Pulled Out at the Roots: How Large Nonprofits Exploit and Steal from Grassroots Activists

The youth-led Raven Corps had their work stolen from them and this matters.

Marla Rose


Credit: John Beske

I will start out by saying that in our world full of soundbites and choppy, quick copy, this piece is on the longer side, though I hope it’s not longwinded. It needs to be said and it’s a complex, thorny subject that bucks against the constraints of succinctness.

I wrote this because I believe that retaining and keeping activists, educators and altruistic people engaged is essential to the future of our planet, so we need to identify those factors that lead to burn out and disengagement so often. Today, I am writing about just one of those factors.

First, a little background…

When I was a new vegan activist in the 1990s, there was a phenomenon that I came to expect with clockwork-like regularity: Activists would work for weeks or even months on upcoming protests or actions and the day of it, a large, deep-pocketed, well-recognized national non-profit from out of town would swoop in to take over with their logos and their talking points and their bells-and-whistles and without as much as a perfunctory acknowledgement of those who had done essentially all the labor until they arrived unbidden. They would take credit for virtually everything and dash out of town again. I saw this painfully exploitative dynamic play itself out again and again to the point where I became resigned to its inevitability.

With their big budgets, these groups had an endless stack of sleek and professional signs and banners. With their PR teams, they got more media there than we could have done on our own. (More on that later.) With their notoriety, spokespeople from this large, affluent organization would be quoted in the media, not the people who’d been working on this issue for weeks, who knew the specifics intimately and had a local presence. With their seemingly endless resources, they would be flying all over the country, dropping staff like paratroopers out of a plane and notifying those on their mailing list at the first whiff that there was an event they were planning that needed them. The original local organizers would be shut out of their own event.