Trump pollutes everything he touches. Now he has killed the term “non-profit” as a signal of public benefit and social good. “Non-profit” literally comes from an IRS designation for an organization that has been classified as having a tax-exempt purpose.
It turns out that many of the organizations running the facilities used to house detained immigrant infants and young people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) turn out to be non-profits. Oh.
Read some of the claims made by those youth in lawsuits filed on their behalf across Texas, Arizona, and California — physical restraints, psychotropic drugs fed as ‘vitamins’, repeated assaults by staff — and, after you are done weeping for the America we love, you’ll confront this question:
What does it mean for these organizations to be ‘non-profits’?
If your CEO pulls in $1.5m in annual salary, maybe convincing the IRS of your tax-exempt purpose shouldn’t be all it takes to convince us of the social benefits of your organization.
If your staff call your facility “prison-like,” maybe you’re not really set up to serve the people you claim to help.
Language matters. “Non-profit” as a term simply refers to an IRS tax status. It should no longer qualify as a stand-in for “public virtue”.
What, then, should take its place? “Social enterprise”? “Philanthropic”? (means ‘human-loving’) “Social benefit”? Something else?
The Social Enterprise Alliance says social enterprise has to mean a market-driven approach. Do you agree?
Regardless of what we call it, it’s clear we need a new term. That’s not enough, however. We also need a new way of distinguishing between those who legitimately have earned the term, and those who seek to use it to gain its benefits without deserving it (such as the non-profits doing Trump’s dirty work for ICE and the ORR. How many of their employees were recruited with the intention of helping the children they ended up imprisoning?).
In the for-profit, for-purpose world, we have regulated terms such as organic, where social benefit is intended to be built into the product from the ground up, and standards are upheld by independent assessors. The Fair Trade Certified mark helps consumers identify products in the marketplace that support responsible supply chain and production practices to support the communities that produce the products. We also have the example of B Lab, which is an independent assessor determining who receives the Certified B Corporation status (Note: Impact Hub Boston has applied for Certified B Corporation status).
These are ways for organizations to signal their good intent and purpose to the outside world. What they share is the idea that a trusted third party will validate claims of public benefit according to transparent and verifiable standards.
If the IRS is no longer credible as the arbiter of merit for the non-profit sector, what organization or organizations will take on that role? Charity Navigator? Guidestar? Someone else? These are not new questions. In Donald Trump’s world — which is where we all now live — they become more pressing than ever.
A final thought from Dahlia Lithwick, returning to the infants and young people trapped in these facilities in the name of the American people:
“Going numb is the gateway drug to acceptance. Get out of the snow bank, find the St. Bernard with the tiny flask of hope & stomp around like democracy depends on it.”