Sunday, February 24, 2008

Where's the profit in the nonprofit?

It's the new thing-- let's stop this foolishness about doing good for the love of our fellows, or because the work needs to be done, or whatever other motive drives people to work under the nonprofit umbrella. Away with all that angst and inefficiency. Social betterment can make money. The New York Times reports, in an article hopefully titled "A Capitalist Jolt for Charity," that

a new breed of social entrepreneurs ... are administering increasing doses of bottom-line thinking to traditional philanthropy in order to make charity more effective.

The Times' exemplar of this happy trend is something called ePals that provides free social networking tools to schools. Sounds like it does furnish interesting software to teachers and the kids enjoy it. All good.

But where's the profit in this business model? Well -- many paragraphs later, we get this:

Like many start-up companies, the revamped ePals is still working on its business model. Mr. Gilburne, the chairman, says it will pursue corporate sponsors for certain project areas. These could be part of a company’s community and social responsibility activities, providing approved adult experts to help students online. For example, General Electric might sponsor ePals’ global warming section by providing environmental experts as online mentors...

Let's see, ePals might be able to sell youthful eyeballs to propaganda from corporate war profiteers on climate crisis. Very charitable indeed.

Or when again, ePals might just be another Web 2.0 bust, questing after a profit that must exist somewhere in a never completed business breakthrough. Hmm, perhaps it will turn out to be an ordinary nonprofit after all -- limping along doing educational work because living in human society demands that some of us invest our creativity and capital in maintaining the common good. What a concept!

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