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“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience… The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex.”

-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address, Jan 17. 1961

When I applied to DukeEngage Seattle, I knew that I would be placed with a “community partner” nonprofit organization. I would then work with this partner throughout my eight weeks in Seattle. To me, nonprofit work was unequivocally good. It was wholesome, selfless work done for the greater wellbeing of the community and the less-fortunate. After all, people in the nonprofit sector were selfless, passionate martyrs, those who care most and those willing to sacrifice for the good of the cause. After eight weeks with my community partner, a nonprofit called Solid Ground that combats poverty and racism, I can attest that a lot of these things are true. I’ve seen first-hand the passion and drive fueling nonprofits, I’ve seen the effects of the life changing work they do. But I’ve also come to understand that my previous view of nonprofit work was shallow and unnuanced. If my time with Solid Ground has taught me anything, it’s that one of the most important skills in the nonprofit sector is the ability to critically examine your own work. When you critically view the nonprofit sector as a whole, a number of uneasy inconsistencies leap out of the woodwork. A vague beast becomes visible, a conglomeration of nonprofits that over time evolved to serve their own existence in perpetuity. Not unlike the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned the nation against in his last moments as sitting commander-in-chief, this contorted system is a power complex of its very own: the nonprofit-industrial complex.

In our first week at Solid Ground, the three DukeEngage interns in the Community Food Education department were delivered a thick packet of readings, on subjects ranging from food justice in Seattle to workplace email etiquette. Stuck somewhere in the middle of these was an article by Paul Kivel titled “Social Service or Social Change? Who Benefits from your Work?”. This article was our first introduction to critical analysis of nonprofit work, and collectively blew our minds. In it, Kivel describes the forces that have brought rise to the nonprofit industrial complex, or the “buffer zone” as he calls it. The article can be summed up by a quick thought experiment.

If you wanted to end homelessness (an enormous and pressing issue in Seattle) as a nonprofit, what would you do? A number of potential programs probably jump to mind, among them food banks, homelessness shelters, and programs that provide other essentials to those experiencing homelessness, such as access to hygiene facilities, clothing, internet, mail, and phones. There are nonprofits in Seattle applying these very solutions to combat homelessness right now. The problem with these services is that they don’t do anything to actually end homelessness. Only one thing ends homelessness: permanent, stable, and affordable housing. And yet everything we’ve listed appear so lucrative, so productive, because they meet the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness in the moment, such as hunger and need for shelter. They rapidly alleviate suffering, even if they do nothing to actually combat the source of the suffering itself. None of the services traditionally offered to homeless people do anything to address the root causes which make people lose their housing and fall into homelessness. Services are essential and shouldn’t be done away with, but rather must be done in conjunction with programs advocating for social change.  And yet, so many nonprofits get caught in the hamster wheel of only providing services to their target community, instead of also working for permanent social change that would undo the causes and prevent the creation of more cases.

Kivel suggests that the process is so insidious and smooth that nonprofits often don’t notice that they’ve stopped imagining that they can end homelessness, or hunger, or domestic violence and have, instead, built themselves niches in the edifice of social services for the homeless, for the hungry, for the victims of domestic violence. The problem is that while providing for social change is the only long-term solution, short term services feel so good, both for those working in the nonprofit sector and for those funding them. As many nonprofits are funded by wealthy donors and government grants, it becomes incredibly easy to find oneself looking to the donors or granters for guidance. Nonprofit work becomes about generating favorable numbers and good success stories, showing off how many people you have served in order to impress and attract donors and granters. In this fashion, nonprofits become accountable to those with money, the wealthy people in the private and government sectors making decisions on which nonprofits get a philanthropic gift or government grant. This is harmful in the long run, because the target community nonprofits should be serving is not their funders. No one has ever suggested that a nonprofit be created to provide essential services such as food and housing to philanthropic millionaires. And yet, nonprofits often become beholden to these people, instead of the people they are serving, such as those experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, racism, sexism, and gender violence. These people are often people of color, lower class, and less wealthy, and therefore are not members of the philanthropic class or high-ranking government officials. This forms the second link that completes the circle of the nonprofit-industrial complex, by which nonprofits become organizations funded and directed by the more-fortunate and more-privileged to provide services to the less-fortunate and less-privileged, without any input by those receiving the services, and without the long-term social change in mind to permanently end problems.

Just as the military-industrial complex exists to link the military and industry in a self-feeding loop in order to perpetuate and grow, the nonprofit-industrial complex links nonprofits and those funding nonprofits in a likewise perpetuating and self-feeding loop. Funders give money to nonprofits, which nonprofits use to provide services. Keeping records of services allows nonprofits to exchange these records with funders to gain more money. The funders gain records that demonstrate the societal good their philanthropy has begotten, which paints them in an incredibly positive light. They are incentivized to give more money, nonprofits are incentivized to provide more services, and the circle starts again. All the while, the people actually suffering are cut out of the decision-making loop. They are provided services, which alleviate immediate suffering, but are not provided with social change, which improves communities over the long term and undoes the root injustices that lead to suffering. In this way, the nonprofit-industrial complex does more to reinforce the status quo, with all the inequalities and injustices that lead to suffering, than change the status quo, and create a more just and equitable world.