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Building Prisms of the People within the Nonprofit Industrial Complex

Editors’ Note: Michelle Oyakawa explores the lessons behind the case studies collected in Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First-Century America (University of Chicago, 2021), co-written with Hahrie Han and Elizabeth McKenna.

A prism is a powerful instrument that can gather, focus, and project light. My co-authors and I chose prisms as a central image for our new book, Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in Twenty-First Century America because we studied organizations that gather, focus and project people power. Our book asks and seeks to answer a number of questions that are of vital importance to many in philanthropy and nonprofit circles: What does it mean for a movement or organization to build “power”? How do we know it when we see it? In particular, what does it take to build grassroots “people power”?

To address these questions, we conducted six case studies, focusing on organizations that achieved unexpected victories for racial and economic justice as well as an institutional presence in their communities. Our goal was to understand how these organizations were able to build and exercise power on behalf of their constituencies.

We started by exploring what power is, what it means to focus on power as a relationship and how power can be measured. In our book, we focused on two key characteristics that define power. First, it is an interaction between political actors. It is not a static “thing” that organizations obtain by maximizing output (e.g. total number of voter contacts or names on an email list). Instead, we view power as dynamic, embedded in relationships that change over time. Second, power is not just about passing policy or winning elections; it is also about having a seat at the table and shaping agendas, as well as the narratives and frames that influence how people see the world. Therefore, we focused in our book on developing context-specific measures of power.

What does shifting power look like in the real world? The case studies we selected show some possibilities:

  • In Arizona, we looked at how increased organizing in response to the anti-immigrant bill SB1070 shaped the legislation being introduced in the state; we found a marked decrease in the amount of anti-immigrant bills introduced after our case organizations formed. 
  • In Ohio, the FBCO (faith-based community organization) we studied won a ballot initiative funding universal preschool by organizing faith communities and connecting them with leaders in the nonprofit and business sectors. This victory was notable in part because it meant increasing taxes in a relatively conservative area and, perhaps more importantly, put a grassroots, multiracial, multifaith community into relationship with key power players in Cincinnati.
  • In Minnesota, our case organization drove turnout to caucuses and exercised significant influence on the nomination process for governor candidates by getting 10% of the total delegates to the DFL (Democratic Farmer-Laborer Party) state convention and organizing them to vote as a bloc. We found that their strategy not only shaped election outcomes, but that they had a measurable impact on the language and narratives DFL candidates for governor used to talk about race and faith during the election season.
  • In Virginia, we studied an organization that wielded both “inside” and “outside” influence to extend voting rights to people with felonies on their record. They trained and organized grassroots leaders in communities who worked on get-out-the-vote efforts, and we were able to examine how these efforts gave these leaders legislative influence with public officials in the state legislature and multiple governors’ administrations.

We found that organizations that successfully build power do so by focusing on leadership development, helping community members become leaders who function as distributed strategists, contributing both their ideas as well as volunteer labor to shape the work of the organization. These organizations intentionally cultivate relationships among members using tools like one-to-ones and house meetings. Over time, these organizations generate social networks where people with diverse backgrounds are regularly interacting with one another and engaging in political actions together such as meeting with legislators and community leaders, organizing protests, and participating in get-out-the-vote activities.

Key to all of this is that leaders of organizations that build what we term prisms of the people view themselves as primarily accountable to their base, not to their funders or elite decision-makers. They create spaces for people in their organizations to bring ideas to the table, to shape both the issues the organization addresses and the strategies pursued to attain their goals. They often operated in a kind of gray area where they are required to meet funders demands but also recognize the importance of carving out space beyond what funders envision. The activities described above that we identified as creating the conditions for building power were often not directly funded. Organizers had to balance meeting expectations of funders with the relationship-building work involved in organizing communities.

The idea that organization leaders should be accountable primarily to their members rather than to grantmakers’ or other elites’ priorities runs counter to much contemporary practice. Nonprofit organizations are often more accountable to wealthy donors than they are to the constituencies they advocate for or claim to represent.

The nonprofit sector operates according to a similar logic as the corporate world, and thus funders, like investors in the for-profit sector, want to know whether their investment is paying off. In business, key outcomes include profit for shareholders and growth in market share. In the nonprofit sector, funders often focus on outcomes that are quantifiable, like the numbers of people engaged or measurable impact on voter turnout. There is clearly a mismatch between what foundations expect of grantees in terms of results and what our case studies suggest is important for building people power. It can be very difficult for organizations to achieve the necessary relationship of accountability with their constituency because of these dynamics. 

If foundations wanted to invest in people power following the findings in Prisms, what would that look like? It would mean funders giving up control over organizations’ agendas and allowing groups to direct their own activities, rather than being guided by funders’ strategic plans. It would mean giving people the resources to build relationships with each other, without onerous expectations about “deliverables” designed to meet funders’ goals. Investing in people power would entail allocating resources to leaders who have built trust and will be accountable to people in their community, rather than basing funding decisions primarily on who writes the best grant applications.

Of course, the approach described above would generate tension with those who are used to viewing philanthropy as a vehicle for seeing their will done and/or promoting their brand as opposed to a vehicle for building grassroots people power. Two incidents described further in our book help to illustrate this tension and to demonstrate how the organizations we studied were not afraid to act based on what the people in their base wanted most as opposed to what elites deem most important or strategic.

Example 1: As part of the research for the book, I shadowed one of the executive directors of New Virginia Majority (NVM) at the state legislature in Richmond. This ED had built significant connections with state legislators and their staffpeople. At one point, we were hanging out with a staffperson of one of the most powerful Democrats in the legislature. This legislator’s office had a great view of the Virginia state capitol building and surrounding park. We looked out the window at a small demonstration that was being carried out by members of NVM. The protest only had about 10 participants and there was a heavy police presence. The reaction of the legislative staffperson to the demonstrators was quite memorable to me. He was bewildered when he saw their demand for driver’s licenses for immigrants, asking “Why are they fighting for driver’s licenses? They can’t win that; it is impossible. Why not push for something like an Office of Immigration Assistance? That is much more reasonable to try to pass.” The NVM executive director pointed out that driver’s licenses for immigrants is what the people in NVM’s constituency base want; it is what they are passionate about fighting for. Their demands were not based on a political calculation of what is possible but rather what they believed they needed to live better lives. Political elites and experts in the nonprofit sector often do not view this as a legitimate way to determine an organization’s agenda, which in their view should instead be based upon “what is possible” in the system that exists. This incident was a reminder of how poorly equipped our political system is to recognize the demands of marginalized communities. Despite this, NVM remained committed to making those demands even when political elites were not receptive to the message. This commitment shows how NVM is accountable to their base, not political elites, which is a necessary component of building people power.

Example 2: Leaders with the faith-based organization ISAIAH in Minnesota had also been demanding driver’s licenses for immigrants for years. One organizer lamented that they had been doing all the “right things” such as mobilizing bishops to testify, writing newspaper op-eds, lobbying legislators, and recruiting allies, but their bill still did not get a hearing. In 2018, leaders heard that the DFL (Democratic) governor was cutting a deal with Republicans to sign a bill explicitly prohibiting driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in exchange for some concessions related to unions. The ISAIAH leaders who had been working on this issue for years were furious. They convened a meeting in the lobby of the statehouse to decide what to do. One of the organizers recalled: “We decided to do a sit-in right outside of [the governor’s] office, and literally invited everyone that we could think of. And then through…those few days of sit-ins, we had people sleep overnight on the floor, and then we called a group of over 20 leaders that had been involved for years and sat on the steps and thought, ‘What do we do?'”

The action plan that the group of leaders came up with was to boycott a DFL fundraiser, and they had some success in getting other allies, including unions, to join the boycott. This move generated significant tension, the kind of tension that nonprofit organizations often shy away from because it can alienate influential elites. Because of this boycott, the movement did win concessions from the DFL, including funding for research on race and class messaging. This was another example of how organizations in our study looked to their constituency, rather than their funders, to determine the course of action.

Philanthropy tends to lag behind communities in terms of responsiveness to issues that are important to people. Our democracy is deeply distorted because the most expedient way to get resources is to appeal to the rich. This goes for nonprofit social movement organizations as much as it does for politicians who rely on campaign contributions. Nonprofit organizations must tailor their agendas to foundations. Prior scholarship has documented in great detail how this dynamic has shaped and distorted social movements for racial justice.

So, can foundations and the wealthy, credentialed people who run them give up control over organizations’ agendas? Currently, there are strong incentives in place ensuring that organizations will be extensions of the agendas of foundations rather than reflecting the “will of the people.” There is a reason the organizations we studied are outliers. And, frankly, their victories, while encouraging, are relatively small when compared to the sheer amount of wealth and power currently being wielded by the superrich and the largely conservative organizations they fund

In my own research, I’ve found that the nonprofit sector as currently structured struggles to build organizations that empower people at the grassroots level. The case studies I and my co-authors developed in Prisms of the People allow us to see how different organizations arrive at similar conclusions about how to organize through their experiences confronting power. The book’s findings reinforce the idea that people power must be rooted in communities, not in the whims of wealthy outsiders.

-Michelle Oyakawa

Michelle Oyakawa is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Muskingum University in New Concord, OH. Her research focuses on leaders and organizations that work for racial and economic justice. She is coauthor of Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in Twenty First Century America (University of Chicago, 2021) with Hahrie Han and Liz McKenna and Smart Suits, Tattered Boots: Black Ministers Mobilizing the Black Church in the Twenty First Century (NYU Press, 2022) with Korie Edwards.

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