Non-Governmental Imagination

Should NGOs buy recycled paper?
July 28, 2006, 7:18 am
Filed under: Imagination, social responsibility

I’m in a book club. I had to buy the book for our next meeting and I found myself deciding between going to my local book store and buying it for like $15 at my local independent bookstore or by buying it on Amazon used books for $2. I like to support local, independent businesses and artists who contribute to society. I also like money. Call me a bitch, but the cheapness in me won. It wasn’t the money as much as the hassle. Amazon ships to my door, but the bookstore is near the train station, a place I only visit when I’m in a rush.

Anyway, tonight I went to a book reading thingy by Annalee Newitz at City Lights book store. She wrote a new book that sounded sorta interesting, but by the time I got there (work was pretty crazy today) she was finishing up her talk and taking questions. I listened to the Q&A for a while and then tried to leave City Lights. But…..I couldn’t. I picked up one book and started reading the inside flap, and then another and another. Although I almost ended throwing down $75 on books, I ended up escaping with only one book (about an idealistic NGO worker who gives up and then travels the world trying to lure refugees into work at a high-falutin’ sex club). I know I could’ve bought the book on Amazon (or gone to the library) and spent less money, but I actually wanted to help out City Lights. It’s like I wanted to thank them for hosting readings, having snacks (I drank quite a bit of their juice, it was really delicious), and profiling interesting books. In a similar vein I paid in cash even though credit is more convienient for me, just because I didn’t want them to get charged the 3% or whatever the credit card companies charge merchants I get cash back on my card, so I gave up money so they wouldn’t have to pay more. I viewed my purchase as helping an artist make a living and a local bookstore keep its doors open so it could continue contributing to the community, etc. Helping a local bookstore deliver good books to me and helping local authors finding audiences seems like a clear mitzvah of community service. It felt like philanthropy, and it felt good.

Can all such purchasing decisions provide such piece of mind and moral clarity? Is donating money to non-profit organizations necessary to help people, give one warm fuzzies or assuage guilt due to privilege? Do you help the world more by buying organic produce at local farmer’s markets or by shopping at chain grocery stores and donating to environmental NGOs?

Or here’s a harder question: should charities pay premiums to help other causes unlreated to their missions? Every day people who work at charities make purchasing decisions. As is always the case regarding money, these choices have moral consequences. Would donors be ok if our newsletter was less neat-looking if they knew it was printed on recycled paper? Would they want me use open source software tools even if they took me more time to learn? Would people be ok if their $5 went to buy fair trade coffee for our caffeine addicts instead of freeze-dried crap? Should we buy books from City Lights or used book sellers? None of these things are inherently related to an org’s mission, and people could have chosen to give to orgs who focus on those other areas. So does making ethical purchasing decisions violate donor intent?

I don’t think so. Most people that donate to charities give to more than one, so I think people are ok with one group’s resources being slightly spent on non-mission-related activities as long as its within reason.
But I don’t really know, I’d be curious to hear what people think. There are so many businesses that are great bulwarks in our communities, and others who do comparatively little except put out good products that make people like me do my job better. It’s hard to find the ones who do both at the same time. So where do you draw the line? I definitely judge coroporations based on their perceived corporate social responsibility (call meit hypocritical if you want, but I hate Wal-Mart and tolerate Target). Should we do the same for NGOs? Does anyone care about nonprofit social responsibility?
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1 Comment so far
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I guess it depends on the price differential between the recycled paper and the regular, especially when it’s not an environmental organization. Could the money be better used toward the org’s specific mission? Isn’t that what the donor intended?

I also feel weird about going out of our way as nonprofit professionals to do everything in terms of “social responsibility” at work – because we work at an NGO – and then driving home in a big SUV, stopping by Wal-Mart, eating at a chain fast food joint, etc. Where do we draw the line?

I guess we have to be careful about imposing higher standards on nonprofit companies and nonprofit personnel – which/who earn less than big corporations. It’s probably a better use of our energy to focus on the big fights… but it is a fascinating question… There might be some legal cases on the subject of donor intent in cases analogous to this…

Comment by Archana

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