Book Review: Gay, Inc. and Nonprofit Neighborhoods

Katy continues her look at critical explorations of the nonprofit world! She thoroughly enjoyed the two books featured in this review, by Myrl Beam and Clare Dunning.

If you’ve ever been involved with small nonprofits, you know they’re usually in a tight spot, probably due to the continual need to secure resources. It’s a sad reality discussed by two authors who were and are themselves involved in and committed to the positive change many nonprofits are trying to accomplish. As Claire Dunning (in Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State, University of Chicago Press) and Myrl Beam (in Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics, University of Minneapolis Press) explain, that reality starts to look pretty intentionally designed.

Both authors examine nonprofits’ structures and challenges through the use of case studies. While Beam’s account is more engaged with philosophers, cultural theorists, and the role of affect in the nonprofit world, Dunning’s involves conversations of public policy and urban planning. Beam analyzes one Chicago- and two Minneapolis-based nonprofits focused on LGBTQ youth, and Dunning looks at the twentieth-century history of some of Boston’s neighborhood-based nonprofits. Both, though, come back to the same conviction: the nonprofit landscape that emerged in the US after World War II was never designed to alter the structures that created the social problems nonprofits were trying to address. Rather, nonprofits were intended to handle the fallout that resulted from the rise of neoliberal policies, which generally led to the withdrawal of government from active provision of any social support.

As government spending on safety net programs decreased, government called on American ideals of charity, compassion, individualism, and self-improvement to confront poverty and other forms of inequity and injustice. As Dunning describes the shape this outlook took during the Clinton administration, it “downplayed the role of government and emphasized personal uplift and measurable results, embodying the metaphor Vice President Gore used to describe government: ‘more like hardware stores than master builders…. We simply give people the tools to do it themselves.’” (235) Unequal distribution of power and resources were and are not viewed as the result of any fault in US social structures, attitudes, or assumptions—but rather as the unfortunate outcomes of outlier cases that could be solved by greater access to opportunity, with that access provided by local charities and nonprofits. According to a neoliberal viewpoint, nothing fundamental about US society was ever meant to be changed; instead, just a few tweaks here and there would mean that people unqualified for, though eager to attain to, full citizenship would be fixed and assimilated in a few easy, standard steps. And since success was assumed to be largely due to the needy individual’s desires and hard work, it really shouldn’t take that much funding to make that success happen.

Both books depict organizations’ struggles to find resources, whether via government funding (in any of many manifestations, from community development block grants to public-private “partnerships”), individual donations, or foundation support. And both examine the ways in which those struggles force nonprofits to devote themselves to activities that may have little to do with their missions, and/or that may force them to water down or cease advocacy work meant to transform the deep-seated roots of the problems they attempt to solve. Dunning’s history reveals how neighborhood nonprofits continued to have their agendas redefined or ignored by funding agencies, in favor of programs and ventures funders considered more important. For instance, investors within public-private partnerships often preferred to focus on housing developments, in order to receive a profit on their investment, while banks and other lenders polished their reputations by making donations to community efforts that were continually undermined by those institutions’ practices and policies, especially where unequal access to credit was concerned. Beam discusses the way in which movements often become defined and limited by organizations meant to represent only one part of those movements. Here, for example, he looks at LGBTQ nonprofits’ narrow focus on marriage equality, and how that focus ignored multiple circumstances experienced by LGBTQ youth, including poverty and racism. And because everything but that single focus was sidelined, organizations like those focused on LGBTQ youth were marginalized when it came not only to being included as part of the “movement,” but as a result, to being able to receive funding from donors and foundations.

Both authors describe how the availability of funding to nonprofits has been increasingly tied to how well their programs fit into narratives about self-improvement and self-empowerment, and how willing they are to adopt business-world assumptions about efficiency and measurable outcomes. Familiar aspects of this situation include short grant cycles and granters’ assumptions that deeply entrenched, complex problems will be able to be solved within, say, a year. And then there are the sort of well-meaning grants meant to provide individuals with services such as job skills training—without recognizing all the other factors that keep those individuals from being able to access basic materials and resources, such as transportation, they would need even to take advantage of that training—not to mention the less tangible limitations, such as structural racism and assumptions about residents of underserved areas, that would keep graduates of such programs from truly benefiting from them.

Dunning’s and Beam’s books offer far more detail, depth, and insight than I can provide in a brief review, and there’s also no way for me to convey the strength of their emotional commitment to nonprofits’ work, even as they refuse to look away from the problems that plague the nonprofit world. Their projects offer valuable resources for anyone interested in understanding this fraught universe, and the factors that work against its flourishing. 

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