Monday, December 05, 2016


I attended a conference on non-profit policy. It was a conference, like a dozen others I’ve attended over the years. At the breakfast talk I was half asleep, but the keynote was so electrifying that I woke right up. After the talk, as I stood in line to talk to the keynote speaker, I said hello to Flo Green the Executive Director of the organization sponsoring the conference. We started talking about how ironic it is that nonprofits have come under attack for being too much “like a business”. We've all been working so hard for the past twenty years to have the work done by non-profits taken seriously. The approach being to emphasize that we were no different than any other business: professional, hard working, corporate, etc. And now we find the entire non-profit sector under attack, because if you can’t tell the difference between us and a business then maybe we don’t qualify for the much sought after IRS tax-exemption. How ironic to achieve SO much success that we could lose it all.

So Flo says to me "you know charity means love”. And I paused, taking that in. How had an act of love turned into a business? How had we arrived at this moment? Was the attack valid? Did we, in fact, no longer warrant our tax-exempt status? The hot button issue (raised by Senator Grassley) right now is “what exactly is the difference between a nonprofit hospital and a private hospital” and if the public can’t tell the difference, and the IRS can’t tell the difference, maybe the emperor is not wearing any clothes after all.

The scary part is that if they win that one, which type of non-profit will be next? The question casts a chill over the whole non-profit sector (I don't dare say non-profit industry do I?). It turns out that now (having done every other aspect of business) we must turn to marketing and branding, because without a clearly discernable identity, we may not exist at all in the long run.

Back in the '80's, I worked for a young idealist administrator. He captivated me with stories of the origins of nonprofits, and how they had all sprung into existence in the '60's out of political action and social change movements, out of revolutionary spirit. He and I both used to pine for those days. We didn’t want to sit in an office filling out forms, we wanted to get out there and HELP people.

Because nonprofits had existed for my entire lifetime, I couldn't grasp that they had such a short history and had not even existed before that. I never thought to ask but wait…what did exist before that? And the answer was charity. Charity came from the rich giving to the poor, and a whole heck of a lot of that charity came through the Church. Twenty years later we have become "partners" with every government agency and/or private enterprise that we can manage and so have changed in character from our charitable roots. But if our "Look and Feel" is no longer the same, are we not still devoted to helping the poor (whether it be nutrition, early childhood education, feeding the hungry, training the unemployed, etc. )? See follow-up article: Solving the Nonprofit Crisis

1 comment:

jb said...

Charity meaning love is true. Charity meaning rich giving to poor is not. As early as Tocqueville, there is written commentary on the uniquely American style of the community taking care of those in need.
When the desire to take care of those in need is driven by the interests of the wealthy it manifests itself in Dickensian institutions like the poor house and warehouse sized orphan asylums that were far more economical and productive by basic profit measures: total number of widgets produced at what cost. These institutions were considered successful when they MADE A PROFIT not when someone's life was turned around.

The uniquely American version of this was Hull House, and the variations that followed in its footsteps. The settlement house was a means of helping people transition to a better life.

If we only measure our success by a monetary bottom line then we are not only no different than any for- profit company, we are no different than a 19th century Benthamist monstrosity.