Power to the People? Nonprofit Representation in Neighborhoods

Power to the People

Despite federal poverty programs that have been in place since the 1960’s, it often falls on the shoulders of nonprofit organizations to bolster and represent poorer neighborhoods. Several recent crises have highlighted the need for philanthropic support, with governmental officials failing to address the needs of the people, leading to other organizations to take charge.

It’s certainly a logical next step for nonprofits in many ways. With many already working on public works projects to benefit poverty-stricken neighborhoods, it stands to reason that the residents of these communities would much rather be represented by groups of individuals attuned to their problems than career politicians.

For instance, the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, which remains unsolved as of time of writing, was met with a resounding lack of interest on the part of elected officials. For those not familiar with current events in Flint, the town’s drinking water is now drawn from the polluted Flint River rather than Lake Huron. This has led to dangerous lead levels in the water, an issue largely ignored by the federal government until other organizations stepped in to fill the void.

One such organization was the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, whose investigation of water testing in Flint led directly to the reveal that the water was unsafe. Tellingly, this discovery comes in the wake of months of unaddressed concerns about the town’s water, with many residents feeling its effects not long after it was introduced. Even outwardly, Flint’s drinking water was swampy and foul; a putrid harbinger of the problems to come.

With the exposure of the water emergency, donations poured in through a variety of outlets. Again, it became the responsibility of nonprofits to effectively distribute these funds to help Flint’s ailing population. Of particular concern to many was the effect that the contaminated water would have on children.

However, treating water is just the beginning. Over 40% of Flint’s residents live in poverty, and nonprofits are already planning to ensure that the town’s 100,000 residents have a future even when this crisis has been solved.

And they’re certainly not the only town in America with valid concerns about poverty.

Among the many who feel that governments are doing too little to address community needs, a very large subset have begun to legitimize nonprofit organizations as neighborhood representatives. Since these organizations are tax-exempt, they are forbidden from participating in politics, but this has hardly stopped their voices from being taken away.

Perspectives on these groups vary widely. Some take on the cynical view that their main impact on politics is to exchange the votes of their constituents for support of one of their programs. Others believe that they should have the power to supersede members of government on the grounds that they are arguably better informed on the needs of the community.

Regardless of how one views them, these organizations often take on projects such as affordable housing and social services when the government does not. Contributions such as these have allowed nonprofits to assume a large role in resident life than any elected official could. While they may not directly represent the people in government, they are often tasked with acquiring resources for the betterment of the community.

Though nonprofits are generally in tune with issues such as gentrification and racial inequality, they still must face the challenge of figuring out what a community actually needs to flourish. This is made a bit easier by lack of elected terms, giving nonprofit representatives more time to become acquainted with the neighborhoods that they serve. Despite being regarded by their peers as well-informed, some politicians have objected to projects helmed by nonprofit organizations, arguing that they are “imposed on the community” and reflect a skewed view on poverty and city life. Plus, some groups create a dangerous equilibrium; if they were to cease their support for any reason, there would be nobody poised to take their place.

Still, nonprofits have argued that their intention is not to take control of communities from the government, but rather provide them with services when the government cannot.

This trend of nonprofits taking control of urban development is a victory for impoverished residents that often feel powerless in the face of overwhelming apathy towards their problems. It’s not a perfect system, particularly with pushback from elected officials and the mercurial nature of relying on donations, but privatized representation may be a new method to address inequality.