Greg Bloom

Monday October 23, 2006

James Forman, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sustained a lifelong commitment to pursuing social justice. In his later years, Forman fell ill with cancer–and decades of low-paid community organizing had left him with no savings. Of course, this renowned veteran of the civil rights movement could rely on the support of thousands of people who he had led and inspired. But while struggling with ailing health, he spread awareness throughout the world of community organizers that this problem was not his alone.

The lesson was not lost on the activists who had recently joined together in 1992 to create the National Organizers Alliance, a diverse community of community organizers and non-profit workers. “[NOA is] made up of folks who walk a really broad spectrum in all the work that they do,” says Patrick Masterson, NOA’s interim director, “but we share a common interest in sharing and advocating policies and practices that can sustain the work of those who are dedicated to social justice causes.” As the young association grew, Forman’s struggle gave form to a cause that was very much their own: the challenge of staying committed to activism without forsaking one’s future.

“NOA members saw early on that this was really a larger systemic issue,” Masterson says. After several years of meetings and dialogue, NOA’s first major project was selected: a pension plan specially designed for community organizers. This unique program took its first contribution in 1997, and Masterson reports that it is “just now hitting its stride.” By the end of this year, NOA expects the plan to have a thousand individual members, a hundred member organizations, and ten million dollars in assets.

“At the time [of NOA’s founding], I was in my late thirties and hadn’t any savings myself,” says Cathy Howell, who now directs the Leadership Development Program in the Field Mobilization Department at the AFL-CIO. “But I’d recently begun working for Grassroots Leadership, which had a 403B–the non-profit version of the 401k. It suddenly made a huge difference to me that my organization was contributing a portion of my salary and offering me the chance to do more.”

Unfortunately, such a benefit is the exception in this field of work. NOA found that three quarters of its members were without a plan, and most of those who did have one were union members.

“We knew that one of the primary advantages of union jobs were the pension plans,” says Howell, who was on NOA’s Steering Committee when the project was initiated. “So we connected with some labor attorneys who helped us think about what we wanted [the plan] to look like, and aboutthe ideological frame we wanted on it.”

The notion that non-profit employment benefits should have an “ideological frame” is, in itself, somewhat unusual. “So often in social change work, we don’t practice what we preach,” Howell says. “We say right off the bat that we don’t have enough money, and what ends up happening is that we don’t cover people’s basic needs. [NOA] wanted to set a standard to show that it is the responsibility of social justice organizations to invest in their employees.”

Finding the right plan was no small task: it needed to be affordable enough for a range of organizations with very tight budgets, but substantial enough to serve as a real, reliable benefit for its members. By bringing together the resources of many groups, NOA was able to bargain with providers for a much better deal than any one organization could hope to find.

“It’s different from 99 percent of the pension plans out there,” boasts Masterson. NOA’s plan entails a 5 percent salary contribution, matched by the employer, available to all employees in the organization (as long as they have worked for at least a year in any social justice career). In the meantime, administration of the plan is centrally managed by NOA, which relieves the organization of a substantial burden.

“The process [of establishing a plan] is often prohibitive for small groups because it costs so much to administer,” says Howell, “and it’s so hard to research the most appropriate plan that most companies just give up on it.”

NOA’s ideological frame is further embedded into the fine print. Members are fully vested after that first year (meaning that the money, once accrued, cannot be “lost” if jobs change or organizations shut down). If an employee leaves one member organization to take a job with another one of the hundred or so member organizations, the benefits continue uninterrupted.

And members have discovered some unexpected benefits of the plan. Several members report being able to secure financing on new homes in part because the pension is considered an asset. Others have been able to use it as a source of emergency funding. “When a crisis hits, you can access the money under a penalty-free loan policy,” explains Howell, “so this is essentially like you’re lending yourself the money, and when you pay it back with interest, that return is on yourself.”

Howell notes that the plan’s presence can be felt throughout the industry– it sets a precedent, so that workers can go to their employers and say, “yes, this is possible–it is being done over there and we need it here.”

Adriann Barboa, the development coordinator and community organizer of Young Women United, can speak to that: “We’re an organizing project, not a service-providing organization,” she says of the YWU, which organizes women of color in Albuquerque and has just two employees. They had health care, but wanted to do more, and found out about the plan from other organizers who were members of NOA. “Being a small organization that could have access to this kind of plan… for me as a single mom, that is so important.”

Roberto Martinez first joined the plan in the late ’90’s, as an employee of Youth Action, in Albuquerque. At the time, Martinez was still quite young, and it was the first benefit of this kind he’d had. Years later, he took a new job with the Sage Council, which at that time provided no benefits of any kind to its employees; the staff, however, wanted to adhere to the best practices available, so Martinez connected his new organization with NOA. For a staff of four, he calculated that the benefit would cost only $9,000 per year. “I was the youngest person on staff back then, and the director was 40 years old–she had no pension at all, and was starting to think, ‘what’s going to happen to me when I retire.’ So this was as important to her as it was to me.” The Sage Council joined the plan in January of this year.

“When NOA started the pension plan, such a thing was pretty unheard of in non-profits,” says Martinez, who notes that now retirement benefits are much more common in the field. “I can’t say that NOA is responsible for this, but it was definitely a pioneer in this way of demonstrating that social justice organizations should be committed to the long-term development of their people.”

NOA’s membership tends to skew old, with organizers who have already established careers in the field. But this principle is just as important, if not more so, for the younger generations.”Young people coming in are not thinking about this. I wasn’t thinking about this at 20 or 25–I was like ‘whatever!'” laughs Howell. “But at 40, if you haven’t saved a dime…even if you start then, you’re going to have a difficult time getting enough for retirement.”

She notes that the corporate sector is increasingly freezing its pensions, and in doing so it shifts the responsibility for financial security onto the individual. In the face of that trend, Howell says that activists must strive to make their work more sustainable for the individuals who take on a higher social responsibility.

“When I came in to organizing,” recalls Howell, “it was very heady time. There was so much stuff going on, more of a movement feeling to things– people were crazy and worked a million hours. Now, younger people want to have a life outside of the work itself; older people want to get involved, but have families to think about. I think that’s a good shift.” The promise of building these social justice organizations, Howell asserts, is what motivated the people of her generation–but now, it’s up to the organizations themselves to learn how to bring in activists from another generation, and how to keep them.

Greg Bloom is a freelance writer covering the ins and (more prominently) outs of the activist industry. Read more at