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 I agree that the Iraq war is an expensive debacle–I opposed it from the start and think troops should be withdrawn promptly, if not immediately–but the arguments for nonprofit involvement strike me as misguided.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.