A Modest Proposal

 In Charity, Community, Culture, Fred's Blog, Philanthropy, Social Entrepreneurs, Uncategorized

Listen to “A Modest Proposal” by Fred Smith

 

Jonathan Swift’s satirical response to the plight of the Irish people after decades of poverty and abuse shocked the sensibilities of the 18th century. His solution in “A Modest Proposal” to the problem of children begging and starving was obvious and simple: Eat them.

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.” 

Even as satire, how could anyone propose such a thing?

Recently, Richard R. Reno in First Times received a similar but milder response when he argued that our country may be taking a blow from the shutdown that will put our economic, political and social systems at risk. Should we really be saving lives at any cost? Should we not expect and accept the loss of life as part of the inevitable consequences of such periodic outbreaks? Is the cure likely to be worse than the disease?

“Others speak as if triage signals moral failure. This is false. We are always doing triage. Only the great wealth of our society allows us to pretend otherwise…Our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage. That demand is now more visible, because the potent virus puts great pressure on our immune systems and healthcare systems. But it is always there.”

While Reno accepts the sacrifice of individual lives, I am thinking a conversation about the effects of the pandemic on non-profits and ministries dependent on generosity and a strong economy is more urgent now than before.

Warren Buffett said, “When the tide goes out, you discover who has been swimming naked.” Does that describe organizations that are operating on a very thin margin? Will they be able to find enough support to survive? Should they? Can we accept the death of non-profits as part of the natural consequences of such a global disruption?

Collateral Damage

Some having adequate fund balances will weather the storm. Others, while having committed leadership and doing work that is needed, will not. Many will have what epidemiologists now call “pre-existing conditions” making them more susceptible to the life-threatening changes forced on them by a virus. With no net they will be tipped into failure through loss of staff and volunteers as donations evaporate. All of the organizations we support will have challenges in the short term and few of us are prepared to make the difficult decisions required by triage. Yes, non-profits can lose their vitality over the years but sometimes even the best are simply swept away as collateral damage. They are casualties  of circumstances. We are all, donors and ministries alike, in for a new set of painful decisions. How will we decide? We can save some but not all.

A sign hangs over my desk that reads, “When The Horse Is Dead Dismount.” It is true but what if we had a way giving an organization dignity while going through the final stages of dissolution – sometimes through no fault of its own? What if we had, for lack of a better word, a hospice that would provide comfort for a dying organization? What if, instead of desperate measures meant to grasp a few last painful days, we offered care instead of criticism? What if, instead of a painful wasting away, we had a process for closing that gave everyone permission to let go? What if, instead of looking for someone or circumstances to blame, we accepted this as part of life? It’s not fatalism or giving up. It is allowing an organization to have a legacy not marred by a few final days of turmoil and even recrimination.

Atul Gawande wrote about the slow death of his father in, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.” I think the lesson is the same for organizations and those of us who have been part of them:

“Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.”

I think we need to begin preparing ourselves as well as mortally wounded organizations for turning loose gracefully and with dignity for all.

Art: “The Swinford Funeral”  by Jack Yeats

You can purchase “Where The Light Divides” here.

 

More Posts
Showing 12 comments
  • Avatar
    Stephen Young
    Reply

    Fred, In 2008 I shut the doors of my home building company. In the months leading up to this death, we struggled to stay alive. I laid off over 100 employees and worked desperately with banks to buyout loans at a reduction. It was a painful period of life. In the end, I remember with Kristi, coming to the decision that we needed to die, giving way to the current we had been desperately swimming against. The PEACE however at that moment of surrendering was sweet. Not to say that it was not hard, it was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through in my life.

    Now working in the Philanthropy world we are discussing how we prepare to help ministries at risk. For the last several days I have been pouring over my list of organizations trying to create a filter for who I might try to help but this question keeps nagging in the back of my head, “should we save them”?

    After my business closed at least 6-8 other business emerged, more nimble and flexible than I was able to be. They were birthed out of my hardship/failure and many of them still operate to this day 12 years later! The death of my company gave birth to them, how cool is that? Look where God planted me, In the family foundation, a place I never wanted to work. I was rebirthed into this work and I know that God has used me in this new place.

    Out of this, my favorite verse became Ecclesiastes: 7:13 (SY paraphrase) We try to make straight what God made crooked. Straight is boring! Let’s go on the journey with God!

    Thanks again.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Steve. I did not know what kind of responses I would get to
      this but so far so good. It’s not playing God but accepting the responsibility of making difficult decisions.

  • Avatar
    Karen Jones
    Reply

    Thank you Fred for this writing. I am passing it on to several persons that I know who will benefit from the read.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Karen. I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. I thought some readers might believe I was in favor of shutting down non-profits.

  • Avatar
    Chris Herschend
    Reply

    You are a more caring soul than me. I agree some likely dissolvers are doing needed work but the vast majority of small to medium sized nonprofits are not, or are overlapping and under-helping. A good solution to your correctly diagnosed need for gracious hospice might be to encourage and enable nonprofit M&A and to coach non-profit founders on how to successfully support other capable leaders in now-larger organizations.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Beneath that hard exterior there no doubt beats the heart of a gentle soul! I don’t know that I am more caring but I do know we make it so easy for non-profits to form in the first place and many of them may be doing good work but they are living hand to mouth. I often ask people wanting to start their own as they are so passionate about a cause why they don’t go to work for an existing non-profit doing good work. I don’t get many takers. As to mergers, it is so difficult to merge non-profits. Even though executive directors are often open to the idea it is the boards that are most resistant. As much as we need a hospice we need some way to teach MA to boards of non-profits. Schumpeter was right about “creative destruction” but it is still painful.

  • Avatar
    Jack Modesett
    Reply

    “That is an excellent piece of writing. I have sent that to a number of my philanthropic friends. ”

    Thus spake our daughter Laura after reading this piece.

    Perhaps we should require a “do not resuscitate” instrument for newly-formed philanthropies. It’s easier to get in than out. They shoot horses, don’t they?

    Jack

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I was expecting more
      pushback and accusations of being Darwinian but there have been none. More people have said we need mergers. My experience with successful non-profit mergers is not very encouraging. Something like merging a successful family with an unsuccessful one.

  • Avatar
    Paul Penley
    Reply

    In our experience advising major donors over the last 18 years, most philanthropists have a conscious or subconscious A list, B list, and C list when it comes to nonprofits they support. During major recessions like the last global financial crisis of 2008, major donors stopped giving to their C list, reduced the amount they gave to the B list, but increased the amount they gave to nonprofits on their A list. Nonprofits whose donors have a close relationship with nonprofit leadership or the clients they serve will be receiving a few calls from major supporters who cannot fulfill pledges now, but they will also be receiving a few calls from donors asking if they need more money right now. Although 1/3 of ministries in our database had 10%+ revenue drops in the last recession, another 1/3 experienced double digit growth in revenue. Ministries serving basic needs (on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy—food, water, healthcare, economics) have the highest chance of growth (e.g., Food Banks) while non-physical-survival ministries have a tough case to make. Nonprofits relying on major donors or child sponsorship fare much better than mission agencies where individuals rely on a few friends/churches (who have to turn attention to problems in front of them) or Earned Revenue (can’t charge for an event you can’t hold). All these factors show that it’s not just about who had adequate reserves or who is doing the best work that will survive. Many of the most substantive ministry strategies don’t have the lowest-risk, highest-producing revenue engine. So I fear a few high-impact ministries will get crippled, while the best marketers and financial managers thrive. Let’s all ask some tougher performance questions now as the overall financial resources contract.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Paul. As always, you have a great perspective and the facts to back it up. You are a rare resource.

  • Avatar
    Juan Gallo
    Reply

    I love this and something that should be a process put in place. Thank you

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Juan. Others have said something similar. So far, I do not know of a process! Maybe there will be one in the near future.

Leave a Comment