Caution! Feminists at work: building organisations from the inside out

Publication date

18 Mar 2020

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Feminists can organise! But what happens when informal collectives and movements face pressures to formalise and become non-governmental organisations (NGOs)? This is a common dilemma faced by feminists and other social justice activists as their organisations grow and they seek to extend and expand their impact, often seeking outside funding. As activists become professionalised ‘employees’ accountable to the organisation rather than their constituencies, as agendas shift in response to donors, a myriad of complex challenges manifest, which have been referred to by critics as ‘the NGOisation of resistance’. This article is written by two South African intersectional feminist activists who have worked with many organisations in the social justice field. We draw on principles of feminist organising that we identified in our work to consider how social justice organisations can retain, or recover, their core values and purpose within their organisations. The reconnection between purpose and experience is necessary to create organisational cultures that embody social justice in the everyday experience of the organisation. This is essential if we are to recognise and practice social justice as both an internal and external experience, ensuring the legitimacy of our organisations. Drawing on principles historically used in feminist organising, such as ‘the personal is political’ and intersectionality, as well as institutional theory’s concept of experiential surfacing, we begin to grapple with the complexity of creating just organisations in an unjust world.