How to Be Both: Negotiating Professionalism and Activism in the Nonprofit Sector
Haverford College. Department of Sociology
Place of Publication
Table of Contents
In this paper, I identify a conflict between professionalism and activism in the contemporary U.S. nonprofit sector (NPS). These two dimensions of the sector conflict in that they value and prioritize different facets of the NPS, are structured by different institutional logics, and have incompatible attitudes toward rationalization processes. I make the argument that the professionalism impulse shaping the sector threatens to overpower and displace the activism impulse. To evidence the conflict between activism and professionalism, I interviewed 12 nonprofit professionals employed at food justice organizations in Philadelphia and New York. From these interviews, I learned that despite the increasing professionalization of the NPS, nonprofit employees continue to enact the activist core of the sector by drawing motivation from personal activist commitments, approaching optimization and efficiency-maximizing processes with skepticism, centralizing community organizing and advocacy in their work, and strategically using relationships with funders to further their goals. Finally, I question what is at stake when all activism within a social movement landscape is confined within organizational forms.