Sunday, February 25, 2007

Non-profits: Help or hindrance?

"In the United States, nonprofits play a critical role. They provide almost all social services, arts and other culture, education, advocacy, religion, pro bono legal services, and free health care. In addition, nonprofits are leading the charge, and in many cases, are the only organizations working on saving the environment, ending racism, protecting civil rights and civil liberties, and promoting full acceptance and recognition of the rights of women, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and seniors. In general, then, almost everything that is creative, humane, and promoting of justice is brought to us by a nonprofit" (Klein, Kim. Fundraising for Social Change. Jossey Bass: New York, 2001).

Ever since I read the preceding words written by one of the most important figures in the field of grassroots fundraising, Kim Klein, I can't stop wondering if in fact nonprofits prevent the possibility for true social, economic and environmental justice. Doesn't the massive nonprofit sector provide capitalists with a philanthropic out? Paulo Freire once said: "In order to have the continued opportunity to express their "generosity," the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well."

When one considers the enormous amounts of human energy through volunteer hours organizing, educating, advocating, and fundraising to provide the most basic of human rights, one must question whether or not American capitalists are avoiding their responsibility for the maldistribution of wealth, resources and power. Nonprofit activists are often caught up in a tense conflict of their principles by asking the wealthy for money to save the environment that they, "the wealthy elites," polluted; or nonprofits often have to ask for the blood money the wealthy earned in their stock portfolios from the profits of companies like Coca-Cola that has a direct role to the murder of union-workers in Colombia; and the list goes on and on.

What if nonprofits stopped providing their services? What if nonprofit activists stopped investing their time, energy and scant financial resources providing basic human services that are the responsibility of the entire society and instead focused its collective energies organizing for systemic revolution? What if the nonprofit sector stopped begging for blood money, closed its doors and forced Americans to look to its government for help? Would that apply the kind of pressure needed to get universal health care? Would that force Americans to start rethinking the myths of American exceptionality and capitalism's benevolent "invisible hand"?

Perhaps the time has come to stop bailing capitalism out and start organizing for a revolutionary future.


GraemeAnfinson said...

i've been thinking the same. What if people like Ralph nader stopped trying to reform capitalism and just let it run amok. we would have people with shotguns on the streets eventually.

John in Montana said...

The Government still provides social services, albeit sparingly and begrudgingly. I’m thinking social security, medicare, medicade, unemployment, etc. Nonetheless I hear what you’re saying.

How do unions and non-profits differ? Should we eliminate unions? Probably not. What do unions provide? Solidarity. What do non-profits provide? Solidarity. By eliminating non-profits we will encourage a much more individualistic atmosphere. I envision a situation in which non-profits disband and some sort of violent upheavel occurs. It might be a violent revolution. Before we advocate for that sort of revolution shouldn’t we have people in strategic positions, groups in place, for an easier transition to a more just society? Otherwise, chaos in the streets will only lead to somebody becoming an oppressor or a corrupt Government coming into power. I would advocate for non-profits to call for revolution, but to keep them in place so that they can help guide the revolution. The non-profits don’t have to be in power. They shouldn’t. That would be setting them up to become the new dictators. You can sense a bit of a rub between Marx and Bakunin here. What should the role of non-profits be in leading the revolution? You don’t want them to have power – that will lead to a centralized government and eventually tyranny of the same sort. Alternatively, if you just let the revolution drift without a course more people will die than need be. You need to have people and non-profits in place to guide but not control. Seems like a bit of a tightrope.

Alternatively, lefties could stop using non-profits to help people at the microscale and instead think about the big picture. Lakoff would probably argue that from a utilitarian perspective we should dump the money into think tanks to exert more influence over the government via rhetoric or whatever other means they come up with. His counter-intuitive point holds a lot of merit.

At any rate, I don’t think that eliminating non-profits will shift more responsibility to government to ensure people are being cared for. Actually, I think it might have the opposite effect; without non-profits calling up corporations and government, the people would be in a worse position than they are. Non-profits provide more than just social services. They are watch dogs too. We educate and help ensure government does what we want it to. Of course the government could be more representative of the people, but imagine what it would look like without non-profits. My biggest change to non-profit mentality would be to stop targeting individual corporations like Wal-Mart or Coca-Cola. Attacking those companies is like playing whack a mole. You kill one, but another pops up in its place. This mentality seems to completely miss the idea that we are operating inside a market system. Instead, we need to place more pressure on the government and push government accountability. Remove representatives that allow Corps to operate.

Ché Bob said...

"Should we eliminate unions? Probably not. What do unions provide? Solidarity."

John, I'm going to have to disagree on this one. I'm definitely not for eliminating unions, but I would not agree that the current unions provide solidarity or that most of them should even be considered genuine unions at all. The NEA and AFT are the two biggest unions in our country and they provide very little, if not zero, solidarity. Me and my fellow teachers never discuss our union! Ever! We never discuss our power! We never discuss our ability to stick it to the man, apply political pressure, support other working class people.

Most teachers see the union as an unfortunate obligation. If I were to begin to talk about the potential of organizing ourselves and using the union to apply pressure, they would laugh at me as another union zealot and suggest I run for a union officer position. They'd appreciate my dedication and look forward to my efforts on getting them a better wage. Beyond that, they'd want me to check my politics at the door.

"By eliminating non-profits we will encourage a much more individualistic atmosphere."

Again I disagree. How could our society be more individualistic? Non-profits, as they exist, prove this flaw in spades. Non-profits emerge as a result of individualistic interests and needs. Besides the genuinely needed human services non-profits provide, we have a non-profit in this country for every eccentric whim one can think up. By failing to “socialize” the costs of caring for each other, societies like ours are left to ponder with individualistic frivolity to which cause they will “generously” give. They are never asked, nor educated to think of the bigger picture. They are never asked to look at the system that gives “the disciplined, hard-working, moral” few so much and “the undisciplined, immoral, lazy” masses the scraps. We are groomed to understand “charity” through a capitalistic prism that refracts a light of oppression into a saintly lightshow of generous and benevolent individuals that are “giving back” to their communities.

As far as the government providing for the basic needs of its citizens, before Roosevelt's social programs, nothing like them existed. Society was on the brink of violent upheaval, and as pressure built, the government was forced to respond. Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, etc. were not granted, THEY WERE WON!

Hell yeah there would be a violent reaction, but isn't the failure to provide basic human services a violent act? The Cubans we interviewed in Havana often said they saw our society as committing human rights violations for not providing housing, food, health care and free higher education.

What we have here instead is a society chalk full of "good" people that see these shortcomings without questioning the rudimentary responsibilities of a whole society to take care of one another. These same people then take it upon themselves (individualistically) to make a soup kitchen to start feeding fellow citizens when that responsibility lies with all of us! In this way we've just bailed out the rest of an unknowing, indifferent, individualistic society.

Perhaps if dissatisfaction reached an all-time high, the "unknowing" would no longer remain so. Perhaps the subsequent unrest would effect the indifferent. Most importantly, the violence would be "socialized" and would take aim at the inward-turning, insular and individualistic!

On the other hand, you are on to something to say that non-profits could still serve a role. First thing that would be necessary would be for the Executive Directors to look at the BMWs and giant diamonds rings they wear and question the veracity of their intentions: assuage guilt by "helping" the poor while perpetuating the status quo or caring to truly change the system! If they choose the latter, then we might find an associate that would be available for guiding the revolution.

However, another thing that has to be questioned is the relationship non-profits have with the very people the revolution hopes to supplant. Non-profits have some very dubious relationships with the wealthy and are constantly having to beg for money that was stolen/withheld from the people the non-profits serve.

A painful side-effect of these fake relationships non-profits often forge with the wealthy is the necessary avoidance of overt politics. Non-profits have to represent themselves in compromised ways and avoid political posturing (except for sounding like a Democrat). Human rights organizations, for example, speak of human rights without speaking of political and economic solutions to the social and economic injustices they fight! Soup kitchens just provide food and stay out of the "true" political fight. It's okay for them to quietly support the Democratic party, but forget questioning capitalism and the two-party system when they have to ask rich people for money and food!

Non-profits and the people that run them need to have serious discussions of self-awareness. They need to look at their role in propping up the system.

As an experiment, look at the size of the U.S.’s non-profit sector and compare it to other industrialized nations were basic human rights are respected. I once tried to find a job volunteering for non-profits in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. They were virtually non-existent. The most important human services are provided by their societies! Surprised?

Anonymous said...

I think short of a revolution, the quickest way to affect change would be to have publicly financed elections where people are no an equal footing and those who want to be a public servant for the good of all the people can run for office on their merit.

troutsky said...

Publicly financed elections might be a good start but I agree that we need to start thinking out of even that box ( or frame, as Lakhof would say) This is really the "reform or revolution" argument updated for a modern social and political condition.

Non-profits and NGOs do suffer from the prohibition on being to "political" but they help solve real problems and provide a platform for political organizing. I don't think we want to starve people to the point of resistance, even though it seems at times that might be the only thing that motivates.What we need is a political party and a movement that looks like a lot of fun to belong to!

Ché Bob said...

John and Trout,

This was intended as a polemic, not an actual proposal. I work for a non-profit and I'm quite proud of our work and see that we do real work that affects real people in truly meaningful ways. I just look at Belgium and think they feed their poor, house the homeless, care for the sick, advocate for human rights abroad, provide culture and art, etc. but they socialize the costs. Non-profits are nearly nonexistent.

We need to use our non-profit energy to organize economically and politically!

troutsky said...

I understand your bold assesment is saying what no one wants to say but what needs to be said. My mailbox is stuffed weekly with pleas from non-profits, mostly worthy causes but with their own bureacracies and administrative costs, etc. I want to write them and say "You are all part of the same CAUSE! You need political power , not my crummy ten bucks! Get Together"

LeftyHenry said...

I agree with what graemeanfinson commented. Capitalism without checks would be a fucking disaster, and it was, back in the late 1800s when there were little restrictions at all.

Ché Bob said...

Left and Grae,

Are you saying you approve of reforming capitalism? Do you want there to be checks (non-profits) balancing out capitalism's obvious flaws?

GraemeAnfinson said...

Nope. i was agreeing with you. Do the groups we form and the people that fight for social change just prolong the reign of capitalism? That is a good question and I think that it may take laissez faire capitalism to actually end captialism.

John in Montana said...

I don't think that a laissez faire system would provide the impetus for the drastic social changes the U.S. needs to become sustainable and humane. I think it is going to take a complete overthrow of the Gov't via armed revolution, or some other serious challenges to the status quo. Didn't we see something very close to Laissez Faire Capitalism right before the New Deal era? FDR didn't throw the capitalist system out, just made some slight modifications to stop the poor from an armed insurrection. We have the same basic system today.

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