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Are Nonprofits Embodying the Good They Set Out to Do?

By August 16, 2021September 12th, 2022No Comments

Prospera Partners co-facilitator and guest blogger Kourtney Andar

The Prospera Partners facilitation team is made up of people who are experts in the nonprofit sector. Each brings a unique set of experiences and perspectives to the table having worked for and with nonprofits for years. In this thought-provoking article, Kourtney Andar shares his assessment of the nonprofit sector where he asks “Is the nonprofit sector really doing the good it’s meant to be doing?” Andar is a writer, activist, social justice educator, and manager at the Santa Fe Art Institute. He’ll be co-facilitating our upcoming workshop, “Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Nonprofit Sector.

There is a familiar refrain that I very quickly encountered upon moving to Santa Fe in 2016. I spent the bulk of the first five months of my job search on the nonprofit listings, probably in some hopeful ambition of joining a creative and progressive space, perhaps out of some nostalgia for wonderful agencies I have worked for in the past. Of course, I was quite open to most any job after having no income for six months. I was fortunate to be invited to a few local nonprofit events, and something that was emphasized to me many times was that there are just a whole lot of them (nonprofits) in Santa Fe and in New Mexico. I quickly realized how important this fact was to many people here. It seemed to me as ubiquitous as conversations on chile, UFOs and art markets. One number I heard a few times was that there were 800 in Santa Fe alone. I have been unable to verify that for myself, but it certainly got me thinking about it, maybe for the first time in my adult life.

I have, of course, read a respectable amount on what has been called the “nonprofit industrial complex,” and I am as familiar with the common experiences as the next associate. But I suppose I was slightly taken aback at how much the sheer number of nonprofits in existence matters to New Mexicans. I guess I had never considered this in other U.S. states in which I have lived. It felt like a new perspective, and it happened at the same time I was also receiving a lot of information about the vast historical and cultural landscape of these lands.

It seems an odd comparison to think of nonprofits in the same way we think of McDonald’s and Starbucks – most usually do not have an immediately recognizable sign or logo (if one at all), do not broadcast relentless predatory advertising, and are usually not actively engaging in anti-competitive behavior to dominate a market. However, this is quite the rabbit hole to go down when you really think about it. Here is just one intriguing example: what does it mean for the state of our community that there are so many nonprofits filling needs that would otherwise not be met by government or private industry? I know many readers would expect the obvious follow-up: are the needs, indeed, being met? This is an important question for New Mexico in particular, something I also soon found out upon arrival. Yes, that other ubiquitous conversation around New Mexico ranking last or near last among U.S. states for many social health indicators. This probably has as much folklore attached to it as that 800 number, but I think we should still call it just to have the conversation.

“… what does it mean for the state of our community that there are so many nonprofits filling needs that would otherwise not be met by government or private industry?”

Counting the number of nonprofits anywhere in this nation is actually a very difficult task for many reasons, but there is an effort in New Mexico to at least understand the significance of the nonprofit sector in the state. The University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research prepared a report for the New Mexico Association of Grantmakers titled The Economic Impact of Nonprofits in New Mexico. The 2020 edition utilized data from 2018 and reported there were 62,445 nonprofit jobs in the state, accounting for 10% of the state’s private sector jobs, more than twice as many compared to manufacturing, and 40% more than agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, mining (including oil and gas), and the utilities sectors combined. The nonprofit sector accounts for several billion dollars in economic activity and several more billion dollars in wages, salaries, and taxes. And the sector actually expanded in the last decade. (For some final perspective, consider that Santa Fe ranked second for the highest concentration of nonprofit jobs – 9,514.)

When you read about the nonprofit industrial complex, you learn that while there is a mythology around the sector being benevolent, grassroots, and run by and for the people, the history and trajectory of the sector is not as far removed from profitable counterparts as many may assume. Just the very fact that the sector was created at a time when government and industry were failing large swaths of the population should tell you that there is something a bit off about how this sector has grown and proliferated, especially in states like New Mexico that truly have many dire needs.

The myth of the benevolent sector has many implications. I like the idea that the nonprofit sector is an industry, and this is a particularly harrowing realization when you compare it to the profitable sector. The profitable sector mostly has material goods as its business, or immaterial goods that are exchanged as if they are material. The nonprofit sector, on the other hand, literally trades in the deficits of the other sectors, and people are its good. There is nothing in this arrangement that guarantees a more humane or grassroots approach to business. It is not inevitable that a non-profitable venture will reflect the best interests of its population. Indeed, people can still be treated as targets for business. This is the sobering realization of life in capitalism.

Nonprofit agencies can, have, and will continue to reproduce some of the same social ills from which their profitable counterparts make a killing. If you start searching, you will find numerous examples of nonprofits supporting gentrification and even doing it themselves, supporting abusive people in power and even abusing power themselves, and the list goes on. Some of you have already screamed at your screen about how there are indeed many large nonprofits that are run like profitable businesses and hardly resemble the nonprofit world that is fantasized so often. This is related to the other implication: sometimes we do not expect our experience of nonprofits to be so closely parallel to our experience with government and corporations.

I have recently contemplated how charitable nonprofits are like banks for community power and resources. Sometimes these banks are utilized in a way that increases a community’s revolutionary potential for real change, and that is when our beloved sector is at its best. But other times this arrangement is just a toxic mimic of the same relationship we have with governments and industry. This kind of bank can still limit or deny access, can utilize political favors or dominate available capital. The influence of a seemingly benevolent nonprofit leader can quickly spiral out of control. An agency’s mission statement can be stretched beyond recognition, and the voices of the local community can be silenced. Nonprofits are rife with saviorism and the “good white people” complex. If you cannot agree, just ask the POC associate sitting right next to you.

After having these kind of conversations countless times with numerous board members, staff, and volunteers, I have come to realize that the nonprofit sector is not living up to its potential and is indeed falling short of the revolutionary change that is so desperately needed in today’s perilous world. The nonprofit sector is uniquely positioned to offer real, tangible benefits to the transformation of society. The lack of profit motive – aye, the presence of the altruistic motive when indeed present – is one of revolution against the misery of late-stage capitalism. Beyond simply filling gaps that are presented in our sick and twisted system, the nonprofit sector can become a nurturer and a provider for the new world that is coming. Instead of the dominance of trade and commerce, the nonprofit sector can catapult the principles of gift economics, horizontal decision-making and redistribution of resources. It is the nonprofit sector that can so readily implement the principles of reparations, solidarity, mutual aid, consensus process and the complete dismantling of the domination imperative. Nonprofits can do away with saviorism and white benevolent mentality.

The nonprofit sector may have even more responsibility for this kind of change, simply based upon the fact that it was created to fulfill societal needs that were left bereft in reliance upon the traditional sectors of settler society. This pure fact shows that the system we inhabit was never envisioned for the greater good of the common folk, but rather based upon the idealized world of the merchant class that gave rise to robber barons. New Mexico is a smoldering example of this. The reliance on the governmental and private funding structures of the nonprofit arm of the capitalist society has rendered our efforts tame in comparison.

The current perils of climate change, white supremacy, and patriarchal abusers necessitates that we transform the very society we inhabit. The nonprofit sector does not exist to only provide services, but instead the sector has revolutionary potential that can reshape the entire society. We have plentiful models to utilize: alliances, collaborations, partnerships, and ad hoc efforts. Alliances can bring together agencies of similar mission or values to overcome a common barrier to change, and collaborative funding structures can provide lifeblood to that movement. Collaborations can unify disparate voices of various communities towards a similar goal.

The Emerging Leaders program, and in particular our Dismantling Racism in the Nonprofit Sector, is dedicated to bringing these efforts together. To learn more and join a cohort of peers who are interested in creating a more just nonprofit sector, visit our event page.