Posted by: michgilb | December 20, 2009

Let’s Not Forget Who We Are

There is an awful lot of griping about nonprofits these days, and most of it has to do with accusations of runaway proliferation and grossly indecent inefficiencies (“my-my, shocking – you’d NEVER see anything like that in a real business!”).

For just a blessed moment, however, what say you that we give it a rest and instead, appreciate just how freaking fantastic it is that we have a nonprofit sector. And I don’t mean for the important, but boring reason that it plays a vital role in enabling an open and democratic society, blah, blah, blah…

No, what I want to talk about is how everything that is most noble and beautiful about humankind resides within the work of our nation’s nonprofit organizations.

From my admittedly minimal survey of human history (mostly “bang-bang you’re dead”), it strikes me that the creation of the nonprofit sector may be the single most redeeming act of our entire species. That we created a sector whose purpose is to serve the greater good gives one some hope for the primacy of compassion within the human spirit.

Of course, the skeptics beg to differ. “Nonsense!” they proclaim. “The only reason that the nonprofit sector exists is as an alternative to Big Government Soviet-Style Socialism!”  Or… “Harrumph! The Nonprofit sector has no moral base, it’s simply a derivative of an evolutionary mandate to create cooperative structures in order to advance our chances for survival!”

Allow me to respond with a story.

Years ago I heard a presentation given by an elderly woman who was a survivor of the Nazi death camps. One of the main causes of death in the camps was diarrhea. She described how when one of the inmates was afflicted each of the prisoners would contribute a small amount of bread from their starvation rations, so that the person with diarrhea might have a slightly better chance of survival.

Now how are we to understand this story? We could say that people were motivated to give-up their precious portions of bread out of shame, or with the hope that they would be provided for should they take ill. I’m sure there is some truth to such an argument.

But I choose to believe something different (and, I’m sure, closer to the point that the elderly survivor was making). I believe that the best explanation for the extraordinary generosity of the bread donors was simple, human compassion for a fellow human being.  It was impossible for them to stand by and watch someone they knew suffer. They acted out of love.

Call me a crazy, romantic fool if you wish, but I believe that the same compassion, the same love, the same sense of care, respect and responsibility for one another, are what drives much of the day-to-day work of our nonprofit sector.

Transparency, efficiency, program evaluation – these are important organizational elements and nonprofits must perform better in these crucial areas. But these elements are not what make the job worthwhile. Where can you find the heart and soul of nonprofit work? In the hearts and soles of nonprofit workers and volunteers – and in the missions and visions that nonprofits pursue in their ridiculously beautiful dreams for a better world.

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