What are NGOs and non-profits all about?

A lot of different groups and individuals are active in the anti-gentrification struggle. Many of these people and groups are sincere about opposing gentrification and displacement, and want to find ways to work together to do so. The UFAD itself was founded to bring together all those who are genuinely working to oppose gentrification, because the developers, city governments, big banks, and cops are unified and organized. If we want to fight back against gentrification and win we have to be organized and unified too.

Bill and Melinda Gates touring Mozambique in 2003 to promote their efforts to bring Africa under the control of Corporate America

But one thing we have seen, in the Bay Area, Boston, and NYC, is that there are groups which, although they claim to oppose gentrification, are often actually working against the people: non-profits. They’ll often claim to be a radical force pushing for big changes, against gentrification, climate change, or police brutality. But a closer look at what non-profits actually advocate for and how they actually operate shows that they are really there to guide people’s struggles into a dead-end and ultimately ensure nothing changes.

Even if they wanted to really take a stand against the current system, there are lots of barriers preventing non-profits from doing so.

Most non-profits receive funding from a relatively small number of big donors. One of the biggest ones is the Ford Foundation, founded by the American capitalist, and notorious Nazi sympathizer, Henry Ford. Although the Ford Foundation and its lackeys use and promote a lot of language about “diversity” and “inclusion”, historically the organization has resolutely opposed taking strong stands against the oppressive forces in society. Non-profits which are funded by theFord Foundation have to re-apply for funding every year, so any time they step out of line a little bit they could lose all of their funding and be forced to go out of   business. 

Henry Ford (center) recieving the Grand Cross of the Golden Eagle, which was the highest award a foreigner could receive in Nazi Germany

The elite of society, who put large amounts of their money into the Ford Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are people who have spent decades exploiting vast numbers of people to gain their wealth. They are totally opposed to the idea of the masses of people exercising real control and having real power in society, and the work that their funded non-profits do actively works to undermine the power of the people.

For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) claims to be addressing a whole series of real problems around the world, from malaria to climate change. But all of the solutions they propose involve “experts” designing solutions which benefit massive multinational corporations like Monsanto. These “solutions” are then rammed down people’s throats, whether they make any sense or not.

The BMGF is the largest charitable foundation in the world, with assets totaling over $40 billion. The foundation has extremely close ties with many major corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont, corporations whose interests the BMGF works to advance around the world under the guise of charity. Though many view the actions of the foundation uncritically and see it as a way for one of the richest men in the world to “give back”, the reality is quite different.

By funneling his money into the foundation, Gates not only avoids paying taxes on his billions of dollars, he also puts that money to work advancing U.S. corporate interests around the world. For instance, the BMGF, alongside billionaire Warren Buffett and the Rockefeller Foundation, created in 2006 the “Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa.” This was marketed as an effort to raise agricultural productivity in Africa and thereby prevent hunger, which sounds like a positive thing to do. 

The problem is that the BMGF and other corporate charities promote raising agricultural productivity through the use of high-intensity, industrial agriculture, using seeds and pesticides sold by  multinational corporations. Once farmers start using these products they are under the thumb of these corporations, who can force them to produce cash crops for the export market rather than food.

A diagram of the highest paid non-profit CEOs in the country. Non-profits and NGOs often pay their staff more money than they put into their actual programs which do little to benefit the people they claim to serve

Some non-profits don’t seek funding from the Ford Foundation or similar big corporate charities, but even these small “grassroots” non-profits quickly become tools for the maintenance of the status quo. As a group begins to receive donations from people and starts hiring people, renting an office, and so on, it creates a group of people who make a living off the continued existence of the oppression they are supposedly fighting. Sometimes these people themselves are sincere people, but the whole way the non-profit is set up pushes them to prioritize keeping the non-profit itself going over taking a strong stand against oppression. 

We have seen firsthand how this manifests within our work in many ways. The NGO City Life in Boston mostly focuses on “managing” the struggle by presenting themselves as allies to tenants while simultaneously collaborating with government officials. The Village in Oakland refuses to struggle through different political ideas and then throws shade at organizations they disagree with politically instead of engaging them in a principled struggle around the correct path forward. The non-profit Help USA is forcing homeless people to live in terrible conditions in New York. These are but a few examples of what we see as being a dominant trend in political work today and represents a real threat to the struggle against gentrification.

Non-profits also have to renew their non-profit status every year with the federal, state, and local government. In addition to showing that the primary purpose of the organization is not to turn a profit, organizations also have to submit declarations about their mission for the government’s approval. So essentially the government has to sign off on what the non-profit is doing, and if they decide things are getting “too radical” they will quickly pull their non-profit status.

These organizations, despite their progressive and radical images, are really not for the people. When non-profit activists get involved in mass struggles, they always promote false solutions to the problem. They’ll say that the best way to address a bad landlord is through mediation, that the best way to change a city policy is through back-room meetings with city councilors, and so on.  These strategies keep the people dependent on the non-profit for help, instead of empowering them to organize and confront their oppressors.

All of this raises a key question: what are these non-profits really about, and why has there been such a large increase in the number of them in the last 30 or so years?

Non-profits play a key role in maintaining the existing oppressive and exploitative society. The ruling class here in the U.S. has decided to promote them as a way to compensate for its austerity policies like cutting welfare, attacking public housing, and so on.

The vast majority of non-profits are charitable organizations (1.2 million as of 2019) which provide social services and resources to under-served communities. These communities have been further deprived by the closure and defunding of local and federal social service agencies, which have lost billions in funding since the 1980’s. Some of this funding has been shifted to non-profits, which have received a third of their income from the federal government since the 1980’s. These austerity programs benefited the rich, as government budgets were instead directed towards subsidies and tax write offs for big businesses and wars abroad. 

Non-profits themselves have become big business. At the turn of the 21st century, as much as 10% of employment in the U.S. and 9% of the economy as a whole was in the non-profit sector. In 2016, it accounted for over a trillion dollars of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. 

Beyond just providing meager services previously provided by the state, non-profits also serve the ruling class by preventing rebellion and resistance. The ruling class cannot maintain this oppressive and exploitative system purely through repression. In addition to the police, who are ultimately called in when people really get serious about fighting for their interests, they also need some dead-end initiatives for oppressed people to join. These provide an illusion of fighting for change, and can possibly lead to small changes here and there, but they ultimately serve to prop up the existing power structure by diverting people from organizing for real change. In our present moment, non-profits play this role.

The inequities in society are caused because working people do not have power over this society. If we’re serious about changing this, and about really opposing gentrification, we have to recognize that although non-profits provide some meager services and appear to support the struggle, they are ultimately not here to serve the people.

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