A book review by Dr. John Brothers, Senior Fellow at the Support Center
This month I had an opportunity to participate in a discussion on HuffPost Live with Ken Stern, the author of the recent book Charity for All. Having read the book, I had the same reaction to it then as I did when I first read the statement that introduces it on Amazon:
“Vast and largely unexamined, the world of American charities accounts for fully 10 percent of economic activity in this country, yet operates with little accountability, no real barriers to entry, and a stunning lack of evidence of effectiveness. In With Charity for All, Ken Stern reveals a problem hidden in plain sight and prescribes a whole new way for Americans to make a difference.”
Overall, the above premise is flawed in a number of ways, many of them coming from a tired narrative that emerges from someone wishing to make a splash by simply stating that nonprofits are weak and we all should be afraid. The above statement also provides an ideal framework from which I can explore some of the issues I have with the author’s viewpoints:
- “Vast and largely unexamined” – In one of the only areas where Stern is correct, the nonprofit sector is “vast” and the 1.6 million nonprofits are part of the fasting growing sector in the United States, equal to the manufacturing industry and accounting for nearly 10% of economic activity in the United States. The “unexamined” term is where Stern misses the mark. As an author, like Stern, my book joins more than 50,000 books on Amazon that discusses the nonprofit sector. The sector has hundreds of network organizations that are dedicated to its development and over 1,500 academic and professional development programs throughout the country are aimed at studying the sector. This hardly seems like an unexamined sector.
- “Yet operates with little accountability” – If you walk into a small to medium-sized nonprofit and look at its requirements to certain stakeholders, the number of accountability filters it has is much more complex than the accountability requirements for “mom-and-pop” businesses, which are largely the typical type of organization in the business sector. A nonprofit has a board responsibility, an institutional donor responsibility and potentially several others. An equal business has no responsibility to a governance structure or really to its customer in the same way. Yes, the board and donor filter may be relaxed in its management of the accountability but at its weakest, it still far supersedes its counterpart on the for profit side, including myself as a for-profit business owner.
- “No real barriers to entry” – The nonprofit sector looks a lot like the business sector if you look at it from 10,000 feet above ground. Like the business sector, a heavy majority of the organizations are small to mid-sized groups and also like the business sector, the process to become a legal entity is a relatively easy one. While putting barriers to business creation is frowned upon in the political and business world, Stern would have us think that charities should be held to a different standard. Our growth is partly due to the same American creativity and innovation that guides the creation of small businesses and the nonprofit sector should be regarded no differently.
- “Stunning lack of evidence of effectiveness” – Similarly, if you walk into a nonprofit today and utter the word “effective” or now “impact” or the dozens of other words relating to being a better nonprofit, you are likely to get a response, many times a strong response. The answer may be steeped in data, a best practice or a personal story, but in the end the answer lies in a strong or weak organizational process aimed at looking at some sort of impact. On the business side, the same processes occur but these processes have existed within the business community for a long time, maybe hundreds of years to some effect. The nonprofit sector has made great strides in the last 5, 10 and 20 years. In 1992, if you mentioned the notion of “effectiveness” in nonprofit circles, you might have been in unfamiliar territory. Today, it is common language amongst most in the sector. Stern’s premise only shows that he fails to understand the long-term arc of the sector and the important sector shifts made in recent and the not-so-recent years.
In the final section of the Amazon statement, it reads “Stern reveals a problem hidden in plain sight and prescribes a whole new way for Americans to make a difference” and unfortunately this is where Stern is the most challenged. What Stern has done is add to a boring narrative that says “nonprofit bad, my business solution good”. It is an easy and lazy argument to make and while it gives a greater opportunity to sell books, overall it severely misses the mark while also condescendingly minimizes the sector and pushes unnecessary fears to donors.
The worst is that Stern highlights his experience in the sector, as the former leader with National Public Radio, a position he was pushed out of in 2008. According to his bio, this was largely the only nonprofit role he has had in his impressive career in government, management consulting and as a lawyer. While I don’t discredit his experience and regard it highly, his response to the sector through his book is eerily similar to how those unfamiliar with the sector, coming from the business community and consistently saying, “Let me use my experience from outside the sector to change what’s inside it”. It plays to the flawed theme that other sectors are better and how lucky we are to have their advice rain down from on high. The term “Charity for All” that entitles Stern’s book is more about the charity he believes he is giving us rather than his book helping charities. Those on the ground in the sector who are familiar with this narrative and approach, understand that Stern’s book is not about charity at all.