Opinion
November 16, 2015

The Horror of the Paris Attacks Reminds Us Why Nonprofits Matter

Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

People observe a minute-silence at the Place de la Republique in memory of the victims of the Paris terror attacks last Friday in Paris, France.

"Optimism," said Voltaire, "is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable."

His words may well serve as the motto of the social sector. In the aftermath of the brutal attacks in Paris, at a time when madness and inhumanity are on such explicit and horrid display, the work of nonprofits and their philanthropic supporters stubbornly demonstrate that much is still possible even where hope seems lacking and misery looms as an almost certainly overwhelming flood.

Where countries mobilize and arm as politicians react with angry rhetoric to the latest disgusting chapter in the endless story of attacks on modernity and self determination, ours is the quieter reaction of a self-anointed army of do-gooders, volunteers, and givers that believes in the work itself as a product — and human development as a long-term proposition. Dependent on charity, scrambling for budgets, and fielding a mostly underpaid work force, nonprofits just get on with it.

Much of the criticism frequently leveled at nonprofit organizations is justified: We suffer from financial waste, redundancy, corruption, and failure. Yet at times like these, as we react with unified horror at the mass violence in France, I am struck not so much at the powerlessness of those who pursue human development and social change — though that is tempting — as by their stubborn optimism in the face of unrelenting misery.

We are a sector of grinders. I spend much of my time meeting with — or on behalf of — nonprofit organizations and their supporters. With few exceptions, they struggle on a year-to-year basis with the challenges of program management, fundraising, leadership, and sustainability. Often their work fails to solve the "big problem" they’re tackling: hunger, poverty, educational failure, disease, violence, and war. Their impact is remedial; its cumulative nature seems elusive. Yet in both program services and fundraising — the two sides of our ledger — talent and energy continue to battle against hopelessness.

The morning after the Paris attacks, I sat in a room at Columbia University in New York, where I teach part-time in the masters program for fundraising and nonprofit management. The weekend career conference was organized by students seeking to bring both interesting voices and prospective employers together with the early and mid-career masters candidates the program serves.

While we held a moment of silence for the victims for Paris (and in truth, our own battered sense of peace), a determined optimism still pervaded the morning and I left reminded (again) of the energy and drive that continue to buoy nonprofits and social ventures.

And I was watched the constant "breaking news" updates from Europe, I was struck not so much by the political reaction and the convening of war councils as by the amazing reaction of emergency and service workers on the ground.

As a lifelong New Yorker, the vast and selfless efforts of 14 years ago in lower Manhattan remains a constant and present monument to service, but I was struck by the professionalism and valor of the French medical establishment — many of them undoubtedly volunteers or nonprofit workers — in saving the lives of so many grievously wounded victims. It’s the same dedication we witnessed in New York and London and Madrid — and yes, Nairobi and Mumbai and Peshawar and other places where wealth and infrastructure are not so omnipresent.

We are called on to do a better job measuring program impact, to be more transparent, to adopt better business practices, to build sustainable models — and we should do all of that and more.

But on the morning after Paris, while the political class exuded hopelessness and traded understandably in fear and reaction, nonprofits simply kept on working. This includes the organizations, mostly underfinanced, that pursue reconciliation and programs aimed at building understanding and tolerance.

Joyce Dubensky, executive of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (and my client), spoke for many nonprofit workers in her message over the weekend: "We must reaffirm our commitment to the core values in our many traditions and beliefs, and to our shared humanity."

And so what Lester Salamon, director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins, once called "the resilient sector" soldiers on in the face of floods, war, pestilence, and poverty driven not so much by business models as by vocation. Boats against the current, perhaps — but as I often suggest to nonprofits in advising them to make their case more effectively, imagine a world without them.

Last week, I visited Ireland, a country bloodied by religious and political violence for centuries — a place once synonymous with terror and sectarian strife. Ireland has mainly left that to history, but not without the work of decades of peacemaking based not just on political solutions but on human development. As one of my clients, the Rev. Patrick Devine, a social entrepreneur and missionary priest from County Roscommon, says about his own peacemaking work in eastern Africa: Peace is never the mere absence of war.

On the Aer Lingus flight back to New York, the cabin crew came through with a box for contributions to Unicef after a short video extolling its work around the world. Jaded as I am in fundraising, I grimaced a bit, but my wife added all of our remaining Euro currency to the total.

A few seconds after touchdown at JFK, the news from Paris trickled across the smartphones, row by row. And we entered a busy airport concourse filled with suddenly nervous international travelers and increased security. And then I remembered the few coins for Unicef and considered their tiny impact. And I thought: Where the United Nations so often fails politically, its development agencies soldier on with more success.

Like most nonprofits dealing with most big social causes, they do not win. But unlike armies and politicians, neither do they admit defeat.

Tom Watson is president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits, and a lecturer at Columbia University. He is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.