What’s mine is yours…maybe

On some level, my mission on this blog is to talk about the intersection of philanthropy and politics in a way that gets beyond pat political talking points. So for instance, I’ve looked at the way the privileging of local knowledge happens both on the right and left, and some important differences in the way they interpret that idea.

Along those lines, I think it’s important to acknowledge the truth a talking point that sometimes gets rehearsed in discussions around the nonprofit sector. And that’s the idea that small for-profit businesses are actually doing more good for the world by generating jobs for people.

The truth in that is that the nonprofit sector doesn’t have a monopoly on the production of social goods. All three sectors – public, private, and nonprofit – produce different kinds of social goods (defense/security, jobs, services, to name a few) in different proportions, and it seems to me that where communities get out of whack is when the proportions aren’t balanced – when there’s too much of some social goods and not enough of others. I’m reminded of an article in New York magazine earlier this year about communities upstate where juvenile-detention facilities are located: an excess of security that creates jobs but not sufficient inclusion/opportunity.

At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to think of different sectors only in terms of one kind of social good they produce. As Sean at Tactical Philanthropy likes to point out, nonprofits employ a lot of people too, there are plenty of jobs there. I guess the idea would be to take a more holistic view of the concept of “externalities,” which in economics are the side effects of economic activities. A coal plant produces energy but also pollution, which reduces air quality; the reduced air quality is the externality. Such a bastion of capitalism as the Harvard Business Review has started writing about the internalization of externalities from a corporate-social-responsibility and leadership perspective.

I wonder if there’s not also a role for the intentional socialization of externalities – understanding them in local communities in the context of who pays for them and who tries to alleviate them when they’re bad. Picture a lumber town with a small environmental nonprofit that’s a chapter of a national organization trying to work with a town council that’s dominated by the chamber of commerce, which is filled with folks sympathetic to the lumber mill. How does such a community find balance in the production of social goods – jobs, environment, governance? I don’t know that we have a good way to think through those issues, and communities across the country are dealing with them in the wake of significant budget cuts. May be worth taking this topic up again in the New Year….

As I mentioned yesterday, abbreviated publishing schedule these last two weeks of the year, Tuesday and Wednesday only. See you next week, and enjoy the holiday!

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