Services Suck I Guess

Community Organizations International International

HomelessShelter2New Orleans        I spend a lot of time (sweat and work, too!) thinking about how to build more sustainable organizations that are less donor driven especially to support international organizing, but indeed it’s a universal problem.  Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article, “Mergers, Closings Plague Charities” by Shelly Banjo and S. Mitra Kalita that raises similar, troubling questions along with a piece in today’s Times about the total lack of boundaries between Harper’s Magazine and its donor and publisher in the MacArthur Foundation.

In a nutshell part of the problem seems to be that donors who make their money from business want the charities to work on the same business principles and performance standards as they deliver services.  Is this really always possible?  Or, are we to conclude that there is really no such thing as “charity,” and that services that don’t pay off, whether housing or mental health or long form journalism, just suck and out to be killed.

That seems to be the position of Diane Aviv, head of the Independent Sector, as she’s quoted in the Journal:
“Like in the animal kingdom, at some point, the weaker organizations will not be able to survive,” says Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector, a coalition of 600 nonprofits.

Maybe this is simply Darwinian, but I’m troubled because I think it’s more complex than that really.  In fact the whole basis of the tax code and the IRS exemption given to charities providing education, health, and other community services is in fact the assumption that they simply not going to be profitable, which is by definition why they are charitable.  Yet at the altar of what most would have thought in the midst of the current Big Recession is the discredited worshipping of fast buck, private sector greed and entrepreneurship, it seems many are still parroting the language of business without grasping its loss of credibility.

There needs to be a sense that charities deserve support because they are providing a real service, often irreplaceable, and doing the right thing, not just that small businesses operating on weak margins.

In our kind of work building organizations that contend for power, fight for justice, protect fundamental rights, and try to build ladders to dreams, there is never going to be much charitable giving and support, so the challenges are huge if we envision a more just and equitable future.  To expect that the rich and foundations will finance such a fundamental restructuring is naïve and misguided.  So, we are forced to have to come up with new and different resourcing and sustainability models that depend on our constituencies and which they can more directly manage and control.

Nonetheless I still worry about the “pure” services that cannot be paid for by the beneficiaries and have to either be provided by government (meaning all of the people) or by charities (meaning the tax deductible with surplus income and wealth).  The government is cutting back, and the rich are not stepping up, it seems partially because it’s not good business and additionally because they are re-evaluating their own sense of sufficient wealth.

I’ve never been primarily a services guy, but I hate to imagine a world in which the conclusion is simply that “services suck” and welcome to the law of the wild and survival of the fittest.  There’s a lot of evidence that such a strategy doesn’t have a happy ending for millions of people.