Monday, July 7, 2008

Some thoughts on the for-profit invasion of the non-profit world

The influx of for-profit people into the non-profit field - as Board members, funders, "venture philanthropists," "social entrepreneurs," and staff - can be very a difficult for non-profit staff leaders who have spent a lot of time learning their field and craft. Perhaps it's less frustrating for younger leaders who grew up with the Robin Hood Foundation as part of the landscape that defines philanthropy and non-profit performance these days.

It's not pleasant, however, to be told that one's knowledge, expertise and experience counts for less than squat in the face of dollars and measurements. Nor is it pleasant to see newer folks be brought up short by the unexpected complexities of solving pervasive, long-standing, and seemingly universal problems - problems like poverty, child abuse, hunger, school drop outs, crime, infectious disease, and mental illness.

It gives me no pleasure to see people find out that their neat, slogan-worthy approach doesn't work with everyone or for very long. Because we've now wasted a lot of time on yet another band-aid approach to a problem - that accomplishes basically what the older approaches did because they all engaged in "creaming" - working with the most likely to succeed. We could have been using that time and those immense financial resources to implement social change based on the lessons learned after the cream was skimmed.

There's such an immense amount of information that tells us that poverty will not be eradicated unless there are major structural changes in our economy. That women will not be able to leave welfare and optimally care for their children unless they have satisfying family-friendly jobs paying at least $40,000 a year, subsidized high-quality child care, safe neighborhoods, and easily accessible shopping - especially for healthy, affordable food. That kids will drop out of school unless they perceive it as worth their while instead of simply a time-wasting, boring treadmill designed to make adults feel good about themselves and to keep kids in line and quiet. The list goes on.

Smart people work in the non-profit field and have done so for years. That there have been not-so-smart and not-so-ethical people also in the field has been used as a reason for the new "venture philanthropists" to disrespect those who've worked hard for so many years.

We in the non-profit field are the original "do more for less" people. Give us more money and we can do so much more. Give us the money to run our organizations like you run your businesses and see what we can do. Chances are we'll decide to spend the money on services instead of car service and client lunches. And even more likely is that our for-profit Board members will resist spending any of that money on the infrastructure that would really help us run like a business and increase our effectiveness - like computers and evaluation and planning and conferences and periodicals.

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