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80 percent of Americans are likely to switch brands, if comparable in price and quality, to one that supports a social cause.”

With Product(RED), TOMS, and Warby Parker, there is no doubt that the shift to for-profit charity has been well underway for the past decade. The Atlantic’s Amy Schiller concurs, asking “Is For-Profit the Future of Non-Profit?” in her latest piece.

After painting a wonderful picture of the “blunt pragmatism” realized by “marketized philanthropy,” Schiller concludes:

If we insist that this is the only way to effectively address massive social problems, we resign ourselves to a world dictated by consumer impulses. From our Warby Parker glasses all the way down to our TOMS shoes, we can cover ourselves head-to-toe with signifiers of empathy in lieu of actual connection to humans who need help. Philanthropy means "love of humanity." Yet as philanthropy merges and then is overridden by consumer activity, it is our own humanity that gets lost in the process.

While I largely agree with this analysis within the boundaries established by the article, I think the implication of the “nonprofit” era as a sincere representation of “actual connection to humans who need help” is tenuous at best. For example, is cutting an annual check to Save the Children truly fostering an “actual connection to humans”? Sure, the act of writing a check is donating money headed towards a seemingly worthy cause, but is that personless transaction necessarily any better than a purchase of a pair of TOMS? (Arguably, TOMS may offer a more personal transaction, considering each customer gets access to countless pamphlets and videos that document the communities benefiting from their B1G1 business model.)

Thus, is the problem really a shift from non-profit to for-profit or is it merely a symptom of the shift from localized caritas towards the globalized nonprofit-industrial complex?

Looking at the situation two-dimensionally (viz., in terms of scope and profit), the shift to for-profit charity appears less detrimental than one may first imagine. That is, once we ask what the for-profit charity is shifting from, the for-profit does not seem as injurious to our civil society. In other words, if the philanthropic question presumes globalization, then an explicit focus on the bottom line logically follows. Going one step further, if Warby Parker gets more glasses to necessitous patients than its nonprofit foil New Eyes for the Needy, then it seems that we should not be complaining – more material “actual connection to humans who need help” is certainly better than less.

However, turning to the question of scope, one must re-examine whether this prior shift from the local to the global is necessarily beneficial. In terms of “actual connection to humans who need help,” it would appear that localized charity --- in its call to fuller, holistic kinship rather than bottom lines --- is better suited. Actual connection is about altruism and selflessness. Actual connection is about charity. Actual connection is about building and fostering relationships.

Before the conversation begs the question further, let us be sure that we are asking the right questions. Therefore, on the one hand, a shift to for-profit charity isn’t that bad if we merely consider its immediate alternative; yet, on the other hand, if we place this shift in its broader context, there should be much concern.

A turn to localized charity is certainly easier said than done --- but it is certainly worth a try.

Note: There is certainly reason to be optimistic about a possible return to localism. While Schiller’s piece rightly notes the downward trends of social capital acknowledged in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the piece neglects to mention Putnam’s finding that “a new spirit of volunteerism” is on the rise (Chapter 7). Undoubtedly, volunteerism is necessarily more localized than Putnam’s variable “contributing to charity,” broadly understood.

1 thought on “Revisiting scope”

  1. Hcat says:

    Local or global, the time it takes to cross cultural barriers to relate to the poor is often more costly than the money (and we shouldn’t usually give money to strangers) so that’s why most of us would rather hire an organization to do it.

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