By Maria Rio, cynically optimistic fundraising consultant with 10+ years of experience.

In a world where “doing good” has become a marketable commodity, an ESG metric, or an acceptable defense against valid criticism, nonprofit leaders must take time to reflect on the role we play in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC).

Money talks, and in the nonprofit sector, it practically screams. When a nonprofit’s survival hinges on the whims of a handful of donors, their activities may start to look less like grassroots activism and more like veneered, smile-and-hold-this-$5,000-cheque-for-the-photo, donor-approved exercises.  

The result? A sector that is excellent at putting on a show but is largely ineffective in enacting real, systemic change; change that requires nonprofits to be nimble and unafraid of challenging inequity. 

In a world where “doing good” has become a marketable commodity, an ESG metric, or an acceptable defense against valid criticism, nonprofit leaders must take time to reflect on the role we play in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC). 

For those unfamiliar with the Complex, the NPIC is a system where nonprofits serve as a buffer between government (in)action and oppressed communities. Capitalism and white supremacy are integral to the NPIC; their influence shifted the focus from social impact to revenue generation, basically turning charities into corporations.

Due to a reliance on external funding, nonprofits refuse to “bite the hand that feeds them” and often choose to focus on “safe, non-political” issues – issues that won’t challenge existing societal power structures or upset funder expectations. The nonprofit sector is thus in conflict: it exists to challenge systems but is funded by those very systems. 

So, now what? 

Are we going to be activists or glorified event planners?

A good first step would be for nonprofit leaders to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves if they’re true activists or just glorified event planners. If the former, let’s be real – it’s wayyyyy past time to move away from donor-centricity. Now. Today. Nonprofits need to tackle the purposefully politicized issues of the housing crisis, the environmental crisis, policing, Land Back claims, accessibility, and poverty. We cannot continue to wear the mask of social activism while also being perpetrators of social control or an enabler of oppression. We should not pat ourselves on the back for doing the bare minimum to qualify as do-gooders as our community (including our staff) continues to go unheard. 

But I get it; it’s complicated, it’s hard, and it’s exhausting. I’m a fundraiser, after all. I know the pressures that come with this shift. Navigating the issues of the sector while trying to run programs and raise funds could easily make your head spin. 

However, if our sector is not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. We know we haven’t been successful in our mission of effecting systemic change and justice; what do we lose by trying something different? 

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” ― Desmond Tutu 

Based on the values of Community-Centric Fundraising and my desire to effect systemic change, I have created a checklist to help you and your organization move away from the NPIC and towards true activism. 

A checklist to help activists move away from the Nonprofit Industrial Complex:

1. Conduct a Self-Audit

A self-audit is an evaluation of your organization’s alignment with its mission, values, and impact – from governance, to HR policies, to programming and fundraising. It’s an opportunity to take a step back and critically assess how well your organization is doing in achieving its mission and stated values.

Let’s consider the example of a nonprofit focused on environmental conservation. During a self-audit, they discovered that while their mission was to promote sustainable practices, their own office operations were far from eco-friendly. They were using non-recyclable materials, their energy consumption was high, and they had no policy for waste management. This was not only contrary to their mission but also a problem for staff who joined the organization because of a perceived value-alignment. After the self-audit, the nonprofit implemented a sustainability policy, switched to renewable energy, and started a recycling program. This not only aligned their operations with their mission but also improved staff morale and credibility in the eyes of their donors and community.

  • Evaluate your organization’s mission and goals: Are they still relevant? Do they reflect the needs of the community you serve?
  • Assess whether current projects and operations align with the mission: Are you doing work that actually serves your mission or just what donors want to fund?
  • Identify any external influences: Are there donors or board members pushing the organization in a direction that doesn’t align with its mission?
  • Evaluate donor education: How well are you educating your donors about systemic issues and the pitfalls of the NPIC?

2. Revisit Funding Sources

Money can either align with or work against your mission, so examining donors and sources of wealth is important. For example, imagine taking money from a police force while your mission is to combat wrongful incarceration. This is a glaring conflict of interest that deeply undermines your systemic impact.

  • Make a list of all your funding sources: Know where your money comes from and note any conflicts between the source and your mission.
  • Identify any strings attached: Are there conditions that limit your advocacy work or program development?
  • Consider diversifying funding: Look into community-based fundraising, grants, or social enterprises to reduce dependency on a single donor.
  • Community Power: If there is a conflict of interest, do not assume that you “could put the money to good use,” especially if your organization is not representative of the community that was harmed through the creation of that wealth.

3. Review Governance Structures

Boards are a huge problem; we know this. As a friend of mine refers to them, they are often “stale, pale, and male,” lacking lived experience and removed from the day-to-day of nonprofit life. Boards like this often make decisions that are out of touch with the needs of the people they are supposed to serve. Only 32% of boards place a high priority on “knowledge of the community served” as part of board recruitment. This is a flaw by design. For example, think of any youth-serving organization with a board made up of people over forty, or an organization supporting people experiencing homelessness without anyone on the board with that lived experience, or even an anti-racism organization with an all-white board. It doesn’t work to effect systemic change for the community, and keeps us out of decision-making spaces.

  • Examine your board’s composition: Does it reflect the community you serve?
  • Ensure community representation: Include community members in decision-making processes.
  • Implement a bottom-up approach: Involve staff and beneficiaries in program development and execution.

4. Reevaluate Performance Metrics

Metrics guide behavior, and what gets measured gets managed. Therefore, choosing the right metrics is crucial to keep your organization focused on meaningful, mission-aligned work. The Outcome Indicators Project does an amazing job of providing some metrics around public policy, community partnerships, and more. I highly recommend you check out this resource as it even breaks down the metrics into sample nonprofits such as those focused on adult education, performing arts, community organizing, etc.

By moving toward an impact-over-output metrics system, we can more deeply understand the systemic effects we are (or are not) having.

  • List all the metrics: Know what you’re currently measuring.
  • Assess meaningful impact: Are these metrics actually indicative of the change you’re making?
  • Replace or modify: Shift focus from quantity (like the number of participants) to quality (like the true depth of impact).

5. Foster Community Engagement

Engaging with the community you serve ensures that your programs and initiatives are responsive to real and current needs, thereby increasing your impact. In the past, I have approached this by surveying community members on their top public policy priorities; that way, we know for sure instead of assuming. In that case, low social assistance rates, unaffordable housing, and free dental care were ranked highly. We then used this information to advocate publicly, connect with organizations addressing these issues, and send letters to our representatives.

  • Create platforms: Allow community members to voice their concerns and suggestions. 
  • Involve the community: Make them part of the decision-making process and project planning.
  • Regular updates: Keep the community informed about your activities and financial status

6. Advocate for Systemic Change

Advocacy for systemic change is a missing element in our sector. While many organizations excel at providing immediate supports, almost none engage in systemic advocacy. According to the National Council of Nonprofits, less than 3% of American nonprofits lobby to advance their missions – compared to 100% that have the legal right to do so. This massive gap represents a missed opportunity for lasting, impactful change. We must tackle the root causes of social issues, not just piece-meal address their effects.

  • Identify systemic issues: Choose issues that align with your mission.
  • Develop advocacy campaigns: Use your platform to push for change.
  • Collaborate: Partner with other organizations to amplify your voice.

7. Implement Internal Transparency

Transparency is ethical and practical. A Harvard Business Review piece showcased study after study showing that transparency significantly improves staff morale and trust.

It says: “…healthy work relationships require clear, consistent, honest, and open communication, which itself is the key element in trust, without which all relationships fail. There is robust research showing that authenticity and transparency are critical to effective leadership. Without those qualities, employees feel disregarded and dehumanized. Moreover, research…also shows that we register inauthenticity as threat. Our heart rate goes up when we encounter someone who is pretending to be something they are not.”

By not inviting staff to give input or collaborate, a board or leadership team often fails to address concerns. Those excluded often bear the consequences of these failures.

  • Shared knowledge: Make financial statements and project outcomes accessible to all team members. 
  • Psychological safety: Encourage open dialogue about the organization’s direction and any concerns. 
  • Whistleblower policy: Implement a system for anonymous reporting of unethical practices.

8. Train Staff, Board, and Volunteers

Organization-wide training around the NPIC is key to ensure everyone involved in your nonprofit understands and is aligned with its mission, values, and methods. Training equips your entire team with the knowledge and skills they need to serve your community and advocate effectively. You can approach this via topics like “why shift to CCF,” “how to partner with other organizations to effect systemic change,” “when to step away from or pass the mic,” and “the impacts of capitalism on our staff and systems.”

  • Educate about the NPIC: Make sure everyone understands the problematic system you’re a part of.
  • Community-centric approaches: Train in ethical fundraising and community engagement.
  • Regular updates: Keep the training programs current and relevant.
  • Educate donors: Donors are part of your community and thus need a role in systemic change as well. Educate them on Community-Centric Fundraising principles and actionable items they can take. 

9. Monitor and Adjust

Equity is not static; it evolves with societal changes, community needs, and organizational growth. It is not a one-time checkbox but an ongoing commitment that requires continuous effort, analysis, and adjustment. 

You must spend time regularly revisiting your social impact strategies, assessing their effectiveness, and making necessary adjustments. By adopting an iterative approach, you ensure your organization is not just reacting to inequities but proactively working to eliminate them.

  • Regularly revisit this checklist: Make it a part of your operational plan or quarterly review.
  • Make necessary adjustments: Be willing to pivot when something isn’t working.
  • Celebrate small wins: Acknowledge and celebrate progress, however small.

The nonprofit sector has a unique role and responsibility in society, but we must be willing to critically examine and change our practices to truly make a difference. We need to own that our current approach as a sector isn’t resulting in “the change we want to see in the world” – so let’s change it!

Maria Rio

Maria Rio

Maria Rio (she/her) is a fundraising consultant with Further Together with 10+ years of non-profit experience. She is regularly asked to speak on issues related to fundraising and her op-eds have been featured in national publications. She was a finalist for the national 2022 Charity Village Best Individual Fundraiser Award and has a deep passion for non-profit work. Maria also sits on the Board of Living Wage Canada.

You can connect with Maria through Further Together or through LinkedIn.