Social Justice Nonprofits Facing Multiple Threats Need Solidarity and Support


by Deepa Iyer, Senior Director, Strategic Initiatives

In today’s polarized political climate, nonprofit organizations are contending with a range of issues that could hamper their vital work to advance systems change, equity, and justice. At Building Movement Project, we are in the midst of a research study to better understand the scope of external threats affecting nonprofits that advocate and mobilize around reproductive justice, immigrant rights, race equity, LGBTQ rights, and Palestinian solidarity. Our preliminary analysis reveals that nonprofits are dealing with a range of concerns, such as threats to physical, digital and personal safety, negative media characterizations, actual or threatened litigation, and reduction in funding. 

Now, another arena of concern is emerging in the form of investigations, legislation, and inquiries by state and federal government entities targeting nonprofit organizations. For example, a recent bill passed in the House and introduced in the Senate (H.R. 6408/S. 4136) authorizes the Treasury Department with the ability to unilaterally designate certain US nonprofits as terrorist-supporting organizations. Upon making such a designation, the Secretary of Treasury would be permitted to strip nonprofits of tax-exempt status and constructively shut them down. In response, a broad array of advocacy groups called on the Senate to reject the “dangerous and Orwellian” bill.  Civil liberties advocates have also noted that this legislation is unnecessary (given existing anti-terrorism laws), lacks sufficient due process protections, and places the onus on nonprofits to defend themselves.    

Even more disturbing is that the current congressional efforts to scrutinize nonprofits are focused on a set of organizations that are vocal and visible about their stances on the genocide in Gaza and Palestinian rights. In a May 14 letter to Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen, two congressional committees demanded that the Treasury Department produce any Suspicious Activity Reports (SARS) connected to 20 named nonprofit organizations working with Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim communities, as well as several foundations. In the letter, lawmakers claim that they intend to investigate the sources of financing for groups involved with “pro-Hamas, antisemitic, anti-Israel, and anti-American protests” on college campuses. Additionally, 16 Senators wrote to the IRS this month asking for an investigation of National Students for Justice in Palestine and many of its funders; and, at the state level, the Virginia Attorney General opened an investigation of American Muslims for Palestine back in October 2023.  

These efforts are reminiscent of other shameful periods in American history, from the House Un-American Activities Committee to COINTELPRO to the scrutiny of Black Lives Matter activists, when the federal government surveilled, investigated, and discredited organizations and individuals for their political stances. After 9/11, government agencies relied upon the USA Patriot Act and other measures to target Muslim charities which resulted in the termination of the Holy Land Foundation and convictions of several of its leaders for providing “material support” to a terrorist organization. 

In today’s climate, the scrutiny of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim nonprofits reaches even further than before. Now, organizations are being scrutinized for engaging in constitutionally protected activities and speech that may run counter to political views held by lawmakers. The Charity and Security Network warns about the impact of “the parade of horribles…that uses the targeting of charities as a vehicle for larger political motives.” It sets a dangerous precedent for political misuse in the future.  

Impact on Nonprofits 

Overall, nonprofits are navigating the current political climate with trepidation. The written responses to BMP’s survey reveal the challenges faced by nonprofit leaders and staff. One respondent noted: “I am more concerned about safety of staff and board members from lawsuits [and] harassment.” Another wrote: “Community funding has nearly dried up because of our position on the unfolding genocide in Gaza.” One leader recounted: “I had to evacuate my home and pull my young children out of school because of a credible death threat. The whole purpose is to silence, marginalize and inactivate us.” 

The specter of government scrutiny only adds to these relentless pressures. Government scrutiny can lead to a chilling effect that could hinder the active engagement of nonprofits in civil society. Groups may be worried about drawing attention for speaking out, partnering with, or supporting certain campaigns and causes, and instead choose to work under the radar or change their programming and public communications altogether. Still others may have no choice but to find and allocate funds towards legal counsel, accounting, audits, and public relations, as well as heightened security for physical offices, individual leaders, and digital information. 

Given that many groups are also contending with high rates of burnout and vicarious and direct trauma among staff members, the additional burden of addressing threats to organizational safety and security can take a significant toll on morale and sustainability. Without adequate infrastructure to support these groups, they may not be able to withstand the barrage of threats facing them in the long run.

Supporting a Robust Nonprofit Ecosystem

Philanthropy and nonprofit partners can take a number of steps to protect and preserve nonprofit organizations impacted by increased scrutiny. Most importantly, philanthropic institutions must double down on funding for organizations engaged in mobilization and organizing, particularly those being publicly named and targeted. This includes support for both rapid response and long-term movement infrastructure, from base building to ecosystem coordination to cross-movement partnerships. Philanthropic institutions can also release public statements of support for their grantees and push back against misleading narratives and speculation about groups.

Additionally, philanthropic institutions must provide preparedness funding for nonprofits in the form of legal support, digital safety trainings and products, and data management. Examples include Contigo Fund, created in the wake of the Pulse shooting in Florida, and the Proteus Fund’s Grantee Security and Safety Fund established to support physical and digital safety, as well as health and wellness for frontline groups. It is also vital to immediately support the development of nonprofit operations infrastructure around data management, financial systems, digital security, crisis communications and legal defense that can support an entire ecosystem of groups that are being targeted now or could be scrutinized in the future.   

The nonprofit sector as a whole must also come together. This could include speaking out and joining statements of solidarity, or sharing infrastructure with smaller organizations in the form of trainings, joint fundraising, and legal support. Consultants, grant writers, and capacity builders could provide pro bono support to organizations facing external threats.  

In 2020, Kim Klein reflected on the post 9/11 era and how it eroded the public trust in nonprofits. She wrote: “Now many young nonprofits and their staffs have no ability to live in this new, much colder, world.” We face another inflection moment currently. It is time for all of us in the nonprofit sector and beyond to step up our support for organizations being acutely impacted in this moment, to build our collective strength, and to be a united force against the divide and conquer strategies that threaten nonprofits and social movements today. 

Additional Resources:

Movement Infrastructure Reports from Building Movement Project (Link)

Constructing Solidarity Narratives in Challenging Times (Link)

Deepa Iyer is the Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Building Movement Project where she supports solidarity practice, education, and narratives.

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