Audio recording dropping soon, for subscribers only.
If you dislike someone, you should try to get them a position of leadership in a progressive institution. If you absolutely loathe them, make that a progressive, nonprofit organization.
I felt an enormous amount of catharsis reading a recent article by Ryan Grim on the Intercept. Take a moment, when you can, to read through its entirety—it covers the vicious internal politics and infighting that have paralyzed the work of progressive advocacy organizations.
Here are some selected quotes, mostly from Executive Directors of various non-profit progressive orgs:
“My last nine months, I was spending 90 to 95 percent of my time on internal strife. Whereas [before] that would have been 25-30 percent tops,” the former executive director said. He added that the same portion of his deputies’ time was similarly spent on internal reckonings.
In fact, it’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.
For years, recruiting young people into the movement felt like a win-win, he said: new energy for the movement and the chance to give a person a lease on a newly liberated life, dedicated to the pursuit of justice. But that’s no longer the case. “I got to a point like three years ago where I had a crisis of faith, like, I don’t even know, most of these spaces on the left are just not — they’re not healthy. Like all these people are just not — they’re not doing well,” he said. “The dynamic, the toxic dynamic of whatever you want to call it — callout culture, cancel culture, whatever — is creating this really intense thing, and no one is able to acknowledge it, no one’s able to talk about it, no one’s able to say how bad it is.”
The environment has pushed expectations far beyond what workplaces previously offered to employees. “A lot of staff that work for me, they expect the organization to be all the things: a movement, OK, get out the vote, OK, healing, OK, take care of you when you’re sick, OK. It’s all the things,” said one executive director. “Can you get your love and healing at home, please? But I can’t say that, they would crucify me.”
It’s become hard to hire leaders of unmanageable organizations. A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that nonprofits were having an extraordinarily hard time finding new leaders amid unprecedented levels of departures among senior officials. “We’ve been around for 26 years, and I haven’t seen anything like this,” Gayle Brandel, CEO of PNP Staffing Group, a nonprofit executive search firm, told the trade publication, explaining the difficulty in finding executives to fill the vacancies.
Executive directors across the space said they too have tried to organize their hiring process to filter out the most disruptive potential staff. “I’m now at a point where the first thing I wonder about a job applicant is, ‘How likely is this person to blow up my organization from the inside?’” said one, echoing a refrain heard repeatedly during interviews for this story.
Welcome to Hell
I’ve been lucky that my explicit politics and nature of work have driven off many of the kinds of people who might create such a dysfunctional culture—but even I have not been entirely spared.
Meanwhile, I’ve witnessed other groups entirely overtaken—their work forgotten as internal reckonings routinely roil within the organization. I’ve watched their (already underserved) programs be abandoned for more fashionable, social justice oriented ones.
I’ve watched identitarianism creep into hiring and firing—white males dropping out of leadership positions like flies. Sometimes they are chased out, accused of some impropriety or other. Sometimes they “choose” to resign—claiming to step down to make way for someone more diverse. It kept happening, until it became genuinely rare to see a straight white male in a top leadership position. And of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with fewer white male leaders…so long as it is a natural consequence of a fair system that finds the best people for the jobs. But of course, that is not what is happening. Indeed, I’ve been called a “white supremacist” for insisting that leadership positions should be granted on the basis of qualifications and experience—regardless of the race/gender/sexuality of that person.
Instead, organizations around me have been pressured by activists to fill leadership positions with “women of color”, accepting the absurd identitarian logic that somehow this act would solve issues of disparity (just as the Obama presidency presumably fixed racism once and for all). Sometimes this has led to the appointments of leaders who are simply not qualified for their positions—causing harm to the stable functioning of the organizations and their ability to do good work.
But even if a “woman of color” is elected (many besieged leaders in the Intercept article above were, in fact, women of color)—nothing ends the incessant infighting except an outright rejection of the politics that support it.
I find that the more explicitly an org has adopted a commitment to social justice ideals, the more likely they are to be held hostage by neverending drama. The opposite is also true—the only groups who appear to be spared are those who are explicitly and unapologetically anti-woke.
I’ll borrow my own language from my last piece:
Anyone who has spent time in progressive activist spaces knows that they contain a surprising amount of petty tyrants, bullies, and even actual sexual predators. Surprising, until you understand the rules of such spaces. Here, membership in any number of marginalized groups can grant one power to flout rules, squash dissent, and silence critics. Why wouldn’t abusers take advantage of the free pass?
And while personalities of this sort are rare in any population, their ability to operate with impunity means they leave long and bloody trails of victims….I’ve witnessed countless careers ruined, healthy communities fall, and organizations crippled—all due to accusations without a shred of evidence to support them.
But there is something I failed to cover in that piece—the problem isn’t merely the fact that social justice issues are abused by disturbed personalities with the right identities, it is that social justice politics condition the average “nice liberal” to accept bad behavior and cancerous work dynamics, all in in the name of “justice” and “inclusion”.
It is with the silence, or willing participation of a large portion of “nice liberals” that a subordinate cussing out their boss becomes “speaking truth to power”...and uninvolved volunteers leading insurrections to oust longtime board members becomes “sparking revolutionary change”...and junior employees demanding the addition of services outside of the mission’s scope becomes “centering marginalized voices”.
It is a simple thing to re-cast untenably toxic and inexcusably hostile behavior as the price one pays for “justice” and “diversity”, and indeed, that is exactly what happens. The nice liberals are easily duped into accepting the unacceptable, capitulating to extremists again and again, dooming their own dear causes to extreme inefficiency.
The truth is, organizations simply can’t function under these circumstances—social justice temperaments routinely spell an end to the work, whatever it is.
How To Get Out
Any organization that wishes to survive (even thrive) in this climate must forcibly RE-CENTER THE WORK.
Creating an explicitly mission-oriented culture. Making it clear that all staff and volunteers are there to support the mission of the organization—that the mission is important, and deserves their full attention and commitment. This means that while they are at work, engaging in activism that is unrelated to the mission will not be tolerated. We are not here to solve all problems--we are here to solve a specific problem. In addition, employees and volunteers must understand that they will occasionally work with people whose worldviews they don’t always agree with, and that this is to be seen as an indicator of a healthy environment (so long as all agree on the value of the mission).
Creating an explicitly WORK oriented culture. I don’t know why this is a problem, but it is—especially in non-profit spaces that employ young people. Make it clear to volunteers and employees that they are here to work, to achieve an end. Nonprofits in particular are the space for you to GIVE TO OTHERS, not to take for your own ends. You are expected to treat your co-workers with courtesy, and your boss with respect. Your supervisors are there to support you and mentor you—but do not confuse them with your therapist or a parent.
Zero-tolerance. This might sound harsh to outsiders who don’t know how bad bad can be, and charitable types in general have a very hard time taking on a management style that makes boundaries clear. However, there can be no tolerance for abusive behavior, or for breaking the above two rules, regardless of the reason. If someone starts agitating against the above two rules, especially using social justice language (you’ll come to recognize it easily over time), do not wait, do not give them a second chance. Get rid of them.
Donors, understand that far too many of these nonprofits are wasting your funds. When I give to organizations, here is what I look for:
Are they confused about what it is that they do? Are they focused on a coherent mission, or are they 10 things at once? Do they serve the homeless, for example, but also work towards increasing diversity, and also racial justice, and also ending sexism? Is their literature infused with social justice language?
How strong is the leadership? Are they willing to be “bad guys” when necessary for the work? Crucially, does the ED also have a strong board that stands behind them? An abnormal amount of fortitude and cooperation among senior staff is necessary to withstand the pull of these insane dynamics—weak leadership means capitulation to extremists, which means less work is accomplished.
If the organization is not like this, DO NOT give them your money. They will use it to deal with fires, the roots of which they cannot understand, and that they do not have the courage to stamp out.
I see all your points and wonder what the larger picture is when an entire generation of people seems to have an unassailable persecution complex. Maybe valid, and maybe not, but healthy boundaries are what keep societies functioning. Societies that allow everyone to whine about everything all the time don't stay societies for long.
It will be very interesting to see if any of these orgs change during the next recession.
I’ve read good analyses arguing that one of the reasons corporations have gone woke in recent years is that, when interest rates were low, money was easier to come by than progressive goodwill. While some will probably stay woke regardless, higher interest rates will probably force others to crack down on employee activism and get back to making profits.
I wonder if progressive non profits will face similar pressure from big donors the next time the economy plunges.