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Hello friends! This Friday, I’d like to introduce you to Zariya, an inspiring new organization working to support survivors of violence against women – currently in India – through an innovative, tech savvy new model. Check out what inspired Zariya’s Founder, Sahar Khan, in her journey towards tackling gender-based violence and founding a new model in this space!

  1. Tell me about yourself; how did you develop a passion for addressing gender-based violence?

Interestingly, in high school in Oman, I worked on women’s education because access to education is a cause that was and remains very dear to me personally. However, during my undergrad years at Stanford, my focus shifted slightly as I learnt more about the pressing problem of violence against women (VAW). I was exposed to grassroots women’s rights work to tackle VAW in India in the summer of 2012. In addition, I am struck by the visceral nature of violence which reminds us that, despite how educated and empowered a woman becomes, she can still be subject to the most debilitating form of abuse. In international law and rule of law studies, we often talk about an “enabling environment” that is required to ensure economic progress. It sounds abstract and you can’t easily measure the benefits of an enabling environment. And, when it’s there, you barely notice it. You only really feel its absence. I believe that a world free from violence is a woman’s enabling environment. And, we can’t just sit around waiting for international and national governments to hand us an enabling framework on a platter – we need to work with them to build the right institutions. This is why I work to end violence against women.

  1. What does Zariya do to address gender-based violence, and what is Zariya’s theory of change?

Zariya is an online platform which connects survivors of VAW with legal and counseling experts. Within 2 days, a woman can access the Zariya website on her smartphone, computer or other handheld device, provide just her email and pincode and thereafter access the resources she needs in her journey of rehabilitation. We use “hyperlocal” matching whereby a woman’s pincode is used to match her with a high-quality expert in her vicinity. We do this for a woman’s convenience, regional/linguistic specificity and to minimize costs relating to transportation. The experts that we connect women with are paid professionals at reputable organizations that Zariya has vetted such as MyChoices and Shaheen in Hyderabad, Swayam in Kolkata, Sneha in Mumbai etc.

And, we have a “third-party” theory of change. Zariya acts as a third-party advocate for a woman that drives all parties involved in a woman’s case to reach closure. Our role is to be a compassionate yet neutral assessor of a woman’s needs and match her with the right resources. We intentionally oversee and coordinate the various moving pieces of a case because this can be a serious hassle for survivors who do not have the kind of network to pull all the right levers. We are process agents rather than direct providers of the legal advice or counselling service. But, we make sure that the experts are doing a good job. This will be consolidated further in the future when we develop a ranking system for service providers in the anti-VAW ecosystem. An average case at most of our service providers’ organizations does not exceed 130 days. If that happens, we request an explanation and plan to immediately shift gears as necessary to bring a case closer to a satisfactory outcome.

Zariya’s long-term vision is to build an integrated referral network and a robust case management system customized for specific nations’ jurisdictions. After perfecting the entry-point which we are currently beta-testing, Zariya aims to build a case management system that empowers a survivor by providing her an enabling environment to drive her case from start-to-finish. We aim to infuse a small amount of coordination and accountability into the anti-VAW ecosystem. Ultimately, we endeavor to build a robust technology that governments can deploy.

  1. How does your model work?

Picture2We have a three-step process: triage (understand a woman’s needs), service delivery (match her with experts who can address her needs) and closure (an outcome that places the survivor in a more just, safe and happy material and mental state).

Zariya is currently a non-profit organization. The product and service will always be delivered to survivors at no charge. As we grow and scale our operations, we hope to initially be supported by grants and donations from foundations, corporations and individuals.

  1. What are the biggest successes you’ve experienced so far with Zariya? What challenges are you facing?

This is just the beginning of our journey, but we are getting a lot of traffic and more cases than we and our NGO partners ever expected. Every single time a woman initiates a case with Zariya and shows that she won’t endure abuse silently, we pat ourselves on the back because taking the first step of seeking help is the hardest. Our users have already commended us for quick turn-around and genuine care and concern for their problems. You can also check out Zariya’s website for user testimonials.

We have many challenges ahead that we need to overcome to make Zariya available to women in the future. The two classic challenges that most socially forward startup organizations initially face are financing and volunteer retention. We have only recently addressed our short-term financial needs through raising small amounts from multiple sources. In the long-term, we need to re-structure financially and organizationally so that we can focus on the actual substance of our work.  In the short term, we’ve had the steepest learning curve. Our volunteers have consisted of engineering and psychology students at IIT and other colleges, journalists, and designers who come on board to assist in case management, coordination and user design research & development. We are slowly starting to understand how to identify the right people and the best methods to motivate the right people.

  1. What are the biggest gaps and challenges with respect to service delivery and the support that survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault require to move forward?

At Zariya, we call these challenges “supply-side” challenges (as opposed to demand-side challenges which comprise problems relating to under-reporting). We have noticed that, while there is a proliferation of organizations in the space, the supply-chain is not highly integrated and all organizations do not provide the same quality of help at a given standard. A highly comprehensive  report by Dasra has suggested that there needs to be some sort of a coordination mechanism between various types of help (legal, economic, medical, financial) so that a woman can resolve all separate yet inter-connected problems in a systematic and holistic manner. The case process is usually messy and non-linear, and is not something that a single service provider can be expected to manage in addition to providing her service.

In the anti-VAW ecosystem, there isn’t really a third party that vets service providers and provides a coordination mechanism. This is the role that Zariya plays for a woman. The better we get at understanding their problems, the more adept we get at making the smartest connections for her and overseeing the constantly moving pieces of her puzzle. In the duration of a case, we sometimes end up connecting a woman with 4-5 services until she finds a service provider who shows compassion for her and provides useful & actionable guidance. The compassion part is key as we have noticed that that’s what makes a survivor stick with a service provider. We are also currently in the process of developing a “compassion quotient” indicator for the anti-VAW ecosystem.

On the demand-side, there is lack of knowledge about existing services. So many women come to us and say that they filed a report with the police and then there wasn’t much follow-up or recourse. We need women to understand that, besides filing a report with the police (which is recommended), there are so many other options. For instance, women may not know about alternative dispute resolution and other mediation measures that can be delivered to them in a cost-effective manner. We hope to educate them about these services.

  1. What is the role of government in providing holistic services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault? Is the government currently fulfilling its duties? If not, how can we change this status quo?

Globally, most governments and legal systems are over-burdened and resource-constrained. And, even when governments take steps in the right direction with ambitious plans and infusion of funds, plans take time to implement and funds take time to be disbursed. Sometimes, if these plans are not viable, they fall apart. In my view, private citizens can play a crucial role in pushing their governments to expedite anti-VAW policies and programs. This can take on the form of activism or advocacy. We can also very substantially challenge the status quo by collaboratively creating innovative and novel solutions to learn about survivor needs. Half of the work that we do at Zariya is understanding and triaging a survivor’s need; the other half is catering to her needs.

In doing so, non-profits and private organizations can build a repository of knowledge and case precedent that can be presented to governments as a proof-of-concept that works. Governments may be able to provide personnel or funding for such projects and the project organizations can retain their intellectual capital. Essentially, deals need to be brokered and structures set up between public and private entities to make projects such as Zariya national, scalable and financially self-sustaining. India has a Delhi Wi-fi Commission that considers projects for scale-up once they have been operational in a city for a considerable amount of time. So, while some may argue that governments have a duty to directly provide services to female survivors of violence, there’s no saying that we can’t assist our governments in fulfilling their duties. In turn, governments can financially support and provide the personnel, connections and the kind of national scale needed for projects to reach their full potential.

At the Nobel Prize Series event in India in January 2017, Zariya India is emphasizing precisely this message of collaboration between government and innovative organizations. In addition to sharing Zariya’s lessons, successes, and challenges with the honorable Nobel Laureates and other delegates, we endeavor to start the right conversations with government and industry leaders about how to co-support purposeful ideas in a sustainable fashion.

  1. In addition to working to remedy sexual assault and domestic violence after it occurs, how can we work to prevent and end violence against women in the first place?

Hotlines that are reliable and actually work are the short-term solution. And, social education is the long-term solution to change a culture in which, somehow, violence against women is still okay in the 21st century. However, in terms of viability, culture is a rather uncontrollable animal with a will of its own. So, we can’t conclusively or even inconclusively identify when there will be a sea change in culture that will liberate society from violence against women. As you know, a policy reform can be made overnight, but reform in culture can take generations. Still, it’s important to mention that social education efforts need to be benevolently fashioned in a way that they genuinely inspire change in behavior towards women instead of inflaming more aggression. Don’t vilify “perpetrators” but inspire them to be better people.


Zariya’s team in action

Furthermore, at Zariya, we believe that remedy is inextricably connected to prevention. The more women who stand up for themselves and demand remedy, the more people will learn about this problem and come to realize that VAW is unacceptable. We think that those demanding remedy are the best and most effective anti-VAW advocates. At Zariya, our interest is ensuring that these women can stand up on their feet again and speak for themselves. Through our research in multiple cities across India (New Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad), we have learnt that silence prolongs violence. Of course, breaking the silence and speaking out needs to be done carefully in a manner that doesn’t hurt a woman’s case. Violence is bound to continue when there is an individual and collective silence around the issue. Zariya aims to break the cycle of violence by ending the silence in a safe, secure and confidential manner.

  1. How can people come forward to support Zariya’s mission?

Spread the word! Share Zariya’s website and updates on your social media. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Please also sign up for our mailing list to remain up to date with features, testimonials, vacancies and other developments at Zariya.

Please talk to women you know who are facing violence, show them Zariya’s website, and encourage them to reach out.

Visit our website and send us any feedback on product, content and design. We are always open to hear your valuable thoughts and comments on how we can continue improving Zariya to best serve survivors’ needs.

About SaharPicture1

Sahar Khan is the Founder of Zariya, a 501c3 non-profit that tackles violence against women. An
American raised in Arabia (from the age of 6 months), Sahar is a Stanford alumni who previously worked in The Hague and studied development in Cambridge.


As someone who is a big proponent of a “holistic legal services model,” I was incredibly excited to hear about a program launched in 2013 with support from the Kresge Foundation. The program, the Holistic Legal Assistance Network (HLAN) is hosted within Rhode Island Legal Services, and utilizes a holistic approach to identify and address the underlying social problems preventing an individual from moving forward out of poverty.

This program implements exactly the model I have been advocating on this blog for a while. The program integrates both legal and non-legal support and strategies and provides a continuity of care across the spectrum of a client’s social and legal problems. This holistic approach allows the program to attack the root causes of poverty as opposed to simply addressing the symptoms at a surface level, and by linking to other social service organizations and partners, aims to vastly increase the client’s access to necessary services. In addition, the program continues to follow-up with clients even after specific legal and social problems are addressed.  An initial evaluation seems to reveal positive results, but I think more robust measurement of impact in this and similar models will be helpful to test assumptions and also provide a persuasive force to other legal service providers across the country.  This powerpoint is incredibly helpful and captures many of the underlying goals of a holistic program; the barriers; and how to address them.

Indeed, the presentation accurately points out two key barriers: funding for such programs, and internal culture. Funding is often a challenge, since providing holistic care requires deeper support to each client, and can be enhanced by the hiring of an in-house social worker. This would be a great place for foundations to intervene and work with legal services organizations to supplement their work. However, even without additional funding, legal services organizations can reframe their referral process to develop close connections with social service organizations in the area, enabling greater continuity of care for clients. In addition, the culture of legal organizations is often such that there is a reluctance of lawyers to become involved in clients’ non-legal issues – often because of time – but also at times because lawyers do not feel well-equipped, perhaps are uninterested in addressing such issues, or feel it is not their role. Additional training and support can enable lawyers to think more “holistically” when working with clients, even without the addition of substantial additional resources or financial support.

Regardless, I am incredibly heartened to see a legal services organization taking this on and combining the language of holistic services with community lawyering – and at the same time, to see a foundation beginning to invest in this particular model. With more measurement to prove that this does, indeed, work, more funding may also come into play as donors want to support models that they believe will succeed.


The concept of legal empowerment seems to be gaining more traction, and I couldn’t be more excited. IDLO has released an excellent new report called “Accessing Justice: Models, Strategies and Best Practices on Women’s Empowerment.” The study is an excellent overview of legal empowerment and its complexities: legal education, legal services, dispute resolution, and its interactions with informal justice system as well as its ultimate impact on women’s empowerment. Here are some of the very interesting findings of the report:

On Violence Against Women in Afghanistan:

Comprehensive statistics on VAW in Afghanistan are not available. “Nonetheless, available data at this stage suggests that the interventions mentioned above have made considerable advances in improving women and justice providers’ knowledge of the EVAW Law and providing women with a user-friendly service to seek justice for violent acts. During its first year of operation, the VAW Unit in Kabul received 300 cases originating from 15 different provinces in Afghanistan. Throughout the year 2010, the number of cases submitted to the Kabul VAW Unit doubled from the first month to the last month. At the end of March 2012, the total number of registered cases in the Kabul VAW Unit was 869.”

On Unwed Women in Morocco:

“Similarly NGOs describe the impact that participating in the legal and human rights education has had on other program participants as a result of unwed mothers’ presence in the groups, as well as the specific program sessions on unwed mothers’ rights. They mention how attitudes of rejection towards unwed mothers were replaced with sympathy and support. On a larger scale, as a result of the program there was a shift from the consensus of silence around the issue of unwed mothers to a shared vision of participants that unwed motherhood is a social reality that must be addressed. One participating NGO noted that the other women started behaving normally towards the unwed mothers and stopped marginalizing them.”

On women’s land rights in Tanzania and Mozambique:

“…[A]lthough paralegal services attempted mediation as the first method for resolving conflicts brought to them by widows and divorced women, they were generally unsuccessful. Resistance to paralegal mediation by husbands or the husbands’ families is likely to be a reflection of the prevalence of contemporary practices of customary norms, as reinforced by local community leaders. Accordingly, at this preliminary stage a sustained focus on strengthening NGO expertise in dissemination, education, legal drafting and practice is likely to be more impactful than diverting resources into mediation. Moreover, cases of dispossessed widows and divorcees tend to legally favor the woman; using mediation, which is often reserved for legally complicated situations or situations in which all parties are legally at fault, is unlikely to be as effective in promoting women’s land rights as unequivocal public court judgments explicitly referring to and reliant on statutory law.”

Read the report in its entirety below. It’s full of incredibly useful and interesting data on legal empowerment and its impact on women!

Accessing Justice: Models, Strategies and Best Practices on Women’s Empowerment


Today, I’m excited to announce a guest post along with Mahfuza Folad – over at the Building Markets blog for the Professionalization of Afghan CSOs project. Here is an excerpt of the post, which focuses on some of the key challenges that Afghan civil society organizations face, how they are overcoming them, and the personal anecdotes of Mahfuza – a woman civil society activist:

Despite the burst of negative press regarding corruption of charities in Afghanistan generated by Three Cups of Tea and author Greg Mortenson’s alleged financial mismanagement of the Central Asia Institute, the reality is that hundreds of courageous and tireless Afghan activists are continuing to lead civil society organizations (CSOs) and are pushing forward a burgeoning nonprofit sector in Afghanistan. Yet they face numerous challenges and limitations unique to the environment of Afghanistan, a nation struggling with conflict, extreme poverty, and extensive resource constraints. Despite the sometimes seemingly insurmountable hurdles, Afghan activists have met these obstacles with impressive ingenuity, passion, and dedication.

Click here to read the rest of the post. Thanks to Building Markets for inviting Mahfuza and I to contribute!


One of my favorite moments from my last few days in Bangladesh was meeting Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the Founder and Chairman of BRAC. Forty years ago after the liberation war and in the face of a devastating cyclone that killed hundreds of thousands in Bangladesh, Abed – a relatively wealthy professional who had studied in England – founded BRAC, intending it to be solely an immediate relief effort. However, once he began this work, he realized development required a lifelong commitment – and that he would be in it for the long haul. BRAC transformed over time from an emergency relief organization to one focused on rural and community development for the long-run.

Sir Abed was inspiring because he embodied some of the qualities I most admire in good leaders: he was self-critical, self-aware, honest about failures, hardworking, and humble.

Sir Abed was eloquent but soft-spoken, almost surprisingly so for the leader of such a large international development organization, illustrating the qualities of ‘quiet leadership.’ He was inspiring in his humility and down to earth nature, without a trace of arrogance in his demeanor. And perhaps most of all, he was open about the challenges BRAC has faced and continues to face over the years. An intern asked Sir Abed how he feels 40 years later, having built such a large and incredible organization. Did he feel proud of all he had achieved? His response was that BRAC still has a long ways to go in improving development in Bangladesh; their work is far from over. He was glad, certainly, to note BRAC’s progress – but recognized how much more there is to do in Bangladesh. He was focused on the future, on improving the organization, on pushing to be better. He realized that BRAC could not afford complacency.

It is clear that this attitude of self-improvement, honesty, and humility permeates the organization from the highest leadership levels to the grassroots volunteers and field workers. BRAC considers itself a ‘learning organization’ because it constantly recognizes its mistakes and innovates solutions to improve its programs. In 1980, one of BRAC’s earliest employees, David Korten, identified BRAC’s strength as a learning organization, noting that BRAC has an “unusual capacity for rapid learning through the constant identification, acknowledgement, and correction of its own errors.” In his book about BRAC, Ian Smillie writes that one of BRAC’s strengths is “its acknowledgment of failure as part of the learning process.” As Smillie comments in Freedom from Want, BRAC was, even at the organization’s founding,

 …Brutally honest about what had been achieved and about what they had learned. They also demonstrated a clear ability to roll with the punches, adapting to new circumstances and better understanding. The average aid recipient would shrink from the idea of describing so many setbacks to its primary donor. But this kind of report would be typical of the BRAC approach over time. The idea was not to prove that they had all the answers before they started, but to find out what worked and apply the lessons.

 A quick look at reports published by BRAC-RED, BRAC’s Research and Evaluation Division, reveals that the organization is not afraid to be honest and relentlessly self-critical, using data to precisely monitor and evaluate its programs. BRAC-RED’s reports never fail to point out the gaps in service delivery and suggestions for improvement, thus exemplifying the organization’s capacity to be honest, learn, and innovate. Even conversations with senior management reveal that HRLS is eager to hear criticisms of the program and fresh outside perspectives, rather than shying away from negative feedback. In addition, BRAC’s “capacity to learn is supported by the proximity of senior management to the ground, which enables senior managers and field staff to communicate constantly about what is working (or otherwise).” New ideas and innovative solutions are welcomed at all levels of the organization, and the experiences of field staff eventually do work their way up the ladder to be implemented by BRAC. Although the organization is not perfect, the fact that staff take a critical perspective to their work is inspiring – and is a hallmark of its success.

Meeting Sir Abed taught me several things: the value of humility, the power of ‘quiet’ leadership, and the importance of organizational learning, openness, and honesty. These principles have helped BRAC constantly innovate and never take its progress for granted, and I believe that these leadership qualities are essential for the next generation of leaders in social justice, human rights, and development efforts.


Good to Great and the Social Sectors, by Jim Collins, is a wonderful monograph that highlights some important, spot-on thoughts regarding leadership and excellence in the social sector (Thanks to Allison Jones for the book!). Although it is meant to be read alongside the original “Good to Great” book, I read it separately and still gleaned a number of useful insights. Here are a few main thoughts and principles from the monograph:

 “We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’”

 Jim Collins writes that he’s been told that non-profits are in desperate need of greater discipline. But his response: is that really a business concept? Most businesses, too, are in need of greater discipline. There are many mediocre businesses that simply lack a culture of relentless discipline; this is hardly a business concept, but rather a principle of greatness – for organizations in any sector. I strongly agree: there seems to be a trend towards encouraging non-profits to behave more like businesses. But what we are really saying is that non-profits need to adopt certain principles in order to be great. You can find great non-profits with a culture of discipline, and you can also find poor non-profits and businesses that lack this basic quality. As Collins writes, “The critical distinction is not between business and social, but between great and good. We need to reject the naïve imposition of the ‘language of business’ on the social sectors, and instead jointly embrace a language of greatness.” I could not agree more. I just don’t believe that encouraging non-profits to behave more like businesses is helpful or productive; we have to dig deeper to find the right qualities we seek to encourage in the social sector. We have to focus on cultivating greatness – not making NGOs run more like corporations.

“I recently opened the pages of a business magazine that rated charities based in part on the percentage of budget spent on management, overhead and fundraising. It’s a well-intentioned idea, but reflects profound confusion between inputs and outputs.” 

Collins goes on to give the example of athletic departments and coaching salaries; Stanford University has a higher coaching cost structure than some other Division I schools, and has also secured awards for best performance for the past 10 years. Stanford Athletics has done an exceptional job, but we wouldn’t then rank Stanford as “less great,” simply because of its higher salary structure, would we? No – we’d look at the bottom line, at the results. Why should it be any different for many organizations in the social sector? Why would we rank non-profits based on how little they pay their staff? We need to redefine how we look at non-profit success, and instead look at achievement and outputs. While its true that many non-profit outputs are not clearly measureable, I still believe we can become better at separating good from great organizations through detailed assessments and evidence.

 “Social sector organizations increasingly look to business for leadership models and talent, yet I suspect we will find more true leadership in the social sectors than the business sector… True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to.”

In non-profits and social sector organizations, we’re often dealing with groups of volunteers and board members who don’t necessarily have to follow your decisions. Leading in this type of situation is even more difficult – it means inspiring enough that people follow you, despite having a choice not to. Social sector leadership means providing incentives other than money to staff and volunteers, and it involves making solid decisions about who you choose for your team.

 Ultimately, a few principles of greatness include discipline, measuring results, and strong leadership – but these are not necessarily ‘business’ concepts, but rather concepts correlated with great organizations. We need to stop comparing non-profits with businesses, and rather begin looking at what sets great organizations apart from the rest. This will help us begin building great – not good – non-profits in the social sector.


In a short, but great, article on Legal Aid in Bangladesh, Ian Morrison, Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid Reform Project, has provided a useful macro-level criticism of the legal aid system as it stands. He writes,

 It is far easier and more immediately rewarding to work with NGOs, who have mastered the discourse of access to justice that donors want to hear, who can produce results fairly quickly and who can provide a more holistic service approach than will ever be possible under government legal aid. Nevertheless, the value of this approach in the long term must be questioned. Despite huge budgets (relatively speaking), legal aid NGOs still do not provide coverage to more than about one third of the country, and not always then to the most needy.

Although NGOs are all about legal empowerment, rights-based approaches, and the other fashionable trends of modern access to justice, at the end of the day NGOs, no matter how good their work, are not politically accountable and are not inside the system. Legal aid from NGOs cannot be claimed as legal and constitutional right, and when and if donor attention is distracted (as it invariably is at some point), large service edifices will quickly crash. This has in fact happened more than once in Bangladesh. If the current struggle within Bangladesh to strengthen rule of law as a component of democratic practice is to succeed – and it is certainly not a sure thing – then access to justice must be pushed as a value of the legal system itself and government itself must accept its proper responsibility to ensure this.

 What an excellent point, and one we must consider when thinking not just about legal aid – but access to essential services that should be a human right. In Bangladesh, BRAC is frequently decried as a ‘parallel government’ due to its expansive programs – especially in health and education. Many other NGOs, worldwide, too, have to be wary of the impact their programs are having on the state.

NGOs should question: to what extent are they replacing the state and forming a ‘shadow’ state? Are civil society groups weakening the state’s resolve to provide high-quality services? How can NGOs instead collaborate with the government in service delivery? How can NGOs work to create demand amongst communities for basic human rights and service delivery from the government?

I don’t have answers to these questions – but I do believe that the current system is not necessarily sustainable, financially or otherwise, for the long run. What happens if funding runs out and an NGO closes? What if NGOs simply decide to change their programs based on funding restrictions? Can communities really demand better services from NGOs? Thus, I believe that for basic services, including legal aid, to become a basic human right and accountable to the people, governments themselves must begin taking on the responsibility for service delivery. Only then can communities have some sense of stability, continuity and accountability when it comes to high-quality social, legal, and health services.


In an age of increasing emphasis on international development and social justice efforts, the non-profit has become the status quo platform for social change activism. In the 1960s, radical movements for social change were challenging the capitalist status quo. Around the same time, foundations began increasingly forming as ways for the wealthy to support charitable giving while shielding their incomes from taxation. With the rise of foundations came the formation of the 501(c)(3) status regulated by the federal government, since foundations could make tax-deductible donations to non-profits. Early on, foundations began shaping radical organizing and Third World liberation movements into forms that would not challenge capitalism. Those who previously would have joined radical movements began forming non-profits due to the availability of funding; ultimately, movements have become co-opted into groups that do good, but are unable to challenge broader societal injustices and structures of oppression in our world.

This is the phenomenon described in “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” where social movements to challenge injustice and exploitation have been co-opted and transformed into more non-threatening forms that perpetuate the status quo.

My experience working and volunteering with a number of non-profits has shown me the tangible benefits they provide for the poor and marginalized worldwide. However, there have been myriad negative consequences of the “NGOization” of grassroots social movements:

1) Foundations allow non-profits to do work, but ultimately limit the work they do:

As Adjoa Florencia Jones de Almeida of Sista II Sista Collective writes in one of the book’s essays, “What has happened to the great civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s? Where are the mass movements of today within this country? The short answer: They got funded. Social justice groups and organizations have become limited as they’ve been incorporated into the nonprofit model.”

Although foundation funding provides non-profits with the ability to function, the availability of funding ultimately molds the work of non-profits. First, social change groups are forced to market themselves in ways that will appeal to funders. That means packaging the group’s work neatly to target the specific priorities of foundations – even if that may not be the organization’s priority. It means using certain wording or complicated jargon to appeal to funders. Sometimes, it can even mean portraying communities served as victims and voiceless, rather than with strength and agency. Sometimes, non-profits have to portray themselves as saviors to get funding.

Beyond marketing and communications, funding shapes the very essence of our work. Instead of focusing on movement building and strategies for radical change, many non-profits are spending much of their time seeking funding sources, applying to grants, and reporting on the effectiveness of their programs in a way that appeals to funders. Time and energy is spent on fulfilling benchmarks and reaching indicators that foundations seek, rather than on broader social justice movement building – which may not lead to immediate results, and is thus considered “ineffective” by many funders.

2) We are no longer accountable to the poor and marginalized.

“We as activists are no longer accountable to our constituents or members because we don’t depend on them for our existence. Instead, we’ve become primarily accountable to public and private foundations as we try to prove to them that we are still relevant and efficient and thus worthy of continued funding,” writes de Almeida.

Indeed, foundations have their own priorities and their own agendas. Many foundations refuse to fund organizations that get involved in any sort of “lobbying” or political advocacy. But sometimes, political advocacy is needed to actually change things on a large scale. Some foundations ask non-profits to add more “innovative” programs to their proposals – or will suggest changes to proposed programs based on what funders feel is their current “priority area.” Simply doing what you believe is needed is not enough: you are limited, guided, and pressurized by the preferences and priorities of the foundations themselves.

Drawn to the allure of millions of dollars of donor money, small non-profits cave in and tailor their very programs to what foundations are hoping to fund. Instead of doing what they really feel is needed, or what the poor and oppressed groups they serve are demanding, non-profits start programs they believe that foundations will fund. They figure that some money and recognition is better than none at all – so they completely shift themselves accordingly.

They are no longer truly accountable to constituents, beneficiaries or the communities they serve; instead, they cater to the needs of funders and donors. Non-profits, too, have thus succumbed to the idea that “money is power.”

3) Non-profits are taking the role of the state as essential services are being ‘NGOized’

Due to the plentiful foundation funding for programs – both domestically and internationally – related to health, education, mental health, legal aid, housing, food, water, emergency shelter, nutrition, and sanitation (among others), NGOs and international aid agencies have began to provide a range of basic services. Especially internationally, international development organizations have essentially begun to overtake the state by providing everything from emergency disaster relief to long-term healthcare, education, and housing.

Many of these programs should indeed be provided by the state. Governments have obligations to dedicate their budgets to improving and protecting the basic human rights of their citizens. While aid agencies and non-profits can and certainly should fill gaps, they should not take the role of the state. Besides, the proliferation of NGO and foundation funding may even serve to weaken the state. In particular, governments might have less incentive to really invest in these essential services if they feel the job is already being done by non-profits.

4) We are encouraged to compete, rather than collaborate. 

As we search for foundation funding, non-profits increasingly find themselves competing with similar groups for money – rather than collaborating. Amara H. Pérez of Sisters in Action for Power writes, “In the “movement market,” organizations competing for limited funding are, most commonly, similar groups doing similar work across the country. Not only does the movement market encourage organizations to focus solely on building and funding their own work, it can create uncomfortable and competitive relationships between groups most alike—chipping away at any semblance of a movement-building culture.”

I have experienced this personally. I have seen non-profit leaders and activists put their own organization first – even if it means putting a fellow non-profit down, refusing to share resources or knowledge, criticizing similar organizations, or sabotaging another group’s ability to get funding.  Not only does competition for scarce resources prevent collaboration and movement building, but it actively encourages tearing down fellow activists to further one’s own cause. Very sad, but sometimes true.

5) We now have so many employees, but too few revolutionaries.

As de Almeida writes, “Would the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Landless Workers Movement members in Brazil have been able to develop their radical autonomous societies if they had been paid to attend meetings and to occupy land? If these mass movements had been their jobs, it would have been very easy to stop them by merely threatening to pull their paychecks.”

Nowadays, many people work for a salary rather than because they truly believe in the movement. We now have more employees, but fewer people willing to dedicate themselves to a true struggle for social justice. Getting paid can change the way we operate; we start expecting a salary and become comfortable, less likely to step out of a comfort zone or truly challenge unjust systems. We are less likely to take to the streets or do whatever it takes to fight injustice. We start seeing this as a “non-profit career” and seek to develop ourselves professionally. We are less likely to do unpaid work, and we become less likely to sacrifice if the movement demands it.

Some of the most incredible movements have risen from groups of people working together, building something out of nothing, and engaging in radical activism that challenged the status quo – for free. The largest movement builders on our planet – from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to Wangari Maathai and the South African shack dwellers – did not exactly do it for the pay.

What is the way forward?

Undeniably, the work of non-profits and foundations has made a difference in reducing poverty, advancing human rights discourse, and saving millions of lives over the past few decades.

But going forward, we must reimagine this dominant model of social change and create one that can more effectively challenge exploitative social and economic structures. This is a tall order, and not an easy task. But it begins with small steps. As we learn from the revolutions sparked across the Middle East, change is not easy and carries many costs. But it may require going beyond a traditional non-profit model, sitting in air-conditioned boardrooms while writing proposals and logframes that wax poetic about the poor.

We can: start accepting funds on our own terms, with the alternative being non-compliance and boycotts of foundation money. We can: refuse to accept money from foundations that don’t share our values, and from organizations that try to limit or change our work. We can: start from the needs of our communities, and instead organize and crowdfund the money we need, without strings attached. We can: choose hybrid models such as social enterprises, where our constituents themselves are our customers, and where we can harness market forces to fund radical social justice movements. We can: join hands and work together to better align the priorities of foundations and donors with what we know are the needs of the people we serve.

We can: keep speaking of our communities in ways that empower rather than victimize, provide greater opportunities for marginalized communities to speak out themselves, and lead the charge for greater collaboration. We can build organizations – giving circles – and foundations! – that are led by the poor, minorities, and the oppressed. We can organize, mobilize, and brainstorm ways to challenge the status quo without writing a proposal first. And we can show our commitment by organizing for radical change on the side – for free. We can begin fighting the non-profit industrial complex, but only if we hold on to – and fight for – our values within this movement.