Institutional Cultures and External Missions

I’m generally not drawn to arguments about the discrepancy between a politician’s personal behavior and their public political positions, unless those political positions are already directed at personal or private behavior. If you’re a conservative politician who wants to legislate sexual morality and you make a public point of your own virtue, then you’re fair game if you’re caught with prostitutes. If you argue that individuals need to change their environmental practices and believe that government should compel them to change, then your own environmental practices are a legitimate issue. If a politician doesn’t have a history of advocacy about private sexual behavior, then I could care less what he or she does, and the same goes for most political positions. A policy position can be valid even if the individual arguing for it is a dodgy character in some fashion.

I am more bothered, however, by civic and political organizations that don’t practice what they preach. I just encountered another example of this pattern recently–a group that promotes a laid-back, open and unconventional sensibility in their public mission but who are deeply hierarchical, snobbish, and arrogant in their internal institutional culture. I’ve seen it before: a lot of non-profits and community groups, for example, argue strongly for values and virtues in public life that they themselves don’t practice. That’s often not a case of trying and failing, either, but of total bloody-minded refusal to even recognize or discuss the discrepancy. One vivid example I remember one person I know encountering was a group whose leader was strongly feminist and pro-labor in the way she interpreted the group’s mission but who pressured people working for the organization to do unpaid work and give up various entitlements. I don’t think this is just a pattern in liberal or left-wing groups, either. There have been more than a few public revelations about organizations of religious conservatives whose institutional culture is miles away from the virtues they advocate publically, for example.

Occasionally this cuts in the opposite direction, too. I can think of a few organizations that appear to defend some form of hierarchy and elitism in their public mission that are collegial, inclusive and unpretentious in their internal operations.

Part of the problem is that there’s no way to really know about this kind of thing unless you interact with a particular group in great detail or you know and trust someone who has worked with that group. But when I think about transparency with regard to civic organizations and non-profit groups, this kind of information is really what I want to know most about. It’s nice to know how a group spends its money, but I’d like to know more, “does this group try to apply its own political or social advocacy to itself”? Do they talk internally about how to align their institutional culture with their mission?

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4 Responses to Institutional Cultures and External Missions

  1. jfruh says:

    Isn’t it a little more complex if you’re advocating some kind of legislation aimed at remedying “tragedy of the commons”-type situations, where individual self-interest and communal self-interest are in conflict? For instance, I may advocate a tax on capital gains equal to a tax on ordinary income, but, in the absence to a legislated change in the tax code, if I actually overpaid my taxes every year to the tune of what I thought was my fair share, would I be anything other than a sucker? Similarly, imagine I run a factory and care about CO2 emissions. I could retrofit my plant to cut emissions, but if none of my competitors do the same, I might find myself at a distinct disadvantage and out of business. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to advocate for regulation that would apply to me and my competitors equally and waiting for such regulation to act, I don’t think.

  2. Jerry White says:

    This sort of thing is a very real issue in the U.S. non-profit sector, where there is (at least at the management level) an informal but rock-solid consensus that because of the size and precariousness of these organisations, it’s not realistic to hold them to the same standards of equity and conditions of work that you would, say, General Motors. Thus, my bet is that figuring out about how to align their institutional culture with their mission would be seen by most non-profits as a great thing to do, but something that’s practically speaking impossible until the organisation has more resources (which is to say, never). That kind of idealism is for the fat cats; we, the righteously poor, just gotta do what we gotta do, and if you don’t get that, then you just don’t get it. I paraphrase, but only barely.

    This attitude really does lead to all sorts of abuse of vulnerable (and often very young and idealistic) staff. We’re not talking mutilated limbs or physical exhaustion here, but we are talking some about pretty unpleasant attitudes. This was certainly my experience working for a left-of-centre nonprofit in the 1990s. Complaints from staff members working crazy amounts of unpaid overtime about the failure to uniformly provide health-care benefits or job security or a paid lunch hour for God’s sake were generally seen as nothing more than signs that their commitment to the cause was lacking. At one meeting management went so far as to say to the staff look, we’re too busy to mess around with complaining about conditions, this is what we do here and if you don’t like it then just find another job. This sort of heavy-handedness would rightly be seen as revolting in a business (even a small-business) setting. It is, in my (yes, limited) experience, very much standard procedure in a large part of the non-profit sector. What that sector needs, in a really big way, is more widespread unionisation. If that was widely understood, possibly via the kind of transparency that Tim is talking about here, I do think it would massively undercut a lot of that sector’s moral authority.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Unionisation would be one answer. As my dad (a labor lawyer who represented management) used to say, if you act like the lack of union representation entitles you to abuse employees, you’re probably going to end up having to deal with a union in the end.

    I think this kind of thing is especially bitter in a lot of nonprofits when you get a look at the compensation of many of the people running these groups, even some of the medium-to-small ones. But even when that’s not disproportionate, the kind of thing Jerry’s talking about (which is pretty much exactly what I’ve seen myself) is really revolting when it comes in that naked a form–it’s absolutely no different than the bosses in a bad little factory saying, “If you don’t like it, leave”. Except that it’s worse, because the organization may well be an organization allegedly fighting for social justice on a larger scale.

  4. Doug says:

    Meet the Nonprofiteer:

    Probably also a gateway to numerous similar blogs as well as a good look into that world. I’m only there occasionally, myself, but she speaks good sense.

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