The Trouble With Nonprofits

A few days ago, I wrote about “progressophobia,” a term coined by Harvard linguistics Prof. Steven Pinker to describe the left’s reluctance to acknowledge its own successes. I thought that Bill Maher had done a brilliant job of explaining how that was playing out in politics and popular culture.

But, to be fair, it’s not just progressives who can’t seem to come to terms with the idea that things are getting better, not worse. Somehow, I found my way onto the NRA’s email list. Every other day or so I get a notice that my Second Amendment rights are about to be taken away by a young first-term congresswoman from the Bronx. Apparently, she’s very powerful.

The subject line on yesterday’s email was “Notice of Gun Confiscation!” I’m told that’s just around the corner unless the NRA gets my $30 by this afternoon. Also, while I’m saving my freedom from the liberal hordes, I can score some really great swag, even a knife with the NRA logo on the blade. This makes sense. Once the liberals take away my guns I’ll need something to defend myself with.

I can protect my freedom and score some really cool swag from the NRA!

Now, of course, this is all just so much garbage. There’s no chance at all that any meaningful gun control legislation will pass in this Congress, though it should. The NRA is just trying to get me worked up so that I’ll send them some money. (They have no clue that I’m the biggest gun control advocate there ever was. Apparently, they didn’t actually read my responses when I filled out their survey.)

While the NRA is especially over the top, it’s not at all an unusual strategy. All kinds of nonprofit groups use this tack. Homelessness is worse than ever. People are going hungry. Kids are being abused. Biodiversity is being wiped out. Global warming is melting the glaciers. If I read all the pitches from all the nonprofits that want my money, I’d just want to kill myself. No wonder that suicide is on the increase!

The truth is that, while problems certainly continue, almost everything is getting better. Pinker’s excellent book, Enlightenment Now, documents the improvements in impressive and convincing detail. His basic point is that classically liberal, or Age of Enlightenment, values have made rapid progress possible.

When you take the long view, it turns out that war, poverty and disease are all at record lows and quickly receding. But for nonprofits, that’s an inconvenient truth. If we actually ever solve the problem they’re in business to fight, well, what happens to them? So, there is an incentive for every advocacy group to paint the situation as dire and getting more so.

I used to do this kind of thing myself, as I led two nonprofits in the environmental arena. I had coffee the other day with an old friend from that movement and I asked her if she thought we had made a mistake by not touting our own successes. She strongly agreed with me that we had been wrong to ignore what had gone right because people need some hope that their contributions are actually doing some good.

But that’s easy for us to say as both of us are retired from running nonprofits. We don’t need to raise the money to pay a staff that has kids and mortgages. And so, for lots and lots of nonprofits we will always be on the eve of destruction.

It’s not just nonprofits, of course. Almost all of the media is built on the idea that only bad news is real news. And, “advocacy media” (to coin a phrase), like Fox and MSNBC, feed off drummed-up hysteria about the barbarians at the gate. Nobody did more for Rachel Maddow than Donald Trump.

It’s at this point that the good columnist offers his solutions. But I don’t have any. Sorry. We can’t and shouldn’t violate the First Amendment by limiting the speech rights of nonprofits or the media.

As measures that might just help you maintain some of your own sanity, I would suggest unsubscribing from as many nonprofit and candidate email lists as possible, relying more on straight-forward media sources, like the AP and Reuters, and by all means reading Steven Pinker’s book.

And cheer up, folks. Things are getting better. Really, they are.

Welcome to the 127th day of consecutive posts here on YSDA.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “The Trouble With Nonprofits

  1. Hi Dave,Great column, as usual!  This one struck a nerve, I’ve been involved with non-profits in the past and support many.  I’m going to pull out only two examples that I’ve wondered about.  The first, Fair Wisconsin, I supported heavily in the 2006 timeframe opposing the Wisconsin Marriage amendment that ultimately passed.  I continued to support them until 2015 when the Supreme Court made the point moot.  My question for them:  does this mean you’ll disband having achieved your goal?  Of course they didn’t and continue to advocate for a variety of LGBTQ issues, none of which I oppose but hopefully you see my point.  When I was involved with AIDS Network, prior to them being consumed by ARCW, I asked the question:  what will we do when a cure for AIDS is found?  And, beyond that, as ARCW continues to grow as Vivent, now spanning multiple states, my question, that I asked as part of AIDS Network:  why do we appear to be creating a parallel health system for HIV?  Again, I’m not saying it’s necessarily bad, I’ve been HIV+ for 43 years, but I’ve always been fortunate to be within the healthcare system, so I’ve never received services from an ASO.  I do know many who have and they consider that to be very valuable. Anyway, just wanted to add a bit of extra juice to the whole non-profit persistence question:  I’ve always said that there’s a non-profit organization for every cause in Madison…and more on the way.  As a semi-literate contributor, I just always wonder if my donation dollar is really being used effectively, and I hope others ask the same questions.  Non-profits do much good in our community, but they deserve to be scrutinized and justified like any other entity, including, of course, our local government. 🙂 Thanks again for your column!!mark.


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