Should Non-Profits Compete with For Profits?
Some time ago I found an excuse to bring together my passion for antiquarian books and my passion for CR in a post ‘Why Running a Company is Like Owning and Old Book”.
I wasn’t expecting another intersection between the two, but on my recent trip to the UK I became aware of an ongoing dispute between antiquarian & used booksellers and Oxfam UK “a global movement of people working with others to overcome poverty and suffering.” Oxfam is a particularly well known institution in the UK especially through its extensive chain of street front stores that sell donated second hand goods – clothes, toys, books, music etc.
Oxfam has set up stores that specialize in used and antiquarian books – in fact a couple of years ago I bought a 150 year old hand colored nature book from the Oxfam in St Albans! Many for-profit used and antiquarian book stores dispute the fairness of having to compete with a non-profit organization that had the benefits of volunteer staff, tax breaks and donated books. The book trade pays their staff, pays tax on profits, and has to buy the books they resell. But on the other hand, Oxfam gives its profits to good causes.
As a CR practitioner I am committed to the importance of the market as a critical component to creating wealth. I am also committed to fair competition. I believe that there is a critical role for philanthropy and for non-profits to provide services and support disadvantaged populations. And I applaud social entrepreneurship; a non-profit using the market place to create profit that supports their operations.
But is it fair for a for-profit to have to compete with a non-profit? You could argue that if people want to donate their time and books to Oxfam, then it is bad luck to the for-profit – that’s the market. But what if that ultimately means wealthy individuals with time to volunteer may put less wealthy booksellers out of business? What if it means a volunteer who is unemployed is putting a paid worker in a bookshop out of work?
One could argue that is justified if the cause is someone in dire poverty, but should philanthropy undermine the very profit based economy that supported in it the first place?
I don’t really have an answer for this one, but I think it is an important dilemma to recognize and perhaps someone else does have a better answer.
I myself will buy my occasional purchases from whoever offers meets my needs best. If I have books to sell or donate – I guess if I am completely honest, it will depend on what my financial status is at that time.
For more insights, The Guardian did a piece on this last year. Even The New York Times picked up the story although they chose to put it in the framework of a fading component of quaint British culture!