Professional Activism and Social Change

By Meghan Kallman

About forty years ago, as neoliberal economic policies took hold, a change also occurred in the landscape of social movements. Though neoliberalism—initially a set of economic policies intended to jumpstart the US economy—is many things, we have internalized it socially. Translated, that means that we now primarily think about free markets, commodification, formal organizations, and individual people (rather than policy, for instance, or informal or collective organizing) as how social change is made (Brenner, Peck, and Theodore 2010; Harvey 2007; Jepperson and Meyer 1991; McAdam 1986). Somewhere along the line, and in parallel with the ideas that neoliberalism has fostered, we got the idea that formalized, professionalized social movement organizations were the most effective type of organizing.

Formalization, of course, has its benefits—in terms of resource mobilization, credentials, legitimacy, and the like. Similarly, professionalization is supposed to mean that skills are transferrable, that people are evaluated according to some objective measure of quality, and above all, that jobs are “technical”—built on some skill set that not everyone has access to (Abbott 1988; Hall 1968). But as the number of nonprofits skyrocketed in the past forty years, we have come to understand social movements as a “professional” job—as evidenced by the legions of community organizations requiring their staff to hold advanced degrees, the complex funding applications and reporting requirements, and the exclusive networks dedicated to nonprofit professionals (cf. Hwang and Powell 2009).

What has resulted from this is a highly professionalized social movement culture, particularly as government support of the nonprofit sector has increased. Research has shown that expanded professionalism in the nonprofit world involves not only paid, full-time careers and credentialed expertise, but perhaps more importantly, the salience of professional ideals into everyday social change work (Hwang and Powell 2009). Beginning in the late 1960s and within little more than a decade, nonprofits became the principal vehicle for government-financed human services in the United States, and correspondingly, the government had also become the largest financial supporter of nonprofit service organizations (Frumkin 2005:71). This dynamic has effectively blurred the lines of activism in these sectors, by combining incentives (for instance, the incentive to both support yourself and make the world better), which may be at odds during important moments.

And we have seen that social movements have, since the 1970s, become more institutionalized, more professionalized, and less confrontational (McAdam et al. 2005) . For instance, a study of homeless services organizations demonstrated that receiving government funding was related to “managers being highly motivated to participate in advocacy in the hopes of solidifying funding relationships. As a result, advocacy goals [we]re focused primarily on brokering resources and promoting the organization rather than substantive policy change […] organizations reject confrontational methods and advocate as insiders” (Mosley 2012:481). Similarly, a Baptist pastor, upon the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, lamented that the project threatened to make congregations “the servant of the state, rather than its conscience” (Thomas 2002).

The big inconsistency here is that social movements are meaningful when they challenge entrenched power structures. In other words, social movements are only really significant when they generate disagreement and some type of confrontation—to advocate for something that an entire society considers “good”, while useful, does not really transform systems and experiences. And so while professionalization and everything that comes along with it certainly brings its benefits, I am skeptical of a society in which the incentives of jobs and professional advancement are indistinguishable from the goals of a social movement.

Moreover, this high level of professionalization has been detrimental to our understandings of social change. Specifically, it has permitted us to see activism where none exists. There is a qualitatively different set of incentives for professional organizations than there is for activists. Professional organizations have funders to please, boards to agree with, outcomes to document, legislators to maintain relationships with, and salaries to pay. Those are all different structural incentives than an unpaid or largely volunteer group of activists might have.

For me, then, the reasons that some contemporary social movements are having to be so fully rethought is that we have run up against the limits of what that professionalization can offer. Professional social change organizations are not as well suited as grassroots community groups—formal or not—to responding in dramatic and, if need be, confrontational ways to pressing issues. A few contemporary social movements illustrate my point.

First, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is primarily led by young people, and begun by three women in their twenties and early thirties. Those who coordinate it do so outside the formal boundaries of their organizational affiliations, though they are longtime justice organizers. #BlackLivesMatter activists do things that many professional organizations won’t do, like interrupting diners at brunch restaurants in order to raise awareness about racial inequality and police brutality. They are in the streets, with or without permits. #BlackLivesMatter began as a hashtag but has since grown into a powerful coalition, representing a spread of organizations; it is precisely its coalition-like characteristics that permit it to be as responsive, confrontational, and effective as it has been.

Similarly, Occupy seized the imagination of the US and, to some degree, the world in 2011-2012, in a way that hadn’t occurred since the early 1970s. Occupy was explicitly anti-professional, and the specific qualities that it intentionally embraced (being leaderless, non-hierarchical, demandless) were the very things for which it was criticized by legions of established social change workers. Similarly to the #BlackLivesMatter protestors, Occupy did not have to be concerned with keeping funders happy or staying on the right side of its board of directors. It did not have a chain of command. Occupy has been heavily criticized as “unsuccessful” for its failure to achieve any specific goals—a criticism that reflects the rationalistic nature of much contemporary social organizing. But what such criticisms fail to understand is that Occupy was a process of building power outside of institutionalized norms, and that process was independent of an outcome. It succeeded in elevating conversation about income inequality to levels I have certainly not seen in my lifetime: most of us at least know what “the 99%” means.

Dramatic social change happens when activists are willing to assume the consequences of their actions—when they behave as though they have nothing to lose (though they also must feel that they do have something to lose, because that is what they are fighting for). By definition, formal organizations with professional structures do have something to lose, and they are inherently protective of it—whether “it” is resources, infrastructure, or a paycheck. Lest I leave readers with the impression that I am against professional third sector work, let me be clear—I have spent many years working for nonprofit organizations, many of whom consider themselves activist organizations. I value these contributions greatly; I continue to work in the third sector, and both write and teach about it.

Marketization of nonprofit organizations is also not inherently “bad”. However, I believe that it does artificially inflate our understanding of nonprofits’ critical and emancipatory potential, given that most of them are working under an incentive structure that incentivizes conformism. I merely caution us to look carefully at the types of social change we want to see—and to ask ourselves if highly professional structures are always the best and most effective ways to achieve that change.


Abbott, Andrew Delano. 1988. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. University of Chicago Press.

Brenner, Neil, Jamie Peck, and Nik Theodore. 2010. “Variegated Neoliberalization: Geographies, Modalities, Pathways.” Global Networks 10(2):182–222.

Frumkin, Peter. 2005. On Being Nonprofit: A Conceptual and Policy Primer. Harvard University Press.

Hall, Richard H. 1968. “Professionalization and Bureaucratization.” American Sociological Review 33(1):92–104.

Harvey, David. 2007. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.

Hwang, Hokyu and Walter W. Powell. 2009. “The Rationalization of Charity: The Influences of Professionalism in the Nonprofit Sector.” Administrative Science Quarterly 54(2):268–98.

Jepperson, Ronald L. and John W. Meyer. 1991. “The Public Order and the Construction of Formal Organizations.” Pp. 204–31 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

McAdam, Doug. 1986. “Recruitment to High-Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer.” American Journal of Sociology 92(1):64–90.

McAdam, Doug, Robert J. Sampson, Simon Weffer, and Heather MacIndoe. 2005. “There Will Be Fighting in the Streets”: The Distorting Lens of Social Movement Theory.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 10(1):1–18.

Mosley, Jennifer E. 2012. “Keeping the Lights On: How Government Funding Concerns Drive the Advocacy Agendas of Nonprofit Homeless Service Providers.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 22(4):841–66.

Thomas, Oliver. 2002. Charitable Choice/Faith-Based Initiatives. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved (

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