s not meaningful participation. It’s participation, because people are given the option of showing up at a neighborhood meeting, but not necessarily the power to enforce what that looks like.
So, I think a lot about Freedom House and its role in urban renewal and redesigning what Washington Park could look like. They have this incredibly participatory process where Freedom House itself is transformed, thanks to some government grants, to a place where a Black community could re-envision what urban renewal would look like. And there are these images that I love of these huge maps. Maps are the epitome of urban renewal, the epitome of government planning, and here are neighborhood residents who were invited after hours, after work, during the day to come and look at all of these plans and to offer their input. And on the one hand, the community has to officially vote and approve the plans that develop out of this neighborhood process. And the vote happens at Freedom House. They facilitate that process. And the government accepts it, but then plans change. So, is it meaningful participation to help craft plans that are then only partially implemented? I don’t know. That’s, to me, where I really struggle around being invited to offer input, having some degree of say in shaping a plan, and then actually having the authority to implement it or hold the implementer accountable. Nonprofits usually fall on the solicit input side of things, maybe shape some plans, but the higher-level allocation of resources remains a government function. And until people are able to hold those reins of power, that’s not full, meaningful participation.
CS: You write that social movements are what leads to structural change. Do you think that is what is happening now in the, I dare say, wake of the Black Lives Matter movement?
CD: Yes. And I think it’s hard to capture. The fact that our whole vocabulary has shifted, I think, is an outcome of massive protests and organizing. But sorry, can you say the question one more time?
CS: I guess when you said that social movements are what lead to structural change, it made me think of all the interactions I’ve had with social movement leaders, who can talk very eloquently about the shifts that the movement has made. But, when I talk to my neighbor across the street—I live in a predominantly Black neighborhood—who is a teacher, she tells me, “These BLM leaders that think that we don’t need more cops, I don’t agree with them. I don’t know what makes them think they can speak for us.” So, I hold those things, like living in a neighborhood that is civically engaged, with a history of engagement, and hearing neighbors say things like that. Maybe there’s change [that] happens first at the level of narrative. So, when you say it is social movements that bring about structural change, I think to myself, how does that happen?
CD: Yeah, so one of the things that makes me think of is the 1960s. A moment of protest, a moment of social movement pressure, and that the expanding role of the nonprofit sector, even if it’s problematic, is a manifestation of that pressure and organizing. It’s not just grant applications that grow the nonprofit sector. It is active demand for racial justice in Boston and elsewhere, in the North, in the South, recognizing deep-seated and long-standing inequality. And that that is happening within and beyond nonprofit organizations. And even as we can talk about the long-term inadequacies of it, that itself, in the 1960s, is a significant victory. So, I think about the relationship between movements and the sector, and that they are co-constitutive and…they spin together, maybe.
CS: Some of the leaders from that movement have shared with me that they think nonprofits are part of the problem. There isn’t now much of that co-constitutive relationship.
In the book, Assembly (Heretical Thought), Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt say that the main challenge of social change leaders right now is a challenge of organization.3 How will we organize ourselves for the next part of the work? And I think that’s where all this still leads me. So, if the ‘60s led to nonprofits and the kind of organizations we have now, and now we’re at a similar but different choice point, what comes next? How do we take what we have, what we know, and now make different decisions within the current forms? Do you have any thinking to end on that?
CD: I wish I had a great…you’ve got me thinking, and I don’t have answers.
CS: Tony Fry, in his book, Design as Politics, talks about the need to fund people at the edge.4 He says you only need a few people who are comfortable at the edge looking out over the vast gap to start to imagine what comes next—people that can grab the seemingly invisible and start to plot movement forward. That kind of work isn’t really funded. And it brings me back to the desire for space that people are talking about—the need for that space, the need to really imagine something different.
CD: Yes, I think that that is essential. Funding and supporting people who are thinking big and outside the box—all of that is essential. I guess one other thing that came to mind while you were talking is, we can’t talk about the nonprofit sector without its relationship to government. And I feel like we talk so much about inside the sector without talking about…the sector cannot substitute for government provision. It cannot just be a supplement or complement….the government is just so much more stable, larger, and has deeper reach, and there’s a degree of permanency to it. So, the conversation about what programs nonprofits need to offer, that’s not the conversation. The sustaining of the nonprofit sector on its own terms is not going to address the deep-seated issues. Nonprofits can provide amazing community. The nonprofit sector is important. I don’t want to see it disappear. But if we’re talking about change, we need to be talking about what is the vision about the role of government and what government could or should be doing. Because I think that is the source of the problems, and that is the source of whatever solution will come. So, to talk about government and talk about the nonprofit sector as if it is separate from government, I think, needs to be at the forefront of the conversation.
CS: Oh, I love it! We had one of our economic-justice advisory meetings a few weeks ago, and this came up. People were asking, when are we going to start moving beyond alternative economies? How do we start making these things now part of the mainstream and in the government?
I’m really intrigued by these questions, and I really want to do more. I want to create space for people to grapple with these questions. I think your book offers a few rungs that people can actually hold on to.
CD: I would love to have those conversations. I think the history is hidden, and I think it’s really important. I think it can be liberating to recognize that the systems that we operate in are inherited and built over time. And so, thinking about knowledge creation, I would love to think along those ways with you and some of the NPQ folks and your community because writing a book is, as you know, as someone who’s written a book, who writes, you write a book, and it sits on a shelf. It’s about the active engagement with that knowledge that needs to be facilitated and kept up. So, I would love to keep thinking about that and holding these tough questions, because they’re awkward, and they’re important. These are politically uncomfortable questions sometimes, and if more people in the sector can hold them with me, then that’s an honor to me and part of why we do this work.
CS: Well, thank you, Claire. Thank you so much for the work you’re doing.
CD: Thank you. This is such an honor, really. To be continued.
- Clayton M. Christensen, Heiner Baumann, Rudy Ruggles, and Thomas M. Sadtler, “Disruptive Innovation for Social Change,” Harvard Business Review, December 2006, https://hbr.org/2006/12/disruptive-innovation-for-social-change.
- Elliott Jaques, Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century, Revised Second Edition (Baltimore, MD: Cason Hall & Co. Publishers, 2006).
- Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly (Heretical Thought) (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 217.
- Tony Fry, Design as Politics (New York, NY: Berg, 2011).