Beware of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex

One of the worst conferences I attended was last week’s Conference for Community Arts Education sponsored by the National Guild Conference for Community Arts Education. This is a huge New York based-nonprofit that has an annual conference in a different city. This year they chose Baltimore, and true to its character, it epitomized what national nonprofits commit that bathe in privilege. They secretly swooped in and did not publicize it to Baltimore communities at large (a friend and colleague happened to find it on the Web), charge exorbitant fees to attendees, marginalize the indigenous artists, and host keynotes that have exhibited more of the problem than the solution.

There was even a recurring call to Native American ancestors upon which the conference was being held. Many called out the names of the tribes. It felt so fake and phony I wanted to shout, STOP! No one, however, acknowledged the Africans who were auctioned in Fells Point and forced into slavery in this city, except another friend and colleague in attendance who made sure this was publicly known.

The Guild’s agenda was clear: tout their alleged achievements, showcase the people they hold dear, and recruit for new membership. In many other circles this is called pimping. Their four day landing in my beloved city of Baltimore was nothing short of temporary nonprofit gentrification, an invasion if you will, much like what Alternate ROOTS did seven years prior, leaving the Highway to Nowhere region of West Baltimore with little to nothing of what they claimed they would bring, with a festival that showcased their sphere of influence, and marginalized local artists in the most crude fashion.

I left the conference feeling aggravated and once more insulted by the way in which organizations that publicize themselves to work for communities appear to be more exploitive than effective. They receive huge amounts of funding to help working class, disadvantaged, and poor people predominantly of color, yet their Board and Staff directories look almost completely the opposite, and yet they self-declare as experts and leaders, while the grassroots folks who really do the work are ignored and ostracized from the discussions, support, and accolades.

This has been an ongoing problem since the advent of the nonprofit industrial complex, where the knights in shining armor who don’t live anywhere near where they work, are seen as saviors of blighted neighborhoods, crafting jargon that will attract the eyes and ears of philanthropists who feel comfortable dealing with such practitioners. Never seen are the boots on the ground at the board and staff meetings, integrally affecting policy and the allocation of dollars. They are the ones who receive orders from high and are always on the verge of losing their positions if the organization loses grant funding, or more insidiously, if they vocalize their opposition to the way in which the projects operate.

What I do see happening is the gradual rising tide of community arts educators and other professionals across the country who are no longer silent. They are beginning to directly speak out and confront the nonprofit powers that be in ways in which some discomfort is being felt by said powers, who in turn attempt to acknowledge the disparities, inequities, and lack of diversity and inclusion. The problem is, the usual suspects are in the room, leaving those who need to be included to directly address these issues uninvited.

All these terms have lost their meaning – community, diversity, inclusion, stakeholder – because they are being overused by people who fail to recognize their perspective is vastly different of those they purport to serve. So the natives, who cannot understand the jargon-rich funding applications often lose out, and must continue to operate with shoestring budgets, while those who have much less impact in communities are receiving ample funding, and consequently live well.

The nonprofit industrial complex needs to be willing to ask themselves the hard questions: if we need to call for inclusion, why were we exclusive in the beginning? What do we need to do to execute a diametrical cultural shift to align more closely with the communities we serve? What are the obstacles to our fundamental progress, and what can we do to eliminate them? Ultimately, what truths do we need to hold, so we can finally be who we claim we are?

For the truth lies not in the brochures and power point presentations, but in the faces and bodies of the true stakeholders, the ones who truly live the mission and values next to crumbling vacant homes, near balloons tied to street light posts, down the street from blood stained cement, below playground floors littered with trash and dime bags, overseen by stoic regal faces with gray hair that remembered when their neighborhood was an urban paradise.

Ron Kipling Williams