There is a fascinating debate going on in the blogsphere touched off by Michael Edwards, author of Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World and former director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society program.
In essence, the debate is about whether the convergence of the private (business) and the nonprofit sectors is a good or bad thing, whether market forces help or hurt social change efforts. Michael kicked off the debate on Monday with the first in a week-long series of posts called “Should Civil Society Be Reduced to a Subset of the Market?” In subsequent posts he went on to attack the emerging social capital market among other things. You can read the whole series here.
Sean Stannard-Stockton, of the Tactical Philanthropy blog, took up the charge and debated many of his points. Then the two have gone back and forth over the issues. And the debate expanded on the New Philanthropy Capital blog where Tris Lumley wrote that Michael’s argument “boils down to social capital markets vs civil society – impact measurement vs social justice, data vs values, competition vs solidarity. And in this binary view of the world, he threatens to undermine the very real progress that’s being made towards a much more balanced and realistic perspective.” Michael responds and so does Tris.
It seems to me that fundamental to Michael’s argument is his fear about the growing convergence between the nonprofit, private and government sectors. That somehow the “market” will sully social change efforts. Michael argues that civil society and the market are separate entities: “Civil society operates on solidarity and commitment—the willingness to hang in there for the long haul even if results don’t go your way. Markets work on the opposite principle, “exit”: consumers are free to move from one supplier to another whenever and wherever they like. Otherwise the efficiency of resource allocation would suffer.”
But the fact is that social change efforts and the nonprofits leading them have always existed within a market economy. Resource allocation to nonprofits is very much based on a market. If nonprofits can’t convince donors or governments that their work is important or has meaning, they won’t receive resources. Nonprofit funders are consumers who are “free to move from one supplier to another whenever and wherever they like.” It would be great if social change efforts could exist in some sort of vacuum where their good work automatically finds resources, but the world doesn’t work like that. And as resources for social change efforts become increasingly competitive, nonprofits, and for profits working towards social change, have to become smarter about responding to the marketplace. And as the marketplace demands more social change efforts, which is increasingly the case, more resources will be brought to bear on those social change efforts, thus the creation of the social capital market.
The growing convergence among the public, private and nonprofit sectors is a reality we can’t avoid. Nonprofits have to respond more effectively to market forces, governments have to be more efficient in their allocation and use of resources, and businesses, in order to survive in a marketplace that increasingly values social good, have to understand and respond to the effects their products and services and business model have on the broader society.
Binary systems and separated sectors just don’t exist anymore. The lines are blurring. The market is part of the reality of social change efforts. To deny that is silly.