8 reasons we've got change all wrong

A significant change is afoot.

The world is slowly awakening to the fact that we have been going the wrong way.

We have swallowed a lie. We have been telling each other a story that is not true.

It is this lie that places YOU and I at the center of change for the poor.

And I'm sorry to break it to you. But we are not the stars in this story.

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex is built almost entirely on this myth. It goes like this:

  1. The most important resource required to transform poverty is money.
  2. Therefore, the more money we raise the more change we can bring for the poor. 
  3. Rich Westerners have lots of money.
  4. Therefore, rich Westerners are the most important stakeholders in change for the poor.

As it slowly dawns on the world that the cause of poverty is not scarcity but inequality, we need new ideas, labels and frameworks. The old Charity, NGO, Non-Profit, model will no longer suffice. These organizations will continue to play a part, sure, on the periphery. But we must allow grassroots movements, the poor themselves, back to their rightful place at the center of their own transformation.

Someone has said that Charity is offering crumbs from the table, while justice is giving the poor a place at the table.

I now believe that it's time we dismantled the table altogether and re-organize with structures that work for the poor first and foremost. 

I've been experimenting with this for years, most of that time as the leader of various Non-Profits. So, I speak as an insider. Here are 8 ways we see clearly the contrast between the Non-Profit Industrial Complex approach and the Movement approach. I have added examples from the Alongsiders movement to help flesh it out for you (not because we've figured this out, but because we've been experimenting with these ideas):

Some of the marginalized young Christians in the Alongsiders movement who take on one of their vulnerable neighbors as a "little brother" or "little sister"

Some of the marginalized young Christians in the Alongsiders movement who take on one of their vulnerable neighbors as a "little brother" or "little sister"

1. PRIMARY CONCERN

The primary concern of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (evidenced by the amount of effort and resources that go into it) is to MARKET to an ever larger Western audience and subsequently raise more money. The importance of donors is central. Clever gimmicks, celebrity endorsers, slick marketing and massive fundraising events are the bread and butter of Non-Profits. 

In contrast, the primary concern of a Movement is to MOBILIZE and EQUIP an army of people from the margins. The focus is on community insiders among the poor, often "the least", the vulnerable, children, and the most marginalized (in other words the very opposite of celebrity endorsers).

The former places the emphasis and spotlight on donors. The latter places the emphasis on what God is doing in people, especially the poorest.

For example, Alongsiders is a movement seeking to mobilize and equip Christian youth to reach out to kids in their own communities. It is a movement of the poor, for the poor. They are the stars of this movement for change, not us.

2. INFLUENCE

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex is about more people hearing OUR message.  That message is centered on encouraging donors to feel that their dollars will make a big difference. Once again, donors, the rich and powerful are central. Yes, they will have a role to play. But the tone and heavy emphasis on this is misplaced.

A movement, in contrast, is about more people being heard. It's about amplifying the voices of those who normally are not given a voice. Not merely for the sake of raising more funds, but because the story of change needs to be framed and told by them. 

For example, Alongsiders is about vulnerable children having a voice and being listened to, knowing they are loved, cherished and valued by God. And the movement is shaped and led by the young people who live in those same communities.

3. LEADERSHIP

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex seeks to ordain a select few - the elites, the gifted, the special ones - Leaders! In the countries where Non-Profit founders mostly come from, we highly value meritocracy. As usual, there is some value to this, but we have over-emphasized its importance.

A movement, in contrast, works to ordain and empower the ordinary masses, believing that everyone has something to offer - even the poorest, the least educated, especially the ones who have been labelled "victims".

In Alongsiders, most of the young people involved are nothing "special" in the world's eyes. They are poor, often uneducated (some cannot read), young (some as young as 15 or 16 years old). They are far from the elites of the world. They are not the ones you would choose as movers and shakers. And yet God is using them.

4. GROWTH

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex grows through better, more efficient and clever programming. It is primarily organizational growth. The Non-Profit Industrial Complex grows through steady addition - more clients, more dollars, more buildings, more projects, more staff. 

A Movement grows organically, because it seeks to inspire better DNA in each person. A Movement grows exponentially through multiplication, word of mouth, and peer to peer recruitment.

5. CONTROL

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex seeks to maintain order and control the outcomes. Movements value order and structure but do not seek to control the outcome. Authority in the Non-Profit Industrial Complex is delegated from the top.

In a Movement, authority is delegated out toward the margins.

In other words, you an either have control or growth. You can't have both.

Here's an example of how this works. In Alongsiders, the leaders of the movement (always young local leaders) share the vision with groups of Christian youth, usually through the local church. These marginalized youth are encouraged to recruit and form their own groups of Alongsiders, then pray and choose their own "little brothers and little sisters" and choose their own group leader. There is a built-in screening process via peers and local leadership rather than through the centralized leadership. In this way the movement grows rapidly. 

6. STYLE

In The Non-Profit Industrial Complex, complexity secures the organization's place at the center of things. The organization specializes in order to become indispensable. Jargon is important, and those who can create complex, jargon-filled reports and proposals are central.

In contrast, a Movement is simple yet profound. It can be easily understood and easily replicated by anyone - yet the impact is deep and long-lasting. A movement is simple but not easy. Readily understood and adopted, but always costly for those who give their lives to the movement.

In Alongsiders, the concept is straightforward - walk alongside one vulnerable child each. Anyone can do it, and many do. But the outworking is costly. It requires a long term commitment and sacrifice.

7. TRAINING

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex relies on inspiring teaching events to train people. Big name speakers, cool bands, the latest New York Times bestselling authors - these are the core components of these events. 

In contrast, a Movement seeks to empower EVERYONE to be a trainer in different contexts, learning as they themselves teach others.

In the Alongsiders movement, each Alongsider, even if they can barely read, is tasked with training their "little brother or sister". The primary method of doing this is relational, hanging out, spending time together. We believe that love is better caught than taught. But each Alongsider also receives a comic book lesson to use for training each month. These lessons were developed out of storytelling circles where marginalized young people share their stories and wisdom around a Biblical theme. 

A young Alongsider uses the comic to teach his "little brother" plus some neighbors

A young Alongsider uses the comic to teach his "little brother" plus some neighbors

8. RESULTS

The end result of all the efforts of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex is dependence.

The fruit of a true Movement is interdependence and empowerment.


I do believe there is a place for Non-Profits. They are well suited to fundraising, and some funds are certainly needed (though we need to figure out how to move funding from being the main resource we rely on, and we need to tell the story of change more truthfully).

Non-Profits are also well-placed to do evaluations, research, and monitoring. They can help provide crucial infrastructural support to movements. They can create and supply helpful resources.

But we must work to stop Non-Profits, NGO's, Aid Organizations, Charities, or whatever you want to call them, from placing themselves at the center. It's not a question of either/or, but emphasis and priority.

As Christians, we follow the One who took a little child and placed that child in the center (Mt 18:2). We follow the One who took pains to point out the faith of the widow with her two mites (Lk 21:1-4) and criticized the elites for giving out of their excess.

We follow the One who started, not an organization, but a Movement.

So, which are you investing in?