A lesson to non-profits: "We must intellectualise less, organise more... and stop bringing a spreadsheet to a knife-fight."

We were struck - to the core - by this blog from a sparky US site called NonProfitAF (we’re guessing, “As Fuck”), which addresses something we’re all too well aware of on the Daily Alternative: over-intellectualising.

An excerpt below:

A while ago I read Jan Masaoka’s thought-provoking article “Aspirin and Democracy,” where she discusses the effects of the professionalization of the nonprofit sector. One such effect, according to Jan, is that: 

new executive directors can write personnel policies and grant proposals while practicing self-care, but they don’t know how to get 5,000 people to a protest demonstration. Or 50 parents to a city council meeting.

This article and sentence have stuck with me. Our sector, and progressives in general, has a problem with excessive intellectualization. We’ve become really good at it. There’s nothing we love more than summits, white papers, theories of change, data, coming up with new terminologies (*cough, solutions privilege), and voting with sticky dots.

The problem is that the intellectualizing becomes self-reinforcing. Summits beget committees, committees beget white papers, white papers beget summits, etc. And after exhausting bouts of thinking and talking about stuff, we feel really good about ourselves, believing and getting people to believe we actually accomplished something.

Meanwhile, we are being out-organized. I heard someone say recently that progressives come to a knife fight with a spreadsheet. 

We need to bring balance back. Working in the field of education inequity, I was told that “If you can get 20 angry parents to dress in the same T-shirts and pack the school board meeting, you can get whatever you want.” This is sad, but unfortunately this is also how most of the world works nowadays, that the loudest voices tend to win, and they are often from those of privilege.

And our sector, founded to help lift up the voices of those who don’t always get heard, have in many ways lost sight of that.

Many of us are starting to lose our community organizing skills, and some of us are not even learning or teaching them anymore.

I studied community organizing as part of my Masters in Social Work and have lost these skills, barely able to remember the last time I called up people on the phone, explaining urgent issues and why they should care, helping to coordinate transportation, rallying funders to help pay for bus tokens and childcare so that people from marginalized communities could pack the school board or City Council meeting. 


Our ability to mobilize our community is one of the most important things we can do in light of growing injustice. We cannot white-paper our path to a just society. We cannot theory-of-change ourselves toward an inclusive community. And as many colleagues have pointed out, we also cannot program our way to an equitable world.

Thinking and talking about issues and addressing the ongoing symptoms of injustice are pivotal to our work, but they cannot be our end goal, and our field may have forgotten that. We must simultaneously address the root causes of injustice, and the only way to do that effectively is through organizing. All of us, not just advocacy organizations…

..The balance is off. Many of us have become complacent with an unjust system, comfortable to exist within and theorize about it instead of figuring out how to change it. 

Organizing is not easy. It is messy. It is incredibly time-and-energy-consuming. Sometimes, it is heartbreaking. We already have so many things to do, and funding for organizing is always a challenge (Funders, you need to fund community organizing, quickly and significantly). 

And it is nerve-wracking. Nothing fills me with dread like having to speak for two minutes in front of City Council, watching as the timer counts down.

Imagine how much harder it is for our community members who may not speak English fluently, who may have transportation and childcare challenges, who may have been told repeatedly by society that their voices do not matter. 

But if we are to move from charity to justice, helping our community members who are most marginalized to be heard is one of the most effective and enduring things we can do. Let’s restore one of the strengths of our sector, and one of our sacred duties. Let’s mobilize the full power of our community, constantly and unapologetically, in service of justice.

We must intellectualize less and organize more. The soul of our sector, and the well-being of our community, depends on it.

More here. And noted.