A Different Kind of Bottom Line

Let’s talk business.

People who have a product or service to provide for others start businesses. To stay in business they must distribute their products or provide their services in a way that matches the expectations of their consumers. They must charge no more than people are willing to pay. If they don’t, they will go out of business. In this, all businesses are created equal.

But what happens when an individual consumer cannot pay for the services he or she needs to make life worth living? How can a child pay for education? How will a sick person buy groceries? Who will support the actor, the poet, the painter? Where will the elderly find solace?

From earliest times certain services have been deemed important enough
that everyone (well, almost everyone) has agreed to support them. Often these services have been intertwined with religion. Religion has defined the fiber of societies for many centuries. Religions have embraced art, music, health care, education, and social welfare; they have enlisted the support of the community sometimes by coercion or fear, sometimes by freedom of choice. They have brought us Michelangelo and Mozart, Buddha and Mother Teresa, hospitals and mosques, tapestries and torahs.

But with the great American Experiment separating church and state, many services were in danger of being lost. There was no single common religion that represented society, no unifying vision. Divergent beliefs gave us rich diversity but lack of common focus.

And thus was born the non-profit–a business designed to serve the greater good of the community, not the greater good of a single person or group, not those who wished to “profit” in the narrow monetary sense.

So just what is a non-profit? First and foremost it is a business and follows the rules of the business world. Legally it is a corporation, not a privately owned business or partnership. There are several different kinds of non-profits (including religious organizations), but the ones we encounter most frequently–the museums, the social service agencies, the theaters–are called 501(c)3 corporations. They are exempt from income tax and follow certain rules and regulations.

But it is the people in these non-profits who supply services. They are business people. How are these people to live if their clients cannot pay the bills? Usually non-profits must rely on support that goes beyond the fee they may charge for their services. In the past wealthy patrons and widows’ tithes, farmers offerings and monks’ ministrations, shamans’ powers and crones’ wisdom contributed to providing and supporting these efforts for others. It is no different now.

Many of us who can, support services for the few who cannot; we underwrite the arts; we endorse education; we encourage social services. Can we live without these things that make us human? Who would want to? Supporting community activities with your time or your money is not only good business, it is everybody’s business.

Don’t know where to start? Ask your friends and neighbors or call the Volunteer Exchange at 408/247-1126. You can make a difference.

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