Many of the problems Jo Freeman identified in her 1970 essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” persist in today’s feminist struggles and have been exacerbated by nonprofitization. Concentration of leadership, elitism, lack of accountability, and lack of transparency in social movement formations have worsened in the past four decades as hierarchical, staffed nonprofits have become the most dominant form for social justice work in the United States. The 2007 anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex, edited by the activist organization INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, raised the volume on the conversation about the problems of nonprofitization for groups and organizations seeking transformative change. With many contributors coming from feminist and antiracist, antiviolence, and prison abolition frameworks, the book provides particular insight into how the rise of nonprofit norms shifted feminist antiviolence work toward state- and corporate-funded forms. Throughout the decades that have led to this unsavory alliance between cops, prosecutors, and antiviolence organizations, those most affected by violence—such as immigrant women, women of color, poor women, indigenous women, people with disabilities, and queer and trans people—have consistently critiqued the criminalization “solutions” to violence, naming criminalization and immigration enforcement as dominant forms of gender violence, not solutions to it (see Crenshaw 1991; INCITE! 2006; Munshi 2010).
A significant divide is now visible in many of the movements related to these issues in the United States, such as the antiviolence movement [End Page 247] and movements about reproductive health, queer and trans life, immigration and disability. This divide is visible in the distinction between disability rights and disability justice frameworks, reproductive rights and reproductive justice frameworks, and lesbian and gay or LGBT rights and queer and trans work centered on racial and economic justice (see Harris 2006; Ross 2006; Mingus 2010; Conrad 2010; Cripchick 2010; Conrad 2011, 2012). On one side of this divide are organizations that are funded and staffed, run by professionals (often lawyers), focused on litigation and policy reform, disproportionately white led, overseen by boards of directors populated by philanthropists and other members of elite sectors, and primarily proposing reforms that line up with and legitimize systems of harm and violence by making slight surface reforms (see Arkles, Gehi, and Redfield 2010).
On the other side are organizations centered on racial and economic justice that are small, have few or no paid staff, prioritize people of color leadership, often operate collectively, are often membership based, and believe in being accountable to local directly affected populations rather than having their goals and strategies determined by philanthropists’ preferences. These organizations and formations tend to be focused on root causes of harm and violence, analyzing colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and ableism in order to look at and address specific problems or locations. They do work at a local level to dismantle systems like immigration enforcement and policing, often focused on very particular reforms but with a broader framework like prison and border abolition. Their messages are not corporate media friendly, and their work is always less visible than that of the well-funded organizations whose reform goals often align with capitalist, pro-military, pro-police, and patriotic messages. Activists and organizations on the two sides of this divide often end up in scuffles about reform possibilities where unpopular subgroups, such as people with criminal records, undocumented people, drug users, sex workers, and people with psychiatric diagnoses are being cut out of reform proposals by the larger organizations working in cahoots with elected officials to form a “solution” for those who are cast as deserving.
The examination of the relationship between organizational structures, leadership, and the transformative capacity of movements remains an urgent task, and many of the observations Freeman made in 1970 are still being grappled with today. The tools and methods that feminist collectives and consciousness-raising groups (as well as other movements they were [End Page 248] cross-pollinating with and being inspired by) were engaging at the time of Freeman’s essay remain important and are both being rediscovered and further developed as alternatives to the norms of the non-profit industrial complex. The critique of non-profitization has led many...