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Part 1 of 3

Introduction: The Passing-the-Beggar Scenario

Perhaps the most common moral dilemma encountered by a middle-class American involves a homeless person. For a city professional, it’s usually a beggar he passes while walking from the subway to work. For a suburban soccer mom, it might be a person holding a sign at the end of a highway off-ramp. In any case, the question is this: Do I give him money?

The dilemma is created by the fact that I don’t know this person. Whether I am a liberal or a conservative, common opinion has told me to ignore the need of the person before me. Either I’m biased against him and figure he could get a job if he wanted one (and he’ll probably spend my money on beer), or I’m aware of the system and I know that the best way for him to get long-term help will be through a local nonprofit or social service agency. For one in a hundred people, the guilt will prove too much and a few dollars will make their way from a wallet to an outstretched hand. For most of the rest, a strange scene will play out, as a human who is being asked for help will not only decline to give it—he will completely ignore the person asking for it, passing by while determinedly avoiding eye contact.

We all know there is something profoundly wrong about this scene, even when we are the ones acting it out. Even someone who donates generously to the local food bank or United Way will ignore this person in need. The scale of our cities, and the consequent centralization and professionalization of our methods of dealing with poverty have created a situation where the sufferer before us has been depersonalized, as have we. He is a unit in a social service system, and we are the funders of that system. We interact through the system and its agents, and any direct interaction between us as humans actually hurts the system’s ability to work properly.
The scene is a powerful illustration of how the social sector has evolved to reflect and perpetuate inhumane elements of late 20th-century life. The relational connections between helper and helped, between charities and their funders, have largely been lost.

While government bureaucracy has its own more obvious problems, our nonprofits largely operate as professional entities in which their funders are treated as disconnected pocketbooks and their volunteers as cheap labor. Meanwhile, the social sciences, for-profit social enterprises, and the private sector as a whole are at least a decade ahead of the nonprofit sector in employing even the most basic 21st century technology and engagement techniques.

Needless to say, nonprofits are filled with dedicated, compassionate people who are in many cases doing solid work and changing lives. But often, they could be doing better work if they had more manpower, fresh ideas, and better funding—if they were hubs of knowledge and resources that could channel the energy and funds of much larger networks of people.

This report will show that by better understanding human nature and tapping into improved engagement practices, nonprofits can not only end the disconnect between the personal and professional (illustrated by the Passing-the-Beggar scenario). They can also dramatically increase their support base and their operational effectiveness.

Progress and the Social Sector

This dramatic increase will require changing some common thinking in the nonprofit sector. The story of progress, as we commonly conceive of it in Western history, is one of individualization and centralization—marked by increases in individual freedom, largely achieved by centralization and standardization of laws and systems. The political reformer Cleisthenes had to wean Athenians from their reliance on patriarchal relationships in order to bring Athenian democracy into its fullness. The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment were only possible through the decline of church, family, and guild authorities and the rise of a middle class that allowed for a greater emphasis on individual opportunity and personal values. The early American progressives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries fought hard against what they saw as the parochialism of local and state loyalties as they sought to build a modern administrative state and the standardization of civil rights that came with it. This has played out further with women’s suffrage, civil rights, marriage revisionism, and other issues. Whenever we talk of progress, we talk of the emancipation of the individual from the oppression or at least homogenization of the small groups that tend to restrict the development of his unique identity, ideas, and aspirations (think of Footloose, or any movie you’ve ever seen that features a person struggling against the straightjacket of a small town’s norms).

As sociologist Robert Nisbet has observed, however, “we cannot deal with the progressive emancipation of individuals without recognizing also the decline of those structures from which the individual has been emancipated.”  This is not to make a value judgment on a particular historical development; only to observe that in a place where family and community are small and closely knit, helping someone in need is a very different proposition than the Passing-the-Beggar scenario (Griffiths, Tocqueville, Burnham, and other European visitors to early 19th-century America consistently remarked with surprise on how rare begging was in the early republic, a fact they attributed to strong local communities and social structures). When economic and political developments create a situation where a person in trouble cannot depend on relationships and social structures for help, a need is inevitably perceived for a larger institution to deal with the problem. When I don’t know my neighbor’s situation, what kind of help he needs, and whether he really needs it or is just bumming off society—and I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to find out—a full-time professional is needed to fill that role in order for my neighbor to get help.

The development of modern American philanthropy, indeed, has largely been the story of the American philanthropist and nonprofit trying to develop effective ways to deal with the social problems found in economies of scale. This quest has led to the growth of our nonprofit sector from the local communities and fraternal orders chronicled by historian David Beito to the social sector we see today, funded by large, scientific foundations and played out in both large and small professional charities.  (Again, I am intentionally sidestepping the public-sector side of this like welfare programs, which are their own issue.) This growth has been well documented by historian Olivier Zunz in his 2011 history of American philanthropy, but it is also something we see daily—the vast majority of us do not spend large amounts of time dealing with the poor; we instead donate to charities that provide that service in our stead.  If we do volunteer our time, it is largely through those charities and the particular niche they serve, rather than dealing with a specific person and his dauntingly diverse array of needs.

Thus, as we created specialized economies where people can balance accounts but not fix a leaky faucet, and specialized cities where people sleep in bedroom communities and don’t know their neighbors, we created a specialized nonprofit sector to deal with the problems of those places and economies—one where human relationships are divorced from the solution of problems, and those solutions are handled by the (usually poorly) paid professionals who have the time and expertise to deal with them responsibly.

Such specialization can sometimes streamline the delivery of aid. But it has contributed to three core problems that nonprofits (and the people who do and don’t fund them) face today:

(1)   The bubble. In healthy communities, a diverse blend of people with different perspectives, backgrounds, and skill sets can compare notes in the course of solving a problem. However, the modern nonprofit community is fragmented. As Peter Block has written:

One aspect of our fragmentation is the gaps between sectors of our cities and neighborhoods; businesses, schools, social service organizations, churches, government operate mostly in their own worlds. Each piece is working hard on its own purpose, but parallel effort added together does not make a community. Our communities are separated into silos; they are a collection of institutions and programs operating near one another but not overlapping or touching.

Thus a struggling woman might find shelter with one nonprofit, food with another, rent assistance with another, and help avoiding eviction with nobody because her rent is overdue—and any attempt to combine all these services under one roof puts them too far away for her to reach without the car she just sold. And her neighbors won’t help her, because they’ve outsourced that job to the bubble for reasons previously mentioned. Meanwhile, nonprofits tend to be slow to learn from each other; due to issues like institutional separation, mission specialization, and donor competition for what is perceived as a fixed pile of funding…but they are even slower to learn from advances outside the nonprofit community (for example, businesses).

(2)   A lack of listening. This report has referred to nonprofit employees as “professionals,” implying something negative. This may sound unfair. Charity workers are, of course, the good guys in anyone’s political narrative. But there are serious downsides to leaving endemic social problems to an impossibly tiny group of paid professionals, no matter how compassionate and skilled they might be. As previously suggested, when we can outsource our social obligations to somebody else, it creates Passing-the-Beggar scenarios that clearly have something wrong with them. But there are other downsides as well:

a. The professionals end up underpaid and overworked, struggling so hard to accomplish day-to-day tasks that they have neither the time nor the social and professional connections to make significant improvements to how they do what they do.

b. As a result, their organizations become stagnant and wary of change, and any attempts at significant improvement result in the creation of new organizations rather than the growth of existing ones, further stretching the available capital of an already inadequate donor base.

c. Professionals don’t like to listen to amateurs. A donor is not around to see what the nonprofit workers do every day, so she is treated as a silo; an isolated, individual source of income to be hit up for money but never really heard (a major long-term Achilles heel for fundraisers; more on that in a moment).

d. Lack of local knowledge and buy-in can create catastrophes when “scientific” foundations put millions into solving a local problem without that local knowledge and buy-in (the Gates Foundation’s centralized, technocratic approaches to education in Boston  and AIDS in Africa provide iconic examples here).

e.  And while all these things would be challenging enough if we really were talking about professionals, in reality, nonprofit workers (though often immensely talented) are usually just ordinary people with big hearts. Yet the way the sector is structured, those people are asked to do a professional’s job—often creating the unhealthy dynamics described above without even the benefit of the expertise the system assumes.

(3)  Little discernible human benefit from participation. Normally, people who engage in helping others actually profit from it. Compassion, co-suffering with another person, has demonstrable psychological and social benefits. But when the sufferers are de-personalized and reduced to faceless groups and hypotheticals, and when the helper is reduced to the role of checkbook, those benefits are reduced or eliminated entirely. In Hannah Arendt’s superb phrasing, the “idealistic, high-flown phrases of the most exquisite pity” of the elite for the suffering masses feel false when confronted with real compassion.   Yet today’s nonprofit (while staffed with genuinely compassionate people) institutionalizes this dynamic for its donors, and produces funders who perhaps value the idea of people, but ignore the beggar at the freeway offramp. This hurts the funder, who doesn’t benefit from the human connection of knowing he helped a real person with a soul. But it also hurts the nonprofit, which is constantly pressured to prove its value to people who barely know what goes on under its roof day to day, and who are constantly threatening to move on to a more sexy cause as their interest wanes (or wondering if the nonprofit is just scamming them, which a 2013 study by the Center for Investigative Reporting tells them is actually pretty likely).

It is tempting to try to solve problems such as these with a grand new philanthropic initiative, or more partnerships, or calls for better government involvement as traffic cop. The more ambitious people (who, in fairness, don’t seem to work for nonprofits) dream of the perfect system that will fix this. But as Michael Oakeshott wisely said, “Politics is not the science of setting up a permanently impregnable society, it is the art of knowing where to go next in the exploration of an already existing traditional kind of society.”  Like it or not, we have inherited the kind of economy, the kind of political system, the kind of citizenry, the kind of problem, and the kind of nonprofit we see before us. The question is not how to design the perfect nonprofit model from scratch. It is how to take what we have and improve it.

The question for this paper, then, is this: what can be done about the Passing-the-Beggar scenario? Having explored the problems depersonalization continues to create for the modern nonprofit, in both funding and operations, what are concrete steps nonprofit leaders can take to do something about it?

Ed. note: This is part 1 of a three-part serialization of "Enlisting the Amateurs"; parts 2 and 3 will appear on Philanthropy Daily through next week.

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