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Nonprofit Policy Forum

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Researching Policy for Nonprofit Organizations: A Brief Observation on Dilemmas Created by Conflicting Values

David C. Hammack
Published Online: 2015-07-30 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/npf-2015-0037


Conflicting cultural and religious values pose challenges – challenges that are too often ignored – to efforts to comprehend and to solve tough social problems. Value-conflict challenges call for much more thoughtful attention both by analysts seeking to understand the sources of problems, and by advocates for particular solutions. This contribution to the ARNOVA Policy Brief series draws on a wide range of historical and social research to advance its argument for recognizing value conflicts.

Keywords: nonprofit; “cultural values”; “religious values”; history; equality; race; “government out of sight”; “American Political Development”

Conflicting cultural and religious values pose challenges – challenges that are too often ignored – to efforts to comprehend and to solve tough social problems. Value-conflict challenges call for much more thoughtful attention both by analysts seeking to understand the sources of problems, and by advocates for particular solutions. This contribution to the ARNOVA Policy Brief series draws on a wide range of historical and social research to advance its argument for recognizing value conflicts.

Products of the First Amendment’s promise of religious freedom and of the freedom of expression, nonprofits exist to put distinctive ideas into practice (Hammack 1998; for discussions of related developments in Europe that played out in different ways, see the symposium introduced by Hammack 2001). The First Amendment is not self-actualizing: initially it applied only to “Congress,” hence not to the states, so arguments over the regulation, taxation, and funding of nonprofits were matters for the states, decided in very different ways from one state to another. Within the states, Protestants argued with Protestants (Buckley 1977; Neem 2008), Protestants argued with Catholics and Jews (Pratt 1967; Prucha 1976, 1979; Silber 2001; Brown and McKeown 1997), arguments emerged among Catholics (Dolan 1975) and among Jews (Goren 1970), many Southern Protestants moved toward accepting and then defending slavery and racial segregation (Heyrman 1997), Freethinkers and Agnostics argued with believers (Silber 2001), advocates of state authority pushed to subordinate or eliminate non-state schools, orphanages, and other nonprofit, nongovernment organizations (Guthrie and Hershkopf 1998).

Even in 2015, it must be said at the outset that white efforts to subordinate African-Americans continue to complicate efforts to secure cultural and religious liberty. Campaigns for equal educational opportunity in the post-Civil War South, led by religious and secular nonprofits and foundations, earned criticism for reinforcing the inferior status of African-Americans (e.g., Harlan 1958; Anderson 1988; Anderson and Moss 1999). Late nineteenth-century efforts to “solve” the “Indian question,” also led by religious nonprofits, met strong resistance at the time from Native Americans, from their white neighbors, and from competing religious groups (Prucha 1976, 1979; Hoxie 1989). Never adequately funded, such campaigns everywhere failed to reduce the glaring under-investment in education for African-Americans (Harris 1985; Homel 1984) or to comprehend and meet the needs of Native Americans. Underinvestment in, and deep disagreement about, African-American and Native-American education and health continues. Census maps of housing and education (http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/explorer?ref=us), of those lacking health insurance (http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/12/18/uninsured-map/) and similar matters document the relevance of political boundaries and the persisting need for change.

The most obvious way to move for change is to establish universally applicable national standards. But demands for religious and cultural liberty challenge efforts to establish standards. And it is certainly true that standards can be used to thwart change and suppress diversity, as well as to promote equality.

Standardized solutions evoke resistance when they run roughshod over legitimate distinctions and practices, undermining the institutions that deliver critical services. And as the Supreme Court held in Rust v Sullivan, standardized solutions can also be used by one side in a values debate to impose its view, if the standard is made a condition for using government funds. To be effective and yet to respect difference, policies must undertake a very difficult task: to reconcile equality with liberty.

The sensitivity of religious and cultural issues in American politics makes their study difficult. Congress has long forbidden most government agencies the authority to collect information on such topics. Non-official researchers can seek the information, but they must take an imaginative, historically-informed approach to research (Christiano 1984; Blau, Redding, and Land 1993; Keysar 2014) or bear the expense of separate surveys on topics that many see as controversial (Chaves 2002; Dougherty, Johnson, and Polson 2007; Finke and Stark 2005). Even when they recognize the importance of value conflicts, students of policy must deal with a lack of readily available data.

Yet when economic and social analyses fail to consider religious and cultural information, they risk ignoring important questions. Searches for “best practices” can ignore real and important disagreements over the precise results the activity in question is supposed to achieve, and over proper ways for people to relate to one another. Some religious communities insist that hierarchy is critical to maintaining true belief; some believe that truth and wisdom are best sought in small groups; some emphasize the individual effort to see the inner light. In seeking to “bring innovations to scale,” through the widest possible applicability, innovations may simply move toward the lowest common denominator, or – unwittingly or not – work to impose a cultural preference that many reject.

Too often, economic, social, and policy analysis assumes that “services” vary only in quantity, not in quality. In the field of education, for example, analyses, and program prescriptions that ignore preference for elementary and secondary education in a particular religious or cultural spirit are incomplete. They fail to consider important disagreements among parents about what sorts of things children should learn, what sorts of topics children should (and should NOT) study, what books children should read, or whether and when children should be encouraged to “think for themselves” (for a comprehensive, eloquent discussion in the key Supreme Court case Pierce v Society of the Sisters, see Guthrie and Hershkopf 1998). They also fail to take account of the motivations – often religious or cultural – that induce highly capable people to accept the restrictions and modest incomes that are the lot of the teacher – as of the nurse and the social worker.

An analysis that limits its attention to programs and ignores the institutions that organize and take responsibility for mounting programs – child-care organizations, schools, hospitals, and the like – is also sadly incomplete. It is the institutions that decide which programs to mount, that engage the service providers, that attract students and patients and clients, – and donors. Institutions embody cultural values, and operate in accord with preferred practices. It is the institutions that assure those who use their services, and who agree to do the work of providing services, that their values will be respected.

The problems involved are not simple ones. Defenders of special approaches to education – or to health, or to social welfare – are often, no doubt, seeking to protect the status quo, to find ways to maintain or reintroduce various sorts of discrimination and arbitrary social hierarchy, to protect jobs, to perpetuate what many would describe as obscurantisms of one sort or another. “Separate” and “distinctive” often continue to mean “unequal.”

Analysts sometimes try to discern “institutional isomorphism” (DiMaggio and Powell 1991; Demerath et al. 1998). If they look, they can also discern organizational congruence with one or another definition of liberal, or Quaker, or Catholic, or Orthodox Jewish, or Stone-Campbell Protestant, or scientific values (see, e.g., Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995, 320ff; or, from an entirely different approach, Clark 1970 on “distinctive colleges”; taking a different view, Hays (1994) finds perhaps more similarities than differences between Quaker and military boarding schools). Freedom to shape an organization in conformity with preferred values is a good. Yet separate institutions can channel different groups of people into different and unequal opportunities.

Debates about the implications of standardized policies for nonprofit (and other) institutions are prominent in the press and in politics – in discussions about the “common core,” about the services that must be included in health insurance, about “workfare.”

U.S. governments have long dealt with conflicts of this sort by shifting the provision of services from government agencies to the nonprofits that can constitute “alternative power structures” (Hammack 1998 provides examples from the work of Dolan (1975), DuBois (1907), Goren (1970), Lebsock (1984), McCarthy (1990); Buckley (1977) and Neem (2008) describe different approaches to religious conflict in early Virginia and Massachusetts; Pratt 1967, details shifting church-state arrangements in nineteenth century New York). This process goes back to the beginning of the Republic; in the nineteenth century it kept “government out of sight” (Balogh 2009, uses the term but does not do justice to its relevance to religious difference of to the role of nonprofits).

The process of assuring the provision of services, rather than providing services directly (well identified in Ostrom and Davis 1993), has perhaps gone furthest in the care of the elderly and in health care, but it is also a very strong current trend in education. The shift to nonprofits, however, does not end the conflicts – it just moves them to different arenas. Nonprofits are valuable for the way they can accommodate variety, make space for minorities and newcomers and new ideas, make it possible to put the First Amendment into action, build new institutions. But they can also introduce, or reinforce, inequality.

Over time, the U.S. has followed institutional pathways that have both divided Americans along racial, religious, cultural, and regional lines – and have also enabled Americans to bridge those divides. In the decades before the Civil War, Southern Protestants split from their Northern colleagues, creating institutional differences that have narrowed since the 1950s but have by no means disappeared (foundations that hold scores of millions of dollars for the support of distinctive religious communities are relatively more prominent in the South, for example). Legal segregation, in the North as well as more fully in the South, hardened racial distinctions. Opposition to Catholic schools came to a climax in the 1920s, was stopped by the Supreme Court in the Pierce v. Sisters decision (a key event in the use of nonprofits to manage conflicts that can become irresolvable when government provides services directly), and has greatly declined. But distinctive Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish – and “progressive” – communities of social, educational, and health care institutions persist (for some observations see Hammack and Anheier 2013; on the Evangelical Christian challenge of recent decades, Worthen 2013). And arguments about values persist, raising difficult questions often now framed as a tension between two clauses of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What constitutes “establishment”? What is necessary to avoid prohibiting the “free exercise” of religion?

Americans have created many bridges between distinct groups of institutions. The Educational Testing Service is probably the best-known, though it is under-recognized for its importance in this way. Standard-setting boards in accounting, accrediting boards in education and health, and comparable bodies in other professional fields also do this sort of bridge-building work. In its heyday the Community Chest/United Way movement used large-scale fundraising campaigns to foster cooperation among Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish social service agencies; community foundations aspire to such a role today.

Both the divisions and the bridge-finders deserve more attention than they usually receive in the analysis of policy relating to nonprofit organizations.

The U.S. has avoided many potential conflicts, even armed conflicts, by refusing to adopt an established church, to create a single national university, or to develop an official culture. Yet by making room for a pluralism of programs and institutions, the U.S. has made the adoption of single standards difficult. As Suzanne Mettler recently argued, today’s reformers must contend with a little-understood “submerged state” that constitutes “a dense thicket of long-established public policies…that are invisible to most Americans,” that lie “beneath the surface of U.S. market institutions,” and “that are extremely resistant to change” (2011, 4).

Increased attention to value conflicts is especially important for students of policy relating to nonprofits at a time when, as Martha Minow has noted, many forces are questioning the lines, usually taken for granted in nonprofit research, “between public and private, non-profit and profit, secular and religious.”

I don’t see a simple or single resolution to the values dilemma. My aim in this policy brief is to argue that it deserves thoughtful attention, and that discussions of policy relating to nonprofit organizations will be more sophisticated, and more useful, if that take advantage of the relevant historical analyses of institutional patterns.


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About the article

Published Online: 2015-07-30

Published in Print: 2016-01-01

Citation Information: Nonprofit Policy Forum, Volume 7, Issue 1, Pages 49–55, ISSN (Online) 2154-3348, ISSN (Print) 2194-6035, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/npf-2015-0037.

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©2016 by David C. Hammack, published by De Gruyter. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. BY-NC-ND 3.0

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