How do we function as an organization? People often ask about our somewhat unique way of getting things done. GimpGirl Community has been around for almost 16 years now, but because we often operate behind closed doors most people don’t understand how this community works from an “administrative” level.
We are a relatively well-known group in certain circles, and the prevailing stereotype of relatively well-known groups such as ours is that of a well-funded, corporate nonprofit with a full staff who often presumes to know more about the people they serve than the people themselves. I promise you we are none of those things.
GimpGirl has never been — and never will be — a well-funded corporate nonprofit. We have never been the recipient of any grant, and we do not have a regular source of funding aside from occasional member donations that cover the cost of incidentals like travel and computer equipment. We have always relied on “in-kind” donations of services from supporters (mostly friends of those within our “staff” circle) and individual members. They donate technical services such as server maintenance and computer repair, and various professional services such as editing articles and consulting on the best way to create healthy environments. We also partner with other organizations on services like web servers in order to save money.
Aside from our beginnings as part of a very small nonprofit (which is now defunct), and a brief partnership with another very small nonprofit, we have never been independently registered as a nonprofit. One of the main benefits of being a registered nonprofit is the ability to apply for grants and various other funding. For some organizations, a reliable money stream is essential to carrying out services. However, going down that path also means that a large percentage of human resources must be redirected to continually seeking new and better funding sources.
The U.S. 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporate structure comes with legal requirements, as well as additional provisions required by funding sources – stipulations we are not willing to accept. As women with disabilities, our lives are often subject to the whims of medical and bureaucratic institutions. Our members sometimes deal with homelessness, neglect, abandonment in life-threatening situations, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The organizations and bureaucracies that are in place to deal with these situations are often not set up to handle disability needs. As a collective, we have the flexibility to help our members deal with these situations in ways that we would not be able to if we incorporated as a nonprofit.
Even though GimpGirl technically has an internal hierarchy, we often function more like a democratic collective. The hierarchy was established to create a structure to deal with potential conflicts, and to centralize individuals who have clearance to speak for our community and coordinate volunteer efforts. Because we are a community by and for women with disabilities, it is highly beneficial to have a flexible structure that allows individuals to contribute in a way that works for them. Our volunteers not only deal with the barriers that the bureaucracy around disability causes, but they also deal with the complications that many adults deal with – jobs, children, family, relationships.
There are times when we refer to the contributors as “staff,” but we have never paid anyone any amount of money to work for this community. All “staff” hours are donated by individuals, including those who officially have titles such as myself. Our core volunteers also often collaborate with other organizations on projects related to women with disabilities and technology, but they generally do not receive monetary compensation for their efforts even when the project is funded. Volunteers are invited to conferences around the world to represent our community and to talk about the issues we confront, and when we are lucky the organizers pay for travel and accommodations. We are all volunteers working towards a common goal – not because we are paid, but because we are passionate.
The real magic in what we do happens when we bring members together. The women with disabilities that facilitate and participate in this community work together to create the space that makes everything that we do possible. Many members have never had the opportunity to talk to other women with disabilities because of barriers or a lack of people in the local community. A kind of natural co-mentorship forms when you bring people together who understand the lived experience of each other. Our members come from all over the world, and represent a wide variety of different backgrounds and levels of experience. They also have a wide range of disabilities.
Young students come to us struggling with the complications that come with being successful in college to speak to older professionals who have been where they are. Individuals in abusive situations at home come to us to speak with women who have made the transition to their own environment. Women who are pregnant come to speak with other mothers who understand how society treats mothers with disabilities. People simply wondering how to get from here to there to accomplish something they want to accomplish come to ask about accessible transportation. We all have some story or learned lesson that we can share that is meaningful to others.
Involving a wide range of women with disabilities also helps ensure that our community stays accessible to a wide range of people. Our contributors strive to create online spaces that are inclusive to all of our members, because our members make us who we are. Additionally, contributors are all people with disabilities who have their own needs. Instead of thinking about accessibility as a vague idea or a checklist, we think about accessibility as a constantly evolving collective responsibility to work together to make sure everyone can participate. We are successful because we work together with inclusivity in mind from the beginning.
If you have access to an academic library and would like more information about how this community functions, please check out our article in New Media and Society entitled GimpGirl grows up: Women with disabilities rethinking, redefining, and reclaiming community. Everyone can access additional information about this community on this website under the About Us tab, as well as in the numerous articles found here.
Community Liaison Katherine Mancuso and I will also be discussing how our community works today — January 27, 2014 at 6pm Pacific — at the online event Leading Accessible Online Communities. It is open to everyone!
— Jennifer Cole, Director, GimpGirl Community