Take this cash
Don’t do anything rash
And stay off our turfs
For over 200 years might and money have kept the powerful in power in America. Throughout her history America’s organized, powerful few have exploited the unorganized, powerless many and militarily claimed the lives of countless millions throughout the world all for the sake of ever more profit and ever more power. Her might along with her hush money in the form particularly of social welfare (which, however, is dwarfed by corporate welfare), tax exemptions for charities, government grants, foundation grants mostly derived from corporations’ vulgar (i.e., ill gotten) wealth, and foreign aid have kept the powerless at home and away from storming the fortress.
The foregoing is the backdrop for this essay, the true tale of an odyssey through the land of tax-exempt NGOs called by some either the “non-profit industrial complex” or the “charitable industrial complex” that stages change all the while serving the powerful, most especially the corpocracy, the collusion between corrupt corporations and corrupt government that is the most monstrous power on earth.
The essay is not a report from an in-depth investigative journalism with its intensive interviewing and revealing documentation or from a scientific field study with its hypotheses and statistical tests that might conclusively prove the existence of the complex, if such proof were ever needed. That wasn’t even the initial purpose of the journey. Rather, the essay is a subjective recounting and analyzing of a long experience with a beginning, middle, ending, and a postmortem in three parts.
In the Beginning
It all began a few years ago with the publication of The Devil’s Marriage.1 It is basically in two parts, one telling how the corpocracy was ruling and ruining America and much of the rest of the world and the other presenting over 180 proposed initiatives for ending the corpocracy and its tyrannical, ruinous rule. The initiatives were grouped into seven categories of strategic reform goals: (1) telling the public from students to senior citizens about the corpocracy; (2) mobilizing and organizing the opposition to the corpocracy; (3) reforming the political system; (4) digging up the legal roots of the corpocracy (e.g., corporate personhood); (5) ending corporate welfare and war; (6) holding corporations accountable for their actions and consequences; and, (7) ending undemocratic capitalism.
The heart of the book’s second part is what I now call “two-fisted democracy power” to knock out the corpocracy figuratively speaking. One fist would be a coalition of numerous segments of our society (e.g., existing grass roots movements) to provide the political pressure behind a coordinated plan of strategic reforms to be carried out by the second fist, an on-line network of numerous NGOs that claim to be seeking to change the status quo controlled by the corpocracy but are not united in their efforts and clearly are not changing the status quo. So I proposed in the book the creation of a network that I named the U.S. Chamber of Democracy as a counterpart to one of the corpocracy’s staunchest allies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The book got glowing endorsements, and one in particular emboldened me to start out on the odyssey: “NGOs have been fighting the Corpocracy one company at a time for 30 years…and losing. Brumback tells us why, gives us a battle plan, and issues a challenge to join forces to reclaim our democracy. This is the pre-eminent American challenge for the 21st Century. The Corpocracy could not be more timely. Don’t just read this book. Take action. Now!”
So I decided to start e-mailing a number of NGOs to see if I could persuade them to create and operate such a network. Here are a few excerpts from one of my e-mail templates:
The plain truth of the matter is that we are up against corrupt corporations and crooked politicians. And that is why I am writing to you about an idea I hope your organization will seriously consider endorsing.
I am searching for organizations that are truly seeking to end the corpocracy’s power but that are mostly disconnected from one another, mostly focused on narrow issues rather than broad strategic reform objectives, mostly with limited resources, and have not marshaled the massive public support necessary for their initiatives to succeed.
An illustration of what an online network of organizations would look like and do is illustrated on the Democracy Power Page of www.uschamberofdemocracy.com. I emphasize that it is an illustration only. The network would make its own decisions. I also want to emphasize that being a member of the network is not intended to compromise the existence, the history, or the current resources or agenda of any of the network’s members.
When there are a significant number of endorsements on the list, it will be sent to those on the list. They will be asked if they wish to stay on the list for the time being or withdraw. The list will then be sent to prospective donors who will be asked if they would be willing to fund the start-up and initial operation of the network with options for continued funding. Given a positive response from donors, those on the list that would be willing to form the new network would organize it and develop and submit for funding consideration a plan of reform initiatives.
May I add your organization to the list? Being on it simply shows your support for the idea and does not commit you to any further action even if external funding becomes available. I am asking now for nothing more than your endorsement of this idea, a gesture that shows you are not opposed to it and that costs you nothing.
Note that a multiple stage sequence was proposed with the first simply an endorsement of an idea. I was not, in other words, asking for any commitment beyond that stage.
I carefully selected a long list of NGOs that seemed prominent in their various programmatic areas. I began slowly to contact a few of them hoping to build momentum along the way so that I could show later contacts that the list was growing.
Midway Progress Report: Treading Water
About midway in this journey I wrote a “progress” report telling readers I was making no more progress than if I were on a treadmill.2 I included in the report my subjective assessment of two NGOs’ achievements. The assessment is no different from the one I will give shortly of the entire lot of NGOs contacted.
I sensed at the midway mark that the journey was probably going to be futile. But I decided to continue contacting the remaining NGOs on my list. I had begun to read about the charitable or non-profit industrial complex, which I had not even heard of when I started. Was it real I wondered?
I stopped after all 176 of the NGOs on my list had been contacted, most of them twice or more with follow up reminders. Five, yes; that is five more than zero of them endorsed the idea. Of the rest, 32 declined (usually with sugar coated reasons) and 139 didn’t respond or hem hawed and never decided. If only I could have gotten 100 more enthusiastic responses like this from the founder of an NGO: Hey Gary, Everything I read sounds positive. I’m all for taking on the corpocracy. You have my endorsement. What’s your phone number? Peace, XX.
Postmortem: Profile of the Complex
While I failed miserably at getting a substantial number of NGOs’ endorsements, I had succeeded in demonstrating to myself anyway that I had encountered the complex. I decided to probe it a bit to find out more about its funding, its people, its activities and its outcomes (I am going to assume that the five endorsing NGOs are way outside the complex).
On every NGO website is some form of a mission statement. Here is a small sample: To halt and reverse the terrible program of war, repression and theocracy. To protect and advance the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To enhance democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of trust by powerful public and private institutions. To build a new economy that emphasizes the well-being of people and the planet. To empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see. To end domestic violence. To advance the cause of justice for all Americans, strengthen the public interest community’s ability to influence public policy, and foster the next generation of advocates. To foster the economic and social welfare, security and opportunity of all Americans. To secure a more open, safe, prosperous and cooperative international system. To improve the lives of Americans through ideas and action. To curb corporate abuses and make corporations publicly accountable. To end corporate rights that destroy the environment, our future , and democracy. To stop the nuclear power industry. To transform our elections to achieve unfettered, fraud-free access to participation, a full spectrum of meaningful choices and majority rule with fair representation and a voice for all. To build a cleaner, healthier environment and safer world. To inspire, empower, motivate and teach civic participation that makes a difference. To help build an unstoppable grassroots movement that demands and delivers lasting reforms. To enact long term structural reforms. To develop progressive leaders.
What a list of make believe! If NGOs actually expected to achieve their missions they would set “tall objectives.”3 Among many other things, they would be clear and specific, track-able and appraisable, tough but doable. I only found a handful of NGOs that went beyond their mission statements to describe their goals and not one single NGO came even remotely close to having a tall objective. If these NGOs do indeed represent the complex their missions are not their real purpose for if they were to achieve them the corpocracy would no longer exist and neither would the NGOs. The real purpose seems to be just to exist and to show some activity. But even if that were not so, the NGOs either realize they do not have the capability, divided as they are, to achieve their missions in any lifetime or they are massively deluding themselves.
Looking over the NGOs’ financial status and doing some calculations such as extrapolating for the NGOs for which no data were available and taking inflation into account, I estimate that the 176 NGOs are handling about $1.4 billion worth of money and that doesn’t include total assets that were not freely available in many cases. Hardly chicken feed underestimate or not. The median amount is about $1.4 million per NGO, but 19 NGOs each account for $10 million or more and four of them over $100 million each.
While the NGOs solicit and accept individual donations, memberships, and in some instances sales from mostly promotional merchandise, most of the funding is through an umbilical chord from government grants and/or foundation donations, and in some cases, also directly from corporations, some of which ought to be in jail. Enabling this flow of money is the tax exemption status the government gives the funders and NGOs.
Collectively the NGOs I contacted have the money to join together and start a network without any additional funding, but they are tied to that umbilical chord. They would probably be cut off instantly if they were to band together and start pursuing some real reforms.
NGO Longevity. Once started, NGOs manage to last by not rocking the ship of state. A few started over 40 years ago, and one nearly 100 years ago.
NGO Alliances/Partnerships. The lack of unity among NGOs I noted in my book is still true. A minority of the NGOs contacted seek to leverage their efforts by forming alliances or partnerships with other NGOs and organizations. But the linkages are mostly with organizations having similar missions and I found no significant instance of a grand alliance cutting across several missions. There are very few instances of contacted NGOs collaborating with other contacted NGOs. My distinct impression is that NGOs are fiercely protective of their own turf and view other NGOs not as potential collaborators but as competitors vying for the same pot of funds.
The typical NGO lists a board of directors and a staff. Some NGOs also add experts, advisory councils, fellows, interns and volunteers. Since boards give direction and staffs go in that direction, let’s look briefly at just those two sets of people.
Boards. The average number of board members is about 14, with several NGOs having oversized boards of 25 or more members. Whatever their size my impression is that they are “showcases” of dignitaries with funding connections and giving their staffs direction by exception (i.e., keeping them from really changing the status quo). Looking over the members’ backgrounds of a few large boards I found former and current members of Congress, Congressional staffers, and White House appointees (two at least intimately involved in aiding and abetting the Iraqi invasion and the economic meltdown second only to the Great Depression); former and current corporate executives; law firm members; university professors; union presidents; etc., etc. These people are among America’s power elites, far removed from the powerless and sought as board members to be magnets for funds. With people like them, staffers who are fund raisers probably do more collecting than hustling for money.
Staffs. In some of the NGOs their boards outnumber their staffs. At the other extreme are a few huge staffs numbering in the hundreds. The average number of staff members is about 26. One think tank with a budget close to $40 million employs about 100 thinkers. That’s an H— of a lot of thinking at a hefty price tag!
Staff members’ position titles give an idea of what they do besides thinking. The titles read alphabetically like those in any bureaucracy (except NGO bureaucracies aren’t as tall hierarchically): Campaign Directors. Campaign Strategists. Communications Directors. Coordinators of this and that. Development Directors. Education Directors. Events Specialists. Executive Vice Presidents. Fellows. Finance Directors. Fund Raisers. Grants Administrators. Membership/Outreach Directors. National Field Directors. Office Managers. Operations Directors and Specialists. Organizers. Program Directors. Public Policy Directors. Regional Field Directors. Research Directors. Senior Trainers. Senior Scholars. And add the many Associates and Assistants reporting to the position titles on this list.
The backgrounds of NGO staffers are much like those of their board members except at much lower echelons and fewer from the government and business world. Nearly all staffers are college educated. Senior level staffers tend to have circulated within the complex before landing where they are currently.
Staffers are the careerists that keep the machinery of their NGOs running smoothly. Journalist and best selling author, Chris Hedges believes that careerists are the “colorless human beings” that make the “greatest crimes of human history possible.” “They do,” he says, “the little chores that make vast, complicated systems of exploitation and death a reality.”4
Mea culpa to some small extent! I was once a colorless careerist working in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy for a good part of my career. I was there during the Vietnam War. I detested it but I didn’t join any street protests. In my defense, I was not in a position of any relevance and I did nothing actively to help keeping the war going. On a continuum of socially detrimental careerism I would put NGO careerists further from me at one end (like dentists, e.g., who may hurt, but they don’t hurt America) and closer to careerists at the other end working for the seats of power in the White House, for political appointees in cabinet-level agencies, for the Congress, for the military, and for corporate America.
I had a sense of shame during the part of my career just mentioned. I have no idea if NGO careerists feel any sense of shame. Perhaps they shield it with a host of rationalizations like I did.
Position titles hint at what NGOs do. Reading the “What We Do” types of sections on their websites tells much more. Here is a sample of activities taken from those sections: Assists communities harmed by corporate projects to assert their rights. Comments and/or testifies on legislative matters. Compiles, analyzes and presents economic data. Conducts community mediation services. Conducts local campaigns aimed at defeating legislation. Conducts training and workshops. Convenes organizers, activists and policy experts to help forge powerful coalitions. Designs public policies, performs research, and runs advocacy and public education campaigns. Develops and provides educational materials. Develops and provides tools for organizing. Files FOIA requests. Litigates. Monitors and reports on corporations and governments. Organizes peaceful marches and rallies. Organizes petition drives. Provides advice and support to citizen action campaigns. Publicizes injustices (e.g., works with fraud victims on press events, makes documentary films, organizes touring caravans, writes articles, stages exhibits, organizes conferences). Tracks money in politics. Writes amicus briefs. Writes grants. Raises funds.
These NGOs are serious about their busyness, which brings me to the first postmortem.
Postmortem: Reported Impact and Achievements
Real evidence of an organization’s stated impact in my opinion would be achieving one or more tall objectives that in the aggregate reflect a substantial progress towards achieving the organization’s purpose or mission. Thus, for example, if the mission is purportedly “to end domestic violence,” then real evidence of an impact on this national problem would be a significant reduction in domestic violence. With that criterion in mind, and also keeping in mind the nature of the NGO mission statements and the absence of any tall objectives, let’s turn to the NGOs’ reported impacts and achievements.
Guide Star is a 501(c)(3) public charity that provides information on NGOs, including the NGOs’ submitted “impact summaries.”5 Out of the 176 NGOs contacted only 35 submitted those summaries. You will immediately understand why there are so few after seeing this small sample of excerpts: “Since our aim is to produce not merely incremental improvement but truly transformational change, in the future we will embark only on efforts that we are prepared to implement fully—.” “We develop creative opportunities to mobilize and support a trans-partisan grassroots movement to recover constitutional rights eroded by the war on terror.” “We are a repeated winner for being the best political source online.” “We publish breaking news of interest to the progressive community.” “We regularly collaborate with change-makers to bring policy closer to the people.” “We will champion a bold agenda for —ensuring human dignity for poor and vulnerable populations globally.” “Our workshops attract large numbers of attendees.” “We build the capacity of citizens, organizations, communities, and historically marginalized groups—to use our data to bolster their own efforts to have a voice in the political process.” “We produce a variety of research reports and educational materials on issues—used to raise public awareness and to influence the US Congress and other government entities to support development efforts.” “We remain open to change and growth, and to new ideas, content and approaches in the service of our mission.” We have “a long-standing reputation for engaging communities on issues of economic inequality—.” We “developed five new chapters—with several more in formation—providing leadership training for local chapters— to ensure students have all the facts when the armed services glorifies putting on a uniform in the name of ‘country.’”
So much for NGO reports of their impact. The ones just excerpted plus all the rest, including ones reported on the NGOs’ websites show not one whit of real impact toward achieving reported missions.
Achievements can be graded on a continuum, starting with pseudo productivity or busyness, going on to small wins (e.g. winning a few court cases on a particular issue), and ending in an extraordinarily big win (e.g., turning America into a peace making nation). In my assessment of the two NGOs illustrated in my midway progress report, neither went beyond achieving some small wins. My assessment of the 174 other contacted NGOs is no different. Busyness prevails. A few NGOs achieved some small wins. Not a single one has achieved a big win,
Postmortem: The Real Impact
Anyone who knows and understands what is happening in and to America and its global neighbors knows the score, what the impact of the complex really is. It has helped to worsen, not improve the domestic and global condition. America continues to be the worst of the so-called advanced nations on any index that matters, whether an economic, a social, or an environmental one. Moreover, America continues to be the most militarily belligerent nation in the world costing the deprivation and loss of countless lives and risking increasingly destructive blowbacks from the most grieved and angry segments within victimized countries.
The real impact includes insurance protection for the corpocracy. My contacted NGOs represent a tiny sample of the population of NGOs. There is apparently around 1.5 to 2 million in the U.S., but I cannot find out how many are advocacy and operational NGOs like the ones I contacted and not other kinds of charities, like museums, for example. Let’s arbitrarily say there are 10,000 more like the contacted NGOs. Using the median assets of the ones contacted to extrapolate to the larger population would give us a figure of $14 trillion. If we lowered our arbitrary figure to 1,000 the extrapolated figure would amount to $1.4 trillion. This figure happens coincidentally to be in line with what I have read about the non-profit sector being a “$1.3 trillion industry” and “the world’s seventh largest economy.”6
Either way that’s an expensive insurance policy but one the corpocracy and the rest of the power elite are more than willing to pay to keep on existing and growing. The policy keeps the middle class, even as it is steadily shrinking as a buffer between the powerful and the lower socioeconomic classes and pits the classes against each other. I recently saw, for example, a pick up bumper sticker exclaiming sarcastically: “everyone deserves something from those working hard for a living.”
Postmortem: What Some Others are Saying
“Wealth and ownership are the causes of poverty–in others. And those who own that wealth want to keep that distinction. Were this not the case, we would not be able to so clearly identify who is rich and who is poor.”7
“—the Koch brothers give away hundreds of millions to ‘philanthropies’, but none of the causes they fund could actually be found to alleviate suffering anywhere, least of all here.
This is why charities aren’t the answer —. They create problems while leaving the real ones smoldering in the mud underneath the sea of humanity.”8
“The ruling class co-opts leaders from our communities by providing them with jobs in non-profits and government agencies, consequently realigning their interests (i.e., maintaining their jobs) with maintaining the system.”9
“When you [don’t] send children to school, try non-formal education. When you [don’t] provide basic health to people, talk of health insurance. [Not giving] jobs? Not to worry, just redefine the words “employment opportunities.”—- It sounds good. You can even make money out of it.”10
“Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’ It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’ — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”11
This last quote is from an article on the New York Times Opinion Page that created quite a stir. The writer is Peter Buffett, a scion of the multi-billionaire investor, Warren Buffet. In writing that article the younger Buffett didn’t exactly ingratiate himself with the philanthropic crowd.
I could have included some more quotes reflecting criticism of the charitable or non-profit complex, but I don’t think any more confirmation is needed that I am not alone in my criticisms.
Conclusion: A Clear Problem, An Unclear Solution
America’s problem is starkly clear to people who know and understand what is happening. The corpocracy is taking America down a ruinous path, all the while compromising any potential opposition from non-profit, non-governmental organizations by making them dependent on government, foundations and corporations for funding and thus for a livelihood. While NGO people may not see or want to see themselves as accepting hush money through the umbilical chord there is no doubt in my mind after reviewing their busyness that they are tethered to it.
NGOs in the complex are the corpocracy’s insurance policy against being overthrown and have no incentive whatsoever to unite and become a truly formidable challenge to the corpocracy’s tyranny. My proposal to them to do so must have been seen as terribly naïve.
Through its propaganda machine, intimidation and occasional show of force the corpocracy has also been very effective throughout the history of America in stunting grass roots movements that might other wise grow and coalesce into massive public protests far beyond the scale of say, the Civil Rights movement, which the corpocracy has managed to manipulate as it has with all other movements.
The solution is not clear at all, at least to me, and there may be none short of a bloody revolution that could be deadlier than the Civil War (I have never and will never advocate non-peaceful and unlawful means to peaceful and just ends).
I have run out of ideas for plausible solutions. Instead of a solution there may be only a surprising or a predictable ending.
It would be surprising if the corpocracy eventually frightened itself from its own excesses and voluntarily started sharing its power and wealth with the rest of society and stopped threatening other nations. And it would be surprising if there were enough Peter Buffetts among the power elite willing to influence the corpocracy to voluntarily reverse America’s current course, Ralph Nader’s belief not withstanding that “only the super wealthy can save us.”12
A predictable ending I shudder to think would be the corpocracy continuing on its course to eventual self-destruction and America along with it from a self-afflicted apocalyptic event. Some believe the Cold War never became a nuclear war because of the “balance of power” between the East and the West. That is both an outdated paradigm and one that does not take into account the possibility of other self-afflicted apocalypses such as “ecosuicide” from a toxic and barren environment or “genetic suicide” from genetic engineering.
In the preface to my book I wrote that it “is not a doomsday book because the corpocracy can be toppled by democracy power if only it can be mustered.” It was an optimistic book. How could it have been otherwise so filled with so many proposed reform initiatives? This article, more than two years later, has turned the corner and is looking more pessimistically at America’s future. I don’t think my changing perspective is an overreaction to having been spurned 171 times.
But the possibility of something surprising happening and the probability of being predicted means nothing more than what those words mean. They don’t mean certainty. I can’t say that I am certain about America’s future. Who can? Of two things I am certain besides taxes and death. I will never again propose anything so naïve to NGOs or anyone else. And I am tired of being an armchair activist for socio-economic justice, peace and environmental nurture. Perhaps it’s time for me to start smelling the roses before I’m under them.
- Gary Brumback. The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch. Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2011. [↩]
- Gary Brumback. Organizing and Unleashing Two-Fisted Democracy Power at a Treadmill Pace. OpEd News, February 23, 2012. [↩]
- Gary Brumback. Tall Performance from Short Organizations through We/Me Power. Bloomington, IN: 1stBooksLibrary, 2002. Appendix B: Tall Objectives Closer Up, p 83-88. [↩]
- Chris Hedges. The Careerists. Truthdig, July 23, 2012. [↩]
- Guide Star. [↩]
- INCITE. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. South End Press, 2009. [↩]
- Saint Ceran. An Open Letter to Howard Husock on Peter Buffett and Charitable Giving. Crooks & Liars, July 29, 2013. [↩]
- karoli. Colcom Foundation Proves Peter Buffett’s Point. Crooks & Liars, July 29, 2013. [↩]
- Paul Kivel. Social Service or Social Change? 2000. www.paulkivel.com. [↩]
- Palagunmi Sainath. Everybody Loves a Good Drought; Stories from India’s Poorest Districts. Penguin Books, 1996, p.421 Excerpted and adapted. [↩]
- Peter Bufffett. The Charitable-Industrial Complex. Opinion Page, New York Times, July 26, 2013. [↩]
- Ralph Nader. Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! Seven Stories Press, 2011. [↩]