In my last column, I suggested that business enterprise is not a suitable partner for government agencies delivering public services.
My argument was that Big Business is oriented toward money, shareholders, hierarchy and authority. It has no appreciation for public service or for doing good for the society at large. Additionally, business needs to drive down the cost of labor, yet those workers are our neighbors. So we are all cheated in the process.
Further, when business “helps” government, we end up with bigger government and greater expense than if the government simply used its own agencies to deliver public services.
There is a better partner for government agencies, however. This is found in what we call the “nonprofit sector:” voluntary organizations focused on specific tasks that help individuals, communities and the society at large. Nonprofits have much more in common with government than one might suppose.
There are at least ten reasons why nonprofits make better partners for government service delivery than business corporations.
First, voluntary organizations know how to live by and promote equality and group decision-making. Inclusiveness, diversity and pluralism are also major sector values more appropriate in a democracy than are hierarchy and authority.
Second, nonprofits have a natural penchant for justice and fairness. From board meetings to service delivery, nonprofit managers and volunteers are keenly sensitive to the need for equality under the law and mutual respect among citizens.
Third, nonprofits have a wide range of values that have to do with the well-being of persons and society. Nurture, caring, hope, generosity, are just a few of the many expressions of excellence
with which voluntary organizations serve the public.
Fourth, voluntary organizations have greater sensitivity to diverse, even contrary, opinions.
This makes them more likely than business firms to think of and want to care for incidental or collateral damage done in the helping process. Prevention and forethought are more often employed in the nonprofit sector than in situations where profit and shareholders are all that matter.
Fifth, nonprofit managers and volunteers innately understand the individual’s need to have enough to live on, and are less intent on simply using human beings for self-interested purposes.
Sixth, nonprofit managers respect the need for judicious and wise use of financial, human and other resources. They tend to be good stewards. This makes them ideal partners for government agency heads, one of whose primary concerns is to show taxpayers their tax dollars are appropriately used.
Seventh, voluntary organizations have a long history of being laboratories for social change.
New methods of addressing social problems can be tried and their performance measured within these independent institutions.
Eighth, both government and voluntary organizations are committed to serving the public good.
Government creates public goods, such as infrastructure, markets, refuse clean-up, public safety and environmental, food and drug regulation. Nonprofits complement these efforts with the production of commons goods, such as scientific inquiry, artistic expression, philosophical inquiry, social problem-solving, higher education and recreation.
Ninth, there’s not enough money available in the nonprofit sector from public contributions to address the great social needs we face, or to work for urgently-needed systemic change.
The taxing power of government, on the other hand, allows it to provide significant resources for undoing the damage done by capitalist enterprises. And government has the power to accomplish necessary social change under the values direction provided by nonprofits.
Tenth, most of our community and national problems are complex and systemic. Partnerships of
nonprofits with government can take on big, systemic tasks like setting up non-profit insurance exchanges and removing business’s profit motive from public obligations like education, health care, environmental protection and safety from business practices that harm people.
There is a role for each partner that is consistent with the purposes for which both government and nonprofits are striving: a better society that is continually improving by providing citizens with the best possible environment for living, learning, working and enjoying.