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Reimagining the Social Justice Nonprofit Ecosystem

Image via Ms. Magazine

In the weeks leading up to a big election, hundreds of unsolicited texts and calls from different political organizations inundate one’s phone, each providing similar election information and professing support for a candidate. US residents received an estimated 1.29 billion political text messages in October 2022 alone. While these outreach methods do have a substantial impact on voter turnout, they are not the best use of resources. 

This ineffective allocation of political capital is a microcosm of a series of broader issues within the social justice organizational network, including duplication of work, strategic shortsightedness, and organizational selfishness. While many nonprofits do indispensable work on the local, national, and international levels, the larger organizational ecosystem is in need of reimagining. A combination of encouraging coalition building, restructuring existing funding systems, and shifting away from formal, organization-centric power structures may hold the answer to building more effective and enduring movements.

There are around 1.8 million nonprofits in the United States. Charitable organizations funnel trillions of dollars into solving society’s most pressing issues. Yet, many of these organizations—especially the political ones—have similar, if not identical, missions and target communities. The national youth-led nonprofit space exemplifies this issue: it is saturated with groups including  NextGen America, Generation Citizen, Voters of Tomorrow, Dream for America, Young Invincibles, Association of Young Americans, Generation Vote, Campus Vote Project, Every Vote Counts, MyVote Project, Voice of Gen-Z, Gen Z Runs, Run Gen Z, and the list goes on. Each of these organizations has broad and ambitious missions focused on empowering young voters and advocating for youth issues. 

So, what explains the fact that hundreds of national youth political nonprofits—all broadly focused on youth engagement—continuously emerge?

One reason may be society’s overemphasis on independence, individualism, and leadership. Especially in the youth space, everyone wants to be an innovator: identifying their target issue, starting their own project, and steering a movement for change. The focus on leadership and the presence of ego compels many young people to create their own nonprofit organizations or chapters, even when the work may be duplicative. So, while each of these organizations are doing incredibly valuable work, their collective existence suggests the presence of movement-wide inefficiencies. 

Coalitions might provide a partial solution to this issue, uniting organizations with similar missions to better coordinate limited resources, collaborate on events and initiatives, and share messaging and strategy. The Declaration for American Democracy, a group of over 250 member organizations working to enact federal democracy reform to promote voter accessibility and equity, exemplifies the strength of coalition-building. By informing member nonprofits of each other’s activities, facilitating opportunities for collaboration between organizations, and enabling productive joint action, coalition-building can be a first step in preventing the inefficient allocation of resources.

However, even with coalitions, organizations are often pushed by the nearsightedness of foundations and donors into less constructive activities. The donor class that monetarily supports organizations and movements is often most roused by short-term successes and large-scale metrics. Foundations often employ business-like benchmarks that emphasize clear deliverables and accountability. This metric-focused approach compels grantees to prioritize short-term action rather than long-term impact. Is sending billions of text messages the most effective way to cultivate a civically engaged population long-term? Likely not. Regardless, donors love large numbers and clear outcomes.

In addition, by prioritizing organizational development over movement-wide needs, nonprofits are too often failing to fully commit themselves to the social movements they purport to support. Organizations can be so focused on sustaining and growing their own infrastructure that they may fail to reckon with what is most helpful to the movement. Since organizational structures often lack the incentive to fully situate nonprofits within movement-wide needs, the unproductive utilization of resources and expertise is inevitable. Therefore, the duplicity of work and strategic shortsightedness cannot be fully remediated by solely investing in coalitions and restructuring funding opportunities.

To prevent a misalignment of interests, some modern movements have increasingly relied on new power structures to grow their efforts. Capacities of movements to frame narratives, develop leaders, and produce institutional change do not have to be constrained to the traditional organization-focused framework. These “old power” frameworks are leader-driven and inaccessible, defined by competition and resource consolidation.

New conceptual models reimagine movement capacity as engaging the public beyond the passive consumption of ideas. While many organizations can lend resources and expertise to movements, power is not found through loyalty to an organization or institutionalism; rather, power is created informally and through conditional affiliation. For instance, the movement in Florida countering so-called “Don’t Say Gay” efforts has embraced this model. While several organizations contributed great resources and knowledge to this movement, the efforts to achieve LGBTQ+ inclusion and students’ rights were not monopolized by any formal institution. Instead, people became invested in the movement through mass online and in-person engagement and informal educational campaigns. More organizations must embrace this increasing shift in power dynamics. Under this model, the public mainly guides strategy and determines activities, allowing organizations to participate entirely based on the movement’s needs. By embracing this crowd-sourced power model, organizational goals are entirely determined by the movement, facilitating a truly collaborative environment between organizations.

Ultimately, the answer to avoiding duplicity of work between organizations, strategic shortsightedness, and unproductive competition may require a number of transformations within the nonprofit ecosystem. More reliance on coalitions, a reimagining of the foundation and donor space, and an embrace of new power structures may hold the answer to creating movements that are impactful and can contribute to lasting change. However, compelling nonprofit organizations and movement leaders to institute these reforms poses another set of challenges.