In a recent blog post, Tony Wang, a brilliant researcher at Lucy Bernholz’s Blueprint Research & Design, a strategy consulting firm for philanthropy in the Bay Area, makes a thought-provoking, yet ultimately flawed argument about the social impact of nonprofits (which he calls charities) versus social businesses. Tony and I have sparred before on PRIs and mission-related investing, and I had to take up the cause again with his argument that poses a false dichotomy.
Tony’s underlying argument is that a for-profit business model is better able to deliver social impact per dollar than a nonprofit one. He gives many reasons for this:
- Dollars for charity are limited. True the nonprofit sector is undercapitalized, but that is changing, and will continue to change as the public, private and nonprofit sectors continue to converge and the social capital market, for both for-profit and nonprofit social impact organizations, grows. The mere fact that nonprofits are undercapitalized is not a reason to dismiss nonprofit solutions out of hand.
- Charity is often inefficient “ because of its lack of accountability to the people who are the primary beneficiaries of aid.” This has been true in the past, but I think it is changing. An increasing focus on metrics, brought on by the venture philanthropy movement and others, has encouraged nonprofits to track and demonstrate outcomes. These aren’t perfect by any means and there is much work still to be done, but why not work to encourage better accountability rather than simply say nonprofits are inefficient?
- Charity is often harmful and insulting to its recipients. I agree that Western solutions to third world problems can sometimes be full of hubris, but this is no less true in social businesses than it is in nonprofits. Read my post on the “missionary” nature of some social business solutions.
- Business has a much easier time scaling: “it will be difficult for domestic nonprofits to scale when the federal government is the only viable answer and that international nonprofits will still struggle mightily with the issue.” Government isn’t the only viable answer. Some great organizations have been able to scale without government assistance (Teach for America, KIPP, Citizen Schools). And the beauty of nonprofit organizations is that scale doesn’t have to mean just the expansion of a single organization. Rather, scale can mean the dissemination of a solution that works. Because nonprofits worry less about competition, they are more likely to want to share best practices, models that work, and allow local adaptations of a solution from another area.
Because of all of this, Tony believes that “a lot of young social entrepreneurs…are starting to realize that business solutions and not charity solutions can be more ideal when it comes to maximizing impact (and philanthropy’s impact would be multiplied if it leveraged its capital to fund social impact businesses with true potential).”
I’m sorry, Tony, but I really disagree with this. Why does it have to be either, or? Why is one model inherently better able to create value than another? Rather, I would say that it depends on the problem and what the best solution is. Yes, there are problems and inefficiencies within the nonprofit sector, but there are also some pretty major problems, and inefficiencies in the for-profit sector (dot-com bust, financial crisis, anyone?).
Rather, we need to take a holistic approach to social impact. There need to be multiple tools available to social entrepreneurs, whether they be for-profit or nonprofit (different business models, various financing, etc). And let’s remember that there are some inherent problems with for-profit social impact models as well. When a solution requires the appearance of impartiality, a nonprofit model might be more effective.
I think the whole point of the convergence and “resetting,” to quote Lucy Bernholz, that is going on is that the old dichotomies and definitions don’t work anymore. We have to break out of the notion that the way we used to categorize things doesn’t apply anymore. Structures are changing, new models are emerging. We need to be flexible and analyze the best solution to each problem that faces us. “One or the other” thinking just won’t cut it anymore.