Winter Break Post

Happy New Year! :)

It has been a nice winter break.  I spent more time with Fern & Rusty, and caught up on a few things I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t find the time to do so.

Winter 2013

Which included, four pieces of writing.  It sounds odd to be still writing while on break, but I guess it’s different when you choose to write vs. you have to write :)

I also read Michael Sandel’s “What Money Cannot Buy”.  It was a farewell gift from a friend, and a provoking read.

In short, Sandel discusses how we have monetized and applied economics think to more and more things.  Drawing from wide-ranging examples, such as paying for the right to pollute, cut queue, pick up kids late from the child care center, buy live organs, and even personal things like professionally scripted best-man’s wedding speech, Sandel argues why this can be troubling.  He draws his arguments from two main objections:

  • One, it is unfair when things go to those with the most ability to pay.  For example, paying for someone else’s live organs.
  • Two, monetary values can crowd out and corrupt other non-monetary values such as loyalty, tradition and sanctity, among many others.  For example, turning National Day Parade tickets into a business.

This is not a book review, as I’m not good at such things.  Besides, there are many people who do it better than me, and you can read one here.  But I would like to share quick thoughts on a related issue.

As you know, my interest is in nonprofits.  In particular, nonprofits’ adoption of market concepts, models and practices that emerge from the for-profit world.  The parallel to Sandel’s point is that while many of these concepts, models and practices can apply just as well for nonprofits, some many not be so.

One example is the use of financial incentives to achieve goals.  Increasingly, more nonprofits are using financial incentives to achieve quick wins, but this may be at the expense of larger mission goals.  For example, I know of some nonprofits who have explored paying for volunteers (despite the oxymoron!).  We are also seeing novel (and sometimes seductive) ideas such as market based pay for executives and social impact bonds (i.e. where investors pick and choose social projects to invest in, and earn a return).

The intent is not to write off such ideas.  For the nonprofit sector to flourish, I believe it needs to keep an open mind to all possibilities, even those that we eventually conclude to be inappropriate.  At the same time, nonprofits need to be mindful how such concepts and models could potentially shape (or even corrupt) their mission and values.  To do so, nonprofits will need to start out with very clear ideas and understanding about their unique purpose, role and identity.

So, much as there are some things that money cannot buy, there may also be concepts and models that do not benefit nonprofits.  In principle, I think most nonprofits would agree with this, but in practice it may not always be obvious until perhaps they get too deep into it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s