Katy’s become interested in a number of critiques made about the nonprofit world. In her next few blog posts, she’ll explore the work of some authors who’ve recently raised some challenging questions about nonprofit practices and philosophies.
When we talk about a nonprofit’s effectiveness, what do we mean? That it achieves a stated goal, carries out a particular project—or that it meets larger, perhaps more intangible, needs? What does the effectiveness of the nonprofit landscape in general mean, if it’s even possible to comprehensively describe such a varied scene?
Part of Majora Carter’s book, Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have to Move out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One, wants us to take an honest look at these questions. Some of what hinders positive change in what the author calls low-status neighborhoods is nonprofits’ too-narrow vision—that vision itself a product of larger structures (including redlining, unequal access to credit and to networks of power and expertise, organizations’ and boards’ exclusion of community members). One of the pillars of this general outlook is the belief that poverty is itself a culture—often backed up by a fatalist interpretation of Jesus’s assertion in three gospel accounts that the poor will always be with us. Carter describes how nonprofits, instead of seeing the potential among residents of low-status neighborhoods to better their own futures, stick to the limited script of giving those residents the tools to adapt to—not to eradicate—poverty and the problems that come with it. Because of the underlying belief that nothing really can change—that residents of low-status communities are incapable of change—nonprofits and government agencies are unwilling to take any action that actually could lead to real transformation. Instead, these institutions, along with foundations and other philanthropists, continue to support the usual go-tos of what Carter calls poverty-level economic maintenance: low-cost rental housing, homeless shelters, community centers, health clinics.
She says, though, that committing resources to building not the institutions residents want to enjoy for themselves—restaurants, grocery stores, parks, coffee shops—but the usual clinics and community centers, results in a number of unwelcome outcomes. By constructing only low-cost rental housing, for example, some immediate needs are indeed met. But without also providing mixed-income and mixed-use developments, not only are area residents not provided paths to home ownership; poverty also becomes concentrated in that particular area, simply moving low-income residents in from other parts of the city. By not investing in those “third spaces,” such as locally owned cafés and other places to gather outside one’s home or workplace, no resources flow back into or are reinvested in the community—and residents are left without a reason to want to stay. That lack of investment in local ventures, Carter says, leads to brain and talent drain, with young and old alike believing that success means gaining the skills and ability to get out of the neighborhood, not to contribute to and enjoy it.
How might nonprofits respond to Carter’s justified critiques—and what barriers may there be to those responses? One of her more intriguing suggestions is that many nonprofits’ aversion to “the tools of capitalism” in favor of “doctrine or quixotic ideals” may be standing in the way of “alternative and viable approach[es] to community development [such as hers, centered upon] the local community as the direct financial beneficiary.” (1) Carter does provide examples of such alternative community-centered and -based approaches; she also provides discussion questions and suggestions to help readers identify problems and think through how to design solutions to them.
For anyone committed to improving communities and the lives of individuals who live in them, Carter’s book offers a much-needed call to rethink what we’re doing, and why, and fundamentally, what we believe about the people and places we believe are benefitted by our work.
(1) Majora Carter, Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have to Move out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2022), 181.