I ran into a former colleague recently, at a conference for nonprofit organisations in the human services arena. We spoke delightfully for about thirty minutes across a range of topics, mostly to do with nonprofits.
My friend opened by asking me whether or not I believed nonprofits should provide human services, or whether this was the job of the government. I replied although some people think it’s the job of the state to provide for its people, I didn’t necessarily share that view (although neither was I opposed to it).
Equally, I continued, I didn’t necessarily believe the task should fall to nonprofits and, potentially, there was no reason why for-profits couldn’t also deliver human services, as many already do.
Why did I think this?
Because the legal form an entity adopts to deliver its services – whether it is for or nonprofit or operating under the umbrella of a government department – shouldn’t have any bearing on the matter. What really matters is whether an organisation – be it public, nonprofit or privately owned – operates with integrity.
The only reason we tend to want to rely on the nonprofit and public sector forms is we know they are required by law to re-invest their surpluses in the organisation. For-profits of course lack this constraint, and are therefore deemed less trustworthy.
However if we consider that:
does it really make much difference if the service provider is a for-profit, nonprofit or a government agency?
Moreover, what if we focused on integrity first and worked towards that, rather than relying on legal structures to do it for us?
Granted, as a human race we are perhaps a long way yet from dispensing with legal frameworks. One day however I trust we will have less need for them.
Indeed, as I told my friend, I already knew of one for-profit company that already operates in this way – with utmost integrity and for humanity. And in Australia, there are a growing number of other ‘hybrid’, profit-for-purpose organisations around, many of these occupying the social enterprise space.
The blurring of the line between non and for-profit shouldn’t alarm: nonprofit doesn’t always equal ‘good’ just as for-profit doesn’t always equal ‘greed’. At the end of the day, if an organisation is operating in the human services space (or any space), it needs to first be concerned with integrity – a quality its legal structure will neither confirm nor deny.
by Victoria Lister