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How Nonprofit Careerism Derailed the "Revolution"

Greens and Greenbacks

by MICHAEL DONNELLY

My good friend Lisa Goldrosen is a veteran of many left causes. Lisa has spent her entire adult life working in various coop endeavors. She has a wonderful collection of buttons and posters from back when America rose from the slumber of the Eisenhower years. She has buttons from the early days of the clean-up of the Hudson River ­ Pete Seeger’s precursor to Greenpeace. More are from the early Civil Rights Movement. Others are from the anti-Vietnam War effort and the SDS era on campus. She has one anti-war poster that could be recycled as is and still be useful today.

Lisa has arranged them all in a wonderful historic collage. She regularly uses it to give history lessons to young radicals here in Oregon. Someone always asks, "Why didn’t I ever hear about this in school?"

Being a 60s activist myself, having grown up in Flint — steeped in the history of the Labor Movement, a Civil Rights activist at fourteen, a UAW member at eighteen and a draft resister/ Conscientious Objector/anti-war activist later — I always enjoy my discussions with Lisa.

Recently, she put my frustrations with the current state of activism in full perspective.


The Three-legged Stool of Counterrevolution

Lisa notes, "The Revolution was derailed by three things: the end of the draft; Roe v. Wade and the rise of the nonprofit sector. Once the children of privilege were no longer subject to any personal pain, it was over. It was a brilliant strategy by predatory capitalism."

While I’m not sure if Revolution, or even Reform, was/is inevitable, I agree. Once the draft and the possibility that middle-to-upper class kids would be sent to fight Imperial Wars was over, it’s easy to see how the bottom fell out of the anti-war movement. Recent Imperial Wars, fought predominantly with "volunteers," are just as heinous as Vietnam, but with few highly-educated, comfortable kids’ lives being on the line, we have yet to see anything approaching the across-the-board, massive opposition that Vietnam engendered. (Astonishingly, this very year during yet another ill-fated Imperial misadventure, we saw the "Peace" Movement line up vociferously behind a proudly-stated "I’ll hunt ‘em down and kill ‘em" warmonger for president!)

Same with Roe v Wade. A whole lot of steam went out of progressive social efforts once this same socioeconomic group could gain access to affordable, legal abortion. (It appears to be the sole bottom line litmus test still applied to the Democratic Party.) Remove the pain and the rulers gain.

It really did become — remove the personal pain from these me firsters and the hiccup of resistance vanishes. I already felt that way about these two issues. But, Lisa’s expansion of the concept to include the rise of the "Nonprofit Sector" put the final piece of the puzzle in place.


Nonprofit Careerism

Back there in Eisenhower days, an educated, middle class American youth could look forward to a future laid out lockstep towards either a position in the "Private Sector" (read: corporate drone) or in the "Public Sector" (read: political hack).

Those who got too far out there protesting the War or Racism or any other outrage soon found themselves with a blot on the resume. Not to worry; soon corporate America set up the "third" leg of the stool. The entire domain of nonprofit institutions (arts, culture, environment, etc.) found and embraced a collective identity as the "Nonprofit Sector" sometime in the early 1970s. Ludicrously, their self-declared title has recently become "The Independent Sector."

Prior to that time, most of these types of organizations, were for-profit entities. With the advent of tax incentives, a plethora of corporate-funded grant-making foundations arose as companies morphed from private to nonprofit to take advantage of the tax rules. For example: In 1930, only a quarter of hospitals were nonprofit, about 35% government run and another 40% were private for-profits. By 1970, over half were nonprofit and just 12% privately owned.

Entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission sates, "The nation’s fastest growing sector needs administrators, policy makers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future"

According to The NonProfit Times survey, the mean salaries for top nonprofit employees for 2003 were:

Executive director/CEO/president- $88,749
Chief financial officer- $60,675
Program director- $52,253
Planned giving officer- $62,019
Development director- $55,807
Major gifts officer- $56,850
Chief of direct marketing- $52,812
Director of volunteers- $35,267
Webmaster- $38,498
Chief of technology- $58,595.

Lisa is correct. People could have their little impact antiauthority flings as a college youth and still have a well-compensated career as one of those administrators, etc. And corporate America could continue its depredations and whitewash its impacts by sending out an army of increasingly ineffective nonprofit professionals.

Wing-tip Environmentalism

For example (perhaps the best example), the Environmental Movement has become a giant, permanent political fixture with major groups controlling over $20 billion in assets and the usual bloated salaries for Big Green insiders. The Sierra Club’s CEO Carl pope is paid close to $200,000 per year in salary and benefits. The Sierra Club has at least thee other six figure executives. League of Conservation Voters head Debra Callahan also brings home over $150,000 per year. Teresa Heinz Kerry’s favorite group, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is the richest of all with over 800,000,000 in annual revenues and over $2 billion in assets. TNC pays it’s top executives well over $200,000 per year.

Yet, when did the Big Greens produce their last ecological victory? And no, raising millions on the annual shadow dance over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge does not count. Perhaps if ANWR was permanently protected it would count; unlike this wink and a nod game played by both sides to regularly rally their bases. Neither does the "Heritage Forest Campaign" bankrolled by Pew Charitable Trusts to the tune of several million. HFC brought us the last-minute Clinton Roadless Rule — a smoke and mirrors policy that places nothing permanently off-limits to extraction and provides no actual inviolate protection of anything.

No, the Environmental Movement has completely morphed into a greenwashing machine for bad Democrats and questionable corporations ­ far and away the Big Greens’ largest source of funds comes from the largesse of oil company foundations, notably the Pew Charitable Trusts ($4 billion in assets) and The Rockefeller Fund.

I have a background in successful grassroots environmentalism and have butted heads more than once with the ineffective Big Greens and their funders. I learned early on that protecting grant portfolios and career tracks are far more important to these folks than protecting ecosystems. Once a staffer from Pew told me, "We fund reform, not revolution." From my perspective, they fund neither.

How bad is it? This past election cycle here in Oregon, we saw moneys donated to the League of Conservation Voters laundered through various "safe seat" Democrats’ campaigns and then used to pay the salaries of staffers of the Democratic Party of Oregon (DPO).

Green from the Top Down

But, Lisa’s insight hit home most for me when trying to understand the implosion of the Green Party. This idealistic party with a stated goal of "one-person/one-vote, bottom up Democracy" has become the latest home for these self-promoting children of privilege.

Somehow, instead of "bottom up democracy," the party insiders (virtually all nonprofit careerists; a disproportional number are attorneys) decided "top down" that Nader was to be jettisoned and party attorney David Cobb was to be the party’s nominee. No effort was made to conduct a poll (primary or otherwise) of the entire membership of the party.

Oregon conducts ALL elections by mail. For this small party to do likewise should be easily doable. In fact, some party members offered to underwrite the costs of such a mail primary. But instead, we saw Cobb gain the nomination at an insider convention having gained but 12% of the actual votes cast by party members who had any prior opportunity to vote.

Ironically, Cobb and his Media Director Blair Bobier have been founders and staffers of a series of nonprofits with "democracy" in the title! Cobb’s major insider promoters also include nonprofit careerists Medea Benjamin and Ted Glick among many others. Bobier told me when I questioned the methodology used to choose Cobb, "The members make the rules. If they don’t like them they can change them."

I then asked him, "OK. That’s the official spin. What about you personally? What about your own democratic ethics?

Further justifying the manipulation of those rules, this Golden Boy’s sole response was again, "The members make the rules. If they don’t like them they can change them."

The upshot was, of course, the Green Party went from having 2.8 million votes cast for its 2000 candidate (Ralph Nader) and but 136,000 cast for Cobb this year. The party lost Ballot Status in 14 states. The third largest party in the nation came in sixth in the election!

Yet, did any of this chasten the insiders? Of course not. Cobb and cronies went on to find a whole new fundraising mechanism ­ the Ohio recount. Cobb, who cared so much for Ohio voters that he did not even campaign there and gained but 186 votes in Ohio, is leading a recount challenge. The Cobb Campaign, not the Green Party proper, has received well over $300,000 in donations for the recount from idealists and deluded Democrats across the country ­ far more than the $116,000 Cobb raised for his entire campaign. Moneys that would be far better spent repairing the damage done the Green Party by the Cobb Campaign, as any change in the Ohio vote result is beyond unlikely.

What’s the point? In perhaps the most ironic title and first paragraph written this year, Bobier had a piece on the recount (good for more fundraising) published this week Bobier actually titled his piece "Mock the Vote" and started off with "Some people just have no respect for the law these days. Unfortunately, they happen to be in charge of our elections." (Well, Blair, the people "make the rules")

And, how is the money being used? Well, Ohio charged $113,600 for the Recount. The rest goes to "overhead" such as the "rehiring of staff" talked about on Cobb’s new recount website; sans names, duties and salary info, of course.

Reverse or Real Reform?

Back in the 1970s, when the nonprofit sector first gained its collective identity, many were fearful of how much influence it would give corporations; especially as it is a way to determine just where what would otherwise be general tax revenues get spent. Back then, it was the liberals who were most concerned.

Now, it is the corporate water carriers in Congress who are concerned that some nonprofits are harmful to the corporate interests. Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Ranking Member Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) held hearings this year on just how to rein in rogue nonprofits, few though they may be. All the big groups and foundations got on board and formed an advisory panel called, what else? — The Panel on the Nonprofit Sector. The Panel created five working groups "to study and provide recommendations on issues involved in governance, transparency and financial accountability, oversight of sector organizations, the legal framework for regulating charities and foundations, and specific recommendations concerning small organizations." (Look out Earth First!, Ruckus Society, and all the other real bottom up grassroots anti-corporate groups.)

Consolidation has clearly begun and the third leg of the stool appears as likely as the other two to be the one that collapses first, if not more likely. (One can dream.)

It’s clear that corporate America takes any progressive movement, subsumes it and markets it back to us this way. Once a cause morphs into a permanent fixture on the public scene with careers at stake, it’s all over. It’s also clear that the self-promoters who have risen to control of such defanged nonprofits are as divorced from the realities of the real threats to liberty and planet as any of their corporate paymasters.

Lisa’s opened my eyes to how that happened. It’s not nonprofit per se. It’s the collective "Sector" that has to go. Now it’s time to use that knowledge to help cut that third leg out from under them.

MICHAEL DONNELLY has helped form a number of small private and public nonprofits dedicated to the protection of land and dependent species. He can be reached at: pahtoo@aol.com