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Developing Cultures of Reciprocity in the Nonprofit Sector

Updated: May 4, 2023

As consultants working primarily in the nonprofit sector, we sit in a place of tension.

There are many valid critiques of the sector, particularly in its deep relationship to colonialism and capitalism. As part of what's called the nonprofit industrial complex, nonprofits can function to contain and neutralize the kind of radical organizing that could be capable of actually transforming society, while allowing corporations and governments to mask their environmental and social harms through "philanthropic" work.

The nonprofit industrial complex may position itself as the height of generosity and reciprocity, yet it’s extractive by its very design.

This extraction can take many forms: nonprofits can take knowledge and resources from leaders in their communities to serve their own ends, they can hoard opportunities and attention, and they can publicly position themselves at the forefront of social change while suppressing the voices of those who critique their practices.

This isn’t to say that nonprofits can't be forces for meaningful change. In their forward to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse stress that criticizing the system doesn’t negate the important impact that nonprofits can make. “We must be cautious not to mistake individuals in those settings for the institutions themselves." Working within the nonprofit industrial complex, they write, “requires constant negotiation of how those complexes constrain and enable transformative work.”

As a team that collaborates closely with those who hold power within this system, it’s crucial that we engage in this constant negotiation by examining our practices and by reflecting on the work we do alongside others in the sector.

For us, this looks like prioritizing decent work, sharing opportunities among people denied representation in traditional consulting spaces, resisting urgency culture, and pushing for political change as a start.

We also encourage organizations to leverage their capacity and assets to support social movements and grassroots organizing—especially those that are under-resourced or that can't access the same levels of funding due to their structure or focus.

As part of our organizational commitment to moving resources and acknowledging the inequities faced by Black and Indigenous-led organizations, 5% of the revenue from all our projects is donated to The Circle on Philanthropy, an organization focused on advancing a future that uplifts Indigenous-led solutions for systems change and increases equity, justice and self determination.

In our first year of operations, Evenings & Weekends Consulting has been able to reallocate significant resources towards The Circle's efforts to encourage individuals and organizations to learn, acknowledge, and understand more about reconciliation and the decolonization of wealth. If you’d like to know more about this relationship and how much we’ve raised, feel free to reach out to us.

This work is always ongoing. In the years to come, we're eager to continue creating new systems that reject the nonprofit industrial complex's dominant culture of resource extraction.

By strengthening cultures of reciprocity, we believe we can create a nonprofit sector that thrives alongside the communities it serves, and that acts as a true force for social change.


To learn more about The Circle, and its opportunities for reciprocal exchange among philanthropic organizations, visit their website.

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1 Comment

Alison Symington
Alison Symington
May 02, 2023

I am pleased to see you including "push for political change" as an element of reciprocity in the sector. Volunteers, staff and consultants alike need to raise our collective voices, contribute our expertise (including lived experience) and advocate for accountability. Describing problems and providing services is important work, but it is insufficient to make meaningful change happen.

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