Archive for the ‘nonprofits’ Category

The True Meaning of Service

I came across a memo from the Heritage Foundation entitled “How Americans Can Provide Real Public Service.” The memo agrees with Obama’s proposals to expand service programs such as AmeriCorps and Peace Corps except the following key differences:

  1. They encourage the wrong motivations for volunteering;
  2. They confuse government work with public service; and
  3. By centralizing control, they reduce the individual and community empowerment that fosters public spiritedness.

I completely disagree with this characterization of service as it perpetuates a romanticized version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand of charity.

1. The author assumes that financial incentive is the only reason why people participate in government service programs. From my personal experience and from others I have met who have participated in these programs, I would have to strongly disagree. The money that AmeriCorps and Peace Corps members receive is technically not considered an income but rather a living stipend. Without this stipend, Corps members would not have the time and resources to fully devote their time to improving the communities that they are serving in. Furthermore, it is faulty logic to assume that altruistic motivation is a necessary quality to volunteer and that financial incentive either eliminates or repels altruistic motivations.

If the author of the memo had read some of the research done regarding the impact of AmeriCorps, he would have seen that the majority of AmeriCorps members increase volunteering the communities they serve in and continue to volunteer after their term of service and often enter into public service and similarly related careers. If that is not an increase in volunteering, they I do not know what you would call it.

2. It is a tragedy that hundreds people are turned away due to lack of funding. This rate of refusal is not an indication that members work for bureaucracies but rather the type of relationship that AmeriCorps members have with the community they serve is not directly exchangable through weekend volunteering. Once again, this is a question of committment, particularly in the case of AmeriCorps VISTA members who are assigned to a specific organization to build capacity within the organization to better serve the community. While short-term volunteering opportunities such as helping in food banks and mentoring children are needed and essential, some of the long-term activities that AmeriCorps members do are not and can not be done in a part-time capacity. Nonprofit organizations may lack the funding, expertise or manpower to complete these activities which are vital to the survival and improvement of the organization. AmeriCorps members help to meet these needs of the organizations that participate.

3. Expansion of service programs will meet the needs of organizations and communities that are currently slipping through the cracks. This expansion is not an intrusion but rather a way of coordinating matches between the needs of organizations and the interests of volunteers. Participation on the organizations’ part has and will remain voluntary. AmeriCorps members will learn to adapt their approach to the needs and ways of the communities that they serve in. It seems to be a rather extreme approach to assume that the ability of a community to better themselves is compromised or even eliminated due to the addition of a so-called “inhabitant.”

AmeriCorps members are not puppets for the federal government to make them do as it pleases. I would think that someone who had faith in “the civic force that is the American citizen” would have enough faith to see that people wanting to serve would put the community’s best interests before their own or anyone else’s.

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Wading out of my comfort zone

I have a confession to make to those of you who have not met me personally. I have a competitive streak in me that runs a mile wide. I love playing board games and card games.  If being an overachiever were a crime, I would be a convicted felon. Forgive me; it is probably one of the most stereotypical traits of Millennials. Considering the alternative, I think that it my drive to succeed has been a real asset.

Returning this work has knocked a little wind out of my sails because everything that I am doing to prepare for this semester’s activities for PAIR is new to me. I am drafting a volunteer training and writing a curriculum. It has made me rethink my typical full speed ahead approach. I spend more time explaining my thought process to my supervisor on an unfinished product rather than a complete one. My goal is completing a phase rather than finishing which requires me to concretely develop a plan of action. My thinking tends to be a little on the scattered side so thinking linearly has been difficult.

The biggest change has been the level of collaboration. During my work at AED, each project had a team but the tasks were assigned and completed as though each one was an independent project. My work responsibilities typically did not require the input or insight of others until they were complete. Even then, my draft was returned to me in the same way that a teacher returns a graded paper. You make all the corrections they tell you and then return the paper. Really working collaboratively is something that I have not done in a professional setting before.

I never thought that I would admit it, but I really like working this way. Coming from a former lab nerd, I think that should count for something…an achievement of sorts?

Are we in a post-racial age?

I ask this question because of a conversation that I had this past week. I went to observe my organization’s after school mentoring program last week for the first time. The program takes place in the rec room of an apartment complex in southwest Houston where many refugees and immigrants live. Most of the kids there were from Spanish-speaking countries, Turkey and a few African countries. The kids all knew each other fairly well and speak English pretty well. When I arrived, they were at the table talking about how much they disliked school.

After reading and an arts and crafts activity, I sat down with the kids while they were playing with blocks with a high school volunteer. As the kids started fighting over the blocks, one of the Turkish boys said that he did not like black kids and that he only liked white people. The other volunteer and I were literally speechless because the child was six. The other volunteer pointed out to him that he was playing with a Congolese boy at the moment and he also played with another black student at school. I asked him why he said that and he told me that one of the black students was mean to them so he did not like black people.

After Senator Obama began President-Elect Obama, there has been a lot of writing and talking about the post-racial age that we are in. But as the passage of anti-gay marriage bans in three states and my conversation with a six-year old about race shows, people are still supporting and at least implicitly teaching intolerance. This experience made me wonder which adults in his life taught him the stereotypes that he now believes.

Striving for a post-racial age seems to miss the mark. Ignoring our cultural backgrounds is impractical. Our cultural differences exist and impact our lives, so why should we ignore them? Shouldn’t we be striving for an age of tolerance?

The stock market: Alternative financing for non-profits

Lucy at Philanthropy 2173 has started an interesting discussion regarding cross-platform philanthropy:

“Just as a radio program or tv show must now be developed with an eye toward its other media platforms and outlets, our public/philanthropic financing of these ventures need to be considered within these “cross sector” financing opportunities. We need to think of philanthropic funding strategies – and the public goods they support – as cross-platform. Public goods are now provided by private firms, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and social enterprises. They are funded by public dollars, charitable donations, fees for service, corporate sponsorship, licenses, social investments, sales, and search engine/ad revenue. Oh, I like this metaphor – I’m gonna have to expand on it — next post.”

Taking the idea further, I started thinking about changes that might take place if non-profits were traded on the stock market like for-profit enterprises.

1. More secure and steady source of funding

Currently, non-profits compete for a limited set of funds among possible donors. A donor’s choice of the beneficiary may be influenced by media coverage of the cause the organization supports. Because there is a finite source of funds, prevailing priorities determine which causes and organizations gain the most. Reliance on quarterly fundraising totals can swing between feast and famine with any number of factors affecting donors: economic conditions, other pressing events, etc. Companies participating in stock exchanges generate profit from the value they offer through goods and services. Generating profit is not a zero sum game in the market; all organizations have the opportunity to show the value that their organization brings about and earn profit.

2. Changes in the organizational governance structure

Trading non-profits on the stock market also democratizes the governance structure of the organization. Shareholders have a financial stake and hopefully a personal interest in effective programming. Members of the community can share their insight about how the organization can be most effective directly with management. Involving more opinions in the direction and governance of the organization diversifies perspectives and strategic direction, much like some organizations hope to do by recruiting millennials to non-profit boards.

3. Altered definition of organizational accountability and responsibility

Non-profits would have an external measure to determine how well they are at doing good. Right now, most accountability for evaluation and demonstration of effectiveness is less of a requirement for continued donor support. Within the market, organizations that could prove they actually accomplish what they set out to accomplish will see the dividends literally in the stock dividends. Developing and maintaining effective and sustainable programs would affect the bottom line, promoting evaluation and the incorporation of best practices.

What do you think about the idea of nonprofits on the stock market? Worthless adaptation from for profit enterprises or the future of nonprofit fundraising? Let me know what you think in the comment section below.