Too Many Non-profits?

The continuing proliferation of nonprofits
is creating more complexity for donors and may result in mergers.

there is general
consensus within
the industry that
there are too
many nonprofits
Prof. Paul Light

Are there too many non-profit organizations? Does the “can do” enthusiasm of U.S. citizens result in too many organizations being created to do good things? That’s the gist of an article in The Christian Science Monitor.

At first hearing it sounds strange. But it may not be that far off base.

I became concerned about the issue, with a slightly different take, many years ago. When a major earthquake struck Italy while I was working in a relief and development organization, I saw a number of independent organizations created in a matter of days. Many got nonprofit charters to deliver donated goods received from corporations. They were donor-driven, meaning the desires of the donors to respond were more likely to drive the response than an actual assessment of needs on the ground. If a donor had access to a supply of some material aid such as outdated medications, the availability of these surplus medicines were more likely to drive the response than a confirmed need for them.

In my career I’ve seen some unusual, sometimes humorous responses. The most unusual item I saw was frostbite salve being unloaded on the dock at Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the hottest places on earth. Somalia was in the grips of famine, not a cold spell.

During that Italian earthquake I cited above, I received a telephone call offering a planeload of caskets which the donor volunteered could be loaded with food and medicines. We didn’t accept that offer.

But I suspect that some of these rejected offers led well-meaning, caring people to seek other means to get material aid to places they believed could use them. Prof. Light notes that citizens of Des Moines, Iowa can choose from more than three hundred nonprofits aiding education.

The desire to help in a direct and meaningful way is a very positive motivation. It deserves encouragement and support. But it also deserves focus, responsible management and stewardship.

Skepticism and mistrust of large institutions is common today, of course, but these have a flip side, fragmentation and duplication in circumstances such as those I’ve enumerated above. Sometimes bureaucracies and large organizations aren’t all bad. They can enable more efficient and effective delivery of specialized services.

Prof. Light’s assessment that a period of consolidation lies ahead will not be received without debate and resistance. He speaks most directly to organizations duplicating services in local communities. But there is duplication in other areas of humanitarian service as well. It creates unhealthy competition. Worse, I believe this duplication leads to wasteful use of monies for advertising, promotion and administrative infrastructure that could more efficiently be applied to meeting human need. Difficult as it may be, consolidation is an idea whose time is coming.

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