On nonprofit business models and helping people

Those of you who know what I believe from reading this blog will know that I identify myself as a Christian and a personalist when it comes to people and the structures that they inhabit. I hope I don’t already sound too boring here. I don’t claim to know a lot about business models for nonprofits or what really works in this economy. All I know is that I believe a nonprofit should never receive money from anyone with the promise to offer a particular service, and then spend the money instead on other things. I am probably more suspicious of nonprofit CEOs than I should be. I’m old fashioned enough to think that nonprofits should truly be giving all but the least amount possible away. Any overhead should be simply to help the service provider maintain its services. This is not the business model taught in universities these days. Nonprofits are a growth industry, an important service sector that employs, educates, and empowers people using money provided by the community. And by the community we mean large corporations, universities, city, state, and federal dollars.

And this all sounds very worthwhile until we’re confronted with the news that a very old, very large nonprofit has for some time had trouble managing these funds, even while the CEO pulls down six figures and receives community accolades for all her hard work. The Human Development Corporation of St. Louis began during the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. Ruth A. Smith, the retiring CEO, has been with the organization since the beginning. And as I read through the articles I’ve listed here it really makes my heart sad. I believe in the vision Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had for the Poor People’s Campaign. I’m inspired by the history of and idea for Resurrection City on the Mall in Washington DC. And there’s no doubt in my mind that this was the vision that inspired Ruth Smith and others at HDC. But something else has happened here in St. Louis. I’m not really an insider to it, and I’ve only been back for a year now, but somewhere along the way it became OK to write the grants, accept the money, and never quite get around to helping the people. I dare say HDC is only one among many. There is big money in the St. Louis area for community supported nonprofits, of which United Way is the largest, but I fear I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that there is less of a war on poverty going on and more in the way of a growth in nonprofit as a business. The structures themselves have become the problem. I’m far less interested in adding to the structures than I am in caring for the people. Caring for people is not easy. Nonprofits often make it sound easier than it is to streamline the money supply. One on one hospitality is much more difficult than begging for money. (Though begging is not what it’s called anymore. We don’t beg, we reason, and demonstrate, and promise—-just like politicians.) There is so much more to communication and lasting change than the propaganda campaigns claiming “problem solved” would lead us to believe. This latest news about HDC leads me to pray for us all. If HDC really closes down it will significantly change the landscape everywhere else in the city for anyone trying to care for the poor and homeless. I would encourage everyone to pray and get ready. Our moral obligation is the same as it was during the Poor People’s Campaign. It is the people we must serve, not the structures. If the nonprofit structures are not people centered than they must fall. We should all take pause, question our motives, and pray for wisdom at this time.

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Filed under homeless, homelessness, humanity, Politics, religion and politics

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