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Veena Trehan
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Sunday 4 March 2012
“The traditional domain of industrial titans expanded as diverse groups created charitable forces of all stripes. But many nonprofits bloated by oversized assets and investments in new capacity narrowed previously innovative, high impact missions.”

The Often Forgotten Downside to Accepting Corporate Contributions

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“Go where the money is, ” said bank robber Willie Sutton. He could well have been advising nonprofits that target corporations flush in cash. Yet through the wrong partnerships nonprofits’ efficacy, reputation and goodwill is often looted while companies – who boost sales, gain new young customers, and burnish tarred legacies – make out like bandits. 

The Occupy movement served as a stark reminder of the severe harm caused by Wall Street banks that collaborate closely with nonprofits. Recent campaigns harnessing technology achieved almost immediate policy shifts. This dynamic, complex world presents huge opportunities for nonprofits whose pursuit of visionary outcomes with like-minded partners has unprecedented potential. Yet many charities’ bias towards growth undercuts their impact. Two weeks ago, the Human Rights Campaign appointed Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein as their national corporate spokesperson for same-sex marriage, prompting widespread reactions of disgust including Matt Taibbi’sSoda machines still man school hallways, and environmental organizations embrace companies that wreak ecological devastation. Nonprofits say shrinking government support and glowing goals justify such partnerships. But neither trump the need for community and character to lie at the heart of their mission. 

Only a small percent of the nonprofit sector are in social change [or social justice] philanthropy, described in December’s Stanford Social Innovation article as one measured “by its capacity to question the dominant development model, to seek the root causes of inequality, and to engage in a process of self-reflection that also seeks to expand its accountability to the broader public that it seeks to serve." The traditional domain of industrial titans expanded as diverse groups created charitable forces of all stripes. But many nonprofits bloated by oversized assets and investments in new capacity narrowed previously innovative, high impact missions.

Nonprofits partners’ successes exacted a high cost on target communities (making the donations available). Explosive corporate growth resulted in large part from companies’ masking product costs and effects, weakening regulatory protection, and minimizing worker power; leaving Americans with stagnant wages, bigger waistlines, and a high risk of homelessness. The Great Recession slowed progress towards the Millenium Development Goals with 80 million more jobs needed to regain 2007-level employment. The planet hurtles towards an environmental point of no return, due largely to profits taken at the Earth’s expense.  

Time for the powerful nonprofit sector – devoted to health, sustainability, and economic opportunity – to dump the Vichy water and rejoin the fight for justice alongside newfound partners. Yet many are closer to settling down for a nap after their Black-Card-funded lunch than answering the call to action.  

Why? They ignored the simple fact that something as small as a kind gesture prompts reciprocity. Three pertinent examples: an institution where the name of Philip Morris is etched on a wall in gold is unlikely to put on Christopher Buckley’s brilliant take on lobbying “Thank You for Smoking”. And it is the rare development organization that would partner with Pepsi then highlight harmful health internationally, or take banking money then lobby hard for taxes on financial transactions and hedge fund managers. More likely it would pivot to change constituents, eliminating nutrition programs or anti-bank/anti-soda campaigns.  

Advice for how an individual nonprofit can avoid such awkward situations is here. More promising is the nascent trend across sectors to question how best to achieve transformative impacts and visionary goals.  

The environmental movement 1Sky, which includes Bill McKibben, issued this letter that gives more credence to community organizations. Mainstream organizations rallied hard to support national climate change legislation that was slashed to ribbons before failing to pass. Yet smaller organizations reached out to minorities, scoring a huge win with the defeat of Proposition 23, keeping California on target to meet aggressive greenhouse gas goals. A recent report argues that the last decade's enormous environment spending achieved little and progress requires more grassroots activism.  

Arts organizations are beginning a dialogue about the scarcity of political theater, according to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann. The provocative and often political DC playhouse has tackled AIDS, gentrification and political comedy, among other topics. In fact, the Woolly helped birth “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. Mike Daisey’s prescient monologue based on his investigation into FoxConn has been followed by the explosion, audit and campaigns involving Apple products. The play virtually sold out in DC last year and returns soon, demonstrating its contemporary relevance and enduring social value.  

The downside to supersizing has been known for some time, the pitfalls of bad partnerships even longer. Nonprofits have traditionally been respected for achieving near miracles. It’s time for them to renew their vision, roll up their sleeves, and work on issues critical to their communities. As for any inspired leader, both company and collaboration will come.



ABOUT Veena Trehan

 Veena Trehan earned a Masters in Journalism on a Reuters Fellowship. She has written for Reuters, Bloomberg News, and NPR. She currently helps manage a foundation that supports the empowerment of adolescent girls globally, and education and cultural endeavors. In addition, she writes and reports on a freelance basis.

Ms. Trehan may want to check

Ms. Trehan may want to check into 1Sky, its merger with 350.org, its relationship with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and its position on nuclear energy. I believe she will find that it fits her analysis as well. Also, look deeper at foundations. They may give away 5% of their assets annually to "good" causes but meanwhile they invest all their remaining assets in the stock market in corporations rather than credit unions and community loan funds.

This is a very biased, almost

This is a very biased, almost silly article. If you're really interested in the issue, read the citation referenced above in Stanford Social Innovation along with the thoughtful comments.

What do you think the bias

What do you think the bias is?

Obviously the author hasn't touched on every problem, but Tobacco and Soda certainly are completely useless products with environmental costs (for example).

Apple SEED* Initiative: It

Apple SEED* Initiative: It is time to begin a transformation of the American public schools through innovation in instructional materials and teaching techniques by nation-wide pilot programs testing the use of e-texts in the classrooms. Apple is by far and away the largest producers of e-pads in the world and has the ready technology to be the leader in bringing this technology into the classrooms here in the US and to the World. An up-front investment by Apple to build affordable and durable e-readers in the US and give them to pilot schools would be accompanied by USG grants to train the teachers in their use. A consortium of State, local educators and textbook authors would mange the introduction process and evaluate the results. This joint R

We need Tax Reform more than

We need Tax Reform more than anything in order to get our great country back to Greatness. "Tax Em Like 1938" is my motto. In 1938 we had 33 tax brackets to cover all classes of income. These brackets ranged from 4% for all income up to $64,000. (allowing for inflation) all the way up to a top marginal rate of 79% for income over $79,000,000. Now that is Fair and Balanced. The existing 6 brackets are too few, and they top out at $380,000. That doesn't even get into the rich or super rich. That is still upper middle class. A good battle cry for the 99% is "Tax Em Like 1938".

Trish House's picture

What those of us outside the

What those of us outside the machinery of power want to achieve is the right to access to the tools of our own sustainability. The government holds in trust 30% of America's land; this means that if it was consolidated together in a mass that one could start driving from anywhere on the west coast and drive for two days or 1000 miles before ever leaving government held land. Yet those of us without land or the means to acquire it have no rights to life, to liberty or to the pursuit of our happiness. We are left to forage in the woods, or to create tent cities without hygiene facilities on the edge of town and are shunned by the employed population.

The writer talks about 80 million Americans living on the edge; this is greater than the population of Germany. It is nearly 25% more than the population of France and Great Britain.

It is our contention that we have the means in this country to provide free, self sustaining eco villages throughout the country that are built and run by the residents so that nobody is homeless or without dignity in America. What do we have to do to manifest these?

We have created the model concept of what would work but extracting land from the hoarders is considered by them as serious a crime as murder. It is the violence of capitalism and our system of hoarding that is causing misery and the depletion of natural resources beyond the planet's capacity to regenerate them. Our concept is expressed here www.the-communal-solution.us Your help is welcome in creating a model community that will serve as an example of what can and should be done.

I just realize3d how stupid I

I just realize3d how stupid I have been after reading this article. As a tax-exempt non-profit organization we can not make political contributions without loosing our tax-exempt status. Soooo no surprize, politicians don't listen to our cries for help. We don't donate so they can't hear me. If we camp out in their office it is considered a politically active event. So when HUD takes projects from NPs for duvious reasons there is no calvery coming. When HUD refuses to follow it's own regulations no calvery comes. When HUD gentrifies a neighborhood for greedy developers no calvery comes to the rescue. Wonder why???America will only wake up when injustice touches them directly. The worst thing for America right now is that a super rich person gets elected president who is a Republican. It was a Republican president who facilitated the now Great Recession and now a super rich one wants to finish the job.How many homes

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