Doing more harm than good?

Did you know that certain non-profit organizations could actually be harming their communities in the long-term? This past week in our Moxie seminar we read Paul Kivel’s “Social Services or Social Change.” In the piece, Kivel breaks down what he calls “the nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC).” Essentially he argues that many non-profits address symptoms of societal issues without getting to the roots of the problems. In this way, by not ever solving issues in their entirety, the non-profit industry maintains jobs for its employees and continues to be able to “do good work.” The following TED talk from Dan Pallota doesn’t discuss NPIC specifically, but does address some of the other problems about the way we approach charity that are interesting to think about.

As I’ve continued to work at the Lower Eastside Girls Club (LEGC) of NY, I’ve tried to think about the ways in which their work attempts to look at the root of the issues they address. LEGC provides education, wellness, and leadership training services for girls located in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan as well as other boroughs around New York City. It was originally founded by local women to give young women of the Eastside an organization similar to that of other boys’ clubs around the city. 

In the past week, I sat in on meetings working to plan summer programming for middle and high school students as NYC begins to open up post-quarantine. For middle school, LEGC offers classes in all different areas from textile arts to science to radio broadcasting. However for high school, the team is working on creating opportunities for students to engage with their local communities and gain professional experience. This place is where I specifically see the organization working at the root of an issue and working against Kivel’s idea of the industrial complex. Kivel also emphasizes that non-profit organizations need to empower their target communities with the skills needed to help themselves. LEGC is providing a safe and productive environment for students to learn and grow this summer, but also giving resume-worthy experiences to boost college applications and/or future job opportunities.

As someone who has engaged with lots of community service in the past, Kivel’s argument really made me think about how I have approached service in the past and how I want to think about it in the future. Some reflections questions I’ve started to think about while doing community service:

These questions certainly don’t solve the issue of the NPIC, but they can help to think about why we are doing what we are doing. Ultimately, I don’t think many nonprofits work with malintent; most believe and are doing good and helpful work. But as Kivel says, nonprofits need to be accountable to those that they serve, rather than the people who fund them.

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