People wonder why nonprofits are proliferating these days, and complain that the field is too crowded. But it finally occurred to the Nonprofiteer that the main reason for nonprofit multiplication isn’t Baby Boomer solipsism or a revival of civil society or easy access to technology; it’s something bigger, something so huge and obvious it’s nearly invisible: the exceptional unresponsiveness of our contemporary political system.
Don’t you feel helpless?
We choose a Democratic Senate and House to end the war, and they go on funding it and complaining they can’t get Republican permission to stop. (Just turn the money off! How complicated is this?)
We believe in our Constitutional right to privacy, but the Justice Department and the intelligence agencies felt free to violate it, and the self-same Democratic Congress is preparing to grant immunity to the phone companies that helped them do it. (Could this possibly be because the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee gets campaign contributions from the phone companies? Could it really be that a Rockefeller needs to sell us out for money?)
We believe we’re a civilized and law-abiding nation, but people are being tortured in our name. (Read that again: people are being tortured on your behalf. How’s it feel?) The Congress passes a law prohibiting torture; the President signs and then says he doesn’t have to abide by it. A judge tells the Executive Branch to safeguard evidence of torture relevant to future trials; instead, it tolerates destruction of a highly relevant videotape and then tells the judge not to investigate and the Congress not to hold hearings (because they might interfere with the judge’s investigation - no, I’m not making this up).
We believe we live in a representative democracy with three co-equal branches of government but apparently nothing—not Congressional subpoenas, not orders from Federal judges, not elections of an opposition majority - can stop this Administration from doing exactly what it pleases; and no one will even say that these refusals to obey the law constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, let alone pursue the Constitutional remedy of impeachment for them.
The Nonprofiteer - wealthy, independent, with access to a public platform - feels helpless. How much more helpless do her fellow citizens feel? Is it any wonder they choose self-help? And, with the public purse apparently permanently closed to them for such frivolous purposes as buying school supplies, is it any wonder they create nonprofits and ask for charity to support them?
So let’s assume there are too many nonprofits - too many to be efficient, or too many for private charity to support. That’s a symptom of a cause so much more important and frightening that it makes “proliferation of nonprofits” seem like a joke problem, up there with “shortage of cloth napkins.”
And, for a little irony with your despair, consider that funders complaining about nonprofit redundancy represent the very agglomerations of private wealth that have pushed citizens out of the political system and into the third sector to begin with. No wonder it sticks in some of our craws to be expected to herald the new philanthropists and laud them for their bold engagement in grappling with social problems - problems they created for the rest of us themselves.
Kelly Kleiman, who blogs as The Nonprofiteer, is a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays about the arts, philanthropy and women’s issues have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; and on websites including Aislesay.com and Artscope.net.