Non-Profit Organizations as Buffers Against Systemic Change

Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID)

July 9, 2018

By Jeff Smith

[Grand Rapids Power Structure: Part IX – Non-Profit Organizations as Buffers Against Systemic Change]

Over the past few months we have been investigating the Grand Rapids Power Structure, beginning with a discussion about its framework in Part I; the most powerful family in Grand Rapids, the DeVos Family, in Part II and in Part III we looked at other members of the most powerful members of the private sector. In Part IV, we looked at the private sector organizations that have power and which individuals sit on the boards of those organizations. 

Four weeks ago, we looked at the next level of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, the local government, in Part V, and three weeks ago we investigated the role and function of the media, within Grand Rapids and how it serves power in Part VI

Two weeks we began to look at how various institutions act as a buffer for systems of power against systemic change, first looking at institutions of higher learning in Part VII and in Part VIII we looked at how Religious Institutions act as a buffer against systemic change in Grand Rapids.

Today, we will look at how Non-Profits play a role in acting as a buffer for systems of power and against systemic change.

First, it is useful to state upfront that when critiquing non-profits, we are not saying that they do no good. There is no simple good/bad binaries when looking at non-profits. Instead, we need to think about how they function within a system, since non-profits rely heavily on outside funding sources, primarily from private foundations, which are essentially tax-havens for rich people who want to influence public policy. Therefore, it is more useful to think of non-profit organizations as being part of a system, which many have identified as the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex is a relationship between the Private Power, the State, foundations, the non-profit/NGO, social service agencies and sometimes social justice organizations. These relationships often result in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements. The feminist group INCITE!, has identified the following ways in which non-profits function as it relates to private and state power.

  • Monitor and control social justice movements;
  • Divert public monies into private hands through foundations;
  • Manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism;
  • Redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society;
  • Allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work;
  • Encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them.


In looking at non-profits in Grand Rapids and their relationship to private power, it is easy to see that these organizations rely heavily on the very foundations run by the wealthiest families who make up the Grand Rapids Power Structure. The DeVos Family foundations, the Van Andel Foundation, the Secchia Foundation, the Cook Foundation, the Frey Foundation and the John & Nancy Kennedy Foundation. These foundations channel millions of dollars to local non-profits, which results in; 1) the non-profits will not speak out about the power these families have in influencing public policy, and 2) the non-profits will not look at the root causes of the issues they are organized to respond to. In fact, the members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, through their efforts to influence public policy, are part of the root cause of the issues that non-profits are responding to.

For instance, look at the issue of poverty and economic inequality. Those in the sector of private power, spend a great deal of money to influence public policy to dismantle unions, end pensions & benefits, reduce public spending for social services and reap the benefits of taxpayer subsidies when they “develop” a new project. These dynamics are major contributors to lower wages, less of a safety net for people who are struggling economically, reducing or eliminating health benefits, plus an increase in housing costs that thousands in Grand Rapids can no longer afford. These same private sector individuals and families, then turn around and contribute funds to local non-profits to provide some services to the very people they have been undermining, except with non-profits they are encouraged to only look at the individual behavior of those experiencing poverty – managing their money better, getting more job training, starting their own business, etc., instead of developing a critique of how these systems function to oppress and exploit them in the first place.

This is fundamentally the difference between non-profit organizations and social movements. Non-profits put bandaids on social problems and never really challenge the systems of power and oppression that cause the problems in the first place. Social Movements, on the other hand, seek to build the capacity of people to take power back into their own hands, to dismantle the systems of power and oppression that caused the injustices and to engage in collective, radical imagination to create a better world.

People can go to to look up the 990s that foundations must submit to find out which non-profits are recipients of their funding. Below is a sampling from a 2016 990 of the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation. This sampling demonstrates that foundations from wealthy people are both designed to fund directly projects that these members of the power structure have helped to create (Grand Rapids Initiative for Leaders) and those which they know will not challenge their power (Grand Rapids Urban League or Hispanic Center of Western Michigan).

Other ways to secure the buffer role of non-profits is to have representatives of the Grand Rapids Power Structure sit on the board of directors of these organizations. For instance, the board of directors for the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan or Kids Food Basket, both have representatives of the local power structure. These relationships will guarantee that those non-profits will not do anything to threaten the system of power that exists. Again, they can provide some important relief to people who are suffering, but they offer no long-term solutions that ultimately challenges the systems and structures which caused the harm in the first place.

Take, for example, the difference in how a non-profit like the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan engages the Latino/Latinx community compared to Movimiento Cosecha.

The Hispanic Center offers programs and services that will benefit individuals or families. These services and programs do provide relief to people who are struggling financially, who need translation services or who are working to gain certain legal status. The Hispanic Center has professional staff to assist these individuals and families to achieve certain goals and they rely heavily on grant money, which is provided by foundations. The Hispanic Center does not address the root causes of the problems that people who utilize their services are dealing with.

In contrast, Movimiento Cosecha GR is a social movement that has a much broader goal of winning dignity, respect and permanent protection for all immigrants. This movement utilizes trained organizers who will then train other people in the same skills. Those involved with Movimiento Cosecha GR are not paid and the fundraising they do is grassroots that relies on general community members to contribute. Cosecha GR has a power analysis and a theory of change to help them achieve their goals, along with the use of tactics and strategies that not only challenges the systems of power and oppression, they provide people with an opportunity to engage in collective liberation. Movimiento Cosecha GR is a horizontal organizations, where no one person is in charge and they do not have a board of directors to answer to. Cosecha GR is committed to addressing the root causes of the current immigration crisis in order to achieve immigrant justice.

In Part X of this series we will look at some of the organizations and movements in Grand Rapids that have the potential to achieve transformative justice, along with some ideas of how we dismantle the Grand Rapids Power Structure and create grassroots, autonomous movements for radical change.


[The Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) was formed in 1998 in response the growing influence of the corporate media. GRIID teaches media literacy, critical thinking skills about how media functions and how it can misinform the public on critical issues like war, race, gender, health, the environment, consumerism and elections.]

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