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On Non-Profits, Cooperatives, and Fundraising

After many years of working in non-profits, dabbling in grassroots and institutional fundraising, it is safe to say that organizations are heavily reliant on major donors or foundations to keep their programs running. We reach up, seeking the perfect foundation “match” or network so we can convince someone we know with connections to make us a grant. It is a system that arose during the 1970s with the proliferation of non-profits at the same time as large wealth creation and conservative governmental control of this country.

Non-profits are the intermediaries that allow wealth (the enablers) to dictate programs (often serving the at-risk or under-employed) that only perpetuate the underlying causes of inequality. We can look inside our own organizational culture to see glimpses of this disconnect.

Non-profits are the intermediaries that allow wealth (the enablers) to dictate programs (often serving the at-risk or under-employed) that only perpetuate the underlying causes of inequality. We can look inside our own organizational culture to see glimpses of this disconnect. I believe that we’d be more “sustainable” and healthier, possibly enjoying our day-to-day jobs or feeling valued by our art practices if the people who support and benefit from the programs are clumped more around the middle. They find connection within (as components of) the same community, mission, purpose, etc. Many member-based or cooperative organizations or projects exemplify this model – places where you find joint involvement or opportunities for people to share personal investment.

Now in our fourth year, The Fire This Time Fund, a group of individuals who pool our resources to give back out to the community, has a revolving membership. As our base of members and supporting members grow, ideally, so will our donations. My charge is to keep those folks who were engaged the first year, but are no longer active, supportive and invested in FTT.  As members of the Fire This Time Fund, we all agree to contribute something. However, let me be clear. Many seed projects begin with a major donor – ours included. What I have come to realize and feel pretty strongly about is to be a radical grant making body one cannot perpetuate the dominant system of philanthropy where those with more resources give to those with less. Inherent in this paradigm is a disparate power dynamic, where those with access assert authority, whether purposefully or not. This makes it all the more difficult for true collectivity, equitability, or shared ownership.

After the third year of our grantmaking as an all volunteer-run giving circle housed at a public foundation, we decided to move the fund where it could be earning money instead of paying our fiscal agent. It will be a test of time to see if Fire This Time can sustain itself. It will be hard work and the project may fade, but the point of the project was always to experiment through group decision-making and it has proven to be also equal part organizing project. Collectivity to me means community ownership: one can only lead for so long before allowing space for others to step in and up.

FTT is now held at a cooperatively owned financial institution, the North Side Federal Community Credit Union (where I now work as the Marketing and Community Relations Manager). The fund is held in a saving account, which earns 3% until we make grants at the end of the year – a costly concession for the credit union, yet an integral part of its social mission. This does mean, however, that donations to FTT will not be tax-exempt, presenting another stopgap in the philanthropy wheel. We are so accustomed to expect that the money we give away be tax deductible. Did you know that unless you own a home, or are over 65, your annual deductions will probably not amount to the standard deduction of $5450 per year? You could still deduct the $100 you might contribute to FTT and call it an act of civil “tax” disobedience. Because most likely the Feds aren’t going to audit a middle class professional making a few small donations per year. Who they really care about is Mr. Joe Millionaire avoiding paying his taxes by gifting and making large grants. But you would be surprised. Many donors expect to get that letter in the mail acknowledging, as proof, their 501©3 donation.

Did you also know that you could gift an individual artist or organizer up to $12,000 tax-free? Wealthy individuals use this benefit in the tax code to gift their children or grandchildren in order to reduce the amount they will owe on their estates at the time of death. If they do this, why can’t we start funding individual artists or organizers tax-free in the same way we might give to our church, community group or favorite non-profit?

One problem is that the inception of non-profits sidestepped the integrity of individual or autonomous efforts. In my experience with FTT, it has been much harder to argue the “impact or gravity” of an individual project versus a group project. Sometimes it feels like a quantity over quality concern. I wonder. When did an organization’s impact become more valuable or impactful, than an individual’s own personal artistic or social conscious transformation? I’m really fascinated by deep personal accounts of transformation. I have become drawn to people and spaces where the valuing of self-care, horizontalism, collectivism, integrating spiritual or healing practices, and popular education are just as integral to the organizing or completion of a project. Process is just as important as the product. What is interesting – and probably not surprising – is that I see these values held among a younger cadre of movers and shakers, largely cultural workers of color pushing bounds and rebelling against the non-profit industrial complex. These are the folks who are organizing and plotting a Chicago delegation to the United States Social Forum in Detroit in June 2010. It is inspiring and invigorating, a return to true autonomy, and – I hope – the wave of the future for movement building.

2 Comments on “On Non-Profits, Cooperatives, and Fundraising”

  1. 1 Lillian Hsu said at 9:27 am on March 29th, 2010:

    I would like to know where I can find copies of Art Work in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  2. 2 salem said at 11:28 am on March 29th, 2010:

    Lillian, Rebecca Uchill who is currently at MIT, is our Cambridge contact. She and some others are putting together an event for Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at the Design Studio For Social Intervention (1946 Washington St in Boston). You may wish to contact her through them to see if there are any papers left in Cambridge: Or you can purchase copies from Half Letter Press: or download free PDFs from this site.

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