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  • Jan Hastings

The non-profit trap: does good community work cover up bad industry practice?

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Every time I come across a non-profit organization, I start looking around for who should really be funding and providing the services, and I wonder how it is that such work falls on shoulders of the under-funded society or social enterprise.

We are lucky to have a number of excellent non-profit organizations in the central island area. They are operated by astute executive directors, often tasked with running a multitude of operations that must create surplus revenue needed to fund the actual work of the non-profit society. The NRE recycling depot definitely fell into that trap.

Recycling the “hard to recycle” products like plastic and liquid wastes is expensive. Equipment purchase and maintenance, labour, fuel, rent and the mortgage all had to be paid for like any other business. Government and for-profit business abdicated that role precisely because of those costs. The NRE used revenue from collecting yard waste and operating a reuse market to fund recycling.

Many times I heard people say, “Well, you can do that work because you are a non-profit.” I can’t decide if this is just the logic of abdication of responsibility, or if there is widespread belief that providing services through a social enterprise costs less than providing services from a business.

There is no magic formula that makes such programs less expensive for non-profits.

Many non-profits also provide employment for people with barriers. Supervision to ensure safety, training, and support for people with barriers requires expertise; it's expensive.

Volunteer labour? Recycling has long been too technical for casual volunteer labour to manage. It takes 6 months to train a new employee to manage all the programs, and the safe management of products like batteries, gasoline, and pesticides. Volunteer labour at the NRE was voluntary over-time provided by trained staff. We all added hours to our days because it is part of the non-profit culture of committed and dedicated do-gooders, known in other sectors as highly trained employees.

Is it right that non-profit employees are expected to carry the weight of society’s work, sometimes for lower wages than the for-profit sector provides? Is it lost on us that profits are made by the for-profits because they don’t do this work?

Food banks are another example of the non-profit trap. Of course food banks provide a much needed and well regarded service to the community. All the food banks I know of in BC are operated either by or as a non-profit society. On the face of that, it seems to make sense.

Food banks typically receive “donations” of food from the grocery and restaurant sectors.

Inexplicably, and without hesitation, management of costs for sorting, de-packaging, warehousing, cooling and freezing, composting, and transporting the donations is taken on as the responsibility of the food bank. But they are managing waste from the grocery industry.

These costs easily reach hundreds of thousands of dollars in each community.

Food banks, food rescue, and food distribution societies do massive fund-raising for the privilege of distributing excess food generated by industry. Here again, the non-profit organizations operate at least two separate operations to carry on the work of one.

Our local food bank has turned into a de-facto bottle depot to raise funds for managing and distributing the “donated” food. This program does the work of a bottle depot (already funded for this work through Extended Producer Responsibility bottle return programs) to raise funds for distributing waste food from the grocery industry. How many types of business does a non-profit have to operate to raise funds to provide a core service?

Why doesn't the grocery industry manage the full costs of their “waste” food? Donating the food saves this industry hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And, what about the quality of the waste food: is any free food good food?

Some surplus grocery product is donated to farms. Is food from the grocery store really the best food for farm livestock? There are farmers raising prime livestock with donated produce. But, there are also farms raising less fortunate livestock on diets of donated cakes, cookies, and Gator-ade. Do we know the nutrient value of this food? Is it kind to animals? Is this really a good solution, or is it the best solution the non-profit can afford? Who manages all the packaging left at the farm?

Does doing good by non-profits cover up the doing bad by industry? Why is there so much excess food coming from the grocery industry? Would this “waste” exist with sustainable ordering practices? Would sustainable ordering practices take place if the costs of waste or surplus were the responsibility of the grocery industry?

Grocery industry websites report donations of millions of dollars worth of food to communities in BC. Is it really a donation or is it a download on the non-profit sector?

Other local non-profit organizations, like SOS in Parksville, fund their social programs with revenues from their thrift store. In order to improve the lives of seniors in their catchment area, they must successfully operate a large reuse business, pay wages, manage inventory, recycle leftovers, retain staff…everything that big box retail does except that the big boxes keep the profit.

Big box retail reported annual profits in the billions in 2021. What if these outlets funded the social programs to ease burdens in communities where they have the privilege to open their stores? It seems like they could help the community, and help distribute wealth where it is needed.

I will venture to say that non-profit executive directors and managers are some of the smartest and most creative money managers out there. It’s required: societies and charitable organizations are held to high standards of operation and financial oversight. But that isn’t the only reason for high performance. The next time you come across a non-profit society, maybe ask who isn't paying, and look around for the supporting and supplementary businesses run by the non-profit to fund their work.

It’s fair to say that the community usually benefits from the work of non-profit organizations. But should such an environmental imperative like recycling, or a social imperative like food security, or the well-being of our elders be left up to best efforts of under-funded sectors of society? Who might be better situated to fund this work directly to ease social burdens?
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