Here in the Wild West (we still think that way, don’t we), doing for ourselves has a long tradition. In the early days of the American republic, we couldn’t always rely on Washington, D.C. to lend a helping hand. Not because we didn’t want the help. It was just a heck of a long way between there and here (a modern train still takes more than 40 hours to cross the county). The isolation of many towns and cities (then and now) meant we had to work together. It’s one reason charitable, non-profit organizations proliferated. Often referred to as the “third sector,” they fill the gaps between for-profit business and the government, providing services that are either too costly outside of government’s role, or won’t turn a profit.
In fact, non-profit organizations, collectively, are responsible for a lot of good. Not only do they provide otherwise unavailable services, they encourage us to get involved in our communities (if only through the occasional donation). If you think about it, they bring out the best in us. After all, how many people have been tempted to volunteer at Bank of America or WalMart compared to the number at the American Lung Association or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art? Sure, people are motivated to work hard for monetary incentives, but it seems Americans are just as motivated to lend a helping hand through organizations that make it possible to do so.
“Partners For Good,” by Tom Levitt, acknowledges the many benefits of the third sector, especially in the context of a fairly recent trend for government, and business, to seek partnerships with charitable organizations. In the old days, critics of the non-profit model suggested that charities should operate more like businesses. The fundamental difference between the two (non-profits make money but put it all back into their operations rather than paying out to shareholders), caused a lot of cynicism. Given the kind of fiscal irresponsibility of some big businesses today, the idea of copying their methods might make us more cynical (or produce a few loud guffaws).
“Fifteen years ago,” according to Levitt, “business capital and social capital were the twain that would never meet.” Those in the third sector “regarded business as a bunch of ruthless, uncaring capitalists whilst business saw the third sector as well-meaning but amateur do-gooders.”
A lot has changed since then. Most of all, the economy. Businesses, non-profits, and government have all suffered. As Levitt puts it, “civil society is what is left,” which means that it is in everyone’s interest to join together and combine the best of all three sectors to achieve our collective goals.
It might surprise an American reader that Levitt is writing for a British audience. He’s taken a look at the American model and decided it might have value across the pond. In fact, the American non-profit phenomenon is something that has attracted the notice of many countries that want to know how they could make it work for them. Still, there’s plenty to interest an American reader as well.
Levitt’s model for cooperation includes a “fourth sector,” an idea “which has traction in the United States.” He identifies it as the space where the public, private and non-profit “interact and relationships are formed.” The advantage for businesses is more than just monetary. There is an important social and ethical benefit as well. Levitt notes:
“Whatever pressure there has been for business to behave in an ethical manner has proved relatively easy to resist until relatively recently. There remains a school of thought that says ‘the business of business is business’ and the devil take the hindmost… private business has traditionally been characterized by the view that doing good must either involve making a profit or be incidental.”
Of course, we all know how well that has worked out. In contrast, Levitt notes, “who volunteers wins.”
Levitt’s examples of international companies in successful non-profit partnerships are illuminating. It is not often we get to see ourselves through other’s eyes. This British account of an American idea that has grown beyond its origins is a worthy reminder of how working together makes awfully good sense. FBN