Sarah Haider: The toxicity of progressive, nonprofit organizations

June 18, 2022 • 12:00 pm

If you haven’t looked at or subscribed to Sarah Haider’s Substack site “Hold That Thought”, you should consider it.  She regularly produces thoughtful and well written posts, and her experience as cofounder and director of development for Ex-Muslims of North America gives her insights into ideological infighting that you might not know about. And she’s definitely not afraid to say what she thinks, even if it flies in the face of “progressive” politics.

That infighting in facts informs her latest piece, one about the toxicity of progressive, nonprofit organizations.  Both the progressivism and nonprofit nature of these groups contribute to their dysfunctionality, conclusions she also draws from a related article by Ryan Grimm “The Elephant in the Zoom” at The Intercept.

The nonprofit nature of such an organization works synergistically with its progressivism to give a special entitlement to employees. According to Haider, the entitlement means that employees don’t feel the need to work as hard as those in “regular” organizations, demand special coddling, and, in the end, fracture exactly as other woke organizations fracture.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: click to read her piece:

I have to say, Sarah is courageous enough to say stuff like this, which, combined with her regular mission of helping apostate Muslims, makes her doubly “unsafe”:

I’ve been lucky that my explicit politics and nature of work have driven off many of the kinds of people who might create such a dysfunctional culture—but even I have not been entirely spared.

Meanwhile, I’ve witnessed other groups entirely overtaken—their work forgotten as internal reckonings routinely roil within the organization. I’ve watched their (already underserved) programs be abandoned for more fashionable, social justice oriented ones.

I’ve watched identitarianism creep into hiring and firing—white males dropping out of leadership positions like flies. Sometimes they are chased out, accused of some impropriety or other. Sometimes they “choose” to resign—claiming to step down to make way for someone more diverse. It kept happening, until it became genuinely rare to see a straight white male in a top leadership position. And of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with fewer white male leaders…so long as it is a natural consequence of a fair system that finds the best people for the jobs. But of course, that is not what is happening. Indeed, I’ve been called a “white supremacist” for insisting that leadership positions should be granted on the basis of qualifications and experience—regardless of the race/gender/sexuality of that person.

Instead, organizations around me have been pressured by activists to fill leadership positions with “women of color”, accepting the absurd identitarian logic that somehow this act would solve issues of disparity (just as the Obama presidency presumably fixed racism once and for all). Sometimes this has led to the appointments of leaders who are simply not qualified for their positions—causing harm to the stable functioning of the organizations and their ability to do good work.

But even if a “woman of color” is elected (many besieged leaders in the Intercept article above were, in fact, women of color)—nothing ends the incessant infighting except an outright rejection of the politics that support it.

It seems that Haider is against all forms of affirmative action, wanting to staff organizations like hers based completely on merit (“leadership positions should be granted on the basis of qualifications and experience—regardless of the race/gender/sexuality of that person.”). I’m not with her 100% on this, as I still cling to the idea of some affirmative action as a form of reparations, but Haider and I would agree that identitarianism and the idea of hiring based on race and gender have gone too far.

Further, as she points out, coddling the progressives doesn’t stop the “incessant infighting”.  We know that because other woke organizations, like the New York Times and Washington Post, are riven with dissent and accusations—something we’ll see in the next post. The meltdown at the Washington Post that led to the  suspension of reporter David Weigel and then the firing of Felicia Sonmez is one example. Weigel was suspended for making a tasteless joke on Twitter (which he retracted and apologized for), though he could have simply been chewed out and told not to do it again.  No, he had to be punished more severely, as woke politics demand. Sonmez, on the other hand, was the whole ball of Woke Wax: neurotic, accusatory, vicious, and self-aggrandizing: exactly those qualities that, says Haider, will kill progressive organizations. To quote another recent piece of hers (emphasis is also hers)

. . .the problem isn’t merely the fact that social justice issues are abused by disturbed personalities with the right identities, it is that social justice politics condition the average “nice liberal” to accept bad behavior and cancerous work dynamics, all in in the name of “justice” and “inclusion. . . It is a simple thing to re-cast untenably toxic and inexcusably hostile behavior as the price one pays for “justice” and “diversity”, and indeed, that is exactly what happens. The nice liberals are easily duped into accepting the unacceptable, capitulating to extremists again.

She ought to know, as she’s experienced this in her own organization.

I wonder if “progressive” universities may eventually fall apart for exactly the same reasons. We’ve already seen schools like Princeton and Harvard becoming ideologically toxic, chilling speech everywhere in the name of “social justice”, and if Wokeism doesn’t go away soon, we can say goodbye to our elite colleges as vessels to ferment ideas. There’s no sign of that yet. I see glimmers of light from time to time, but for every glimmer there’s a darkening of trust as schools strive to become ideologically acceptable and homogeneous.

And of course this kind of political dissolution describes today’s Democratic Party.

Finally, Haider outlines the only way she sees a progressive nonprofit organization is able to thrive: by following these rules:

1.) Creating an explicitly mission-oriented culture. Making it clear that all staff and volunteers are there to support the mission of the organization—that the mission is important, and deserves their full attention and commitment. This means that while they are at work, engaging in activism that is unrelated to the mission will not be tolerated. . .

2.) Creating an explicitly WORK oriented culture. I don’t know why this is a problem, but it is—especially in non-profit spaces that employ young people. Make it clear to volunteers and employees that they are here to work, to achieve an end. Nonprofits in particular are the space for you to GIVE TO OTHERS, not to take for your own ends. . .

3.) Zero-tolerance. This might sound harsh to outsiders who don’t know how bad bad can be, and charitable types in general have a very hard time taking on a management style that makes boundaries clear. However, there can be no tolerance for abusive behavior, or for breaking the above two rules, regardless of the reason.

Finally, Haider gives two pieces of advice about what to look for in organizations that you want to donate to. These involve how scattered their mission is and how strong the leadership is. I’ll let you read her summary yourself, but it mandates that you should not be giving money to either the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center.(The ACLU is a pathetic case of how a once respected organization is circling the drain because it now gives most of its attention to the civil liberties of “progressives,” and has widened its mission unacceptably.)

I could recommend some organizations that do adhere to Haider’s standards and deserve your dosh, but I’m sure you know those yourself.

16 thoughts on “Sarah Haider: The toxicity of progressive, nonprofit organizations

  1. > Creating an explicitly WORK oriented culture.

    I don’t think this is clear and tenable. Look at all of the other perks companies provide, from daycare to vacation days to tuition reimbursement to insurance to morale funds and parties. We still see a sense of entitlement among workers, who expect their employers to go beyond the bare minimum work-for-salary transaction. Employees want to feel that they are changing the world. OTOH, employers want loyal workers while not having any real loyalty to them, so we end up with bread and circuses and ‘community building’ in the office. We used to complain about universities acting in loco parentis; now employers are doing the same thing. It’s not just the corporate or non-profit world, either. I have several friends who have worked (oops, ‘served’) in various militaries who say that they have experienced the same trend for decades, with militaries as institutionalizing environments, providing everything for their soldiers and preventing people from learning basic life skills to operate independently.

    Now in the corporate and non-profit world, the trend seems to be growing everywhere we find western (or westernized) and relatively affluent employees. I’m not sure how things are developing elsewhere in the world, like East Asia. In the West, at least, I think we might have to look back to pre-labor-union days to find exclusively work-oriented cultures.

    I’m still struggling to reconcile this trend with the gig economy, where employees only want some flexibility and cash, and nothing more. That seems to provide a fascinating contradiction.

    1. As a retired CEO, I understood Haider’s statement to mean when the employee is officially “at work” they need to be focused on the actual work and nothing else. When it comes to the perks you mention, they are administered using strict rules and by the HR department. They are outside the “at work” state and kept separate from it.

      1. Exactly Paul, I think Sara Haider is impressive, as is Ryan Grimm. Her 3 rules make perfectly good sense, once formulated: no- brainers even.
        I see noting wrong to ask people employed -and paid- to work, to concentrate their energy on actual work. The other issues should remain secondary.

  2. I’m not with her 100% on this, as I still cling to the idea of some affirmative action as a form of reparations …

    Yeah, me, too, boss — but then you and I are white guys of an age to have childhood memories going back to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and thus able to reconstruct what the 100 years before that since the Civil War had been like, not to mention the four score and seven that preceded that conflict.

    1. What wrongs are the reparations actually for? None of the people likely to benefit from affirmative action (teens, or people in their 20s, or perhaps at most 30s) suffered from Jim Crow, red lining, slavery or all the rest of it, so what wrongs have been done to today’s 20-yr-olds?

      If the answer is about their family’s wealth being lower as a result of the wrongs of 50 to 70 years ago and more, and that having on-going consequences, then ok, but if so that points to preferential treatment based on family financial status, rather than on race. After all, there are plenty of people of all races growing up in low-income families. The much-touted wealth gap between races is really only large at the top end of the distribution, while the lower half of the distribution is not that different.

      As it is, affirmative action tends to benefit kids from middle-class families on good incomes who don’t need the assistance, and a lot of first-generation and second-generation immigrants whose families weren’t even in the US 30 years ago.

    2. I don’t see work for non profits as any kind of reparation, and in many cases, seems more like punishment. If we believe in reparations, that should be cash payments for descendants affected by slavery and Jim Crow.

      First and foremost, every organization should acknowledge that racism damages organizations by keeping qualified talent from being hired and promoted, or preventing teams from working together. Diversity, writ large, also helps the missions of these organizations by allowing voices from all sectors of society.

      The phrase “affirmative action” works quite well with Haider’s thesis, particularly in its original intent. Kennedy’s order stated that businesses and organizations “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” There’s nothing controversial about that. But much of the anti-racism movement is causing the same damage to organizations as racism – preventing qualified talent from being hired and promoted, and in some cases actively working against the diversity of certain organizations. And in fact anti-racism and intersectionalist ideals do demand that people ARE treated WITH regard to their race, color, etc.

    3. While you and Jerry both have your calendars out, I would figure that affirmative action got going in one form or other in the U.S. around 1964, so say 58 years of it. (School desegregation was not affirmative action, it was dismantling unfair barriers, as was desegregating the armed services after the Second World War.) Therefore:

      1). How much longer and more munificently do the reparations need to be paid? Our Indigenous people —different set of grievances but also not open to a do-over—say “forever”. They call it rent.
      2). Are reparations generally, and aff ac specifically, making any progress toward accomplishing their original or any subsequently articulated measurable goals?
      3). Does the moral imperative to continue aff ac trump any demonstrated failures and harms inflicted perversely on purported beneficiaries and to society generally, so that there is no point or even licence to ask Questions 1) and 2)?

    4. I think the only form of ‘reparations’ and affirmative action that would be fair -and might even work- is to improve Kindergarten and primary school for young disadvantaged children (of whatever race). A major effort is required there, and precisely there, and I would not cut on the money. And some support for the, often single, women having these children.
      And maybe even some easy access to remedial classes during secondary school, but that would be secondary if the effort is successful at kindergarten and primary level.
      I do not think that affirmative action at University level is helpful, and in a sense maybe counterproductive.

  3. While I like those three rules, they seem to be the following:

    1) work to support the mission.
    2) see rule #1
    3) break rules 1 and 2, and you’re fired.

    That’s kind of one rule.

  4. “I wonder if ‘progressive’ universities may eventually fall apart for exactly the same reasons.”

    I’m guessing they won’t, since there’s still a large class of woke administrators with hive minds. These universities will go back to being what once were: expensive finishing schools for the well-heeled. They will double-down on wokery because it’s already a means of defending privilege via performative activism. The universities will become as ideologically hardline as the Catholic Church during the counter-reformation.

  5. I like the clarity of Haider’s piece but, in some ways, the cat is already out of the bag. Even in normally functioning for-profit companies, perks to take care of workers’ personal needs have become commonplace—needs that used to be the province of the home.

    That said, her broader point about wokeness ruining the non-profit sector is well taken. To fight back, talent in the workforce needs to leave when the situation becomes intolerable, and drive the institution to recede into mediocrity. When enough competent people leave that an institution’s reputation (and ability to carry out its mission) is compromised, its constituents or customers will abandon it, forcing a correction. At least that’s my hope—that this trend is self-limiting in the long run. We shall see. But it sure is a cluster in the near term.

  6. Well stated: “…the problem isn’t merely the fact that social justice issues are abused by disturbed personalities with the right identities, it is that social justice politics condition the average “nice liberal” to accept bad behavior and cancerous work dynamics.” And conditioned the average “nice liberal” college
    administrator to indulge the same sort of behavior from campus “activists”. Now that Evergreen State is
    everywhere, it takes a moment to recall that the pathology presented itself there fully five years ago. And that, even then, Lukianoff and Haidt had already published a comprehensive diagnosis.

  7. Case in point, The American Humanist Association. Their mission statement, “What We Do”, reads, “We work tirelessly in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend civil liberties, secular governance, and scientific integrity.” This does not foster “an explicitly mission-oriented culture”. Their mission is so broad as to be meaningless, -motherhood and apple pie. Humanism excludes belief in the supernatural and putting trust in any of the Gods, yet the AHA goes along with the idea of “non theistic” religion.

Leave a Reply to Timothy Travis Cancel reply