Replacing nonprofits with vending machines

Give and Take points the way to Paul Lamb’s editorial last week in the Christian Science Monitor entitled Are there too many charities?

Lamb notes that there is now one nonprofit for every 300 Americans. His question:

Is there a more efficient way to, you know, do this?

He proffers eBay as a philosophical measuring stick.

With eBay, buyers and sellers interact directly. Cut out the middleman and you can snag that classic Superfriends lunchbox for an unbeatable price.

Why not, asks Lamb, apply the same logic to nonprofits, connecting givers more efficiently with recipients?

Rather surprisingly, Lamb makes no mention of Kiva, which would seem to be the poster child for his idea.

Instead, Lamb proposes replacing rescue missions with vending machines:

nstead of giving money to the United Way to support food banks, why not give the money directly to the hungry?
Because tossing money in a cup or handing cash to someone on the street is impractical on many levels, food stamp-like vouchers, for example, could be made available through existing ATM machines. This way the money that might go to pay for the distribution organization could be saved and used to buy more food, and the hungry could claim their vouchers anywhere there is an ATM and a food store.
Obviously, this peer-to-peer model doesn’t work for direct-service organizations such as hospitals and workforce training groups. But it could mean significant savings and more efficient programs elsewhere.

Instead of giving money to the United Way to support food banks, why not give the money directly to the hungry?

Because tossing money in a cup or handing cash to someone on the street is impractical on many levels, food stamp-like vouchers, for example, could be made available through existing ATM machines. This way the money that might go to pay for the distribution organization could be saved and used to buy more food, and the hungry could claim their vouchers anywhere there is an ATM and a food store.

Obviously, this peer-to-peer model doesn’t work for direct-service organizations such as hospitals and workforce training groups. But it could mean significant savings and more efficient programs elsewhere.

It’s an interesting idea–that what homeless people need are homes and what hungry people need is food, and that the inefficiency in the system can be reduced by replacing the human beings with ATM machines.

Funny–I always joke that one of the core problems with traditional transactional fundraising (ttf) is that it views donors as human ATM machines. This is the first time that I’ve encountered anyone proposing that nonprofits themselves should be replaced with ATM machines.

Frankly, though, I think we deserve what Lamb is leveling at us here. If the purpose of nonprofit organizations is program delivery, then why not explore every way to increase efficiency? All Lamb does is to take that idea to its extreme conclusion–that program delivery may be at its most efficient when there is no nonprofit organization at all:

Beyond cost savings, another idea is to put the care back in the hands of local communities themselves. Instead of relying on outside agencies to provide services, neighborhood care councils composed of volunteer citizens and experts could be responsible for determining local need and distributing resources to address those needs.

We nonprofits deserve to be “efficiencied” out of existence, because we have taught donors to prize efficiency above darn near everything. Even child sponsorship is appealing because saving the life of a child can be done so efficiently, “for the price of just a cup of coffee a day”.

In Transformational Giving (TG), efficiency takes a deep back seat to proficiency. That is, our goal is not to get food to the hungry but rather to be shaped comprehensively in the image of Christ so that we are the kind of people who share our food. The end “product” of our work is not distributed resources but rather resourceful distributors.

Ironically, Lamb is right for the wrong reasons: a nonprofit that provides services efficiently is a middleman that should be removed, but not because an ATM is more efficient–in fact, in TG, an ATM is less efficient than a nonprofit. Instead, it should be removed because it is a middleman that obstructs direct connection of human beings who in any given encounter both give and receive.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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2 Responses to Replacing nonprofits with vending machines

  1. Matt Bates says:

    “neighborhood care councils composed of volunteer citizens and experts could be responsible for determining local need and distributing resources to address those needs.”

    Churches sometimes act this way, and when they do, there is less need for the nonprofit. So maybe the goal of every Christian nonprofit should be to work itself out of a job as it trains the church to effectively meet the need. I’ll start asking that question: when are you planning to close up shop and can I take a look at your transition plan?

  2. EFoley says:

    Or you could ask them, “Have you ever considered becoming a vending machine?”

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