Phil Buchanan, ED for the Center for Effective Philanthropy has started an interesting conversation over at the organization’s blog. He’s challenged all of us to think about the ways we idealize the market as a force in creating societal improvement and how we degrade the nonprofit sector in turn. In a response to the post on Twitter, I mentioned that I agreed with him and didn’t feel that the UnSectored community was truly supportive of the nonprofit community. UnSectored’s editor Jeff, and Laura, another blogger, were surprised by my comment. It’s not explicit statements that make me feel this way – rather, it’s the dominant language.
On UnSectored, and elsewhere, pure charity is being attacked. Mr. Buchanan talks about the idealization of markets, but I think it’s really a fetishisation of markets that’s occurring. We hear the words and phrases: social enterprise, value creation, sustainability, triple bottom line,. I could go on. Simply by using this language, we kneel at the altar of capitalistic thinking. We ignore the more important language of justice: sacrifice, engagement, social good, sustainability. Yes, I used sustainability twice. Yes, it was intentional. The different definitions matter.
The nonprofit community has allowed sustainability – and many others – to be stolen. Is the Catholic Church not sustainable? The American Red Cross? The Salvation Army? Suddenly, sustainability means earned revenue and an income-driven business model. This is simply a perversion of the truth, and it ignores the history of charity in this country.
We can see an important shift by looking at two definitions of social entrepreneurship. Ashoka, often credited with defining the field back in the 80s, says, “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems.” More recently, in a Forbes article, it’s described as such: Social enterprises have “the twin goals of social outcomes and earning free cash flow from revenue. Mission-related impact is the central criterion, but wealth creation isn’t ignored.” This changing definition is notable.
To understand this changing dialogue, it’s also helpful to look at David Brooks’ recent opinion piece about The Service Patch. We’ve made a transition where young people believe “community service has become a patch for morality,” Brooks says. His basic argument is that youth believe that in today’s society, you don’t have to be a good person; you can simply “do good” through things like service and nonprofit work. In previous blog posts, you’ve heard me talk about our desire to “create value” without making any meaningful sacrifice. We believe in doing good and doing well, because we have to. By believing in this tenet often espoused by the Forbes-defined social entrepreneurs, we can feel good about ourselves without making any sacrifices for a better community.
Nonprofits exist as a counterbalance to the injustice created by efficiency-based markets. I feel that some in the UnSectored community can forget that charity exists because markets create winners and losers. When revenue is a key driver of success, then efficiency plays an increased role. When efficiency takes a leading role, then the benefit of “all people” triumphs over the benefit of “each person.” This is an extremely important difference.
If we allow the continued destruction of pure charity to occur, there will be real consequences. We will never serve people with severe and persistent mental illnesses. We will never address the rehabilitation of sexual offenders. We will never address the needs of students least likely to succeed. These are inefficient and complex efforts. They’re also necessary. It’s why our work at Reach Incorporated is so unique.
It’s hard for people to hear this in a non-judgmental way, but it’s in that tone that I say it. It doesn’t make sense for schools to help the Reach Inc kids these days. We target the bottom 25% of entering 9th grade students. In a resource-constrained environment, it does not make sense for schools to invest in the students that are least likely to move from failing to passing.
By allowing ourselves at UnSectored, and other places, to fall prey to the new language of social good – to the festishisation of market solutions – we forfeit the importance of the nonprofit sector. Instead of sustainability, we can talk about community and donor engagement. Instead of efficiency of scale, we must talk about depth of impact. Instead of adopting business language, we must talk honestly about the role of business in creating social injustice. Unless we reclaim the language, we will never have an honest discussion about the importance of the nonprofit community.
The final truth is this: If I were to focus on efficiency and sustainability as priorities, a central tenet in the business-focused definition of social enterprise, I would no longer serve my kids. They’re too inefficient. They’re too difficult. They’re too resource-intensive. They’re the least likely to succeed.
But you know what else they are? My kids. Our kids. The future of our community. Appropriate use of resources and efforts toward my organization’s continued existence are both important. But, that is secondary. Let’s never forget that.
Photo credit: joefutrelle
Simply by using this language, we kneel at the altar of capitalistic thinking.