Print More

(HOST) The influence of California’s Cardinal Mahoney on this year’s immigration debate has reminded commentator Olin Robison of how important the non-profit sector is in American life – and around the world.

(ROBISON) One of the great strengths of America is a robust non-profit sector. The organizations in this so-called Third Sector vary dramatically in their size and complexity, in the services they provide and in the ways they operate.

People who track these things tell us that something on the order of eleven to twelve percent of all jobs in America are in the non-profit sector. That of course does not count the volunteers.

I doubt seriously that anyone – even the IRS – knows for sure how many non-profit organizations there are in America, but the number may approach a million if one counts all the churches and other religious organizations. Any of these organizations that have filed the appropriate papers enjoy a privileged tax position and of course fund-raising for such organizations is as American as apple pie.

Internationally, non-profit organizations are known as NGOs which stands for Non-Governmental Organizations. There has been an exponential explosion of NGOs over the last couple of decades. Again, no one knows just how many there are but it is reasonable to say that the numbers, over the last twenty to twenty-five years, have gone from a few hundred NGOs to many thousands.

Most non-profits in American provide some service not otherwise available whether that service is religious in nature, or cultural, or educational, or a health care service, or any one of dozens of others. Most depend heavily both on donations and on volunteer labor.

Internationally, some NGOs provide relief services (think of CARE or Oxfam) but a great many, perhaps even a majority, are advocacy groups. A great many are single issue organizations. Many are quite sophisticated in how they go about their work.

The rise of such international advocacy groups – think Amnesty International or Greenpeace – is a significant international development. Most international meetings and conferences now accommodate NGO participation.

Many of these NGOs have become the “conscience” of international meetings since it is now widely accepted that only rarely do governments serve that purpose.

Many international NGOs have become quite proficient in marketing their messages publicly. This gives them greater leverage when trying to influence corporations and governments. Their strength often comes from their ability to “name and shame” governments and especially corporations who are sometimes accused of abusive behavior toward individuals.

It is less easy for American non-profits to do the same out of their legitimate fear of losing their privileged tax status.

But even that has its limitations. For instance, the Roman Catholic leader in Southern California, Cardinal Mahoney whose seat is in Los Angeles, recently announced quite publicly that he would order the priests and other religious workers under him to violate the law if the Congress and the President went ahead with legislation to criminalize help to illegal immigrants. The Cardinal said that it was their Christian duty to help anyone who needed help. Period. There can be little doubt that the Cardinal’s action had an impact in Washington even as he remained well within the confines of the tax law.

We should celebrate these developments. A strong non-profit, or “Third” sector adds greatly to the richness and complexity of a democratic order and, on the international scene, NGOs are able to say and influence events in ways that make for a better world.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

Comments are closed.