Book Review: Contro il non profit

Giovanni Moro, Contro il non profit (Rome, Italy: Editori Laterza, 2014). 188 pp., €7,99 (e-book), ISBN: 9788858109946.

At some point, scholars of democracy are likely to come across the phenomenon of the so-called nonprofit or third sector. The encounter is unavoidable because the examination of the ways in which citizens organize themselves involves addressing the role of nonprofit organizations, whose work is inspired by the principles of social solidarity.

However, the mere attempt to acknowledge the complex reality of the nonprofit sector is frustrating for students because they become immediately immersed in a vast and heterogeneous web of organizations that appear to have little in common. Facing with this difficulty, students tend to focus on a few organizations that are species of a genus – the non profit sector – which is devoid of clear connotation.

Moro’s book has the great merit of showing the conceptual, legal, legislative, and cultural flaws that contribute to making the nonprofit sector an inscrutable entity. Frequently using the strong tones of the pamphlet the book discusses several polemical issues: a scientific community culturally subjected to an “economicistic” vision of social commitment, confused legislators, formalistic bureaucracies, and opportunistic companies and operators who profit from the legislation. The polemical fervor makes the reading pleasant without detracting from the rigor of the arguments or the quality of the documentation.

The objective of the book is twofold. First of all, the author emphasizes that associations with unequivocal social goals comprise citizens trying to promote the rights of the sick, protect consumers, demand that the judicial system functions as an effective public service, support people in need (e.g., immigrants, elderly, and ethnic minorities), maintain or increase public goods such as the security of public buildings, and assert the needs of populations subjected to disaster risks.

Secondly, the associations involved in promoting social solidarity must be clearly distinguished from other types of organizations—restaurants, gyms, clinics, sports clubs, private universities, fee-based legal services, gastronomic societies, and trade unions. These institutions and organizations are considered to be part of the nonprofit sector owing to a culturally subaltern legislation based on the North American idea of a residual welfare state, which mostly relies on the efforts of the “community” (understood in the broadest sense) to provide services to the population.

This resulted in legislation that supports a range of activities of dubious social utility; this has allowed unscrupulous actors to engage in tax evasion, gain personal rewards, and impose unhealthy labor practices. Such illegal behavior proliferates under the guise of prestige and public recognition of the good work undertaken by those associations that implement socially useful activities.

Moro points out that, in Italy, there are more than 300,000 organizations belonging to the non-profit sector, with nearly a million workers, more than 4.5 million volunteers, and with revenues close to € 85 billion, i.e., 3.3% of GDP. However, the phenomenon is even more sizeable in countries such as the United States, to which the author devotes many pages for explaining the history and development of the nonprofit sector.

The distortions caused by the invention of the nonprofit sector do not seem, however, amendable with controls. The initial error of assigning the same normative status to a large number of complex organizations has forced the state to refrain from engaging in effective monitoring of the nonprofit sector.

Similar problems are also found in other countries, where public institutions have limited their involvement in the monitoring process to purely formal checks. This laxity allows some organizations to abandon the management of public services entrusted to them and to engage in profitable business under the guise of the nonprofit status. In addition, the Agency for the third sector, which was subsequently suppressed by Monti government’s spending review, was also ineffective. Moreover, control based on democratic accountability appears impractical, because nonprofit organizations have members to whom they are accountable. Potential beneficiaries have, in fact, no way of controlling the initiatives of nonprofit organizations.

Is there a way out of a situation that creates unfair tax advantages and where the bad reputation of some organizations impacts the work of other organizations who do valuable work for the community? Moro argues that we need to radically rethink the entire system, according to a simple criterion, which has so far been ignored: to consider the activities actually performed by the organizations and their achievements. The activities of most social value will be those that are closest to the general interests of the community, namely to the promotion of fundamental human rights as enshrined in national and international constitutions and international conventions.

Redefining third sector organizations according to their achievements would allow the state to provide adequate financial support and direct funding to organizations that truly deserve it. Moreover, this would create an additional advantage for such organizations in terms of donations by the private sector and citizens. In addition, the diversification of organizations would make it possible to instigate effective controls on the activities of the different sub-sets, which at the moment is unfeasible.

The author is well aware of the fact that the proposals to remedy the defects of the law regarding nonprofit organizations are nothing more than suggestions. On the other hand, the proactive part of the book is a matter of additional merit for a work that aims to draw attention to an unresolved social policy issue with which we have become accustomed, on account of losing the threads of the political-cultural canvas that justifies the current, indefensible, nonprofit system.

Liborio Mattina, University of Trieste

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