Profiting Non-Profits: The Capitalization of Charity

Pallotta has written a book–Charity Case–about his vision for marketizing the non-profit sector.

I just came across a TED talk by Dan Pallotta entitled “The way we think about charity is dead wrong“. Pallotta essentially lines up a criticism of traditional non-profit culture by comparing it to for-profit business models. He emphasizes that all the tools that for-profit business have: advertising, high salaries for CEOS and other decision-makers, investment capital, etc. are essentially unavailable to non-profit organizations. Pallotta outlines a reform proposal: non-profits need to think and act like for-profits if they are going to succeed. He points to a number of large campaigns in which aggressive marketing resulted in vast donations being given to a variety of causes (his two examples were races and rides for AIDS and breast cancer research). For Pallotta, the future of charities lies in using the tactics and tools of the business world to make non-profits more competitive and successful in securing funding.

Such a view of non-profits seems totally consistent with the culture of the Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences (TED). TED’s talks almost exclusively seem to focus on technological and market-based solutions to the world’s problems, with a heavy dose of self-congratulation over the successes of “social innovators”. Missing from every TED talk I’ve ever seen is any discussion of to what extent technology and neoliberalism themselves are parts–perhaps even core parts–of the very problems TEDers seem so resolved to solving. Pallotta can stand up on stage, pointing out that most MBAs in the private sector make $400k a year 10 years after college while most non-profit CEOs make half of that or less, and not recognize that incomes of this level are one of the driving cause of the very problem of poverty he supposedly wants to combat!

In other words, instead of recognizing that capitalism is largely the source of the evils that non-profits try to fight against, Pallotta only notices the material successes of private business and figures non-profits will have to adopt their tactics to be successful. But what does successful mean here? Pallotta focuses solely on raising funds–but the important issue is what those funds actually go to support. It’s certainly great–and impressive–that, as an organizer of public campaigns for non-profits, he was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. But how much of that money actually went to the causes it was given for? Pallotta himself admits that such tactics may lock up at least 40% of funding in overhead (though Pallotta himself hates this word and is clearly annoyed at its prominence in discussions around non-profits). But he goes further, suggesting that it should be no great scandal if a non-profit were taking in funds for six years without distributing any money to the causes it was championing. Pallotta is arguing that non-profits should adapt such an advertising, market-focused, infrastructural approach that their overhead would be 100% for years on end.

Such an approach would not only probably quash the source of donations–what giver wants to fork over their hard earned money to help March of Dimes develop a slicker image?–but would also likely invite irreversible mission creep. An organization that becomes nothing but a literal self-promotion machine is not going to be able to turn from that course and capitalize, as it were, on its popularity, to start directing funds towards the charitable causes it ostensibly would be assisting. An organization that was trying to compete with for-profit businesses for market-share and advertising attention would never be able to stop playing that game.

In fact, though Palletta seems to think his suggestion is totally novel and innovative, many are already criticizing a host of non-profits for falling into this mode of operation. The film Pink Ribbons, Inc. highlighted this trend by calling attention (among other things) to the fact that breast cancer awareness has become itself more of a public advertising campaign than an actual research- or care-funding community. A huge number of businesses engage in the pink ribbon advertising while actually producing goods or services that are carcinogenic(!) So while awareness of the reality of breast cancer may be expanding, the adoption of for-profit tactics–and allies–seems to have totally compromised charities like Susan G Komen for the Cure.

But my concerns with Palletta’s approach run much deeper. As I discussed a few weeks ago, the logic of capitalism is itself the crucial issue at hand. Instead of seeing poverty, for example, as a problem that strikes us out of the blue, and one which can be combated by implementing market-orient strategies, we need to recognize that the behavior of market-oriented firms and individuals is a huge cause of poverty in the first place. The old saying goes, “fight fire with fire,” but of course if you are actually fighting a fire, you need to use water. More fire won’t help. Likewise, trying to combat the collateral damage of capitalism with more capitalism is a pointless, even tragic endeavor. That smart, committed people like Palletta suggest such solutions only underscores how deeply the logic of capitalism has penetrated the core of both our public and private cultures and consciousness.

I would suggest that it is this reality–that we increasingly lack the capacity to think outside the box of neoliberal economic and social assumptions–that is the really pressing issue. If we can’t develop a new political ethics and build a society committed to environmental health, economic equality, and functioning communities, then all the non-profit strategies in the world are next to worthless; the need for help with medical costs, housing, and even just food is already skyrocketing here in the US, and as income and wealth inequality continue to soar, this will only be more true. Using corporate tactics to expand non-profits’ market-share in such an environment is akin to someone with breast cancer smoking a pack a day, hoping that the lung cancer might fight the tumor in their chest. It’s ridiculous, pathetically so; it’d be Quixotic if it weren’t so pathologically frightening.

At a time when humans need to fundamentally readjust their understanding of their own personhood, their place in human societies, and their place in the broader ecosystem, Palletta’s suggestions call for the lemmings to continue to throw themselves over the cliff–maybe eventually, we’ll fill the land below with enough bodies to build a bridge to the glorious future that he–and so many other TED presenters–see for humanity.

What we actually need is an economy that is owned equitably–this means strong unions; universal access to good education, medical care, and social insurance; worker-owned businesses; and an appreciation for and conservation of our “environmental capital”. Instead, Palletta seems to want to double down and go all-or-nothing. But he’s playing a game that, by its very design, only about 5% of any population can win. A few wealthier non-profit CEOs and a greater public image for a few fortunate causes that manage to outspend others–these things won’t fix the serious problems we face. They’ll just accelerate the rising tragedies of the modern world.

Though I embedded this in the previously mentioned post, it’s worth re-sharing. I think Slavoj Zizek here really captures the corrupted nature of the current non-profit as social-enterprise trend. If you didn’t watch this when I posted it before, definitely watch it now:

Materialism and the Logic of Capitalism

Yesterday, Victoria over at Short White Coat, Inc. wrote a penetrating post about the intersection of poverty and health problems in the US, reflecting on her work with AIDS patients who were exiting the criminal justice system, she lamented the reality: despite her training and intentions, these people faced such a host of social, legal, and medical problems that their futures seemed bleak, their challenges intractable:

My patients felt they had paid their debt to society, but society would not give them a chance. Most had limited education and job training, and during the recession, it was difficult enough to find a new job without a conviction. Prior to incarceration, many had suffered mental illness, including substance addiction and depression. All of them now faced complicated HIV medication regimens and doctors’ appointments despite frequently unstable housing, transportation, and employment status. After release, many met criteria for devastating post-traumatic stress disorder, some resulting from horrifying events occurring while under the “care” of the State. Almost all were from poor backgrounds and the majority were people of color. During the interviews, many expressed themes of detachment, a sense of alienation from society starting in childhood. Some intimated a sense that outcomes many Americans view as basic rights or inevitabilities were never options for them, like freedom from an abuser, a safe home and school environment, or deciding what to be when they grew up.

She went on to point out that this isn’t just some unfortunate set of accidents that occurred these people; rather, this nexus of misfortune, poor health, lack of education, and subjection to violence is central to how late capitalism functions. These aren’t bugs, in other words–they’re features.

She linked a post from the Social Medicine Portal that only underscores this reality. It’s a short post, well-worth reading, but perhaps the crux of its argument is here well expressed:

How can one claim to fight poverty if, at the same time, one is carrying out policies that create poverty? By privatizing public services and charging those who use them, by laying off workers and reducing unemployment compensation, by maintaining social assistance at levels below the poverty level, by privatizing pensions… one can only increase the number of poor people.

The very people who are so vocal about combating poverty and building a better future are the same people who are profiting off of labor exploitation and environmental degradation. If extremely rich philanthropists were serious about combating poverty, they’d start by changing the way their very companies work in the first place. Instead, they drive people into poverty with one hand while shaking their fist at poverty with the other. It’s a deeply hypocritical, cynical attitude–exactly what the expression and maintenance of power demands. Slavoj Zizek strikes at the heart of this reality in a talk he gave the RSA:

Unfortunately, the response from the Left has been both uninspired and ineffective, and I want to suggest here that the reasons for its failure are deeper than often perceived. It’s not just that the Left has failed to popularize its discourse or develop strong institutions. These are both valid points, but I think they are more symptoms than causes. Fundamentally, what those who resist capitalism really lack is a consistent narrative. We have not articulated a systematic ideology of resistance, because the primary ideologies of resistance are themselves predicated on the philosophy that undergirds capitalism itself. The Left still speaks of power as the primary issue on the table: we need more of it, we need to marshal it against our opponents.

But such a view takes the zero-sum antagonistic worldview of capitalism for granted. It challenges the current distribution of power and wealth, but not the naked exploitation of power and wealth themselves. Marxism is, at its heart, an attempt to transcend capitalism by being ever-yet more materialistic and ruthless than capitalism itself; Marx didn’t primarily argue that capitalism was wrong so much as he argued that it was not fully developed. Communism was to be mature capitalism, fully enlightened and playing out the logic of Marx’s understanding of the progressive development of history. Marxism is unabashedly materialistic and deterministic.

Anarchism tends towards a more romantic implementation and certainly focuses more on the individual as the center of value over Marxism’s more communitarian bent–though anarchism is so diverse that making any such generalization is difficult at best. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that anarchism developed classical Liberalism to its logical end: the individual as the ultimate arbiter of all value and meaning. Others’ rights were to be respected as they too were individual persons, their own centers of value, but this was simply taken for granted. Modern anarchism doesn’t question materialism, it simply asserts the value of subjective beings without accounting for this valuation objectively. It is, in a sense, the ersatz political extension of 19th century Romanticism into the 20th and 21st centuries, a defiant semi-solpsism built around a core of unarticulated primal ethical claims encased in modern materialism, the two mixing as well as oil and water.

What is needed to resist capitalism is a philosophy that actually resists the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is a logical extension of the Enlightenment: the world is an object without inherent value that can–and should–be manipulated by human subjects as they see fit. Ethical and spiritual values are only valid within the sphere of a given individual person and have no ontological basis; the world is material alone and deterministic as well. Morality can be legislated–by groups with sufficient power–but there is no universally recognized set of values, aside from those that guarantee the capacity to accumulate resources as capital: property. The capacity for persons to absolute right over a certain set of resources, can have no limitations–but as a totally secular space, devoid of any sense of sacredness, the world can support no other rights.

Marxism and Anarchism attempt to defy the neoliberal order, but on its terms: power is to be met with power. What makes these efforts so pathetic is not only that, at the outset, such an attitude already concedes the central debate, but that self-styled revolutionary groups have orders of magnitude less power than their adversaries; they have absolutely no chance at success. When they do develop enough power to defeat their opponents, the power itself–quite predictably–reshapes them. Those 20th century revolutions that were successful were successful precisely to the extent that they adopted capitalist and imperialist tactics. Perhaps no state witnesses to this as well as the People’s Republic of China; in its most revolutionary phase it murdered or starved millions of people to death in a few short years. And as Maoist Marxism showed its faults, the Party rapidly refashioned itself along mercantilist lines, becoming one of the most aggressively capitalist institutions in the world.

No, what is needed is a philosophy that explains the world in radically different terms. This is not to say that the realities of oppression should or could be ignored. Indeed, those who claim to speak about social justice cannot ignore the “mundane” everyday needs of the world’s oppressed. But it is precisely here, again, that contemporary radicals so often get their priorities reversed. If the concern is for food stamps (now known as TANF), Social Security, the minimum wage and the rights of unions, then what is needed is a reformist attitude, because these are all assets that have to be negotiated within the current order. What is a revolutionary attitude towards Social Security? This is a question with no answer, because Social Security was a concession given away by the capitalist system in the first place; under revolutionary conditions, would such a system be necessary or even sustainable? So long as we are talking about the everyday needs of the oppressed under the current system, let’s abandon all self-serving talk of revolution.

And if we are going to talk of revolution, then we must talk about a full and real revolution: not just the transfer of power from one group to another, promising to organize capital in a fairer way–though such a move would be quite welcome, it is ultimately a reformist move at its very best. No, real revolutionary activity has to be predicated on a radically different system, one that resists the very logic of capitalism. And this means critiquing–though not rejecting–materialist science, balancing it with what can only be called a relationary realism that affirms the ontological validity of subjects as real entities in the world who are only possible through societies. Individualism must be balanced with community, matter must be contextualized with relationship, analysis must be seen as as depending on its opposite vector: synthesis.

Resistance to capitalism must articulate a vision, not just call for the creation of opposition institutions. A world that has no sacred aspect, a world of mere heaps of matter, is a world devoid of ethics a priori. In such a world, the word oppression is meaningless, and justice is a legal term only. If we are going to challenge oppression and injustice, we have to believe that these are real categories of action, and this demands what is today a radical assertion: people are not just collections of cells, they are real relational entities, and ethics is the ontologically valid study of how such entities can exist and thrive in harmony. Hence, the materialist determinism of Marxism, though not flat-out denied, must be balanced–Hegel wasn’t standing on his head after all. And the desperate post-Romanticism of anarchism must be reconciled with itself–the dualism inherent in it must be transcended and a unity achieved.

The idealist project, essentially dead in the anglophonic world for centuries, was warped and turned in on itself in the early 20th century with existentialist nihilism, which essentially surrendered any ontological considerations to materialism anyway. But the spiritual-ethical impulse has not died, rather it has carried forward as a powerful undercurrent in modern societies. What is needed is to bring it to the surface–and this will require an ontology that can join it with all the valid positions of materialism. Such a project can not only join idealistic realism and empirical materialism, the two positions that have been battling one another for 2500 years in western thought, but can crucially also reveal the folly of late capitalism and the desperate need to move beyond it.

Sam Harris, Science, and Morality

Sam Harris gave a TED talk in 2010 in which he argued that science can–and should–be used to define morality and ethics. His argument essentially boils down to this: moral decisions are decisions made about facts. The more we know about the world, the more facts we have about it and the better and more sophisticated our understanding of those facts, the better decisions we can make. Therefore, morality should be guided by science (and presumably not religion) because it is the scientific process that allows us to test which ethical decisions work well, and which are deficient.

At its core, I don’t disagree with this argument. For example, if we want to help children grown up healthily, I think it makes sense to research nutrition, to see what foods tend to help children grow quickly and healthily. Such an approach would be broadly scientific, and it’s hard to argue with. But it also seems clear to me that Sam Harris both misunderstands the traditional “science can’t define an ethics” argument and is overly credulous when it comes to science’s general merits. The presentation video is below:

First off, though Sam Harris seems to think that he is debunking the argument that science can’t provide the basis for ethics, he actually never discusses it. He is either woefully, even shockingly unaware of what the real debate is about, or is being disingenuous in his presentation. The claim that ethics and morality are beyond the realm of science is a claim about the foundations of ethics, not its application. It’s one thing to say that “assuming that X is good, science can help us achieve X”. I think this is a pretty uncontroversial statement. But what if someone questions the goodness of X? Sam Harris argues that science can help us to figure out how to help conscious beings live more fulfilling lives. But why is helping conscious beings live fulfilling lives good?

This may seem to be some sort of trick question, but it’s not. Harris simply assumes an ethical system, and then argues that science can help us to apply that system–and he’s right. But he completely ignores that science is essentially agnostic when it comes to the basis of ethics. Why is it wrong to kill a person? Science can help us develop better ways of saving lives, of fighting disease, perhaps even through psychology it can help us to deter people from attempting harm one another. But what does empiricism have to say about why it’s wrong to kill someone in the first place? The traditional approach has been to build on some sort of pragmatic or utilitarian philosophy, but again these simply assume the right- or wrongness of given activities, and argue how best to organize human activity so as to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Science simply gives us data on causality and being: it helps us understand why and how A leads to B. But ethics is interested in whether A leading to B is good, bad, or neutral. And this is always subjective. Is my taking $100 dollars from your wallet a good or a bad thing? Obviously that depends on who’s asking. I may argue it’s a good thing; you would probably argue it’s a bad thing. Most observers would probably agree with you. But what if an extremely poor man stole $100 dollars from Jamie Dimon to feed his starving children? Dimon might actually argue that this is still a bad thing, but I imagine that most of us would not agree. Could science ever provide a definitive answer to this? It might very well provide better systems for preventing theft, it could also provide better thieving systems. But could it provide conclusive reasoning for deciding what actions are bad?

In short, why is it good to help conscious beings thrive? Viewing such thriving as a good thing is an act of valuing. I value conscious beings, but not for truly, or directly, rational reasons. I am delighted to see a dog playing, for example, but it’s not because I somehow think that the dog’s play will indirectly help me. It’s an emotional response, deeply complicated. Now, it is true that that science, in the form of psychology or neurology, could help explain why I find a dog’s playfulness enjoyable, and why I might choose to, for example, build a dog park, or rescue a dog from the pound. But is my choice to do so the right choice, from some sort of factual, objective standpoint? What does that question even mean? How would we determine the rightness or wrongness of my rescuing a dog, from a scientific standpoint?

The point of arguing that science cannot speak directly to ethical issues is to make it clear that science cannot give definitive answers as to why something is ethical or unethical. It can help us achieve a more ethical society (at least in theory) but science could be marshaled to defend any number of ethical systems which would conflict with one another. Science itself is ethically agnostic, because it objectifies the world. Science analyzes things into their components to understand them. Ethics is a subjective process in which unified wholes are valued for a complex set of reasons; different subjects value differing things, and there is no objective way to prove or disprove either valuation. Although science certainly can explain how the valuing occurs, it can’t comment on whether the valuing is good or bad, right or wrong.

Harris doesn’t seem to grasp this, which is amazing, because this is really fundamental philosophical stuff. He wouldn’t have to open the Bible or any other religious book to explore this conundrum; Sarte or Nietzche would do just as well. The disconnect between the world seen as an object and the world experienced as a subject is probably the oldest problem of philosophy, and one that still dominates it. That Harris could spend years writing about religion an ethics, and seemingly never come to understand this, is quite amazing and perplexing. But his position also belies a subtler, but still significant confusion.

Harris seems extremely confident that empiricism–science–will allow humans to build a better and better world; he seems to believe in the inevitability of human progress: as we learn more about the world, we can manipulate it into a better and better place for us to live. The evidence suggests, though, that science has had a much more equivocal impact on the world and on human life. Science has, on the one hand, brought us vaccines, and sanitation systems, and medical intervention, and increased food production, and all sorts of creature comforts. This can’t be denied, and let me be honest: I’m sitting in a heated room, typing on a computer. I have refrigerated food here, and all sorts of books, food, clothes, etc. that were shipped here on technologically advanced ships, trucks, and trains. I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not here to say that science is inherently evil.

But science has also brought atom bombs, machine guns, mustard gas, mercury poisoning, and global warming. It’s not some unalloyed good; progress isn’t guaranteed just because we are applying science to our problems. In fact, it could be argued that though science has improved the lives of a relatively small number of fortunate people, on balance it’s proving to be a growing catastrophe for life in general. This remains to be seen, though. Many people hope that we can use science applied through technology to address the problems caused in the past by science applied through technology. “Green” energy sources, for example, can hopefully be deployed to replace fossil fuels. I hope they are right, but I have to be honest that I’m not particularly confident. “Green” technology may prove to be extremely damaging to the environment; let’s remember that when people started burning coal on a large scale in the 19th century, they had no idea it would lead to the problems we now face. Manufacturing millions of solar panels and wind turbines will involve vast mining operations and the expenditure of huge amounts of energy, and their deployment into the environment may prove to have unforeseen negative consequences.

Of course, perhaps not. I’m not trying to define a wholesale anti-scientific pessimism, but I do think we should be aware of the limitations of our knowledge and the real possibility of serious problems arising from the solutions we are so enthusiastic about today. Ultimately, this credulous approach to science is very much an ideology; some have called it “scientism”. It boils down to a fervent confidence bordering on faith (though they would hate for me to use that word) that human beings, through the application of reason and empirical investigation, can fully understand the world, and apply that understanding through technology to master the world as on object. I am decidedly unconfident about our odds here; as we just discussed, our history suggests that science’s advances nearly always come with huge downsides, major vulnerabilities. I don’t think we are as in-control as “scientismists”, as it were, would have us believe.

And, interestingly enough, this gets us back to the subject-object dichotomy discussed above. A highly credulous view of science ultimately depends on a fully object-focused view of the world that is reductionist and even mechanical. Such a view is less and less capable of making effective predictions as more and more complex systems are added to what is being observed. We are coming to find that the earth, as a biosphere, is far more complex, and sophisticatedly balanced, than we realized before. The argument that we can simply apply our ever-increasingly knowledge to the objects before us and increasingly develop a more convenient environment runs into the real experience of humans, that as we manipulate the biosphere to garner given benefits, real costs are extracted, though often in hard-to-predict ways, and often on people who were not involved in the development of the original technology (i.e. these effects are often “externalities”).

Harris, then, misses the mark, I think, both in his basic philosophical confusion, and in his over-enthusiasm for science as a sort of panacea for all human ills. Again, none of this is to say that I do not believe we should apply science to our problems. But, first, I think we have to recognize the science itself is built on a wide base of philosophical assumptions, some of which may prove to be false, and that there are questions that this system of though cannot effectively answer in full. Ethics is perhaps the best example of this; science can certainly  help us to apply our ethical system, but it can’t answer the basic, fundamental, crucial questions at the very core of our ethical investigations. Second, science itself is a bit of a fickle mistress: what it gives with the right hand it takes with the left, and I think we need to be much more cautious with it than many modern science-boosters would have us be. Harris seems to make massive errors in both of these areas of thought, and I am sad to see his public influence continue. It’s especially ironic that he fancies himself a trusted ethicist, considering that he apparently believes that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (The End of Faith, p. 52). Harris really seems to be the epitome of polarized, hyper-empirical “scientismist”: fully confident of his own moral rightness and his capacity to understand anything and everything. He is much more similar to the oppressive religious leaders he is so (rightly) critical of than he seems to realize.

I would submit that the video below, an abbreviated (and wonderfully animated) recording of a presentation that Iain McGilchrist gave to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, portrays a much more accurate, useful, and sophisticated view of human decision-making than Harris’.

[UPDATE: this post appears in slightly modified form at the Tikkun Daily Blog]