This fall, I taught a class about mutual aid where we talked a lot about the differences between mutual aid projects that provide direct aid as part of radical movements trying to get to the root causes of problems and charity or social services organizations that provide direct aid in ways that often supplement, stabilize, or sustain violent and coercive hierarchies. We also talked and read about organizations that have started out as mutual aid projects and become social service or charity organizations. We talked about how organizations get de-fanged or co-opted, and what kinds of efforts mutual aid participants make to prevent this. As we read various texts about mutual aid projects from different places and times, I tried to keep track on a chart of some of the qualities and tendencies that seem to be present in mutual aid projects, versus those that seem to define social service or charity projects. I hope this might be a helpful tool for people within organizations providing direct aid to talk to each other about. None of the observations below are meant to be absolutes–many organizations have a mix of these tendencies and qualities. The chart only hopes to suggest that an overwhelming presence of qualities in the right-hand column or a drift toward those tendencies and qualities sometimes undermines the potential for mutual aid projects to build new social relations.

Horizontalist and Participatory Characteristics of Mutual Aid Projects Characteristics of Hierarchical, Charitable Non-Profits and Social Service Programs (or what tends to change about mutual aid projects as they move toward becoming charities or social service programs)
“Members” = people making decisions “Members” = donors
De-professionalized survival work done by volunteers Service work staffed by professionals
Beg, borrow, and steal supplies Grant money for supplies/philanthropic control of program
Use people power to resist any efforts by government to regulate or shut down activities Follow government regulations about how the work needs to happen (usually requiring more money, causing reliance on grants, paid staff with professional degrees)
Survival work rooted in deep and wide principles of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, racial justice, gender justice, disability justice Siloed single-issue work, serving a particular population or working on one area of policy reform, disconnected from other ‘issues’
Open meetings, as many people making decisions and doing the work as possible Closed board meetings, governance by professionals or people associated with big institutions or big donors, program operated by staff, volunteers limited to stuffing envelopes or other menial tasks occasionally, volunteers not part of high level decision making
Efforts to support people facing the most dire conditions Imposing eligibility criteria for services that divide people into “deserving” and “undeserving”
Give things away without expectations Conditions for getting help or participating in something—you have to be sober, have a certain family status, have a certain immigration status, not have outstanding warrants, not have certain convictions, etc.
People participate voluntarily because of passion about injustice People come looking for a job, wanting to climb a hierarchy or become “important”
Efforts to flatten hierarchies—e.g. flat wage scales if anyone is paid, training so that new people can do work they weren’t professionally trained to do, rotating facilitation roles, language access Establishing and maintaining hierarchies of pay, status, decision-making power, influence
Values self-determination for people impacted or targeted by harmful social conditions Offers “help” to “underprivileged” absent of a context of injustice or strategy for transforming the conditions; paternalistic; rescue fantasies and saviorism
Consensus decision-making to maximize everyone’s participation, to make sure people impacted by decisions are the ones making them, to avoid under-represented groups getting outvoted, and to build the skill of caring about each other’s participation and concerns rather than caring about being right or winning Person on top (often Executive Director) decides things or, in some instances, a board votes and majority wins
Direct aid work is connected to other tactics, including disruptive tactics aimed at root causes of the distress the aid addresses Direct aid work disconnected from other tactics, depoliticized, and organization distances itself from disruptive or root causes-oriented tactics in order to retain legitimacy with government or funders
Tendency to assess the work based on how the people facing the crisis the organization wants to stop regard the work Tendency to assess the work based on opinions of elites: political officials, bureaucrats, funders, elite media
Engaging with the organization builds broader political participation, solidarity, mobilization, radicalization Engaging with the organization not aimed at growing participants’ engagement with other “issues,” organizations, or struggles for justice

Other observations:

  • When groups that have been all volunteer get money, they often fall apart in conflict about that money and how to manage and use it. When they get enough money to have staff, there is greater danger of institutionalization and pandering to funders, because someone’s income will be impacted if they lose the funders’ favor.

  • When groups get staffed, the volunteers sometimes expect that staff person or few people to suddenly do all the work or more than they can do, and volunteers sometimes check out. This can make the group vulnerable to loss of capacity, and also to becoming more solely governed by a few staffers. It can also be a set up for initial staffers to be heavily criticized and considered failures.

  • Burnout is more likely when less people are involved in a group. Burnout is less likely when there are transparent participatory decision-making processes that let people feel like they are holding the project together with lots of people instead of alone. Burnout is less likely when there is a culture of feedback and humility that lets people address harmful dynamics between people or ways that hierarchies of valuation (racism, classism, sexism, etc) are showing up in the group. Burnout is more likely when there are not clear feedback processes and people stifle concerns, gossip about each other, and blow up at each other as pressure mounts.

  • When organizations are dependent on funders, they have an incentive to declare false victories, so that they can keep getting funding. This can prevent innovation in the work, or realizing the work needs to be scrapped because it is having an unintentional bad impact. When organizations are volunteer-based, people are more likely to want to scrap bad ideas because their time and energy is precious to them and they want to direct it toward something effective.

  • When organizations have no staff, it can be a challenge to do mutual aid work that takes place during typical workday times, such as accompanying people to courts or social services offices. Unstaffed organizations may want staffing because they want to increase their capacity to provide aid.

  • Organizations may want to become non-profits or get a non-profit fiscal sponsor so that they can receive grants and/or tax deductable donations. The downside is that this requires financial tracking and organization skills that can concentrate power in the hands of people who have had more access to such skills and systems. It also may bring government attention and cultivate a culture of less boldness and risk-taking within the organization as it considers government and funder surveillance.