If not for profit, for what?

nonprofit

I sat next to an older gentleman on my flight from D.C. to Atlanta, GA. While he was quite in the beginning and was absorbed in his newspapers, a quick smile and conversation started him talking. And despite his strong southern accent – he was from Alabama – we managed to discuss a lot of ideas on this short trip.

One of the first things he said when I pointed out that I was working in the nonprofit sector was that it’s all a sham. “It is all about tax write-offs, ultimately, someone has to pay for all that service.” He argued.

While I do meet the occasional Libertarian, who brushes off all feel-good work of nonprofits as just instances of market catallaxy, or the ‘entrepreneur’, who quite genuinely scoffs at the idea of the nonprofit being a sector, the truth is that about 10 percent of Americans are employed in this sector and it is one of the most enduring parts of American work-force and cultural landscape. Nonprofits today are growing and thriving, if anything. There is no denying that this sector is important and worthy of our attention, even if we don’t believe in how it operates or its assumptions.

This conversation brought to mind the famous book by Dennis Young, ‘If not for profit, for what’?  In this book, he has argued for a behavioral theory of studying the nonprofit sector.  In terms of framing the study or discourse of nonprofits, young suggests that the demand side of nonprofits has been studied quite extensively, i.e, how nonprofits provide public goods as studied by Burton Weisbrod and as providers of ‘trust goods’ as offered by Henry Hansmann – where nonprofits ‘asymmetric information led consumers to prefer nonprofits over less trustworthy for-profit providers.’ What this means is that there is a market-gap in most areas, where consumers/ citizens don’t have access to the best information and in the absence of that, for-profits would – given their motivation to make as much money as possible- make use of this gap. On the other hand, a non-profit, which has a service motive is not likely to indulge in this sort of behavior.

Young offers an explanation that the ‘supply’ side of nonprofit behavior has not been extensively analyzed and this can help understand the motivations for why people work in this sector and why it even exists. He uses entrepreneurship as a motivating factor to understand the sector. His framing of the nonprofit sector leadership and motivations as ‘entrepreneurship’ is key to our discussion. Most nonprofit leaders and organizations are trying to solve some social problems for which there is no market solution. Or if there is, it is too expensive or exclusionary.

As Peter Frumkin, writing in this book suggests “The value of his (Young’s) early contribution was and continues to be his focus on the way the values, personal traits, and skill sets of individual entrepreneurs are a useful starting point in understanding where nonprofit ideas and organizations originate.”  By this means that the focus of most scholarship and discourse has been on why market failure has been responsible for the rise of nonprofits, while there hasn’t been much focus on the supply side – meaning why individuals do what they do, in the context of social organizations and institutions. The study of values, motivations and drives is key as well. This also explains the rise of the civil society sector in the U.S., which Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about, in Democracy in America.

Back to the question: if not for profit, then for what? The answer to this lies in both normative and philosophical dimensions. Sometimes profit is not the key motive. It could be service or the desire to make a difference. The motive to serve public and do ‘good’ is inherent in the social sector, of which nonprofits are a part. This also means that we need to take into account other motives, other than pure profit motive, that drives individuals to serve and work in these forms of organizations. The market and government cannot provide all answers to questions before us, hence the need for nonprofits.