The Solution or Part of the Problem?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 5th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to 35 international who had spent the last three weeks travelling this country meeting with, hearing from and listening to nonprofits, funders, community partners, etc.  They were here through the International Visitor Leadership Program, sponsored by the State Department, with the goal of learning all they could about American nonprofits.  I was their wrap- up/integration session before their next day departure.  I always enjoy when I’m invited to address invited guests of State.  The experience is always different, yet I always learn from it and leave thinking, especially about the challenges of being a nonprofit, and doing the work, everywhere in the world.

Two side-bar conversations, though, really had me appreciating and thinking.  A young man, asked me, very quietly, with eyes continually scanning who was near and far from our conversation, how do you run a nonprofit when there is continual political interference?  Never having come across that problem before, it took me a minute or so before I could even start asking the right questions to learn more to try and strategize.  But each question I asked was answered with another explanation of how political interference makes this or that impossible.  Finally, it having dawned on me that this young man worked for an American international nonprofit with a very wide and strong reputation, I pursued a line of thought that would allow the local nonprofit to ride on the hidden coattails of the international nonprofit.  No, I was told, that wouldn’t work either, as the international nonprofit caves to the demands of the Hong Kong government.

I don’t know which upset me more:  an American nonprofit that was supposed to be helping the people of Hong Kong kowtowing to a foreign government, or the fact that even the cover of an international nonprofit was not going to help one, let alone many, nonprofits in Hong Kong.  Finally, I resorted to suggesting going underground, as it seems almost every resistance movement has done just that as it started out, seeking to gain traction below before slowly coming into the light and fomenting wider-spread change.

It isn’t that there haven’t been movements of change in this country—civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, anti-war, and more—that haven’t been interfered with by governments—from investigations, firehoses, jail cells, denial of permits—but they have, by contrast to so many other places around the globe, been minimal.  Change and nonprofits are not for the faint of heart, never have been, never will be.  But in some countries, it is even harder than we think it is here.

But it was the second conversation that kept returning to my mind over the weekend.  He challenged the “rightness” of nonprofits being funded by government agencies.  If nonprofits are doing work that if not done by them would otherwise have to be done by the government, he argued, then by taking government dollars nonprofits are enabling governments not to step up and do what they should.

While I constantly talk about executive directors enabling boards not to do their jobs, I don’t talk about nonprofits enabling governments to not have to do their jobs.  But there is validity in this logic.  Andrew Carnegie, in his “Gospel of Wealth,” commented that the “main consideration [of philanthropy] should be to help those who help themselves.”

By giving its dollars to others to do what it should be doing, is government deserving of the philanthropy—help in solving its problems—of nonprofits, or are nonprofits facilitating the government’s failure?  Are we addressing the problem or simply perpetuating it?

Carnegie also said that “[i]t were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.”  By picking up the government’s slack, are nonprofits supporting the continuation of the undesired behavior? Putting on a band aid rather than working to solve the problem by addressing root causes?

There are those who question the true motivation and value/contributions produced by nonprofits and those who work in them.  Is it about helping others or self-aggrandizement?  Are we really part of the solution, which we love to tell ourselves we are, or are we simply perpetuating the problem?

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