Self-Curiosity (Rightly Understood) within the Nonprofit Sector


This text, which comes from the autumn 2019 version of the Nonprofit Quarterly, is a part of a sequence on the function of self-interest and conflicts of curiosity within the nonprofit sector.

There are any variety of generalizations in regards to the “nonprofit sector” that obscure some necessary functions and elements and emphasize others. When this happens, it will probably create false narratives relating to what these organizations are about and the way they need to operate—and that obscures a bigger vary of obtainable nuances about, and choices for, the sector’s work.

Some of the necessary functions of this sector is embodied in teams that set up themselves round their very own collective pursuits. Do conflicts of curiosity need to be attended to otherwise in these sorts of teams? On the one hand, in these teams it’s anticipated that you simply deliver self-interest to the desk, and on the opposite, you continue to should guard in opposition to placing your pursuits first.

The idea of the function of self-interest within the lifetime of nonprofits is a type of points that has bowed to what’s primarily a colonialist mentality, in that the default picture for outlining the sector in broad-brush phrases is that of a selfless devotion to (and benevolent management over) the pursuits of others. That is a picture that derives from a charitable somewhat than a self-organizing/mutual-assistance mind-set, and these are two very totally different propositions—one assuming a doing for and the opposite incorporating a doing with.

Within the first, the idea of enlightened self-interest might, in the very best of circumstances, apply—in that we might imagine that attending to the wants of others, each when it comes to items and of rights, enriches our personal lives and retains our personal lives and communities secure and sustainable. However in a considerable a part of this sector that’s primarily based on self-help, self-representation, and self-determination—and the place the affected communities of curiosity are themselves in management—the work of the group is being accomplished within the context of different actors who’ve like realities. These highly effective teams abound within the sector, however we don’t make a number of the distinctions about them which are obligatory for understanding their roles in altering or sustaining/exacerbating the established order.

A helpful reframing comes from a phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville: “self-interest rightly understood.”1 The economist Joseph Stiglitz additionally referenced this notion, in a 2011 article in Vainness Honest on wealth inequality.2 Stiglitz noticed that Tocqueville “as soon as described what he noticed as a chief a part of the peculiar genius of American society—one thing he referred to as ‘self-interest correctly [sic] understood.’”three

The final two phrases had been the important thing. Everybody possesses self-interest in a slim sense: I would like what’s good for me proper now! Self-interest “correctly understood” is totally different. It means appreciating that being attentive to everybody else’s self-interest—in different phrases, the frequent welfare—is the truth is a precondition for one’s personal final well-being. Tocqueville was not suggesting that there was something noble or idealistic about this outlook—the truth is, he was suggesting the alternative. It was a mark of American pragmatism. These canny People understood a fundamental reality: looking for the opposite man isn’t simply good for the soul—it’s good for enterprise.four

Tocqueville was not unrealistically optimistic on this level, as he was additionally one of many first individuals to reference “individualism” as a regrettable temptation at no cost individuals in democracies to focus inward and ignore the affairs of others:

I’m making an attempt to think about beneath what novel options despotism might seem on the planet. Within the first place, I see an innumerable multitude of males, alike and equal, continuously circling round in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Every considered one of them, withdrawn into himself, is sort of unaware of the destiny of the remainder. Mankind, for him, consists in his youngsters and his private pals. As for the remainder of his fellow residents, they’re close to sufficient, however he doesn’t discover them. He touches them however feels nothing. He exists in and for himself [….]5

To his credit score (and warming the cockles of nonprofit hearts ever since), Tocqueville noticed voluntary associations and native authorities as efficient connecting factors that might countervail the isolating points of individualism.

The success of those organizations repeatedly combines some points of private and non-private advantages. We acknowledge that some measure of self-interest within the sector is simple, and we have to respect that the dealing with of 1’s personal self-interest varies relying on the place one sits in social and financial pyramids. As Stiglitz famous in that very same article, inequality distorts all the pieces—together with the notion of collective motion for the general public good. In some circumstances, the precise public-good component is extremely questionable.

In different phrases, when one joins business heads to advance the self-interests of these firms (and your personal wage prospect, to make certain), this has a really totally different social operate than if one throws in with a bunch of different immigrants organizing for a better minimal wage. There may be an intrinsic ethical query in teams that set up in their very own self-interests—whereas claiming public-benefit standing—when their very own pursuits already dominate.

Nonprofit organizations will not be companies shaped solely for personal profit, however the extent to which they advance a purely public curiosity may be seen throughout a continuum of private and non-private profit. The U.S. tax therapy of nonprofits differentiates alongside this public/personal continuum, giving most-favored tax standing to purely charitable actions, and lesser preferences to nation golf equipment, home-owner associations, and enterprise leagues.

Teams made up of those that have been socially, economically, and politically marginalized have a really totally different set of necessities for managing self-interest than do different teams—however the identical obligation to not put profit to self above the group exists in each circumstances.

In these teams, the precept of managing self-interest could be said as advocating for and seeing to at least one’s personal self-interest, however in a method that doesn’t put it forward of others in related circumstances. Thus, for a Head Begin mother or father, this may require the mother or father to stay self-aware of his or her means to take heed to different mother and father and advocate in a balanced method for the precedence pursuits of the entire group. This can be a huge duty for an advocate who could also be affected by trauma associated to the state of affairs being addressed—however anybody who has been concerned with such teams understands the energy that emerges from the disciplines of this work.

One well-known instance of the train of such disciplines may be noticed in twelve-step applications, which use units of rules and floor guidelines to information conduct. Easy guidelines like “no cross speak” and necessities for lively service create shared platforms of understanding and power for members’ tough work collectively. However in these teams there may be an express expectation that the pursuits of every participant are served by the integrity of the teams’ attendance to frequent pursuits and talent to disentangle the only curiosity from the shared.

Thus, there’s a “actual politic” in self-organizing that should at all times be addressed by means of agreed-upon rule and ritual—however this actual politic is the soul of democracy, which requires a balancing of self in opposition to collective curiosity in the very best of all doable worlds. So, there may be an argument to be made that these are the teams which are the civil society wing of the nonprofit sector and a part of the place we should always base our future prospects.

That stated, going again to our well-justified admonishments about people taking care to not place their very own pursuits above these of others in a nonprofit setting, it at all times applies; however self-interest in self-advocacy and in self-help organizing is a part of what offers such work energy and focus and the democratic disciplines for which we should always all attempt.


Alexis de Tocqueville, “How the People Fight Individualism by the Precept of Self-Curiosity Rightly Understood,” in Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence, vol. II (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” Vainness Honest, March 31, 2011.Ibid.Ibid.Alexis de Tocqueville “What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Need to Concern,” in Democracy in America, 691–2.

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