Today, democracy in the United States is facing a major challenge: Wealthy elites have immense power to influence election outcomes and policy decisions, while the political participation of low-income people and racial minorities remains relatively low. In this context, non-profit social movement organizations are one of the key vehicles through which ordinary people can exercise influence in our political system and pressure elite decision-makers to take action on matters of concern to ordinary citizens. A crucial fact about social movement organizations is that they often receive significant financial support from elites through philanthropic foundations. However, there is no research that details exactly how non-profit social movement organizations gain resources from elites or that analyzes how relationships with elite donors impact grassroots organizations’ efforts to mobilize people to fight for racial and economic justice.
My dissertation aims to fill that gap. It is an ethnographic case study of a multiracial statewide organization called the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC) that coordinates progressive social movement organizations in Ohio. Member organizations work on a variety of issues, including ending mass incarceration, environmental justice, improving access to early childhood education, and raising the minimum wage. In 2016, the OOC registered over 155,000 people to vote in Ohio. I conducted 55 semi-structured interviews with staff members of OOC and allied organizations, including funders. I also observed 330 hours of OOC meetings and events and collected over 1300 documents pertaining to OOC’s history and fundraising.
Using funds from foundations, the OOC has made progress toward their goal of building social movement infrastructure in Ohio. However, the OOC faces tension between the demands of its elite funding sources on one hand and its mission to organize communities on the other. This work illuminates the mechanisms through which elites impact efforts to organize poor people and people of color. Non-profit organizational fields, often referred to by social movement leaders as the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), are governed by a technocratic political logic wherein elite experts determine strategy and decide what issues to prioritize. The Ohio Organizing Collaborative, on the other hand, is governed by a populist political logic, which holds that political leaders should prioritize the demands of ordinary people.
I find that the NPIC limits nonprofit organization leaders’ ability to build trust and authentically engage ordinary citizens in the political process. The structure of the NPIC distorts accountability, making organizers beholden to elite funders instead of grassroots leaders. Issue-based funding and short-term grants make it difficult for organizers to focus on their primary mission, which involves recruiting and mentoring community members and building relationships across race, class and geography to strengthen social movement infrastructure.