As a Marshall Memorial Fellow, I traveled to Europe seeking understanding of many important issues, including immigrant integration, Europe’s education system, the contemporary transatlantic relationship, and leadership in the European Union and within national contexts.
As an Executive Director of a nonprofit in Seattle, I was also keenly interested in Europe’s nonprofit system: how nonprofits work, how they’re funded, what their roles in society are, and whether nonprofit directors over there look as tired and drink as much as directors do in the U.S., plagued by restricted revenues and exhausted by the continuous and nearly-impossible quest for sustainability. My visits to Brussels, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Belgrade, and Berlin revealed several lessons.
First, there seems to be a direct inverse correlation between how strong a country’s social welfare system is and how strong its nonprofit sector is. In Belgium, Denmark, and Germany, the government provides more for healthcare, childcare, college tuition, etc. Nonprofits barely exist, and the very few that do are well-funded by the state. In contrast, Portugal and Serbia have weaker social welfare systems, and there are hundreds or thousands of nonprofits in those countries, all struggling for funding.
In a way, then, the proliferation of a country’s nonprofits could be considered an indication of how well the government is taking care of its people. Based on that argument, the U.S., with its countless nonprofits of all sizes, is not doing a very good job. If it was, there wouldn’t be so many organizations doing things like running homeless shelters and food banks and senior centers.
Second, while it seems ideal to have a system where the government takes care of most things so that we do not need so many nonprofits, the reality is that such a system has inherent weaknesses. As an example, in Copenhagen the social welfare system is so strong that no one really pays any attention to nonprofits, and donating to one is an alien idea along the lines of owning a gun or not eating an open-faced sandwich. People seem well-taken care of. However, the government cannot do everything, and the complacency of thinking it can allows certain insidious problems to go unnoticed. During the fellowship program, I met with a local leader who is trying to help abused children, having been one herself. “These children have no voice within the system,” she said, and since nonprofits barely exist to do direct service work and to advocate on this issue, “no one speaks up for them.” While I was trying to understand Denmark’s civil sector, she was desperately trying to understand our nonprofit structure.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the relative weakness of the U.S.’s social welfare structure, there exists a creative, agile and innovative nonprofit sector. The ideal scenario would have the U.S. government taking care of the basic needs of its people, while nonprofits use their flexibility and innovation to fill in gaps and advance systems that cannot effectively or efficiently be addressed by the state.
Right now in Seattle and other parts of the U.S., as well as in Lisbon and Belgrade, we nonprofit staff are burning out. After this trip, I realize that this may be stemming from feeling that we are taking on too much of a burden that our governments should be carrying. “The city has the resources and should be taking care of this situation,” said the executive director of an organization in Belgrade, referring to the thousands of people living in horrendous conditions in refugee camps, some having been there for years, “but it’s not. So we have been doing it, but government inefficiencies actually prevent us from doing our work.” We commiserated for a while, two tired, weather-beaten nonprofit leaders separated by an ocean yet bonded by the same struggles. She confirmed that executive directors in Serbia also drink a lot.
Vu Le, Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, is a Fall 2013 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.