Ben Boyce


A Progressive critique of the nonprofit sector

Posted on August 5, 2017 by Ben Boyce

The Sonoma Sun’s May 18 issue titled “Charity in a Changing World” moved me to share my insights as a former worker in the nonprofit sector. The staff editorial, ‘Sonoma Valley: Heaven or Hell?’ reviewed the recently released report on poverty in Sonoma Valley, “Hidden in Plain Sight.” The report details the results of the widening wealth gap in the Valley and the magnitude of the unaddressed problems of poverty weighed against the nonprofit resources available to resolve them. The reality is that private charity cannot match the task.

The piece correctly recognizes that any adequate solution requires government public policy, urban planning, and public/private partnerships as well as private charities. The sentence that captured my attention was “But more importantly, we need a new philanthropic effort guided by a meta-vision, an overarching mission…”

Ah, but there’s the rub. There are structural and ideological constraints on the ideological scope of the nonprofit sector that have been baked into the cake. The dependence on affluent donors in the nonprofit sector inhibits open discussion of the structural roots of poverty in a capitalist society. A successful nonprofit ED knows that would be imprudent if you want to keep your major donors. A staff member who advocates for structural economic reform rather than just keeping his head down and doing non-controversial direct service is at risk of termination. I wonder if that was the fate of Mario Castillo at the Family Resources Center?

As a graduate student in the SSU Masters of Public Administration program, I wrote a thesis paper on the origins of the nonprofit sector in the U.S. It emerged in the post WWII period as a bi-partisan compromise between liberals who wanted to incentivize private organizations to do community services and conservatives who wanted to divest government investment in provision of social services. That compromise proved to be the fundamental flaw in the nonprofit sector model.

The proliferation of service-oriented nonprofits was a source of civic pride and it fed into the conservative narrative that charity work should be funded by private organizations, not by government. As corporations and wealthy individuals used their money to purchase favored political outcomes, the share of taxes paid to support governmental programs to mitigate the savage inequities of ‘free market’ capitalism has steadily declined for the last few decades.

The rise of the modern Republican Party under Reagan in the 1980s cemented that trend, declaring that government is the problem, not the solution. The New Deal era ambition to create a decent society that made major public investments in raising national living standards became politically toxic.

Another Sun article reviewing the report, written by John Donnelly with the First Congregational Church of Sonoma, made me stand up and applaud. “For me, a critical limitation of the Report is that it assumes throughout that the government or ‘public sector’ is too limited and jurisdictionally compartmentalized to meet many of the present and future needs of Sonoma Valley. The Report never questions or revisits this assumption. Missing here is the call to join the resistance to the neo-liberal ideology that has dominated government policymaking over the past several decades, privatizing many public functions while further eroding the public sector’s capacities.”

I cannot recall an article on the nonprofit sector outside of academic literature that draws the line between the dominant neo-liberal ideology (and the subsequent starving of public sector capacity through austerity measures) and the growth of private nonprofit efforts to resolve the gap in services left by the disinvestment in the public sector. That’s pretty impressive analysis for a small town local paper.

We have been trained to believe that the resources available for social services are inexorably shrinking, even as the country as a whole grows wealthier. That’s a ‘free-market’ hegemonic myth that has had a forty-year run, propped up by corporate media, the money of the libertarian billionaire class, and the militant anti-tax agenda of the Republican Party.

It’s not true and never has been. The austerity regime is a deliberate political strategy to reduce taxes on the rich, not a law of nature. It’s time to surface this discussion in philanthropic circles, even if it may be uncomfortable for some in the wealthy donor class that funds the nonprofit sector.

On another front, I just signed up as a MoveOn captain for a rapid civic response in the event of a national emergency (military action, state of emergency, constitutional crisis, terrorist attack, etc.). Volunteers in every state will organize a local event on short notice.

National emergencies have been serially exploited to tighten the Social Darwinist tourniquet on what’s left of the public sector and the commons. In the ensuing political panic and social confusion, a ‘shock doctrine’ is imposed on a dazed and demoralized population. This is how neo-liberal elites can rapidly reorder the economic system and the rule of law with minimal social resistance. Think of the passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11, or the ‘no-strings attached’ multi-trillion dollar bailout given to Wall Street after the 2008 financial crash.

The instructions are to gather at the Plaza as soon as you hear the news.  This will counteract confusion and paralysis and provide a visible counterpoint to White House propaganda and media misdirection. The most likely next trigger will be the firing of Special Counsel Mueller. Stay tuned.


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