Kling on non-profits

By Paul Walker 26/07/2013

Arnold Kling writes,

James Piereson writes,

For much of U.S. history, nonprofits have operated as a check on government by providing private avenues to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, American charities—and more broadly, the entire nonprofit sector—have become a creature of big government…

The publication Giving USA, which tracks charitable spending, reports that the government now supplies one-third of all funds raised by not-for-profit organizations.

… According to a recent report by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, government funding of such charities grew by 77% between 2000 and 2010, while private support for such groups grew by just 47%.

I keep emphasizing that the main difference between non-profit and for-profit is that non-profits are accountable to donors and for-profits are accountable to customers.

While I agree that non-profits are not accountable to their “consumers” I don’t agree that they are accountable to their donors. If they were for-profit status would work. In fact the use of non-profit status is largely because they are not accountable to donors, the non-profit status is a way of signalling to donors that they will not (or are less likely to) be ripped off.

Imagine that you are a possible donor to a firm the outputs of which you can’t easily verify. If the firm is for profit then the profit maximising thing to do is take the donor’s money and do nothing at all. Remember the donor can’t verify what you have done with their money. The donor’s money is then pure profit, you have no costs since you haven’t actually done anything. You just tell the donor you have done lots of things. The revenue from the donor is then profit. If you are non-profit then you can’t capture profit in this way since there are no profits to be distributed by definition. This gives a lesser incentive to rip a donor off since any rent seeking must be done via other higher costs methods