Rallying the Troops

Some philanthropy bloggers predict, and are thrilled by the prospect of, an impending convergence between the sectors–which is what they call it when local governments privatize garbage collection, or nonprofits open businesses in a desperate effort to make their rent, or philanthropists decide that giving money away isn’t nearly as good as lending it to someone who won’t make in a lifetime what they’ll make on their investments today. Occasionally you’ll even hear a little rhapsody about how well things are or can be done in the complete absence of nonprofits–as when local businesses give space for private individuals to donate books for a sale to benefit the public library, "nary a nonprofit to be found!"

Leaving aside the fact that it’s no cause for celebration if a public library can’t secure enough public funds to support itself without the unpaid overtime labor of librarians operating a book sale and the commercial participation of people whose primary business ISN’T literacy–never mind that, I say; here’s a more modest counter-example, of a setting in which nonprofits are making all the difference:

Don Imus, a radio shock-jock, decided to celebrate the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on Wednesday by describing the African-American women of the Rutgers basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" and laughing when his interlocutor (another show employee) characterized the team’s game with Tennessee as "the jigaboos versus the wannabes."  Doubtless anyone who heard this was offended, but it took the efforts of the National Association of Black Journalists and other nonprofits (including Association for Women Journalists–Chicago, on whose Board the Nonprofiteer serves) to spread the word of the outrage and make sure the private sector (the New York Times, Imus’s parent company NBC) and the public sector (the Federal Communications Commission) paid heed.

Nonprofits are organized agglomerations of people acting in the public good when the political process is too retrograde and the economic system too profit-oriented to do so. The very existence of global warming–which economies encouraged and politicians ignored–should be enough by itself to demonstrate that sometimes there’s no way but the nonprofit way to get important things done.

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7 Responses to “Rallying the Troops”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Was that a rhapsody? I don’t read Bernholz much, so maybe in context it was, but here the reporting sounded neutral: “Nothing new,” she said.

    Nonprofits offer unique value as you say, but they’re not necessary all the time for all functions. You can hold one of the book or rummage sales that Bernholz describes without incorporating.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Bernholz’s stock in trade is her belief that the sector is in the midst of a major transformation/convergence with for-profits and government. You’re absolutely right that the particular posting I chose was neutral on its face, but her day after day insistence that things are different nowadays (and enthusiasm for the latest buzz-word) strikes me as a dangerous distraction from the real unmet needs of the nonprofit sector and the people it serves. To the extent that nonprofits can’t, say, clothe the naked and feed the hungry, the solution is not some new paradigm just around the corner that will make poverty profitable–it’s old-fashioned community and political organizing to get a greater share of society’s resources (that is, tax revenue) to those who need them. This is why any nonprofit that doesn’t conduct advocacy is just running in place.

  3. Lucy Bernholz Says:

    Glad to know what my stock in trade is. I would have thought it was my ability to see patterns where others don’t, to apply historiographical and other methodologies to understanding the world around us, and to provoke creative thinking by pointing out the things around us that we are so used to seeing we don’t see them anymore. I no more celebrate the inability of my local public library to stock its shelves with out my emptying mine than I do think that NGOs as they always have will, can, or should solely try to feed the hungry or clothe the poor. My point is this – we all created these problems, all three sectors must be accountable and engaged in solving them. No single sector approach, or holier than thou attitude is going to accomplish diddly, IMHO.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    There’s nothing holier-than-thou about differing over the best places to put one’s energies in order to make social change. Your enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship and other private-sector-flavored remedies–which I infer from the frequency and tone of your posts about them–seems to me to reflect a sense that current allocations of power are fixed, and that the appropriate question for the nonprofit sector is how best to come to terms with the winners, namely, the holders of private wealth.

    By contrast, I think this constitutes nonprofits’ looking for love in all the wrong places. I haven’t given up hope for a public victory. As you know from your studies of history, this is the oldest dispute affecting the nonprofit sector–our “original sin,” if you will. If we were having this debate in the 19th Century, you’d be lauding the establishment of Carnegie libraries and I’d be agitating for universal public secondary education. What Carnegie did was great–but it was more important to forge a social consensus that schools should be free and universal. Today we’re trying to decide whether and how to forge that consensus about day care, elder care and health care (among other things), and I don’t want us to decide that Bill Gates’s generosity about any or all of those things is a substitute for continuing to ask questions about the breadth and depth of the social compact.

    I do think the business of nonprofits is to push for a political response to our civic responsibilities to one another–that is, as opposed to a philanthropic response. I don’t dispute that every sector has its role to play; but the size and content of that role is subject to dispute, and you and I dispute it.

    It’s fine that BP is building green gas stations–but signing the Kyoto Treaty matters more. It’s great that Starbuck’s aspires to trade fairly with its growers–but revamping US agricultural tariffs and subsidies matters more. Now that private fortunes have flourished more than at any time since the Gilded Age, it’s fine to appeal to entrepreneurs to use their problem-solving skills on the problems of the world–but it’s more important to restore the estate tax. You may disagree, but this is a legitimate political dispute, and nothing personal.

  5. Lucy Bernholz Says:

    But the irony is the irony missed. I agree with your politics.

    And I think that the blending of responsibility for social ills across the sectors may help push the public sector to take back its responsibilities (our responsibilities) better than anything. After all, you and Bill Gates (and I) are all in favor of retaining the estate tax.

    One need not raise the purity of one sector above the others to absolve the others of responsibility. I would say business has been absolved for too long, NGOs have been too overburdened for too long, and the public sector (writ large) has been corrupted, disembowled, declawed, and bought off from doing much for too long.

    The pushing for a ‘political response to our civic duties to one another’ cannot be solely the responsibility of the NGOs. We all must be involved, and business has to get involved to understand. After all, if big business had had a longer term outlook (NGO and philanthropy strength) and a better understanding of the public pressures, health care and retirement packages would have long ago been the purview of the government and not the ‘largesse’ of short-sighted, union-busting corporate leaders who are now the ones demanding the government take over.

  6. Danny Baker Says:

    Was that a rhapsody? I don’t read Bernholz much, so maybe in context it was, but here the reporting sounded neutral: “Nothing new,” she said.

    Nonprofits offer unique value as you say, but they’re not necessary all the time for all functions. You can hold one of the book or rummage sales that Bernholz describes without incorporating.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Absolutely–in fact, recently the Nonprofiteer has been reminding arts organizations that nonprofit status is not their only option, and not even necessarily their best one. But Bernholz’s approval of sector-blurring, which is a constant theme, elides important reasons for the sectors’ separation.

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