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The Non-Profit Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids

November 22, 2010

In his farewell speech to the nation, President Dwight Eisenhower warned US citizens of the impending dangers of what he called the military industrial complex. Eisenhower knew that the Pentagon’s relationship with the private weapons manufacturers could cripple democracy.

Since the early 1960s, another alliance has grown that also threatens the potential for social change and social justice in this country. Wealthy sectors and individuals have hidden some of their wealth in foundations, both as a way of avoiding taxes, but more importantly as a means of social control.

Collectively, US foundations give away billions of dollars to a broad spectrum of efforts that are generally labeled as beneficial to the community in which it was given. However, that idea has come under increasing scrutiny by community activists and organizers, and was the topic of a major conference in 2004 entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex.

At that conference, organizers and grassroots scholars discussed ways in which the non-profit/NGO structure often obstructs radical movement building. The conference led to a book by the same titled and was put together by the radical women of color organization, INCITE!

They women of INCITE! identified the Non-Profit Industrial Complex as a relationship between the State, the owning classes, foundations and the non-profit/NGO, social service and sometimes social justice organizations. These relationships often result in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements. For the women of INCITE! the state and private power uses non-profits to:

  • Monitor and control social justice movements;
  • Divert public monies into private hands through foundations;
  • Manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism;
  • Redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society;
  • Allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work;
  • Encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them.

For anyone who has worked in the non-profit world these tactics are quite evident and most often quite frustrating. At the same time, this kind of analysis is far from the halls of the non-profit world and quite often the leadership of such organizations embraces this kind of thinking as the correct way to approach social problems.

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids

An example of this kind of thinking was reflected in the most recent edition of the area private sector publication MiBiz. The weekly business publication included an insert for the week of November 22nd entitled “Non-Profit Organizations: The business of advocacy.”

The insert contained numerous articles on the non-profit sector including stories about getting young professionals to join boards of directors for non-profits. However, the most important articles were by three women who are in three different capacities within the non-profit industrial complex.

The first article was by an employee of Founders Bank & Trust, Julie Ridenour. Ridenour writes about the strong history of public/private initiatives in Grand Rapids and uses as a recent example ArtPrize. Here the writer states, “The event was funded through the generosity of the DeVos Family.” She goes on to say, “ It’s a great example of a young entrepreneur using his business initiative to bring cultural and economic prosperity to our city.”

As we have stated in previous critiques of ArtPrize the people who were primary economic winners with ArtPrize are the downtown businesses and property owners, which represents a small class of people whom the DeVos family has a cozy relationship with. And where do we see how the city has prospered culturally with something like ArtPrize, when the emphasis is on commodification of art and not promoting real cultural diversity.

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation president, Diana Sieger, wrote a second article in the MiBiz insert that continued with this same logic. Seiger talked about the work of the community foundation and stressed that non-profits are successful when they are run like businesses. The only difference is that instead of profit, the non-profit world’s profit is “community change.”

One example that Sieger cites is the educational collaboration between the Kent School Services Network, Spectrum Health, the state and Network 180 to reduce absenteeism in Kent County. While one could argue that absenteeism can be problematic, just getting kids to school is not a very lofty goal.

The last article in this trio was from the director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), Rachel Hood. Hood talks about the work of WMEAC and cites three projects they have worked on which highlight the non-profit’s mission. One of those projects was the Stormwater Initiative.

The Stormwater Initiative involved the City of Grand Rapids, MSU, the Frey Foundation and Coca Cola Enterprises. Yes, you read that correctly, Coca Cola Enterprises. The WMEAC director goes on to say how this was a win-win for all partners involved. For Coca Cola Enterprises she writes, “Coca Cola is able to reuse its syrup barrels as part of its corporate social responsibility program. Community groups get a value-add for members and homeowners get a free or low-cost rain barrel.”

GRIID wrote about this problematic partnership between WMEAC and Coca Cola last year, but it is worth repeating here. Coca Cola, in addition to manufacturing products that contribute to poor health around the world the company actually siphons off public water resources at the expense of local communities. This “theft” of water is happening is dramatic fashion around the world and in countries like India.

Besides expropriation of public water sources Coca Cola has a horrible track record in Colombia, where union organizers have been murdered for trying to organize workers in Coca Cola plants.

In both issues, water expropriation and murder of union organizers, grassroots social justice groups have called for boycotts of Coca Cola. Boycotts are an appropriate response to the kinds of policies and practices that the Coca Cola company is engaged in. When non-profits collaborate with corporations like Coca Cola it not only makes it harder for grassroots campaigns to be effective, it “allows corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through philanthropic work,” as is identified by INCITE!

As an organization that has been focused on water quality and water rights issues, WMEAC has the capacity to be a leader in challenging the real practices of corporations like Coca Cola. If WMEAC was interested in capacity building, they could develop a solidarity campaign with people in India who are fighting the ongoing privatization of public water by the global soda giant.

Unfortunately, more often than not this is the nature of non-profits, to not challenge corporate and private power. Non-profits spend too much time chasing funding sources, sources that often come with strings attached, so that they can pay staff salaries instead of doing the work that they originally set out to do.

This critique of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex does not mean that non-profits don’t do important work, but it does provide us with an opportunity to discuss how social change comes about. If we follow the historical models that radical historian Howard Zinn chronicles in A People’s History of the United States, then that model would be that social change comes about though social movements that were independent of both and economic and political centers of power.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    November 22, 2010 3:49 pm

    Thank you for publishing this. I was extremely frustrated around ten years ago that some GR educational non-profits that were doing very important work were applying for and receiving grants from Philip Morris. These non-profits were operating on a shoestring and needed the money, and I understand why it may have been hard to defend NOT applying for those grants. Yet this was in the wake of the revelation that cigarette companies were targeting to children. Someone could have taken a stand and continued to look for money from better sources.

  2. November 22, 2010 3:52 pm

    Peter, I agree with your comments about the need to take a stand. I had very similar experiences at the Community Media Center, which was one of the reasons I chose to leave. These public/private partnerships are only growing and we need to pay close attention to what that means in our communities. We also should not be shy about offering constructive criticism directed at non-profits. Just because they are non-profits, doesn’t mean they are beneficial to social justice, which is exactly the point that the women of INCITE make in their book.


  1. Stenographers to Power: MLive and the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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