3 min read

Current social trends are replacing the associational life with the “managerial life.”

Leaders of nonprofit organizations have faced a litany of challenges in 2020. One challenge has loomed large in recent months: responding to critiques about how racism and other biases have shaped the status quo.

It isn’t easy to craft an institutional response to any challenge, let alone a wicked one like racism. Even well-meaning boards and executives are apt to make “tone deaf” decisions, putting themselves at odds with community members, their own staff, and prospective funders alike.

Tracking the responses of nonprofit board members and executives reveals the continuation of two important and at least mildly troubling trends in American civil society.


One trend has to do with shifting beliefs about how social change occurs. The blogger Tanner Greer has argued that Americans once believed social change is effected via, in Tocqueville’s formulation, the “free action of the combined power of individuals.” Nowadays, we instead seem to operate under the belief that, as Greer puts it, “solving problems means petitioning the powers that be.”

It’s an important distinction, one that positions us not as citizens of a democracy but rather, increasingly, as subjects of a bureaucracy. Affecting change amounts to filing appeal after appeal in a fervent quest to “get management to take our side.”

What’s wrong with this approach? Perhaps nothing, if you can get management to take your side. When reformers and advocates successfully convince the leaders of big entities like Harvard or the Ford Foundation to introduce thoughtful new initiatives to combat racism, it makes a difference. But introducing more enlightened policies at behemoth organizations may only further entrench the hegemony and influence of those organizations, thereby also reinforcing the legitimacy of the bureaucrats who manage them.


Which brings me to the second important trend. Nearly twenty years ago in her book Diminished Democracy, the sociologist Theda Skocpol noted a shift “from membership to management” in the way many Americans, and particularly upper-class Americans, participated in voluntary associations. Skocpol says that “locally vibrant voluntary membership federations—such as the American Legion, the Elks, and the PTA” have been supplanted by “professionally run advocacy groups and nonprofits … a very new mix of largely memberless voluntary organizations.”

What’s the upshot? Membership-based organizations like the YMCA and United Methodist Women once functioned as laboratories for democracy, with local chapters sending delegates as representatives to assemblies at the regional and national level. What’s more, such associations tended to link members of disparate social classes (even as they remained racially segregated). Now a greater number of associations are dedicated to various kinds of advocacy, and they’re run by college-educated professionals.

Since she described this shift twenty years ago, it has become, if anything, more pronounced. Political scientist Michal Lind has more recently lamented “the withdrawal of political elites from membership in cross-class organizations, in favor of working for nonprofit organizations or joining nonprofit boards whose staffs and members tend to belong to the college-educated overclass.”

Among this college-educated “overclass”—variously known as the “managerial class,” “professional bourgeoisie,” and “professional-managerial class”—one of the surest ways to build out a resume is by serving as a board member of a nonprofit or foundation. It demonstrates leadership. It demonstrates a commitment to giving back. If you’re serving on the board of an arts organization, your peers may assume you’re an artistic person. If you’re serving on a political organization, or one involved in politics, board membership can demonstrate that you stand on the correct side of certain social divides.


And even if the nonprofit on whose board you sit has nothing to do with politics, your position on the board still provides you with a “platform,” however small, from which you can perform your fealty to movements and modes of thinking. As Yuval Levin has observed, “We now think of institutions less as formative and more as performative, less as molds of our character and behavior, and more as platforms for us to stand on and be seen.”

Serving as a board member or nonprofit executive is serious and very often sacrificial work. Every organization needs competent, mindful, and dedicated leaders. Sometimes such leaders absolutely must respond in thoughtful ways to complicated social pressures, and they should be applauded when they do so.

But in our ongoing attempts to correct for past wrongs and solve for present inequities, we would be wise to recognize the inherent limitations of appeals to management. And we should be wary when organizations issue “official statements” that are little more than reassuring missives from one group of technocrats to another. Most importantly of all, we should acknowledge that a thriving civil society can be neither constructed nor orchestrated by managers on behalf of bureaucratic subjects.

More and louder appeals to management might lead to some short-term change, but such a strategy may slowly help usher in a new kind of democracy—government by the management, of the management, and for the management.

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