Progress Without Profit: Make room for mutual aid organizations

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The nonprofit sector can easily be mistaken as a monolith of organizations trying to do good. Grouping all different kinds of organizations under this label is convenient. But, factors such as size, structure and effectiveness draw distinct lines within the sector. This past year highlighted differences between organizations, shattering any notions of homogeneity. Amidst the crisis, some nonprofit organizations simply worked better than others.

When large charities could not efficiently and quickly provide on-the-ground support during the onset of the coronavirus, mutual aid organizations rose to the occasion and gained long overdue public recognition. While mutual aid organizations initially surged due to the coronavirus, there’s no indication, over a year later, of an imminent downfall. Moving forward, mutual aid organizations’ emphasis on community, solidarity and reciprocity are a blueprint for future work in other areas of the nonprofit sector. 

For those, like me, who didn’t previously know the precise definition of mutual aid organizations, I want to underscore their distinction from charitable organizations. Mutual aid uses reciprocal relationships and collaboration to combat societal problems within communities. 

In response to the coronavirus, for example, the Los Angeles Mutual Aid Community Network offered grocery store deliveries, childcare, errand-running and mental health support for undocumented people, those facing homelessnness and older adults, among others. A person who picks up groceries or a prescription for a neighbor in need can later receive support, such as extra cash or childcare, from other members of the community network.  

Grass-roots organizations, community leaders and members and local nonprofits all take part in various mutual aid networks, which number 800 across the country. Rather than wealthy individuals acting as gatekeepers for charitable giving in a foundation, mutual aid organizations disperse power across a community. This allows a community to address its own needs, instead of depending on the whims and decisions of others. 

At a fundamental level, mutual aid organizations cultivate a relationship, whereas charities only give. Mutual aid organizations create sustained alliances, whereas a charity donates money to a community after a disaster in a one-way exchange. 

Although mutual aid organizations recently gained mainstream recognition, they’ve been a staple of marginalized communities for years. In the 19th and 20th centuries the poor and working class of the labor movement created “fraternal societies” to provide health care and paid leave across the country. In the 1960s, Black Panthers created a free-breakfast program that fed 20,000 children. After a devastating tornado in Greensboro, N.C. in 2018, a predominately Black, working class community came together to provide food, clothing to those who’d lost homes. Despite white and wealthy philanthropists only recently acknowledging the success of mutual aid, for centuries marginalized communities have helped themselves through this process.

A common critique of charity is that it only responds to systemic issues without actively fixing the root of the problem. On the other hand, mutual aid organizations strengthen community bonds to prevent problems from occurring in the first place. In this way, charities can learn from mutual aid’s preventative measures. Empowering communities to form strong networks sustains long-term impact in a way that a one-time grant simply cannot. 

Currently, however, most mutual aid organizations do not exist outside of metropolitan areas and major cities. Hopefully, as more people see the value in mutual aid organizations, work in big cities will be replicated in smaller communities across the country. Partnerships between community members and smaller, local nonprofits would hasten this expansion. 

While mutual aid is nothing new, it took on a more prominent role this past year by filling gaps left behind by the government and big charities’ response to the pandemic. Mutual aid paints a hopeful future in which neighbors support one another in the here and now, instead of relying on help delayed by bureaucratic tape or grant requirements. 

Without a conventional hierarchical structure, organization and source of funding, mutual aid’s survival depends on the passion and selflessness of communities. The pandemic demonstrated how community bonds can supersede other forms of support, something the nonprofit sector can learn from and reflect on during its continual process of change and reinvention. 

Sophie Roppe is a junior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice. Her column, “Progress Without Profit,” runs every other Monday.