On Not-for-Profits

I was going to go to a rally for Women’s Health today, but I was waylaid.   There is a pretty aggressive political faction that seeks to cut funding for reproductive health, and some of my close friends are active in that group.  I’m personally astonished at the short-sightedness of those who would cut such funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood (or even NPR), as it is prudent policy in many ways.

But that said, I’ve got my own quibbles with not-for-profits.   Over the last 30-40 years, they’ve become their own dens of iniquity where the CEO makes six figures while their idealistic interns work at a pittance.  Most of their work constitutes making money from values, rather than distributing it.  Generally, however, I don’t inherently begrudge high salaries for good work, but like governments that overlap their services, not-for-profits themselves could use some consolidation.  And with all the money that goes to not-for-profits, I’m perplexed we haven’t yet found the kingdom of God.

But I wonder if sucking at the government teat is generally good for not-for-profits.  Sometimes I think it makes them soft, less adversarial and less creative.

Do not mistake me for your garden libertarian.   Government should ensure people play by the rules; that there is accurate data taken; research made; and liberties protected.  There are good reasons for the government (taking a cue from Arrow) to protect people when the market fails; and to offer some kind of insurance that diminishes misery and harm.   Government should support not-for-profits when it’s clear they can do a more efficient job (which, because not-for-profits have access to information on the ground, and have a sense of the intangibles, is often).

But not-for-profits that rely on the government risk their own souls when they take that money.  Admittedly, individuals rarely give enough; the government provides some stability and breathing space for not-for-profits to be more present.  Yet, unless there is someway to account for the inevitable dependency, government funding can diminish the passions and commitment that make organizations strong.

When the Great Society programs began, radicals such as Saul Alinsky noted that this could easily result in great failure because government hand outs broke the basic rule of community organizing:  never do for people what they can do for themselves.  This is not to say the government has no role in helping others.  But it is probably more effective  if they simply handed out money than funded institutions to hand out money.    Then, perhaps, poor people could have the resources to do something.

The church is a powerful organization in the US precisely because it relies on the power of its members rather than the largesse of the government.  It’s priests are paid modestly, and its ambitions often modest.  Even so, the potential of any community is enormous if they want to do the work.

So although I lament the politics that may defund some of my favorite organizations, I do not believe the sky is falling.  Instead, it may also be the moment of their liberation.

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3 comments on “On Not-for-Profits

  1. toepfer says:

    This has made me think about this issue in a new way. Thank you.

  2. janinsanfran says:

    In general, I think the non-profit institutional form can suck the life out of any well-meaning group of people. When doing good is a job, or worse, a profession, it can be nice, but it is seldom either very good or transgressive. People need jobs so non-profits serve a purpose, but not a particularly special one.

    But I wouldn’t exclude mainline US churches from that criticism at all. We seek to pay our clergy a living “professional” wage. It seems only fair given that we expect them to have degrees, etc. But that requires forms of institutional development that look at awful lot like any other struggling non-profit context.

    • padremambo says:

      I think you’re right. I think that what is a little different (and it might be minor) is that churches rarely reach the scale of large not-for-profits. They also, usually, handle a far greater diversity of challenges. I don’t think there is a theological reason why churches are different, but some practical ones. For example, because of our breadth, we enable volunteers who are both 15 and 85; we handle a variety of small tasks that are difficult to measure.

      I don’t think churches are used well. I believe that an effective priest of a church with 150 pledging “units” and an ASA of 300 or so can do some excellent work and justify a salary compared to a local elementary school principal.

      But the challenge is: what constitutes effective work for the priesthood? I believe that answer is changing, and most clergy don’t know what the answer is. I personally believe that it is not in the form of pastoral care. What might be worthy, is learning how to measure effectiveness. And I suspect that some clergy will resist that.

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