The Non-Profit Industrial Complex Stands in the Way of Direct Aid

Yves here. Lambert has taken to muttering about NGOs and the way most of the people involved in them see to do better at career advancement than advancing their cause. This post gives a more detailed profile of the workings of the non-profit industrial complex, from an organizer of a sex worker mutual aid group who has seen even more of these charity grifters at close range. A key sentence: “Funding typically goes to their salaries rather than directly to individuals in the populations they claim to serve.” There are plenty of big brand names that operate this way, like the Red Cross.

Note that this post also describes how more and more people are turning to sex work as traditional employment becomes less reliable and well paid. It also discusses the obstacles to building a non-traditional organization around member needs, particularly when the cause is already controversial in respectable society.

Needless to say, this discussion dovetails with the objections expressed yesterday by a group that joined and now is breaking away from Black Lives Matter, at how that movement has become corporatized and made hostage to Democratic Party interests.

By Cora Colt, Co-Founder of the Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective & Fund. Originally published at openDemocracy

When asked to address philanthrocapitalism over the last 20 years, one of the first thoughts I had was how late-stage capitalism impacts sex workers. I entered sex work as a stripper in the United States at the age of 19 in 2007, and even then dancers at my club bemoaned how much earnings had dropped since the 1990s. In the 14 years since, even those of us who are relatively privileged have seen tuition and predatory student loan practices soar, employment rates/wages drop, and a continuing erosion of social safety nets. This has meant that many of us in a previous decade potentially could have quietly done sex work in our early 20s and moved on to other careers as we got older, but under current economic conditions we have simply never been able to afford to entirely leave the industry.

As the sex industry has grown oversaturated, managers of legal workspaces have become bolder in pursuing exploitive and discriminatory labour practices. This, in conjunction with Trump’s presidency and the passage of anti-sex work policies like SESTA/FOSTA, has pushed many of us into higher contact, more criminalised work that is still preferable to the majority of available waged jobs. Anti-trafficking crusaders often blame us for glamourising the industry, but the reality is that people of all genders and ages are entering into sex work because they are under increasing financial duress and experience a lack of other viable options under our current power structures.

As an administrator of the Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective & Fund, a mostly volunteer-run resource specifically by and for sex workers, our collective grounds its resistance to predominant modes of philanthrocapitalism by drawing on what grassroots organisers call the non-profit-industrial complex. Non-profits, especially in the anti-trafficking realm, often give lifetime positions of power to people outside of marginalised communities. They are accountable primarily to well-off board members and funders. Funding typically goes to their salaries rather than directly to individuals in the populations they claim to serve.

This dynamic is also found within the sex worker movement. Formally educated, white sex workers from middle class backgrounds are disproportionately able to transition to paid advocacy work and secure grant funding, while our peers who face greater risk of arrest and violence in every part of their existence are often additionally barred from transitioning to non-profit and academic employment.

For these reasons, we’ve intentionally chosen to structure our cooperative on a sliding scale basis that prioritises resources going directly to struggling individuals and stipends for marginalised sex worker organisers. Since 2018 we’ve redistributed approximately $197,000 in cash gifts and stipends. With COVID-19 we’ve effectively doubled our usual output of funds and the number of sex workers around the nation we’re in contact with.

This has enabled us to begin work on building up our broader membership long term. Through December, we invited 400 people we’d previously assisted with funds to participate in a paid, check-in survey. Out of 200 respondents, a large number reported being houseless or housing insecure and not having connections to other sex worker communities or organisations offering the same type of low barrier cash assistance. Fully 150 were interested in becoming more engaged members. We’re currently restructuring our organisation to give these new members direct roles within our decision-making processes, as well as pulling together a budget to ensure that those who qualify for the fund will be compensated for their time and given more ongoing support.

We’ve managed to do all of this without the benefit of full-time paid staff, and without qualifying for any federal or foundation grant assistance. All of our funding is sourced from individual donors and fundraisers organised by high-profile, current and former sex workers who know through experience why this is such a vital resource.

We have of course tried to obtain grant funding in the past, but applications from sex worker-led groups are rarely successful. On top of that, many granting foundations explicitly do not sponsor direct services, especially not cash-based ones. Funders are often reluctant to pay out for material needs because even small amounts of direct assistance add up to large numbers surprisingly quickly. Few are personally invested in making meaningful structural or material change, and many believe that marginalised people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions about how to best manage their own resources.

However, one of the principles of mutual aid is that direct and unconditional access to cash gives people the most agency over the use of their own resources. Other forms of assistance that non-profits are more comfortable with, such as gift cards or direct assistance with bills, do not. For this same reason, no non-profit should condition assistance on leaving the industry. Allowing adults who have a history of both consensual and non-consensual involvement in the sex industry to continue doing sex work after leaving an exploitative situation gives them low barrier income that they can best leverage for their own survival. Preventing us from doing sex work at all in order to access services does not aid our safety in any way.

Sex work is a means of survival that falls outside of the control of capitalist systems. Forcing people into low-wage, ‘respectable’ jobs largely serves to benefit wealthy people who profit off of this type of labour while they are able to simultaneously take advantage of tax loopholes for charitable contributions. This allows them to donate selectively to foundations that distribute a minimum amount of funding yearly and avoid paying into necessary social services. This cycle does a disservice to everyone, but especially to single parents, those who experience discrimination in traditional job settings, or who are chronically ill or disabled.

Poverty, racism, criminalisation, and gender-based violence are some of the top factors that put people at higher risk of trafficking. In conjunction with a mass loss of jobs and housing due to the pandemic, many are entering sex work out of desperation and are very vulnerable to trafficking and violence. Consensual sex workers who have been steadily losing income options for years have largely been left out of government aid packages and are continuing to be forced to work outside of their usual boundaries as well. The solution to this at the speed we need it can only come in the form of large-scale, low-barrier, non-job attached government aid.

Outside of this already daunting plethora of difficulties, there are huge challenges to building any type of alternative community structures under criminalisation. We take on heightened legal risk beyond our own personal involvement in sex work and face additional criminal penalties for organising in groups, providing direct assistance, and sharing safety resources within our communities. In the US we are even at risk of being prosecuted as traffickers for the services we offer. This makes it difficult and dangerous to openly promote the work we do to reach a larger scale donor pool or advocate for basic human rights and labour protections. Even in countries where sex work is decriminalised or legalised there are clandestinely enforced, intricate webs of policies in place that enforce widespread institutional financial discrimination against individual sex workers and sex worker-run businesses. These greatly obstruct our ability to create our own equitable workspaces and long-term mutual aid networks outside of the non-profit system.

In the long run, the best trafficking prevention is sweeping societal change. At the top of the list are decriminalisation measures that remove criminal penalties for victimless activities engaged in by consenting adults, the abolition of prisons, the police, and immigration enforcement, protections for undocumented immigrants and trans folks, reparations to BIPOC communities, and universal basic income, housing, and healthcare. All of these measures would give more power to workers in every industry. Philanthrocapitalism unavoidably serves as a major barrier to the implementation of these measures and only serves to hurt truly authentic efforts to prevent trafficking.

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  1. Felix_47

    She advocates open borders. Where I work near LA it seems that most all the massage parlors are “manned” by undocumented women from Korea and China and this is leading to wage suppression. The market is large as periodic visits are part of the Mexican culture. My son’s girlfriend is a stripper and the stage and pole dance work is largely reserved for fit and statuesque white and to a degree black domestic workers and they have seen earnings drop over the last few years and COVID has been a disaster. Why can’t liberals who support worker’s rights understand the significance of Marx’s reserve army of the unemployed?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, she’s advocating decriminalizing immigrant enforcement. That admittedly isn’t a far step from open borders but it isn’t the same. And she has that as part of long list of major reforms that include basic income, presumably in all nations, which would greatly reduce economic incentives to emigrate.

      1. PS

        I think she goes from the totally reasonable idea to decriminalizing sex work to the totally unreasonable idea of abolishing prisons. I’m sure she actually means vastly reduce the prosecutions that result in prison but still, words matter. If we abolish prisons where do we put rapists, murderers, and the Bernie Madofs of the world?

        1. James Simpson

          Prison abolitionists recognise that some people are dangerous. Those people need to be kept securely away from the community for as long as they are deemed still dangerous, but in conditions vastly different than the soul-destroying, humiliating and dangerous world of the prison system.

          1. a fax machine

            To add, when prisons are used to merely hide a problem behind bars rather than actually contain a threat is when they are being used for profit and not any legitimate purpose. The sort of people that are now put permanently behind bars or into the parolee system used to inhabit slums that modern leaders consider beyond salvation and unworthy of assistance, only mitigation and control. Prisons and associated industries (like tow lots) are that control.

        2. Anonymous

          If we abolish prisons where do we put rapists, murderers, and the Bernie Madofs of the world?

          For the first two, per the Bible, the grave.

          Less serious crimes got up to 40 lashes with a rod.

          Prisons don’t appear to be Biblical and I’d much rather take up to 40 lashes (actually 39 in practice to err on the side of leniency) and freedom than any stay in an American prison.

          1. Anonymous

            Adding that with a just economic system, which we most assuredly DON’T HAVE in the US, there’d be no excuse (if there is any) for crime in the first place and certainly less provocation for it.

            So capital punishment would be both rare and the recipients without excuse if we had a just economic system.

        1. Anonymous

          Interestingly, with roughly equal ownership of assets (which were primarily agricultural) by all Hebrews, Biblical Israel was open to immigrants as wage labor since Hebrews would not normally have to compete with them.

          Contrast that with so-called Christian USA with grossly unequal asset ownership and resentment at foreign labor by citizens who have to compete with them …

    2. James Simpson

      this is leading to wage suppression

      I’d like a penny for each occasion I read this misleading statement. Wage suppression is not the fault of undocumented workers. It’s capitalist employers who choose to keep wages as low as they can get away with. The solution is never to punish workers, undocumented or not, but to (a) bring in much higher and well-enforced minimum wages, including those paid to sex workers who should be entirely legal, and (b) work for the end of capitalism as soon as possible before it destroys the planet.

      1. JBird4049

        This is all connected to the exploitation of entire countries whose effects are then used to exploit Americans. I strongly support strict immigration control because desperate, hungry immigrants are used to break unions and displace Americans from the formerly unionized, well paying jobs such as meat packing; the now desperate, hungry Americans have to compete for the fewer available low paying jobs in the declining industries that will take them over the immigrants; if this is not designed to economically destroyed Americans and increase racism and rage, what is? Along with the exporting of all the industries to overseas countries…

        Just like with sex work it is an oppressive and exploitative environment that does nothing but enrich
        the few (PMC) over the many desperate people also using the same tactics to create the same conditions as exist in those more “respectful” jobs. Somehow I don’t see racism and rage decreasing either. Hunger is not helpful for clear thinking or compassion. Trust me.

        We could also help pay for the profitably destroyed economies of those Central and South American countries, which is the reason why all those desperate and hungry immigrants flood the United States creating those desperate and hungry Americans. People do not leave their community and family in by the hundreds of thousands or even millions unless they have too. It is a win win for the upper classes.

        If you want to read more about exploitive social services, I recommend reading The Poverty Industry by Daniel L. Hatcher. It is more about the vampiric, and often illegal, exploitation and theft of personal resources from even more desperate and vulnerable people. State and local governments often steal, and I mean that in both the legal and moral sense, the personal money and property, ostensibly to pay for their support, but really to fund their agencies and even the local government’s general fund.

  2. Mark Gisleson

    Thanks for this as it’s important reform on two or maybe more fronts: the exploitation of sex workers and the unconscionable cronyization of NGOs.

    I’ve come to believe that NGOs play the part of religion in our brave neoliberal world. Just as organized religion is too often a buffer keeping donations from intended recipients, so too are far too many “charities.”

    It also reflects what’s happened to political campaigns. For decades the money has gone to top staff who increasingly don’t put in the very long hours traditionally expected of campaign managers, directors, etc. Big expenditures are for advertising not grassroots organizing. In politics, the results are obvious but it’s much harder to see the FAIL in NGOs who aren’t expected to solve any problems, just ameliorate them as best they can.

    1. Watt4Bob

      A friend used to say that rich families send their dumbest kids to dental school.

      I think many of them are now going into the NGO, out of the mouth*, and into the hand-to-mouth, so to speak.

      *My sister was a dental hygienist, then taught DH at a large university, and then went into ‘research’. They all want “out of the mouth” ultimately gaining a position doing ‘studies’ which is what you do if you have a problem you don’t want to spend any real money and effort on, you ‘Study’ it, forever if necessary, with no real intention of ever actually tackling the problem.

      The discussion of this situation came up when I asked, why, with all the money spent on senior living centers, are they all not served by a resident dentist?

      All the money in the world to study that issue, but no money to put dentists in senior care facilities.

  3. DJG, Reality Czar

    As she notes: “On top of that, many granting foundations explicitly do not sponsor direct services, especially not cash-based ones.”

    What this translates to is that grantors don’t want to fund staff positions, yet as she notes, her organization is run mainly by volunteers, and at a certain point, it could use some full-time staffers.

    I have worked with three theaters as a playwright and artistic associate (volunteer). What she describes is the same as what goes on in the arts. Grantors want something that can carry the name of the foundation on it: The Smith Family Foundation’s Production of Oklahoma!

    So the foundation doesn’t want to deal with the true needs of marginalized populations, which includes people in the arts, their low incomes, and the problems of getting health insurance.

    I recall that once the on-site interview by the grants administrator (one’s artistic case worker) was over, we’d close the door, shake our collective heads, and say, “What we truly should have said is that the staff of a theater should be paid as much as the grants administrator is.” But that’s heretical and goes against hierarchy.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > Grantors want something that can carry the name of the foundation on it: The Smith Family Foundation’s Production of Oklahoma!

      Maybe tattooing the poor with the names of donors would satisfy their thirst

      1. JBird4049

        Ugh. Don’t give them any more ideas!

        There’s some serious heart of darkness to be found.

        Some of the same foundations and corporations (or their direct descendants) that you see listed on PBS, NPR, and other “charitable” organizations funded foundations for the support of eugenics, neo-social Darwinism, and other like vileness.

  4. Mr. Rogers

    Nonprofits! I currently work as the ED at a tiny org in a totally unrelated field. The whole NP landscape is a world unto itself… filled with absurdities. All in all, it seems like a terrible system for delivering needed social services and absolutely the wrong vehicle for social change. Alas, here I am trying to do just that.

    I think the observation she makes about funding going toward salaries and not services is interesting. I understand her criticism in this context – its just that the complete opposite problem is also commonly true. Much of the funding available for our outfit is earmarked for programming only – with minimal or no dollars allowed to go toward salary. Getting a grant for “general operating” expenses is a much rarer golden calf. Keep in mind that in our area, most of our programming consists of a staff person providing some sort of service…. so without salaries there is basically nothing that we have to offer. I have to be very clever in how I try to sneak in salaries in grant proposals in a way that is acceptable to funders as it is well known that they mostly do not want to fund salaries.

    I often tell people something similar to what this author is trying to say…. but in even stronger terms. Nonprofits should not exist. In an equitable and democratic society, citizens should have the resources to provide for their own needs and services. Instead what we get is the NP system, which serves as the fickle conscience of capitalism. Funders ham-handedly try to hand out the spoils of profit seeking as a way to slap band-aids over whatever problem seems fashionable to care about at the moment.

    1. michelle richards

      Well said, and well-perceived.

      As Naomi Klein has said, the primary goal of a non-profit is to survive, which means it’s primarily occupied with marketing-fundraising (for salaries) rather than for their stated mission.

      Given that solutions are hard (in our economic system) and non-profits are survival-oriented, their logical approach is to be risk-averse and create a marketing-oriented world where signaling rather than solving is the operating imperative. Even a slight amount of critical thinking reduces most annual reports to dross, which tells you that no one is really interested in anything but a self-serving narrative.

      As you say, the majority of funders are likewise more interested in virtue signaling & “buying indulgences.” So it makes for a self-reinforcing economy. “You make me look good to my peers, and I’ll pay you, regardless of your outcomes.”

      Imagine if non-profits had a universal measurement system and that they were run and funded like a pro sports team. How many “owners” would put up with a losing record, for decades? How many of the “team” would a Bill Belichick actually be put on the field, much less even keep on the team?

      Spend any time in the nonprofit arena and you quickly see that outcomes and accountability are actually the enemy rather than goals.

  5. JTMcPhee

    How to avoid the “Everything is CALPERS,” Crapification processes? Takes money to organize, but money attracts the grifters.

    My hobby is building and flying radio controlled model airplanes. This involves “use of the nation’s airspace,” which is being “enclosed” by commercial interests that are pushing drone activities from delivery to espionage.

    Regulatory capture is well advanced — the FAA has promulgated rules that impose costly in-flight identification and location reporting, and ever-shrinking places where we can enjoy our hobby.

    The organization that represents a fraction of modelers, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, headquartered of course in D. C., has professional staffs who interact (with ineffective advocacy and efforts to mobilize the millions of non-members who fly small planes and consumer-level drones) with the staff of the FAA. More effort goes into not annoying the regulators than into pushing hard for the rights of little people to enjoy their hobby. The self-identified representatives of us modelers are also up against Amazon, Walmart, Big Pharma, UPS, FedEx and the like who want to empty the airspace of all other “nonprofit” users, to free them to exploit the public resource.

    Looks like hundreds of millions of dollars of planes and radio gear belonging to hobbyists like myself will become lost expenditures, and if we want to continue to fly it will be with onboard (expensive) transponder-like gadgets (sold to us by regulatory entrepreneurs) to track our aircraft. Which most of us operate safely, under voluntary safety guidelines with practically no incidents of the kind that the moneyed interests and regulators claim as justification for this expensive and intrusive regulation (hiding the real interest in excluding us from the airspace as an adjunct to trying to lock us out of the electromagnetic spectrum we use to control our craft.)

    Is this the end game of “civilization?”

  6. Alex Morfesis

    There is sadly much confusion on what the ngo/non profit/foundation industry is or is not…it is tax and money laundering… period, end of discussion…the handing out of most of the money to friends and family to “educate and advocate” is a common thread…honest ngo entities need to concentrate on not wasting time running around chasing “grants” and simply learn the business side of the tax code and use their 501 status to connect directly with small individual potential sources of donations… Bernie style…not easy but no strings or handcuffs attached… anything else is simply a major waste of energy…ignore the little narrative behind the curtain…funders are there to keep their friends, associates, and relatives fed, clothed, and housed…the “victims” are just a convenient conversation to conform to the minimum standards…a perfect myth is the 5% rule which many well meaning folks imagine means a foundation must “hand out” 5% of last year’s total capital…nope…they can spend it internally on staff at the foundation and give out nothing…tizwhat titiz…

  7. LAS

    I mostly agree but slightly disagree about a portion of the business. There are many non-profits who hire people from the population they’re trying to serve and thereby do help lift them up — for a while at least. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of this hiring, and persons so hired are usually meant to occupy the lower rung positions like community outreach, not put in charge of policy. I am thinking of violence interupters, former smokers, former sex workers, etc.

  8. chuck roast

    I got an early lesson in cynicism towards the good guys. My short pre-Nam US Army stint led to mixing with Korean War vets and the occasional WWII geezer. While I was doing garrison duty in post-war Korea the Red Cross “doughnut-dollies” came through with an off-Broadway troup to entertain the troops. An army lifer told me of his experience with the “doughnut-dollies” when he was an infantryman on the static front line up around the 38th parallel near the end of the war. He related that had spent a month or two in a foxhole on the line when his unit was finally relieved. On the march back to the rear they were met by the “doughnut-dollies” who offered them doughnuts for a nickel apiece. Thereafter, whenever I heard the name Red Cross all I could think about was this poor slob being squeezed for a nickel by a Red Cross cutie.

    1. Watt4Bob

      My Dad always remarked that the Tobacco companies donated cigarettes to the Red Cross, but the Red Cross sold them to the troops.


      There are things that can’t be forgiven.

  9. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    This article is so spot on from my personal experience. This is an especially dark corner of the Meritocracy. I got stories…

  10. Susan the other

    The “right” to earn a profit has always been unspoken gospel in the liberal world. But profits have been a problem for several decades because they are harder and harder to find and now almost exclusively rely on inelastic demand, extortion, exploitation of the environment and labor and etc. So maybe it all needs to be rethunk. I have no problem with the idea of a business doing a legitimate service or selling a legitimate product making a small (as in very small) profit above its costs, etc. (read this as including sex workers and everyone else just trying to survive in this dreadful mess we have made of civilization) – but I am offended by the obscene profits that the elite have come to expect. I say lets make everybody non-profit. And in the process rewrite the Bill of Rights to include the right to medical care (that’s care – not the ephemeral “access”), the right to decent food and housing; the right to a timely and pertinent education; the right to basic communication; transportation and etc. Our sense of human rights is tightly centered on the protection of the right to profiteer and steal – and I really don’t think that’s a viable concept going forward into this century. The people writing these latest articles, this one and the one on the Inland Empire breaking away from national BLM, are written so cleanly it’s amazing they do not use their very clear insight to say straight out that the whole of civilization is FUBAR – especially now when the big effort is to keep patching up a 18th century idea of private capital that no longer has any resemblance to reality, and I doubt it ever had much to begin with.

  11. Fool

    This article is a pretty good example of how “non-profit industrial complex” has become essentially an analytically useless term. The “complex” encompasses the entirety of civil society (even in “member-funded” orgs like DSA). The author is no exception. Sex work decriminalization advocacy is amply funded, only unlike the anti-trafficking NGOs the same major benefactors (foundations) have to use non-profit intermediaries. When you peel things back enough it’s the same few foundations writing on the front of both kinds of orgs’ checks. And then the last paragraph just gave me a chuckle. What does Cora think is the epistemological basis for “radical” solutions like UBI or abolishing prisons / police / ICE or words like “BIPOC”?

    We need a better theory for understanding how civil society produces the politics that we have.

  12. NGO sceptic

    I spent most of the 1990s in Indonesia, the first few years as a volunteer in a Canadian-based “development” NGO. It was patently obvious after six months that, even in the absence of any corruption or blatant mismanagement, the NGO’s entire programme was condemned to failure because of the costs of multiple layers of NGO administration: Canadian head office, Indonesian country office, partner “local” NGO offices, and, last and least, projects in the field. Add to that head office priorities warped by the receipt of Canadian government funding and a weak legal framework governing NGOs in Indonesia, and continued failure became even more inevitable.

  13. ArvidMartensen

    Saw that sort of corporate looking after the organisation first thing where I am.
    Gazillions of dollars were raised to help bush fire victims, and the Red Cross immediately put up a huge sign in the mall saying how good the Red Cross is.
    Before most of the homeless victims were getting any help.
    Really offensive selfishness imho.

  14. John Doe, II

    I volunteered with an NGO bringing donations to orphanages in Eastern Europe. The NGO had no staff, all donations came from various companies and people in Western Europe, who did not want their names mentioned. It added up to 3-4 truckloads per year and included valuable goods, such as medical equipment. Most of it was clothing, beds, sports equipment.

    But we caused a disaster. Once handed over, donations were largely stolen by orphanage staff. Some of them opened up shops, others acted as the benefactors of the community, entered politics and behaved like the thugs they were.

    The NGO realized that we had created a huge problem and dissolved.

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