What Susan J. Komen Says about Non-Profits

February 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

The recent uproar around Susan J. Komen’s choice to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood, in my opinion, says more about the state of non-profits than it does their political leanings. The conversation that has ensued in the last week has been interesting to watch and reminiscent of the Internets collective response to SOPA. For the first time in recent memory, Americans have learned how to flex their collective muscle through the use of technology. Taking cues from Iran’s Twitter Revolution and the role that social media played in the Arab Spring the United States has become slightly more proficient at utilizing social media to enact real world change. The Occupy Movement might be the classic example of this. However, SOPA and Susan J. Komen will, in my opinion, be lasting examples of a democratic response that holds public officials feet to the fire for their often questionable actions.

Having said that, I want to get back to my first point and the focus of this entry: I believe that Susan J. Komen has demonstrated the baselessness and ineffectiveness of most non-profits in our country. Wait, wait, wait! Do not cry foul before you hear me out. I am in no way suggesting that non-profits do not play a crucial role within our economic scheme, quite to the contrary; without non-profits, untold millions of Americans would be worse off than they currently are now, without access to food, shelter, clothing, mental health and other indispensable services that many non-profits provide. Non-profits are the ‘safety nets’ in a capitalist society, they are band-aids to wounds that may never go away.

In a time when the services that non-profits provide are at an all-time-high the infighting for funding becomes that much more intense. Two (or more) non-profits with similar mission statements will be vying for the same grant money from the same grant making organizations. After this money is allocated, programs begin and after a period of time – usually a year or two, the programs end, funding runs out, and this process repeats itself.  Couple this ‘competition’ with the allure that non-profit’s 501-3(c) tax-status wields the landscape of non-profits begin to appear more like a campaign to be associated with a cause rather than a champion of a one.

Some contend, ‘It’s Time To Write Off The Charitable Tax Deduction

But almost a century after the charitable tax deduction was enacted, nobody can say positively, absolutely how much, or even if, it stimulates giving, which was its primary purpose. Moreover, in order to receive tax-deductible gifts, nonprofit corporations must become second-class corporate citizens — they are not allowed to contribute to political campaigns, to lobby or to otherwise politically advocate for the very constituencies they were created to serve…

Obama studied the variations and decided that what we currently have is good enough, but he suggested that Congress get more money into federal coffers by lowering the deduction that those earning $200,000 or more can claim against their charitable donations, from 35% (the top rate of federal income tax) to 28%…

First United Way of America’s Brian Gallagher issued the stern warning that if the top deduction were reduced from 35% to 28%, “you should expect that donors will simply withhold the difference to cover the tax.”

This is a logical and often-used argument, but statistics don’t necessarily bear it out. The deduction follows tax brackets, and the top tax bracket for individuals has gone down from 70% in 1980 to 50%, then to 39%, then to the current 35% in 2003. The cost of giving, at least among the wealthy, went up as the top bracket went down, so contributions should have declined. But they didn’t….

Wealthy individuals in particular, can make monetary donations – due to their expendable income – in the name of “X Cause” and write that off for their taxes. This is, as we are often told – and as the aforementioned article alluded to, a huge motivator to many individuals making donations to philanthropic  causes. However, if a keenly minded individual does a significant amount of pro-bono work for a non-profit, out of which a greater efficiency might result, there is no intensive! In the so-called ‘free-market’ competition, I am told, weeds out the ineffective business and makes room for the more efficient, productive and profitable businesses. This, however, in the world of non-profits, is not the case. It is because of this divide that I contend that most non-profits exist for their own interests, or the interests of their board of directors – donors – etc, above and beyond the interests of their clients. As a result, mediocre services are provided, mission statements are amended, and sub-par organizations continue to exist in perpetuity, all lieu of their inadequate ability to ‘fix’ the problem they set out to rectify.

Take the “Melville Charitable Trust” as an example (namely because I listen to too much NPR and I constantly hear their mission statement and… laugh). This organization could be easily substituted for the Susan J. Komen Foundation, or the United Way or any other large-to-mid-sized non-profit. The Melville Charitable Trust seeks to ‘support solutions to prevent and end homelessness’ – they have been doing this since 1990. Over this twenty-some-odd year period, the Melville Charitable Trust has spent over $85 million dollars in grants and programs. $85 MILLION to ‘support solutions to prevent and end homelessness’… Did they run a third party candidate? Did they once speak up about the necessity of homelessness in a capitalist society? Did universal health care coverage for all Americans once get brought up as a way to curb the rampant mental health crisis that we know directly correlates to homelessness rates in America? No.

Well why? Because if they ended homelessness, houselessness, or prevent its causes, not only would they be out of a job, so too would the people making money off of housing, mental health, a two-party system, and the ‘free-market’. I understand that this must sound conspiratorial but it’s all-too-often the reality of many non-profits. I do not mean to suggest by writing this entry that the folks at the Melville Trust don’t want homelessness to end, because I am sure they do. Nor do I think people at Susan J. Komen want every woman to have breast cancer, because they don’t. What I am suggesting is that there is no motivation for non-profits to fulfill their mission statement, and take radical steps to achieve that.

Sadly, where non-profits should be pushing for political speech, in the way that corporations and political action committees have thanks to Citizens United (bummer), they are not and cannot. As a result, these non-profits have been fostering hypocritical partnerships to improve their lure to donors (which only perpetuates their existence as a non-profit). I often think back to when the Susan J. Komen Foundation decided to partner with health-experts and general-wellness gurus: KFC and their ‘Buckets for the Cure‘ campaign.

It is the bucket color that is troubling Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, an organization that calls itself a watchdog group seeking to compel the changes to end breast cancer.

She tells CNN that her group believes the KFC campaign is based in “pinkwashing” — putting a pink, cancer-awareness ribbon on products that are bad for health.

Her beef isn’t just with the chicken chain, though; it’s with the Komen Foundation.

“This will keep them (Komen) in business for years. They talk about a cure, but this this partnership will create more breast cancer. And Komen knows this,” said Brenner on the assumed relationship between fast food, excess weight and cancer risk.

Brenner went on to say, “Komen puts the responsibility for health in individuals’ hands, but some people don’t have the option to take care of themselves. Say you don’t have the money or choice — KFC is making money in the poorest communities.”

See, the issue is not so much their (by which I mean any business’ new-found commitment to ‘social welfare’ or an individuals desire to be the face of…whatever) insincerity to the cause, so much as the inaccessibility to the tools to properly affect change.  The non-profit world loses its best and brightest minds to higher salary jobs in the for-profit sector, leaving a talent divide that favors the for-profit industry, leaving non-profits with high turn-over rates and dependent upon volunteers whose tenure is all-to-often short lived and half-assed at best (I say this after being a volunteer coordinator and developer for close to 5,000 students each year over a span of four years at one of the countries ‘best’ service learning program). The number of holes that exist within the world of non-profits are too numerous to name, and too depressing to think about.

I want to see hunger end, homelessness eradicated, and live in a world where my mother/ sister/ aunts/ and beautiful women in my life don’t have to worry about breast cancer. But sadly, the ‘fight for the cure’ is a fight for tax-deductible marketing dollars, the solutions to ending homelessness are right in front of our eyes, and hunger can be fixed by addressing our nations backassword food policy. But these things won’t happen so long as we continue to force those with good intentions to remain apolitical. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

When we, at MSCS, talk about sustainability we think of it in terms that are not solely limited to environmental sustainability but economic and social sustainability as well. The current system in which non-profits are forced to function in makes doing what is ‘right’ an awfully hard thing to do in all three of these categories of ‘sustainability’. In the case of non-profits, I have suggested that some will always continue to exist, which I suppose is ‘sustainable’. However, if its purpose is to eliminate a societal wow, then by god it should work to put itself out of business. I have heard, and have no proof of this actually, that there are more non-profits per capita in Cleveland than any other major city in the United States. If this is true, and I am going to pretend it is, it can only work against improving the self-sufficiency of our city. By remaining dependent upon grants, which are tied to a specific type of finite programing, and providing people with a service rather than eliminating the need for that service, we are only continuing to ignore the elephant in the room.

To fix poverty, we need to create wealth, to fix hunger, we ought to grow food, to combat filthy air, we should invest in clean energy, and if we want a better city, we better think on the human scale – and design appropriately. We cannot continue to assume that a city with a rapidly depleting tax-base that is filled with hundreds, of hundreds, of non-profits that pay no taxes (god I sound like an old man) can become more self-sufficient and robust. Part of sustainability ought to be innovation, streamlining, and efficiencies. By consolidating like-minded non-profits we begin to get rid of some of that overlap and inefficiencies that proponents of regionalism have long been talking about within regional planning. In the same way regionalism is controversial this thought pattern is as well. There are no easy solutions to the diverse problems our cities face but by shedding light on the topics that need to be discussed, we become better equip to know where to look for transformative solutions.

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