Should all nonprofits be antiwar?

I’m not sure what I think of this stirring call to nonprofits to object to the war in Iraq, variously on the grounds that charities are short-changed by a war that costs billions and that nonprofits are community leaders whose communities oppose the war.  I agree that the Iraq war is an expensive debacle–I opposed it from the start and think troops should be withdrawn promptly, if not immediately–but the arguments for nonprofit involvement strike me as misguided. 

First, there are plenty of nonprofits whose politics are Republican, and therefore presumptively pro-war (the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, etc.)–that is to say, "nonprofit" is not a synonym for "operating charity."  Is there something about the legal status itself that should cause all nonprofits to oppose the war?  I don’t think so.  The whole point of the nonprofit sector is to provide a multi-vocal civil society to counterbalance the tendency of electoral politics to drown out anything but the most timid and/or centrist voices about any subject.  Though I object to having two branches of government in the Republicans’ control, I don’t think combatting this by advocating a Democratic lock-step for nonprofits does either group any good.

Even if we restrict the conversation to operating charities, the argument that the war diverts money from nonprofit missions can be made equally well about any other government program.  Should we put charities in the position of objecting to expenditures on veterans’ hospitals, or Food Stamps, or other forms of social service administered directly by the Feds rather than through the medium of, well, us?  (That makes our objection look Halliburton-esque: ‘Where’s our cut?’)  Should we put ourselves in the position of objecting to military intervention to end genocides in Bosnia, or Darfur, because the money is needed in Detroit?  Complaints about diversion of money are powerful, all right, but that’s precisely because they prove not only the point we want to make but a whole bunch of others we’re not interested in endorsing.

Finally, is that what our donors understood themselves to be paying for?  I ask this not because I cede to donors the right to decide whether nonprofits should do advocacy, but because I concede to them the right to grasp the general purposes of the agencies they support.  If I found out that the Greater Chicago Food Depository was advocating for changes in the Food Stamp program, I would regard that as part of what I’d bought into: an expert nongovernmental approach to food policy.  But the Food Depository has no special expertise on military affairs; if I found out that it was using my money to advocate an end to the war in Iraq I’d wonder if the people who worked there had read the mission statement lately.  We ask the donors to trust us enough to join in our mission; if we change that mission without warning, we’ve abused that trust.

I lied, I guess: I am sure what I think of this call for a farewell to arms.  If you’re the American Friends Service Committee, knock yourself out; if you’re the American Red Cross, butt out.

r

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7 Responses to “Should all nonprofits be antiwar?”

  1. Rev Brian Richards Says:

    We Missionary people and all Christian alike should not engage in any judgement or crititism for or against the war. We wrestle not with flesh & blood ! our war is with principalities, & powers and rulers of the darkness.Of spiritual wickedness, this is our war. It can become into the flesh, but we should not allow it too. Those that walk in the Spirit are the son’s of the living God. I would like some one to support this ministry as we wrestle with the drug and alcoholic addictive spirits that hold people bound. This is the real problems in the world today. please help with donations to Thw Word of Faith Ministries. BSB 082-172 account no.509223741 C/- Holiday Coast Credit Union.CBN 802214 Swift code Cuscal25
    The Word of Faith Ministries. have a crossfire ministry this for the victims of crossfire.
    The Cross Fire Website is designed for people whom consider themselves caught in some cross fire maybe Pysically, Spiritually, or Emotionally. I am Rev Brian Richards in Australia I try to help everybody call me free of charge. 18009124180307 or brichards22@msn.com

  2. Mark Rosenman Says:

    As the author of the “stirring call to nonprofits” that appeared as a Chronicle opinion and on AlterNet, I’d like to offer a few counters to the Nonprofiteer’s arguments, after first saying thanks for the kind words and acknowledging with appreciation our points of agreement. First, although I’m not arguing my position based on popularity, polling data show that the sentiment to end the war is far beyond a “Democratic lock-step” and is, in fact, a solid majority position of Americans of all political parties. Second, the argument that nonprofits that challenge spending on the war is equivalent to challenging spending on any other government program (especially social services) is at least a bit spurious; the war is in a category by itself. Most nonprofits are committed to meeting human and other fundamental needs domestically and internationally, as ostensibly are most government programs. A decreasing minority would argue that this characterizes the war.

    On the third and final point, I think it is wrong and counter-productive for any nonprofit to define its mission so narrowly that it creates a little box, a silo, in which it isolates itself from true definitions of the problems it faces and tries to address. Would the Nonprofiteer’s example of the Greater Chicago Food Depository not appropriately be part of a coalition on human needs, part of an anti-poverty effort, part of a broader social welfare system reform project, part of a living wage campaign; should it not have something to say about government funding streams, about government priorities, about public values? If so, what about the war?

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Not being a Christian, I can’t speculate about whether Christians “should” exercise judgment about the war in Iraq, as Rev. Richards argues they shouldn’t. I can only say that any religion that prohibits its adherents from seriously considering questions of life and death and the appropriateness of killing has lost whatever claim it may have had to the respect of thoughtful people.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    While I acknowledge the distinction between the war and other types of government programs, I still think it ill-suits nonprofits to take a position against the war that can be characterized as, “We need the money more.” The war in Iraq is a disgrace and individuals should oppose it, and should form groups to oppose it–I just don’t think that’s the role of existing social-service agencies. But certainly Mr. Rosenman’s position, while it’s one I don’t share, is a good-faith effort to organize people against the war, and that’s something we can never have too much of.

  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    And actually, there is one kind of nonprofit unambiguously suitable to pursuing the sort of broad social-justice objectives outlined by Mr. Rosenman: the religious congregation. Check out, for instance, the astonishingly strong anti-torture statement promulgated by the Evangelical spokesman Rich Cizik: http://www.samefacts.com/archives/rudy_giuliani_/2007/03/who_stands_up_against_torture.php. All the more reason Christians (and other religious persons) should make moral judgments about war, and leave judgments about other people’s sexual behavior alone. See http://www.samefacts.com/archives/policy_briefs_/2007/03/separation_of_church_and_state.php

  6. Jeff Brooks Says:

    Amen, Nonprofiteer. Nonprofit organizations have no business working outside their mission. It’s a betrayal of what donors are with you for, even if they agree with your stand. It’s also a violation of your tax-exempt status, and if the IRS were doing its job, they’d nail you for it.

    There are many excellent organizations whose mission is to oppose the war and the other bizarre misadventures of the Bush administration. Support them with your dollars, you time, and your advocacy. But don’t drag donors who’ve signed on to a different cause into the fray. Respect them to make their own decisions about what they want to support.

  7. Melissa Moorehead Says:

    I found Mr. Rosenman’s editorial so compelling because of its focus on the real situation – an unbelievable, disproportionate amount of money going to fund activities that the majority of Americans oppose. Even supporting the war doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t think a lot more about funding choices being made, which is why I agree that most nonprofits have the responsibility to their private donors to take a public stand requiring that public funds be spent in a manner more in line with public goals. It’s not necessarily a matter of being anti-war, it’s about holding government accountable to the public in its spending. This shouldn’t take a lot of time, energy, or expense for most boards: too much money is being spent on war which is not benefiting our sector, not enough money is being spent improving conditions in our sector. Ergo, we’re against war funding at current and proposed levels. A great deal of a charity’s resources must be spent on sustainability – finding actual funding to support their mission (where that mission involves direct services, at least). Speaking out in public to ensure that public money is distributed with direction from the public (instead of in opposition to this direction, as with Iraq war funding), is important to any charity whose mission involves safeguarding or promoting the public weal.

    And please note that most social service charities could accomplish this without “objecting to expenditures on veterans’ hospitals, or Food Stamps, or other forms of social service.” Most people can make distinctions as I have done above regarding sustainability. Social service charities owe their donors advocacy for their mission on all levels, and the hesitance to do so on a broader platform does not serve the constituents, donors, or the public at large.

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