Monday, March 31, 2014

So are there too many non profits?

Like Deborah Allcock Tyler I am constantly annoyed when I hear business people, Ministers, senior people in Government agencies, and many people in the non profit sector complain that there are too many non profits, particularly too many small non profits.

The claims vary- overlapping or uncoordinated services, duplication of effort and resources, failure to'get their act together', lack of efficiency, wastage of resources and reduced effectiveness, too many different voices, too many agencies for Governments to deal with. I have heard them all.

And the suggestion that follows is usually that someone- Government, the sector, the bigger agencies, the smaller agencies- should rationalise and reduce the number of non profits, particularly smaller ones who, it is claimed, are often unviable and less effective.

Many Government agencies have operated on this assumption for years, and have used their contracting and procurement regimes as a defacto strategy to rationalise the sector.

On many occasions I have heard senior Government officers and leaders of nonprofit organisations admit that one benefit of the contracting and procurement regimes that Federal and State Governments have imposed on the non profit sector here in Australia is that it it leads to a rationalization of the non profit sector by squeezing out what they perceive as 'unviable and less effective' (they mean 'less businesslike') non profits, usually smaller agencies.

Obviously, non profits should look at ways they can work more effectively with others to reduce duplication and improve their effectiveness and impact. This includes exploring collaborative partnerships with other non profits, if it is a way to deliver better outcomes for the people and the communities they exist to serve.

However, I have never understood the claim that more non profits is a bad thing. In particular, it is fundamentally anti-democratic for someone else to decide which non profits should exist, or to decide that there should be an arbitrary limit on the number of non profits.

Efforts to reduce the number of non profits, ultimately has the effect of reducing the democratic rights of citizens to take action.

And compare this claim that there are too many non profits, with views about for profit businesses. You never hear the claim that there are too many for profit business, despite the evidence of a huge number of failing, poorly run businesses, engaged in criminal and highly questionable conduct. Rather, the view is that the more for profit businesses there are, the better.

Deborah Allcock Tyler is spot when she writes:

One principle of a free democracy is the ability of people to come together in service of something they care about, regardless of whether or not someone else is already doing it and thinks they're doing it better than anyone else (which they always do!) or, indeed, if others don't think their cause is important..................................

The belief that there are too many charities is pardonable from those outside our sector, who are less likely to see the bigger picture and more likely to see donors and volunteers as willing and obedient stooges and beneficiaries as voiceless, choiceless victims who should be grateful for whatever they get from whomever is allowed to give it.

But that belief is, for me, incomprehensible when held by those within the sector. To them I say this: all right, if you genuinely believe that there really are too many charities, close yours down and that will be one less.
The issue of whether there are too many non profits in the US context is discussed here and here. A Canadian perspective is here.

No comments: