The Behavior of Nonprofits

I’ve randomly come across two stories that illustrate a truism about “nonprofits”–their leaders often act a lot like leaders of for-profit organizations, seeking to expand market share and the like.

In particular, it’s well-known that non-profits very rarely declare their mission to be over and wind up operations. The famous example is the March of Dimes, which started as an organization seeking to wipe out polio, and when it succeeded expanded into birth defects more generally.

Analogously, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, founded to help resettle Jewish refugees in the U.S. now has precious few Jewish refugees to resettle. Time to fold up shop? Of course not. HIAS has instead transformed its mission to helping refugees in general.

Meanwhile, the “Joint Distribution Committee,” whose mission is to aid Jews in need, has been working in Ethiopia for the last several decades to feed, house, employ and prepare for life in Israel tens of thousands of Jewish Ethiopians. The government of Israel has now declared that mass aliyah to Israel from Ethiopia is over, with everyone sufficiently connected to the Jewish people already given their entry permits. Time to close up shop in Ethiopia? Of course not! Time instead to expand the mission. Maybe young Jewish philanthropists want to give to development in Ethiopia. Maybe young Jewish volunteers want to spend some time in Ethiopia. Maybe the Israeli government thinks that keeping a presence in Ethiopia will help its foreign policy. Maybe Israel will decide that it needs to boost its foreign aid spending to meet OECD targets. But whatever the ratoinale, the last thing the organization wants to do is shrink.

Note that the point here is not to debate what Jewish organizations should be doing, whether Jewish philanthropy should focus more on the Jewish community or on so-called “tikkun olam,” etc. Rather, my point is that here we have two organizations that had a particular mission, fulfilled those missions admirably, but instead of declaring victory and going home, decided to take on new missions. And this likely helps tell us something interesting about nonprofit organizations.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes