Let us give thanks for the Obama administration’s proposal to regulate the “non-profit” front organizations that funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into clandestine political campaigns. Let’s hope it’s a step toward getting rid of the fraudulent 501(c)4s that have poisoned American politics. Their $300 million in annual contributions have neither edified the public conversation nor enlightened the public. But why stop there? Perhaps it’s time to rethink the non-profit concept entirely. What was once a creative incentive for charitable giving has become big business. American non-profits now have assets in excess of $4.3 trillion, almost twice the net worth of the continent of Africa. The largest foundations, which control billions of dollars, behave like independent countries, setting their own domestic and foreign-policy agendas. Universities, once citadels of free inquiry, are increasingly wedded to lucrative commercial contracts clouded in secrecy and dependent on proprietary information. America’s taxpayers subsidize elite private schools where they couldn’t possibly afford to send their children but to which donations are tax deductible. At the other end of the spectrum, small social-service agencies are so strapped for money that they often must alter their mission to meet a donor’s demands. Fundraising in the non-profit world has become an end in itself.
Collectively, these organizations do enormous good. Often they take on responsibilities that governments, employers, even neighbors have abdicated in a society that undervalues the public good. In doing so, however, do they also risk shrinking the commons by substituting private charity for our communal commitment to each other?