Advocacy and its costs

Rent-a-Center, which offers payday loans, announced it would withdraw its contribution to America’s Second Harvest unless the group’s Ohio affiliate resigned from the Ohio Coalition for Responsible Lending, which opposes the loans. In response, the chair of the Ohio chapter told the Wall Street Journal that her group should never have joined the coalition to begin with because it “would never support anything that isn’t directly hunger related.” The affiliate then quit the Coalition.

This is a hobbyhorse with room for everybody to ride: the people who think 501(c)(3)s shouldn’t engage in advocacy; the people who think donors’ rights are routinely trampled on by charities and are glad to see them asserting themselves; the people who think taking money from corporations means nonprofits are selling their souls; the people who think charities shouldn’t meddle in policy issues not central to their mission; even the people (like the Nonprofiteer) who think nonprofits spend too much time seeking grants from big institutions (a/k/a short-term support) and not enough time soliciting gifts from individuals (a/k/a long-term support). But the real battle seems to be between those who think the Ohio Second Harvest was foolish when it joined the anti-payday loan coalition and those who think it was cowardly when it quit.

The Nonprofiteer throws her lot in with the latter group. To argue that payday loans, which cost their borrowers 5- and 6- and 700% interest and are taken only by people who are desperate, are not “hunger related” is to be willfully blind.

The situation also highlights a fact the nonprofit sector seems organized to conceal, namely, that most of the problems we address are a single problem: people don’t have enough money. Instead of running food banks and free medical clinics and free day-care and scholarship programs, maybe we should spend our time a) arranging for the government to provide all the services we think people should have and/or b) arranging for employment to pay people so they can buy all the services we think they/we should have.

Anyway, if you doubt Rent-A-Center is the heavy in this picture–if you think the company is just defending the interests of donors whose concerns are too often overlooked by big bad charities–that’s certainly your privilege. But let’s not forget that the most notorious “donor intent” cases are the ones in which the donor restricted his largesse to “white men of good character,” and later on somebody thought that might be a bit too restrictive. If Rent-A-Center wants to restrict its largesse to “tame charities of good character,” that’s certainly its privilege, but the rest of us are equally entitled to be appalled if Ohio’s Second Harvest decides to rush to be at the head of that particular bread-line.

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One Response to “Advocacy and its costs”

  1. Mark Rosenman Says:

    I think it’s shameful that the donor bullied the organization into backing away from an appropriate action. If we allow ourselves to be so fragmented in the way we define and try to address problems we’ll never make any progress in resolving them. How can a group struggling to feed increasing numbers of poor families not be concerned with exploitive practices that take advantage of their desperation, further impoverish them, and render them less able to care for themselves. As the Nonprofiteer suggests, perhaps it’s time to go beyond charity and turn to government’s willingness to care for those without a living wage.

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