The Role of the American Non-Profit in the 21st Century

The Role of the American Non-Profit in the 21st Century

Volunteering is as integral to the fabric of the United States as democracy itself. Without volunteers, the Revolutionary War could have been a very different story. You could say it’s in our blood to band together in times of real trouble, sometimes even at great personal cost. In fact, historical data tell us that nothing stirs up Americans into volunteer action like a war (often in equal parts for and against).

Of course, the history of volunteering is not necessarily the same as that of the non-profit organization. Today, we think of hospitals or arts & culture centers as being in an inherently different sector than, say, the fast food industry. Yet only a hundred years ago, more than 75% of hospitals were for-profit entities. It wasn't until the 1970s, almost 20 years after the first major tax incentives were introduced, that those sectors migrated to the contemporary not-for-profit operating model. That shift was no coincidence, as the U.S. had, at the time, more than its share of military involvements around the globe, leading to record numbers of volunteer participation across the board.

So where do non-profits fit into this model of seemingly selfless action, and what exactly is the relationship between volunteers and the 501(c) institution? Do organizations motivate individuals into action, is it vise-versa, or is it something else entirely? When financial gain is taken off the table, what incentive is left for a citizen to donate their time and effort to a particular cause?

There are, of course, several explanations, though surprisingly none of them are plain ol' vanilla altruism (not that it altruism does not exist, mind you - it has simply never shown to be a motivating factor unless human lives are in immediate danger). Instead, motivations tend to be much more pragmatic than any kind of poetic rhetoric about the goodness of the human spirit. When someone has struggled against cancer, they will create or support efforts to find a cure, improve treatment, and increase awareness. When a family has been forced out of their home by a real-estate hedge fund, a fair rent grass roots efforts will emerge. When you or your peers are systemically discriminated against or harassed in your workplace, you will speak out for reform in employment standards.

It follows, then, that the role of non-profit organizations is, and always has been, the same as that of volunteering itself: to win a fight against something that is a real and tangible threat, when no one else will.

The “threat” involved does not always have to be as personal. A disease without a cure, even when spotted halfway across the globe, makes us feel unsafe. It only takes a brief mention for our imaginations to take over and play out how it would feel to be dying. Same goes for victims of disasters, hunger, poverty, discrimination, or political oppression. Filmmakers show us what it would be like to live in the dessamated environment we are currently ensuring. What we commonly call “empathy” (or its derogatory counterpart "bleeding heart") is our subconscious mind’s way of using emotional triggers to divert our time and energy to more systemic problems - problems that our conscious mind may be dismissing due to lack of information or over-abundance of misinformation.

It's no surprise, then, that when large groups of people care about the same issue, and are already independently motivated to act, they will come together to pool their resources and solve problems that they cannot solve alone. In the same way that the modern incorporated business descended from the medieval guild (formed when craftsmen and tradesmen pooled their resources to solve the practical and financial problems of their own members through collective action), so did the modern non-profit also emerge when groups of people wanted to reach shared goals that went beyond the mere accumulation of capital.

Volunteers created the non-profit organization; organizations that lose sight of what first drove their volunteers into action suffer from deeper problems than can be solved with increased funding.

The Unique Advantages of Non-Profits

Undoubtedly you’ve heard from many a self-proclaimed Ayn-Randian objectivist that anything of worth must necessarily have a sticker price on it, thus motivating those titans of industry to compete out of pure self-interest to provide the best solution... at a reasonable price. Why give away one’s talents for free and form groups that don’t create any cash flow, when trade, production, and acquisition will take care of every possible aspect of humanity?

Here are a few reasons:

1. Non-profits represent and create common purpose, they don’t consume it

When nuclear holocaust threatened the nation in 1962, non-profit organizations took it upon themselves to educate the populace, as well as encourage political involvement that would steer government officials away from a policy of unplanned military escalation. The private sector, meanwhile, sold discounted aluminum “bunkers” that would supposedly protect you from a thermonuclear blast in your backyard.

2. Non-profits can enact intentional change

It cannot be denied that commercial enterprise has greatly altered the course of society and our environment... unintentionally. After R. Nixon opened up trade with China in the early 70s, the U.S. manufacturing sector terminated its North American operations virtually overnight and migrated their facilities to the newer, vastly more unregulated environments. The American consumer was rewarded with a menagerie of extremely affordable home appliances and plastic products, which they still could not afford due to rampant blue collar unemployment.

3. Non-profits coexist with real problems and real solutions

By definition, a non-profit institution has an explicitly defined set of mission goals, as well as stated practices which they employ to reach those goals. Their volunteers, efforts, and funding are not manifestations of abstract stock which can be purchased or sold when arbitrarily deemed more or less valuable by opaque economic processes. When external interests hinder their progress, they grow stronger and unite instead of cutting their losses and liquidating. When the population loses interest, they do not abandon their direction for an easier opportunity.

4. Non-profits are not constrained by “survival is enough” thinking

That’s not to say that a growing number of non-profit organizations today aren't crippled by the circular pattern of spending 100% of their time and resources on fundraising, only to use all of those funds to further grow their fundraising operations. The critical difference is that business entities consciously base every action and strategy on simply existing and being larger each month than they were the previous, period. Non-profits, on the other hand, are free to pursue any accomplishment within the vast realm of human endeavor through the support of their volunteers.

5. Non-profit leadership has safeguards against Darwinian selection

Tax regulations, as well as some recently introduced programs and certifications, exist to ensure not only that the governing body of a not-for-profit entity does not profit from the organization and its volunteers, but that it has no incentive to do so in the first place. As a result, individuals are not rewarded for focusing their natural advantages toward gaining increasingly greater control by decreasing the number of peers who also have a stake in their organization’s cause.

On the contrary, non-profit board members complement and support each other to come up with the best solution. Organizations also tend to be less strictly regimented and heirarchically segmented, which allows ideas and solutions to surface much more easily from all volunteers and staff, regardless of title.

6. Non-profits have an interest in solutions, not the public perception of solutions

When Donald Hebb presented his neuroscientific theories in 1949, he was not aware that within only a few short decades they would be massively deployed by the burgeoning marketing industry on an unsuspecting public. Since then, simple concepts such as storytelling, repetition, and well-timed stimulation have been applied on entire communities to give up their political and spending power in exchange for products and public representatives that, once sold, have no further obligation to deliver solutions.

While nonprofits certainly can, do, and (dare I say it) should employ the same techniques to gain public attention and opinion, there is no legal avenue by which any one individual in the organization can profit, and are thus bound by their mission and trustees to reinvest their hard-earned social and financial capital back into solving the issue.

7. Non-profits do not regard ethics as either obstacles or opportunities

Quite the opposite, in fact. It is not only the responsibility of the nonprofit institution, but primary reason for existence, to accurately represent concerns, and safeguard against violation, any ethical issues within their scope. The board of trustees and (sometimes) government oversight ensure that popular empathy towards the suffering or oppression of people, animals, or the ecosystem is neither suppressed nor purposefully misdirected to serve a different, completely unrelated agenda.


To summarize these points in a rather more glib but pithier analogy would be this: you can keep putting nothing but gas in your car, because it’s what makes it move, but at some point you’re still going to end up stranded on the side of the freeway, or worse. A full tank of gas is meaningless if you never change the oil, rotate your tires, and service the rest of the vehicle regularly.

The same applies to any democratic nation. For-profit entities may provide the energy to keep the country turning its wheels, but it's the American non-profit that must ensure the whole journey does not fall apart. The role of the non-profit organization in the 21st century is to tackle the increasingly more complex social, environmental, and otherwise human issues that the private sector is is not equipped to handle.