Many youth who grow up thinking they will “serve society,” like myself, are reared on an idealization of NGO work. They develop an assumption that working in an NGO is probably the best way to strive for change, be effective, and get paid to do what you love at the same time. But, that’s not necessarily the case. Because foundation support comes and goes over the years, even the “stars” of the NGO world often find the non-profit field a far from stable source of income.
More importantly, NGO space is not necessarily the space of radical change. As Andrea Smith writes in the introduction to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, in order to garner funding, NGOs must frame everything they do as a “success”, and thus “become stuck in having to repeat the same strategies because we insisted to funders they were successful, even if they were not.” To retain support, NGOs must promote only their own work, and often undercut the efforts of the very people with whom they should ally (or merge) with. At its worst, competition between those who should be working with one another, turns cutthroat. At best, the focus on self-promotion for the sake of survival, creates a culture which “prevents activists from having collaborative dialogues where we can honestly share our failures as well as our successes.” In addition to creating a disincentive for honesty and reflection, skillshares and collaboration, the focus on self-promotion also forces NGOs to“niche-market rather than focusing on building a mass movement. We lose creative, innovative edge.”
Think about it: Not a single major movement would ever have gotten off the ground if people were trying to meet the needs of their funders. Basically, if it were up to big donors, Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t have had that “hot mess authority” which so mystified the media and held the public’s attention long enough to shift the national conversation away from austerity measures to economic inequality. That’s something NGOs had been trying to do for thirty years; after all those years of work, finally it happened in a few messy months.