It’s complicated: climate justice and the nonprofit industrial complex

A few days ago, this statement from Peaceful Uprising was making the rounds on my Facebook feed, and my friends were posting celebratory comments about the climate justice organization’s transition from a traditional non-profit model to a more democratic volunteer-based one.

My first thought was, “But, but–jobs!” In this post-employment economy, I hate to see any full-time job be replaced with contingent or volunteer work–even though I know that switching from a professional-based structure to a collective one can help bring marginalized voices to the forefront.

I know there are so many problems with the non-profit industrial complex, but I also like the idea of paying people to organize, because it frees up the time and energy they wouldn’t have if they were also working to make ends meet. And organizing is a skill, which deserves compensation just as much as any other.

Then I came across these tweets from Sasha Costanza-Chock, which crystallized what I’d been mulling over. He wrote them in the context of the immigrant rights movement, but they apply equally well to climate justice or any other movement:


It’s complicated, and there’s no easy answer.

One potential solution to the issue of free time–at least on the level of individual activists rather than organizations–is the Transition Lab model of livelihood, in which skilled residents live rent-free in homeowners’ spare bedrooms in exchange for providing 15 hours of labor per week. This would leave the residents with both the time to engage in activism, and the freedom from the fear of being fired from a traditional job for their activism:

We imagined a future where skilled residents had their basic needs met (housing and food), with only 15 hours of work a week. Then they could dedicate the rest of the week to a social cause of their choice. Since they would have far more free time (than their 40 hour work week counterpart)  to creatively work for a resilient future, their efforts would have a far greater effect. Not only that, but the demographic that best suits the home-owner side of our skilled resident model are individuals who are already committed to the environment- but since they also own homes and need to pay the mortgage, they are not as willing to engage in political activism. If anything, they would be energized by being able to contribute to an environmental movement in a way that best suited their resources and abilities.

I think this model has a lot of potential, both in general and in terms of encouraging activism–but it would still end up favoring white, middle-class people. Homeowners with a bedroom to spare are likely to be white and middle-class, so the young people who would feel comfortable moving in with them are likely to be white and middle-class as well.

In other words: systems of power are deeply entrenched in conflicting and complex ways, and it’s hard as hell to figure out how to bring them down.

3 thoughts on “It’s complicated: climate justice and the nonprofit industrial complex

  1. Yeah…it’s complicated.

    My own personal experiences with both non-profits and volunteerism are mixed. On the one hand, I have benefitted from volunteerism as disability rehabilitation, and it serves this purpose for many, many people. There are people, not just disabled people but people who have been out of work awhile (and are as such out of practice) or just lack certain basic work skills, who are not able to work for whatever reason, but probably will be able to eventually if they ease into it slowly through practice. The majority of treatment centers for people with mental illness and also ADD, LD, and autism have a vocational rehabilitation component that incorporates volunteering initially, working toward an internship, then a part-time job or school, and perhaps ultimately full-time work or school. (This is part of why I’ve been so adamant about defending low-skill unpaid internships, though I didn’t want to get too much into their rehabilitative uses on Facebook for confidentiality reasons).

    On the other hand, not everyone is on disability or has the luxury of having family support or a job that is well-paying enough to not have to work full-time. For a lot of people, as you said, being paid to do good things in the world is the only way they’ll be able to do so. Personally, I do want to get off disability eventually and I can’t see myself working anywhere but a non-profit. I know they have problems, but any model of work does to some extent, and as problems go, they’re not the worst. It’s also just the best fit for my interests, skills, educational background, and work environment preferences. The only job I’ve ever hated was also the only job that was at a for-profit company, and from venting to others, I’ve realized that my experiences were not at all exclusive to this particular company but common in many (perhaps most) for-profits.

    I think ultimately the best solution, in my opinion, is to maintain a mixed workforce with a number of different types of organizations that work in different ways. This can best meet people’s different needs and preferences. But you’re right that it’s very, very complicated…so finding solutions will be as well.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences! That’s a really good point about volunteering as a form of disability rehabilitation.

      I agree that maintaining a mixed workforce with different orgs working in different ways is the best way to go. I tend to believe that we need both moderates and radicals to create social change, even though they often disagree (and even though I generally fall into the radical camp)–we need to push from all sides. So I think there is room for both non-profits that employ people and ones based on volunteers…but finding ways to include the voices of the most marginalized people–often the ones most affected by the very issues the orgs are working on–is really hard. And it’s tied up with so much other structural stuff.

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