Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Non-Prophet Organizations

It is a commonplace of Biblical studies that prophets are not fortunetellers and should not be graded by how often their predictions are fulfilled—their calling, presumably, having been something rather different and more important than a gig as a night club card reader or political pundit. I’m merely a gypsy nabi (on the analogy with a gypsy taxi driver), but these days even an unlicensed prophet knows better than to foretell elections or forecast wars. The prudential reason for my reticence is the embarrassment of guessing wrong. Afflicted as I am with a reasonably good memory and random fits of integrity, I’m liable to admit I’m wrong and suffer the consequences to my self-esteem. But the likelihood of error is not the main thing. After all, I might also be right once and a while. I oppose the enterprise of fortunetelling because, finally, I believe in the reality of time and the freedom of the will. History is a surpassingly exciting adventure because not even God knows how it will turn out. So if, for example, I excoriate George Bush, it isn’t because I know whether his face will end up on a stamp or his head on a pole. Good actions turn out badly. Bad actions turn out well. Meanwhile the guy who insists on drawing to an inside strait is still an idiot.

All of this was supposed to be a brief preface to a couple of remarks about Nonprofit Organizations—I guess as a person with a philosophical education, I couldn’t resist the temptation to begin at the beginning and work backwards. The introduction was also meant to display a note of piquant irony, for having rejected the notion of making predictions, I was going to make one, namely that there will be a whole series of scandals involving NPOs in the next few years.

As prophesies go, that one isn’t very thrilling, I suppose. It is also largely ex eventu, that is, there have already been quite a few scandals involving NPOs. Just as the fabricator of the Book of Daniel could accurately predict the downfall of the Babylonians and Persians because these events had already occurred when he wrote the book, I can confidently assert the increasing prevalence of serious dishonesty in the non profits because high officials of Goodwill, the Red Cross, and various church groups have recently been caught with their hands in the till. More than that, however, my prediction is based on the increasing reliance our society places on charitable foundations to the wake of the retreat of the welfare state. NPOs offer a magic or at least very convenient solution to the problems of the world or at least to the problems of the compassionate conservatives. For reasons never exactly explained, the managers of NPOs are supposed to be morally better than government officials and the inefficiency of their bureaucracies somehow a nonissue to the same people who otherwise can’t type the word “bureaucracy” without putting the word “bloated” in front of it. While everybody complains that the CEOs of unsuccessful companies shouldn’t be rewarded with enormous salaries and bonuses, at least CEOs can be judged by the profits of their firms. What constitutes good performance in a top NPOs manager is much more difficult to define. The potential for abuse is enormous.

Oddly, the only general criticism of NPOs I have heard lately comes from the Right. The American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society recently held an all-day conference entitled NGOs: The Growing Power of an Un-elected Few. Why these two organizations should be unhappy about un-elected power is not clear, but you don’t succeed in the world of foundations by being consistent or intellectually honest. Characteristically, the conference turned into a day long attack on precisely those NPOs — Amnesty International, CARE, Oxfam, and Friends of the Earth—whose activities interfere with the prerogatives of the corporations and America’s imperial foreign policy. The political irresponsibility of the NPOs was just a convenient stick to beat up hated greens and internationalists. That it was an available line of attack, however, is telling. The AEI critique applies far more to the deeply corrupt religious organizations and propaganda mills on their own side than Amnesty International or Doctors without Borders, but it is a valid in principle.