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.