A friend who works on Organizing Upgrade’s Fast Forum, which is an awesome online ‘plenary on the go’ where some of the movement’s sharpest minds chime in on pressing topics, asked me to co-author a short article on the limitations of the nonprofit structure for radical social change. So, along with Common Fire co-founder Kavitha Rao, I wrote a piece about how and why The Common Fire Foundation uses a nonprofit entity to work on radical community building projects. Below is what we came up with.
Common Fire and the NonProfit Structure: A Bridge to Tomorrow
Common Fire is a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation. It supports the creation of intentional communities that are geared toward the transformation of society, from the inside out and the ground up. We seek to build a world that is more loving, joyful, just and sustainable, one community at a time.
Like many of our colleagues working toward a more just and sustainable world, we too recognize, not only the shortcomings of the nonprofit structure as a long-term solution to the troubles of our time, but we also believe that the current social, environmental and cultural crises we now face cannot be remedied at the same level of thought that produced said crises. Given this, we are committed to personal transformation, nonviolent communication as the basis of sustainable relationships and alliances, and cooperative communities organized around resource sharing and consensus based decision-making. These features are the cornerstone of our work in the area of intentional community building; features that we envision will eventually supplant the “individual” of (neo)liberalism and its attendant “rights,” as well as capitalist notions of individual property ownership over land, food, and other vital resources.
At the same time, we are quite clear that community building at this scale – multi-acre cohousing facilities with organic farmland, retreat centers and other buildings – requires considerable amounts of funding and still occurs within the existing legal, economic and political cultures we seek to transform. So, we use the nonprofit structure to negotiate the dominant culture. For us, the non-profit is a tool we harness toward an end that was not originally intended for it: radical social change. Our board is comprised of people who hold the vision of the organization and who actively expand the capacity of Common Fire to carry out its mission. Thus, unlike traditional BODs, which tend to be comprised of big donors, lawyers and the like, our board is full of innovative change-makers.
In our hands, the non-profit structure enables us to support grassroots groups as they organize themselves into shared housing and cooperative economic communities that put the transformative values above into practice. Through the non-profit structure, we are able to provide community groups with training opportunities in areas like nonviolent communication, grassroots fundraising, sustainable building practices, and permaculture. The non-profit entity also enables us to provide concrete support like bank accounts and legal resources to the communities with which we partner. Most importantly, the non-profit helps us secure financing for land acquisition, which is a feat that would be fairly difficult for the groups we are currently partnered with in New York and California, where their individual economic realities keep them rooted in their current class position. In community people are able to experience relief from the economic and social burdens of living as nuclear families and single people. Our ultimate goal is to shift the underlying culture by creating communities that model what future societies can look like.