Specific, Attainable, Independent, and Temporary

Coalition work with nonprofits can be necessary but risky terrain for socialists. “SAIT” is a framework for how to do this work right.


As DSA chapters build local campaigns, we are often asked to join coalitions with local nonprofits, also known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Coalitions can be beneficial or even necessary if NGOs are doing work in areas we are also working in. But these relationships can be fraught.

There are myriad types of NGOs — some provide direct services, others act as lobbying or advocacy bodies, some do both. Planned Parenthood, for example, engages in both advocacy and fundraising to offer direct reproductive care services. A local neighborhood food pantry might focus on services, while the NAACP focuses much of its efforts on advocacy and legislative lobbying. There are even community organizations that might do door knocking and local organizing for specific neighborhoods, cities, or for particular racial, religious or other groups of people. It’s clear that many of these exist to fill some need, or to affect legislation, and these can overlap with DSA’s organizing work. 

Because of this, there are often concerns about “turf” that can cause a rocky start for DSA even entering into a coalition. Even if those concerns are addressed to the satisfaction of the other groups, a more fundamental conflict exists which can threaten work of the chapter if not approached with the express intention of defending DSA’s principles of member democracy, good stewardship of chapter resources, and mission to grow the socialist movement.

DSA is an explicitly socialist, member-run, and member-funded org, and NGOs are only rarely any of these things, making member-to-member relationships either impossible or undesired by the NGO. Furthermore, NGOs are reliant on funding sources that limit their ability to engage in meaningfully anti-capitalist organizing. This creates a structural conflict between DSA and its potential NGO partners, but that doesn’t mean we should never work with NGOs. We propose a framework called “SAIT” to help chapters determine whether coalitions with NGOs will be productive.

How DSA Is Different From NGOs (And Why That Matters)

There are endless NGOs operating where we organize, not just geographically but on the same political terrain. For most issues facing working-class people — housing, food insecurity, low wages, immigrant rights, education, reproductive rights, and trans issues — there is a nonprofit that works to mitigate its worst effects. Nonprofits exist to fulfill the needs in society or push for reforms that go unserved by capital or the state. 

To operate, they often depend on grants from private foundations and the local, state, or federal government. Private foundations are often funded by large donations from, or are outright run by, the elites themselves. Because they are funded explicitly to address specific issues, they can be very territorial over who gets to “represent” the community they serve, and who gets “credit” for the work. NGOs depend on these funds to exist, and so their freedom to engage in certain types of actions is limited.

For example, an NGO funded by an entity heavily invested in fossil fuels might support environmental cleanup or recycling, but not support organizing the workers in the energy sector or democratizing our utility grid. NGOs are also often run in a top-down fashion, with a board of directors or other central and unelected leadership core setting the agenda and deciding strategy. This naturally leads to the aforementioned inter-NGO turf wars, as their funding might be tied to “owning” certain work they can demonstrate to their funders, ensuring continued donations and funding. If DSA starts to make inroads or even begin succeeding at moving the needle on a particular issue, it can be seen as hostile. Often, NGOs will want to be the “main, authentic” representatives on a particular issue and accuse DSA as being “inauthentic” actors, looking to “take control” over a particular project or issue. 

Relating to these types of organizations as member-run DSA chapters can lead to friction that has nothing to do with the individual people and personalities involved. Our socialist politics are made clear in our strategy and tactics, whereas even progressive NGOs don’t, or can’t, engage in open class struggle. This can put us at odds. In order to stay in coalition with these groups, we will feel pressure to moderate our tone, change our language, and pursue shorter term gains rather than build class consciousness and move people to open struggle. To be clear: even if individuals working inside or volunteering for the nonprofit have radical politics, unless the organization is democratically run, these staff likely won’t have much say in how the organization uses its resources or the direction of the work. 

But ultimately, at the core of this contradictory relationship is a simpler and more fundamental conflict: our work as socialist organizers, when successful, will eliminate the need for NGOs and nonprofits.

Pros and Cons of Coalition Work

“Making more socialists” should be a core goal of any DSA project, because building relationships with people outside of DSA is essential to building class consciousness among more of the working class. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to use a campaign to make more socialists if you aren’t clear about the socialist politics at play in the campaign, or if you can’t create situations in which ordinary people can participate in and lead struggle. Working with NGOs that claim to represent segments of the working class might seem like a route to forming these relationships, but the reality is that rarely is the population they claim to represent engaged with the direction or decisions of the NGO. They usually are just recipients of some services, like food, temporary shelter, clothing, healthcare services, and so on — meaning the “representation” is actually nonexistent and there is no actual organizing happening. Regardless of who they claim to represent, NGOs don’t have active members or internal democracy, and are really just a small leadership body that directs staff and (maybe) volunteers to carry out work. 

When we form alliances with nonprofits that are top-down, memberless, or undemocratically run, we have no choice but to work with boards or staff who will be hostile to the language, tactics, and goals of socialist organizing. This is because NGOs are not designed for class struggle, but rather to serve as intermediaries between capital and the social problems it produces.

Rules for Engagement: Specific, Attainable, Independent, and Temporary: SAIT

For DSA chapters deciding whether to work in collaboration with liberal and progressive NGOs, we propose a rubric we call SAIT: specific, attainable, independent, temporary

Once DSA chapters have chosen a campaign that is specific and attainable (such as supporting the labor agitation of a particular group of workers around particular demands or pursuing a specific ballot measure), it is crucial that DSA retain its independence from other groups by maintaining socialist, class struggle messaging and by continuing to pursue the specific and attainable goal democratically selected by the chapter. DSA chapters should not simply be offered as volunteers for campaigns designed and dictated by the boards of non-democratic, non-socialist groups. Further, these alliances should be temporary and established on a case by case basis, ending when the campaign ends.

For coalition work to be specific, it should have a clear, singular goal. Most often, for DSA, these goals will be situated in one of two spheres: labor or electoral (a ballot measure or socialist candidate campaign, for example), as this is where there are levers of change that workers can grasp and most immediately identify and understand. If a chapter launches a campaign without a well-defined goal, the campaign will become a drain on chapter resources, especially the members themselves. Sometimes that goal might be simply public political education with a class struggle emphasis, such as Louisville DSA’s Socialist Queer Worker and Youth Defense (SQWYD) campaign, especially as we see increased popular mobilization around heightened right-wing attacks on trans lives, queer students and students of color, and reproductive healthcare. We must be able to answer the questions why we are engaging in the work when we are designing a campaign as well as considering coalition partners: Will it build working class power? Does it move people to class struggle? Are we making more socialists? If we can identify how each of these conditions is met through our strategy and tactics, then we have a specific reason to engage. If we’re unable to specify why we are in coalition, then the relationship isn’t based on anything material, except maybe a friendly understanding that we “agree on some things in spirit.”

To be attainable, the goal must be well defined and realistic. Is it something we can win directly, and within our capability? Is what we’re trying to do possible? Do we have what is required to win? For example, is the goal to simply list-build, or is it to win a specific ballot measure that has enough popularity to win with enough canvassing, phone banking, and getting-out-the-vote efforts? The answers are frequently “no” in the case of pressure campaigns, where we are trying to force a local, state, or government official to change course completely, for example. Capitalists and their stakeholders in office are generally indifferent to the needs and struggles of the working class, and socialist pleas fall on deaf ears. These types of campaigns, however, are often taken up by a constellation of Democratic Party-affiliated NGOs, and any victories are usually because the asks are low-stakes. For example, an immense number of organizations and people fought against the overturning of Roe v. Wade — but in the end it simply didn’t matter. However, if we can answer “yes” to whether something is attainable, and we can bring people to class consciousness through messaging and engagement, or even win some material gain for the working class, then it may be worth it to be in a temporary coalition with those groups. Otherwise it is better to reserve our resources.

To be independent, DSA chapters must have full autonomy over their work, including messaging, strategy, tactics, literature, and communications. This is key, because the thing that sets DSA apart from NGOs is our socialist politics. They might want control over these details, thankful for our resources but maybe uncomfortable with — or outright hostile to — our socialism. There is simply no reason to engage in coalition work if we hand over full control of our work to other organizations, especially because ours is democratically run, and it would mean excluding member engagement from these decisions. If we cannot have full, democratic control over our work, there’s no reason to engage with a coalition, and we can, and should, feel free to build our own campaigns.

All coalition work must be temporary, and the official relationships should end once the campaign has ended. They can be picked back up again where there is more work to be done together, but as DSA grows — not just in size but in influence — we must safeguard the democratic nature of our organization and prevent leader-to-leader relationships from influencing our direction. Ultimately, if there’s nothing immediately specific and attainable to work on together, let’s go our happy separate ways until there is again. 

Determining a Worthy Alliance

If DSA chapters are able to build member-to member relationships with other organizations that have members, that’s an opportunity to build a shared socialist analysis with more people and further reflect the working class. For example, the ultimate goal of the “A Fighting Campaign for Reproductive Rights and Trans Liberation” resolution passed at the 2023 DSA convention is to move people beyond thinking about reproductive rights and trans liberation as single, siloed issues that can be solved individually. Instead, a DSA-led campaign can connect both together, and to broader struggles for healthcare, housing, economic justice, labor rights, and democracy itself. By bringing socialist analysis to single-issue campaigns, we can bring in new members who are ready to fight not just for reproductive justice but also housing, healthcare, and more. More importantly, we can broaden people’s concepts of potential solutions to systemic problems beyond the liberal framework that separates our shared struggle into different categories, disconnected from each other and rarely blaming capitalism.

This is another reason using SAIT is crucial: beyond single issues, which are the focus of most nonprofits, socialists organize fundamentally to end capitalism and democratize the world. Few, if any, other organizations are explicitly built to do this. It’s the fundamental difference between DSA and virtually all other NGOs. Socialist organizing is vastly different from simply trying to provide immediate relief for the working class — it is meant to end the conditions that create the problems in the first place. If we simply emulate already existing NGOs who do the work of providing relief, there’s no reason for us to exist separately. It is the thing that makes our organization unique. If members want to engage in NGO-like work, it’s better to direct them to organizations already engaged in this work, and do the political education required internally to transform how people think about class struggle.

Where we can join coalitions and build alliances without compromising our core principles and independence, we should. However, if relationships can’t be structured this way, it is not a good fit for organizational partnership. As we build our campaigns, remember, we’re not tasked with just living in the world, but radically changing it.

W. Canon is a member of Chicago DSA and Greta S. is a member of Louisville DSA. They are both part of DSA’s Bread & Roses caucus.