Thursday, July 13, 2006

Part 2: Weaknesses of Nonprofits

Continuing from last post about the compatibility between school garden programs and the nonprofit sector, this time I'll cover some of the potential weaknesses of the nonprofit sector, which suggest that partnering with the government sector (like the public school system) might benefit us.

Theory: In his theory of Voluntary Failure, Lester Salamon (1995) identifies four potential weaknesses of the nonprofit (NP) sector.

Philanthropic insufficiency—NPs tend not to generate enough reliable funding to meet the demand for services. This is due in part to the “free rider” problem: giving relies on voluntary donations, so individuals have the incentive to let others bear most of the cost of providing a given service. Also, giving is affected by the ups and downs of the economy as well as by geographic availability of philanthropic and wealthy individuals, both of which tend to provide less funding when and where it is needed most.

Philanthropic particularism— philanthropic individuals tend to favor certain subgroups, such as those they themselves belong to, more than others. Those individuals who either provide resources or organize nonprofit organizations may not adequately represent those communities most in need of resources, often leaving substantial gaps in coverage of service.

Philanthropic paternalism—the most influential and powerful members of a community may control its charitable resources and may determine the goals and activities of the sector in an undemocratic way. Those most in need of charitable services will not be able to make decisions regarding the services available to them, causing a dependent relationship between those giving and receiving charitable aid.

Philanthropic amateurism— NPs often provide amateur services staffed by volunteers, lacking professional training and professionalized models of service provision. Fortunately, trends in the last century have favored professionalized care in many subsectors of the nonprofit sector, but school garden-based education still has a ways to go!

Moving on to the Case Studies!

I looked at stats on all the public school garden programs in San Francisco along with my case study interviews, keeping voluntary failure theory in mind, and noticed the following possible trends:
  • More SF elementary schools have gardens than middle and high schools. (85% of SF school gardens serve elementary schools; 40% of all elemenary schools have gardens, compared to 18% of middle schools and 10% of high schools);
  • More school gardens serve San Francisco’s western neighborhoods than the city’s south and eastern neighborhoods, where low-income families are concentrated (36% of gardens are in the south and/or east);
  • Schools identified by SFUSD as low-performing are underrepresented in schools with gardens, particularly among middle schools;
  • Parent involvement: more likely for schools with strong PTAs to have school gardens. Are better-resourced schools more likely to have strong PTAs?
  • Community nonprofits: more likely to target under-served communities. Is there a link between community socioeconomic status and the effectiveness of PTAs compared to community nonprofits as a support structure for school gardens?
  • Need to professionalize field of garden-based education: need secure, full-time positions in order to retain high-quality trained school garden educators and leaders, unlikely to be accomplished by amateur voluntary associations like PTAs or Garden Committees made up of parents and teachers only.
Any thoughts or feedback so far? Next post I'll describe another way of looking at the nonprofit sector, as a central core pillar of our US democracy, the generator of civil society, participation and voice. Stay tuned!