Photo of a train platform, split down the middle into the lit platform and the dark tunnel

“Nonprofitization affects the structures of movements and the culture of our movements.…[It] is understood to be a response to the revolutionary movements of the mid-20th century.”

Dean Spade, January 5, 2023

Should social movement work be paid? That question was at the heart of a recent talk by Dean Spade, a mutual-aid theorist and activist named a Freedom Scholar last year by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Paying for movement work is complicated, Spade observes, because payment often creates a dependency on whoever foots the bill.

A law professor at Seattle University, advocate for queer and trans liberation, and long-time participant in movements for racial and economic justice, Spade spoke on payment and movement work at a virtual forum organized by the Barnard Center for Research on Women.

Spade, it is fair to say, is skeptical that philanthropy will fund movements at scale to build a solidarity economy. If social movement activists “are getting paid, we are usually paid by our opposition,” he argues. Indeed, his entire talk can best be described as an exploration of the dilemmas inherent in funding social-movement work, some of which are reviewed below.


Theories of Change

In his talk, Spade never utters the phrase “theories of change,” but he does offer two. One—which he labels “beg, accommodate, compete, and climb”—is Spade’s characterization of what is more commonly called an insider strategy, which Spade sees as the dominant approach in the nonprofit sector. Spade questions whether this method can achieve liberatory ends, arguing against the idea that change will occur if a “nonprofit report shows that poverty is bad, or cops are racist.” Such a liberal view assumes that injustice results from misunderstandings, and if misunderstandings are cleared up, then social progress will result. This attitude, Spade contends, is naive; elites “know what they are doing” and will defend their prerogatives, even if doing so causes social pain.

Spade provocatively calls the approach he favors “attack and steal,” which he notes is much easier to do outside of nonprofit institutions than within them. What does he mean by “attack and steal”? One example is the Underground Railroad, which helped an estimated 100,000 Black Americans free themselves from enslavement and operated completely outside the law. Modern examples of “attack and steal” that Spade cites include squatting (used widely in the US in response to the foreclosure wave during the 2007-2009 Great Recession) and factory takeovers (which led to the formation of over 300 worker cooperatives in Argentina after a 2001 economic crisis, many of which still operate today). The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, during which people seized public space and set up camps, is another example of this approach.

There are also less dramatic examples of this ethos, such as stealing time on the job to support movement work or pilfering medical supplies to make sure uninsured people get the medical care they need. There are parallels to Spade’s concept in academic theory. For instance, a few years ago, NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez highlighted the notion developed by Yale political scientist James Scott of a hidden transcript. As Suarez writes, “Hidden transcripts are not just speech acts, but also practices, such as evasion of financial obligations, not giving one’s best, actively sabotaging.”


Movement Financing Dilemmas

So, back to Spade’s question on whether social movement activists should get paid. On one hand, Spade notes the almost inherent justice of payment. Paying makes sense, Spade says,

Because we live in the context of so much uncompensated and unrecognized labor. There are huge, long critiques about uncompensated labor for women, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, Black people, queer, trans people. This is such an important critique from so many fronts, because it is the reality—a few people get paid a lot for a little, and everyone else is exploited and uncompensated.

“When work is paid, it often becomes very small and includes few people….It has to be approved of by the people paying, so it can’t make them uncomfortable.”

Spade elaborates, “People talk about this lack of compensation and recognition both in terms of money and whose ideas are credited, who steals ideas from who. That’s happening. Who gets praise or is ignored or stigmatized—all of this makes so much sense, and I believe in this.”

And yet, as Spade points out, paying for movement work creates dilemmas. For example, Spade notes that on many university campuses, antiracist and feminist groups have successfully organized to create diversity and equity jobs. Those are wins. Yet, Spade observes that when someone is paid, the nature of the work often changes; it is “no longer a collective-action strategy.” The possibility of being fired constrains radical action. Spade adds, “when work is paid, it often becomes very small and includes few people…It has to be approved of by the people paying, so it can’t make them uncomfortable, so it can’t make very deep change.”

Another dilemma, according to Spade, is that, by definition, payment costs money, which can pull activists away from pursuing their visions of liberation and toward the day-to-day work of raising money to fund their work. This has manifold effects—it can, perhaps most obviously, lead to conflicts among nonprofits for philanthropic crumbs, detracting from movement organizing. Spade adds that he has also seen how the focus on paid work “has stolen people’s ability to dream.” More than once, Spade says, students have told him that they want to be nonprofit executive directors. But when he asks what they want the nonprofits they would form to do, he often gets puzzled looks. “The form predates the content,” Spade says. “That is worrying; it is doing something to the imagination.”

“We want to build group cultures…where there is a lot of appreciation and recognition not based on money.”

There is also the question of control. “If we will not do anything we are not paid for, the opposition has total control of us. And we are demobilized. If people are just like ‘I don’t do activism unless I get paid. I won’t do emotional labor unless I get paid,’ I want us to be really thoughtful about what that means,” Spade cautions. Because resistance movements typically organize to oppose those with resources, most often “resistance work is unpaid.”

More fundamentally, the focus on payment reinforces the capitalist precept that money is the primary determinant of worth. “We want to build group cultures…where there is a lot of appreciation and recognition not based on money,” Spade says, and to “avoid deservingness models and financializing our system of value.” Spade adds that he wishes “we had a word for the social-movement resistance effort that was not work because work feels like wage labor.” Spade yearns for a different “culture of pleasure and connection around our movement efforts that doesn’t feel like wage work.”

Moreover, as Spade says about his vision of an economy based on values of solidarity, “Ultimately, we want to live in a world where we give everything for free and no one pays for childcare and housing. We are all creating it, and we are all keeping it instead of extracting it by the people who make the profits. That is the liberatory imagination.”


Negotiating the Contradictions

Of course, a central feature of our capitalist economic system is that most people need to earn a wage to survive. Spade himself works for a private nonprofit university, which, he acknowledges, is a “really sweet gig.” For some activists, Spade allows, the best strategy might be a nonprofit job that offers space for practical reformist work. For others, it might involve a for-profit position that offers no time on the job for socially beneficial labor but frees up time for activism outside work. Spade cautions that there are no hard-and-fast answers. Rather, “it is about…being restless with the inquiry.”

In his talk, Spade cautions that everything he says is “provisional.” If pressed, Spade would likely acknowledge that social change may result from a combination of “inside” and “outside” strategies—whether they are coordinated with each other or not. Spade further concedes that movement activists are “imperfect people doing imperfect work” and describes his own talk as “part of the ongoing conversation many of us are having about the really hard questions about how to do the really hard work under very trying conditions.”

The point, in short, is to provoke conversation rather than offering a definitive set of strategic directions. That said, by way of conclusion, the following are a few nuggets to keep in mind.

Treat movement organizing and the nonprofit sector as different things. And who pays matters: organizations like unions or movements that “pass the hat” to fund their operations are more able to set their own strategic direction than those that depend on grants for funding. As Spade puts it, “when we pay for things ourselves it is really different than when we get grants from wealthy people in their foundations or the government.”

One last point that Spade emphasizes is to not confuse movements with organizations—and to focus on people instead. As Spade observes, “There is a thing in the way that movements are talked about. The media will be like, ‘Occupy failed because it is over.’ There is a lot of declaring things to have failed if they don’t last forever.”

This analysis, Spade acknowledges, misses the fact that often the same people build relationships that span multiple movement waves. Regarding the “big movements of uprising or people doing a lot of mutual aid projects starting in 2020 that had not existed before,” Spade saw that even after those efforts had ended, “those people go and do other cool stuff….So, I think that is another piece of the not needing to sustain the same strategies but wanting to try a lot of stuff.”