Charity: our biggest sacred cow?


It’s healthy to positively and constructively critique the areas of society that impact us. We do it all the time with politics and government: in fact there are whole careers built on being great at evaluating all areas of political decision-making. And we more than happily engage in critiquing the business world – there are a plethora of websites, newspapers, journals and university studies dedicated to musings on the corporate sector and economic advancements.

So why not the nonprofit sector? After all, it too is a huge contributor to our society and economy, and is an area most of us engage in in some form or the other.

But cast around – you’ll find there is little if nothing in the way of critique when it comes to charity, philanthropy and nonprofit matters.

This is not to say there is nothing on the sector out there – it’s great at reporting industry news, views and changes, at providing resources and information, and platforms for supporting causes and making donations. In this sense it has a very visible presence. Sometimes there is even criticism of a particular issue that stirs public interest – fundraising costs is an area that springs to mind. But there is nothing that comes close to on-going healthy debate and discussion, to the equivalent of taking a look under the nonprofit hood and seeing how the engine runs, and whether it operates for its intended purpose and for whom.

In fact, you could say we trade on the presumption that everything about the sector is good and fine.

It’s true – some countries have regulators that monitor basic compliances, often to do with tax concessions and financial reporting. It’s also true that from time-to-time we hear of incidences in the press in which someone, somewhere – be it a rogue individual or organisation – has rorted a particular nonprofit or gamed the system; and we’re unfortunately becoming familiar with the concept that charities can be a front for terrorism.

But it’s not true to say that we examine the day-to-day workings of the sector with a critical eye. We don’t talk about the everyday deceits and bad behaviours that can characterise nonprofit life, about the bullying, the personal agendas, the often aggressive politicking that takes place around boardroom and management committee tables.

We never discuss whether all the activity generated and resources consumed by the sector actually amounts to anything, or what might need to change. We are concerned when venerable faith-based charitable institutions are found to harbour paedophiles or behaved fraudulently but never do we demand those institutions close their doors.

Even when instances of nonprofit abuse appear in popular culture – the motif of charitable persona or enterprise as a mask for ill deeds frequently occurs in movies and TV shows – we tend to write it off as ‘entertainment’ or as a highly fictionalised extreme.

Yet talk to anyone who has spent time working or volunteering in or alongside the sector or with particular organisations in it and you will get a plethora of anecdotes that attest to the ills that plague it. This evidence is however largely ignored and remain stories that are rarely, if ever, told.

Few too bother to ask whether all the millions of dollars we plough into a multitude of causes actually works – astounding really when we can say that, after decades of fundraising and donating, we can all easily recognise the world is no less plagued by illness, disease, famine and disasters natural and man-made and we could in fact say they are out of control.

It’s almost as if charity, philanthropy and nonprofit life is a no-go zone – an untouchable, sacred cow.

It’s as if we have invested all our hopes for a better world or brighter future in the sector, and anything that might dash them is strictly off limits. Instead we let our emotions, and our sympathies, cloud our judgement – our ability to clearly and objectively examine and potentially critique the areas that most need our attention. We obstruct ourselves from looking at and into these more subtle, yet oh so important areas of life, allowing them to fly under the radar.

But to take the nonprofit sector, which includes the charitable sector, at face value – to view it as inherently ‘good’ and ‘pure’ – is doing humanity an enormous disservice. Everything, no matter how high the regard in which we hold it, needs to be regularly discerned (does it feel right or true or not?), and checked in more matter-of-fact ways. We need to ask: is this emperor wearing new clothes? Or are we turning a blind eye to a sector that is deeply flawed on a number of levels, despite the intentions of those in it?

In other words, just as we discuss our relationship with politics and business, so too should we openly and regularly discuss our relationship with helping and philanthropy, at the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ operational level, and at the philosophical level. We should feel free to point out the abuses, to look under the hood, to call out what is not right.

We think Nonprofit Explore is a world first in terms of what it is setting out to provide – a platform for open-minded discussion and examination of nonprofit and charitable life dedicated to looking at what works, what doesn’t and the way forward. If it’s not, and you know of individuals and or organisations engaged in providing a forum for discussion on these topics in a healthy and proactive way, let us know via the contact form – we’d love to connect with like-minded souls and explore these themes and more.

We also seek and welcome comment from people both inside and external to the sector – you can join the discussion by replying to any of the articles posted on this site, starting with this one.

by Nonprofit Explore

2 Comments on “Charity: our biggest sacred cow?

  1. I feel that we protect charity and charitable giving because it hides the fact that we are fundamentally ‘plugged out’ from humanity. By being seen to give and contribute to the community through charitable giving, it sustains the illusion that we are ‘good’ people without us actually having to do anything to change our behaviour.

    • There’s definitely a level of comfort we have in our dependence on charity. And I use the words ‘comfort’ and ‘dependence’ deliberately for charity certainly feels like a panacea we use to feel good about the state of the world – an assurance that we are at least doing something… when deep down, if we let ourselves feel it, I suspect we would all know it is not.

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