One of the oldest debates inside activist circles is whether activists should be paid staff for foundation-funded organizations or unpaid volunteers dedicating their lives to a movement for the love of a cause.
It’s probably true that volunteer grassroots activists aren’t as beholden to funders — be they foundations, corporate sponsors, or individual donors with political agendas — which means they’re typically the groups pushing the envelope, using more controversial tactics such as direct action, and communicating a strong, uncompromising message.
It’s fair to say that, more often than not, an unpaid activist unencumbered by the influence of money is free to do what she truly believes is best for the cause, without worrying so much about the consequences. However, one issue with unpaid activism is that a lack of accountability to funders means an organization need not be compelled to measure its mission-driven deliverables or effectiveness over time.
On the other hand, a paycheck ensures that an activist spend a certain amount of time doing specific tasks every week. Unlike many volunteers, paid staff must regularly undertake assigned duties and, if they fail to do so, they can be fired and replaced. Paid activists are often expected to have certain qualifications or experience that volunteers might not. A paid activist is more likely to stick around at an organization longer because it’s their meal ticket and therefore probably their top priority, unlike many volunteers who often have to, understandably, prioritize other paid non-activist work.
In paid activism, funding often drives priorities. For example, certain corporate foundations tend to mainly fund organizations looking to reform a particular system, rather than dismantle it. Forest advocacy organizations seeking to collaborate with the timber industry to plan lower impact logging sales have historically accessed more grants than organizations looking to, say, end the federal timber sale program altogether. Often time, consciously or unconsciously, the goals of a foundation can influence an organization’s priorities, projects, and sometimes even its mission.
Having worked with organizations that run the gamut from well-funded, to partially-funded, to not funded at all, I’ve usually found that the more funding an organization receives, the clearer its deliverables, but the weaker its stance.
Though this might be a trend within certain (though not all) movements, a well-funded organization doesn’t always has to have a milder position and an unfunded organization doesn’t always have to be unaccountable for its day-to-day tasks. For instance, a “radical” organization can still get grant funding for some of its more widely-accepted projects and then conduct its more hard core activism for free or by raising money from individual donors or fundraising events.
Another major difference between paid groups and volunteer groups is that paid groups typically employ a top-down decision making process, with decisions usually made by an executive director or board of directors and carried out by the rest of the staff. Meanwhile, volunteer groups are often more grassroots, making use of group or consensus-based decision making. Which isn’t to say that grassroots groups aren’t influenced by a few individuals – or even a single person – but, technically, with grassroots advocacy, power is available to anyone who wants to put in the time.
Volunteers are the backbone of any people’s movement and the essence of the grassroots. But not everyone can spend hours of free time working for a cause, which is why we find a disproportionate number of college-aged and retired volunteers, with a wide gap between twenty and fifty. If more funding was available to pay activists, perhaps those who aren’t in a situation to volunteer for free could spend more time working for a movement.
You can probably always get volunteers to table at a rock concert. But a lot of activism, such as writing grants and building websites, isn’t exactly sexy, and it’s tough to get people to do this grunt work without some compensation.
Of course, most paid activism is barely that, as in it’s not compensated very well compared to other careers requiring similar skills and commitment. Those looking to make a living wage, buy a home, and start a family might find it challenging with the salaries or hourly wages paid by most nonprofits. Pretty much the only paid activists who could even be considered “well off” are the executive directors of the big environment groups, like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy.
The reality is that, like it or not, much of our society is based on money. While it’s ideal for an organization to remain completely volunteer, is it enough for a group to stay pure in its mission if it can’t compete with the amount of product, PR, and visibility of a well-funded, milder organization working on the same issue? It may benefit a volunteer, grassroots organization to dedicate a larger percentage of its time to fundraising and measuring its own effectiveness, so it can start paying some activists and get more projects launched in a community to garner more support.
Likewise, those grassroots organizations that are already sort of paying activists might want to start paying a living wage and offering health insurance – pretty basic in most legitimate career paths – so they can retain those with the most skill and experience, and not lose them to better-funded organizations with weaker stances.