Does Money Corrupt Activism?

money_bags1One 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.


  1. says

    I know one thing, there are lot of people that are getting really healthy paychecks and not doing anything to earn them.  A lot of funds are going to just certain people, while the rest of the activists work for free, and try do their jobs. Many are untrained, working long hours, who don’t even want compensation, just results. All the while the corrupt orgs and charities fight real change. So we have to fight them as well as abusers, and a system that abuses as a routine, because real change cuts into the need for those donations. Great article but it is missing the fundamental root of the problem with true corruption in activism.

    We are definitely doing the dirty work, while the guys (hsus, ntdm,sntdm, peta, aspca & etc. etc.) running those ops are doing just fine for themselves. Look at their expenses, vs their donations, look to their tax records, go look at their homes etc. Animal Abuse in its many forms, is big business, corruption is huge in our world. Those that are involved are not true activists, lets not call them that. As always, an excellent and thought provoking article. I find that take on the matter, extremely interesting, and look forward to looking at that further with you. You will be hard put, with the large amounts of money given to those agencies, to find a way to start paying volunteer activists, when we are all spending our own money to take care of the animals that are not among the few helped by the big & small orgs, to make up for the money those thieves take to buy their beautiful lifestyles that was meant to take care of the animals with. Plenty has been given to save ALL of them. 

    Activists are giving ALL their time ( need them trained ). We are all donating to each other to save the animals, because the system is so very deeply flawed. Where, how would we give/get paychecks, when we are saving those animals that weren’t saved by the millions/ billions dumped into this movement by donors, INCLUDING ACTIVISTS who don’t know better, that land squarely in the wrong peoples bank accounts? Grassroots. Well, who to trust to donate to anyways, now that EVERY ONE is setting up fundraisers, and many are fake, hiding behind a screen?  I see it daily, ARA’s come to me to check before they give. I have one myself, own 3 acres, paid off land. Funds don’t make it past the corrupt fakes, the big orgs and the urgent cases, etc. Somehow, some don’t  see that if they save them, there must be a place to put them, so starting new rescues is difficult, yet imperative. The activists are strapped for cash, helping as many as they can. The funds do not trickle down.

    We are, the real activists, in fact, saving them ourselves, and sadly cannot save them all. Calling for complete reform as I have and am doing, is in fact, the only answer. Same is happening with the environmental orgs. It is all one big clusterf#*% . Follow the money trail, and you will see what I see. Work up close and personal with activists and you will see they work hours per day. ( Need you guys trained, to kick ass though) There is no shortness on compassion,spirit, strength of will, character and dedication … In fact, I do not hesitate to say this. A true ARA would spend that paycheck on … Animals.  
    I will be back, I have things to show you I think.
    Your article is here.
    I would like to put your article here as well :

  2. says

    Indeed a very debatable issue.
    Myself, no matter how broke I get, I personally won’t ask for donations, because I believe that the activist who asks for money, supposedly in exchange of his/her activism, somehow loose some of his/her credibility, at various degrees depending on the person.
    That is my personal opinion. A lot of people’s opinion differ on this issue. But that is what I personally believe, because I have witnessed that usually those asking for money, soon sensationalize their oupout for the sole intent to raise their audience and the donations coming, thus loosing their impartiality and their integrity in reporting only true reliable facts.

    • says

      But in the end, it is still a matter of individuals, some activists are getting donations, still doing an excellent job and keeping their integrity, some not.
      My advice to would-be donators, is to use discernment, verify the reliability of the person to who you intend to donate to, and don’t waste your hard earned money on fakes and glib jivers.

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