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.

An artist as philanthropist : Umm Kulthum as an exemplar

For those who know Umm Kulthum , the Egyptian singer and iconoclast, they are also familiar with her role in rallying the entire Arab world together, in times of great need. Her role as the ‘voice of Egypt’ is well known. Not so well known may be her role as a philanthropist.

Umm Kulthum
Photo credit : Al bustan culture center, Philadelphia

 

We recently  attended an event honoring Umm Kulthum in Washington D.C. organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that organized an event as an homage to the great artist. Here are some interesting vignettes from the panel discussion that discussed not just her philanthropy, but also her life, her  career and the forces that shaped it.

  • Umm Kulthum was a peasant girl, who made the transition to Cairo, the big city, with a lot of grace
  • As she did this, she remained true to her roots, often referring to her humble origins
  • While maintaining a dignified presence, Umm Kulthum was a trendsetter of sorts – both in terms of style of singing and her own image
  • She contributed to the post-six day war period through her own salary  and her own wealth, towards the Egyptian state, which needed all the money, for its war efforts
  • She also encouraged women to donate jewelry, towards the war efforts
  • Her greatest contribution was to showcase Arab unity, when it was most needed, through Art
  • She was a businesswoman, diplomat and an artist.

As an exemplar of the value of giving oneself, and one’s time, Umm Kulthum demonstrates that an artist can make a difference. And it is perhaps fitting that she is celebrated, to this day; almost 40 years after her death, as one of the most important singers in Arabic language.

What is wrong with the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse

First things first : I am happy that Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London. Nothing could be cooler than having someone who shares your last name become the Mayor of a global city.

This incident has been commented upon, quite a lot. Well meaning people point out that this is an indication that the ‘West’ is tolerant of Muslims and Islam. And that forces of intolerance have been defeated.

Agreed.

khanacademy

What I do have a problem with, is the simplistic characterization of his win as somehow mainstreaming of Muslims .  The second problem I see with this discourse is a lot of focus on Mr.Khan’s identity as a Muslim ( ok, I get it – he didn’t bring it up, but was rather attacked for being a Muslim, and an extremist). This identification of him – a Muslim- as an ‘outsider’ who has somehow been ‘accepted’ by the establishment is problematic to me.

He is not an outsider, but a London born Brit. Secondly, Islam has centuries of history in Britain and is certainly not a ‘new’ entrant into the nation.

Just as much as those claiming that ‘Islam’ is out ‘there’ and we in the ‘West’ are ‘here.’ This is patently false. Mr.Khan is part of the West; indeed, he is the new West, as he has claimed. The West and Islam are not only compatible, but are intertwined to such an extent that it is not fair to talk about these two as different categories. Conceptually, Islam and West should be seen as co-existing and co-equal, not two separate or distinct entities – in opposition.

Orientalists have always spoken of Islam as the ‘other’ that is somehow inferior to the West. This discourse of ‘Islam and the West’ perpetuates this Orientalist stereotyping.

On the other hand, Muslims in the West do occupy this ‘liminal’, in-between space, which makes them unique. As Kambiz Ghaneabassiri argues, in his analysis of the History of Islam in America – this space between White and Black America, has made American Muslims unique. To some extent, this argument can be used for Muslims in Europe, as well; though the history of Muslims on that continent has been markedly different.

May be it is a nuance that many don’t care about, or may be it comes across as not being celebratory of his victory; but it is far from true. I am indeed happy that someone like him could become a leader in a cosmopolitan society. It is a proud moment for all minorities. Indeed, not many Christians or Hindus will get to lead a city in a Muslim majority country, such as Pakistan, for instance.

So, yes, Western Liberalism is good and mighty and powerful. But at the same time, this Liberalism should also not reduce complex subjects such as Mr.Khan to a mere symbol – a symbol of the ‘West’s tolerance’. Nor should it perpetuate the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse.

Do we need theory?

Of late, I have been having a lot of conversations with people in the nonprofit sector. And one clear divide I am noticing is between those who ‘do’ stuff and those who ‘think’ about stuff and theorize about it. The assumption is that those who can, do and those who don’t, teach. You may have heard this cliché many times over. But is it true? And is it valid? Are all practitioners, heroes; who just show up, to sacrifice their time, energy, reputations and sometimes, their lives just based on how they ‘feel,’ or are they also operating on a model of the world that seems coherent and a narrative of how things work – in other words, a ‘theory.’ I think all of us theorize, to some extent and theorizing is an essential part of the meaning making process.

CW Mills
CW Mills. Source :Sociology.about.com

So, what is theory? It is nothing but a general explanation for a phenomenon at hand, using language and ideas that are mutually agreed upon. In various disciplines, the conventions are particular to that discipline, so theorizing is done in a particular way. For instance, in ‘pure’ sciences, such as Physics or Chemistry, empirically testing a theory is the gold-standard, while in Social Sciences, where such experimentation is not possible – you can’t dissect living people or go back in history to perform a certain thought experiment, with someone who is dead – theorizing happens in other ways[i].

Broadly speaking, one can theorize based on one’s methodological orientation – i.e., if one is a ‘positivist[ii]’, i.e., whether one believes in just empirical data and what it ‘tells us’ about the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, there are those who theorize normatively, i.e., considering the value frameworks involved. While the philosophical debates about what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are complex and I cannot explain them fully here, suffice it to say that knowledge is nothing but ‘agreement’ among competent people.

While grand-theories of the kind that Talcott Parsons and others came up with may not help you understand your own immediate life or your surroundings, other kinds of theorizing; based on sociological analysis of your immediate life may actually be very beneficial. This ‘grand-theory’ is a universalizing effort to understand the whole world or a big portion of it, through one or two key ideas or concepts. One can see this in play when uses words such as ‘reason’ or ‘rationality’ or Enlightenment thinking to understand the lack of democracy in the Middle East, for example. Is it helpful? I am not too sure. And C Wright Mills, the celebrated Sociologist was suspicious of it. Instead, he called for greater ‘empirical based’ theorizing, based on observing the particulars of each case/ society and theorizing for that particular case, while drawing out some general principles[iii].

And this brings me to the important point – why do we need theory and those who theorize, i.e., professors and ‘thinkers’? Wouldn’t just practice based work and tacit knowledge of the phenomenon or industry, be enough? The answer is, no.  I think we need theory for the following three reasons. There are many others, but for now; these three will suffice.

  • It helps us go beyond the immediate situation and help learn general principles, that may be applied in other situations
  • It helps build a body of knowledge, so others can apply it to build an understanding of their world
  • It advances human thinking and our ‘knowledge’ of our own selves and the world around us

So, the next time some hustler, who knows nothing about the field of study/ work you are engaged in tells you that you are wasting time, producing knowledge or ‘learning’ the theories, you know what to tell him/her.

We need hustlers, but we also need theorists. The world would be much poorer without either of them!

[i] For more see Sendberg – http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11186-011-9161-5

[ii] http://press.anu.edu.au//cotm/mobile_devices/ch07s02.html

[iii] See The Sociological Imagination ( CW Mills, 1959) for more.

“Where are you from” and other questions

In the U.S., ‘Where are you from’ can be a loaded question. It took me a while to realize this. It could range  from : a) genuine curiosity about your origins b) ignorance  about who you are  OR c) An arrogant assumption that you are an ‘outsider,’ even if you are more ‘native’ than the person who asked you this question. The question also is an exercise of power – especially when the question is posed to someone who seems ( apparently, at least) is member of an ethnic or racial minority group. Roger Shimomura’s talk at the National Portrait Gallery last night brought to fore this question. As someone who is interested in ethnic identity issues, I was curious to hear what Shimomura had to say.

Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. Photo credit : rshim.com
Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. Photo credit : rshim.com
photo credit : rshim.com
photo credit : rshim.com

Shimomura is an artist who spent his early childhood in a Japanese internment camp and this experience, more than any other seems to have shaped his thinking. As a consummate collector, he seems to have collected not only items – which he introduced us to – but also experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant. The paraphrenalia that he collected, ranging from salt and pepper shakers to miniature shoes and also mannequins, one of which adorned his bathroom all seemed to introduce us to the mind of an eccentric artist; who is not afraid of being ‘himself.’

Shimomura recounted several anecdotes but one stood out in my memory. This involved a stranger approaching him in Lawrence, Kansas and asking him ‘Where are you from,’ to which he replied ‘Seattle.’ Not to be undone by this innocuous answer, the stranger again asked him ‘No! That is not I meant, what I meant was, ‘Where are your parents from.” To this query, Shimomura replied ‘Seattle’ again, given that his parents were second generation Japanese-Americans and he was a ‘Naesae’ Japanese, a third-generation one. His grand-mother arrived to the U.S. in the beginning of the twentieth century, as a ‘picture’ bride and she, more than anyone seems to have instilled in him the need for documenting one’s identity and personal narrative. Speaking of the line of questioning of this stranger, Shimomura pointed out that no matter how long one lives in the U.S., sometimes, one is always  a stranger – particularly, if one is a minority – or Asian American in his case. This persistent ‘othering’ is a phenomenon that seems to be at the heart of his work.Whether it is kicking the mickey-mouse characters or donning the Superman suit, Shimomura’s art has it all.

All of his work seems to challenge our stereotypes of what it means to be an Asian, an American and also how one can break away from this ‘framing.’ While he did not talk much about how one can move away from such framing, that is imposed by others; he did allude to the exoticization of one’s identity and the need to challenge it. One example he offered is that of ‘Yellow Rat Bastard,‘ brand of clothing. This slang term was used during WWII to refer to the Japanese, at the height of suspicion about Japanese-Americans’ loyalty to America. This term has stuck and it is surprising that the most avid consumers of this brand of clothing in NYC are Japanese tourists, mused Shimomura. Ironic? Perhaps so, or is it just that racism, when made to appear ‘cool’ seems to take on life of its own.

One of the more subversive one of his paintings is titled ‘Shimomura crossing the Delaware,’ based on George Washington’s famous crossing the river. Speaking of the original painting of the founding father, Shimomora asked “How might American history have been different, if it was the Japanese who were founding fathers of the U.S. or if those accompanying Washington were Japanese?”.

Shimomora’s oeuvre seems to have a strong message of battling stereotypes. Whether it is the plays/ performances based on his grandmom’s diaries or his own art-work that is very strongly reminiscent of Andy Warhol – improvizational, eclectic and very pop culture inspired, this artist forces us to re-look at the images and stereotypes that we hold in our minds.

I came away with a few ideas and a better appreciation for the Japanese-American experience and also a more nuanced understanding of what identity really means. As an immigrant myself and also as the husband of a first-generation Mexican-American woman, ideas of ethnicity and identity are constantly making the rounds in my mind. Shimomora added a dash of color and style to these perspectives and I am glad we went to his talk. More importantly, I will perhaps stop asking ‘Where are you from,’ unless it is absolutely necessary. That question, as I learnt last night, carries more power than we realize.