First World Problems Need Solutions, Too

First World Problems Need Solutions, Too

A newcomer to the nonprofit sector recently mentioned to the Nonprofiteer that one of his co-workers, an immigrant from Pakistan, dismissed most of Newbie's concerns as "First World Problems." This is in keeping with a recent spate of articles and books claiming that the only charity worthy of the name is alleviation of poverty in the developing world, where one's money can buy more Disability-Adjusted Life Years than in any other context. (That idea came, unsurprisingly, from an actuary, though it's reiterated in the work of the Copenhagen Consensus and in the writing of Peter Singer.)

The Nonprofiteer lacks the philosophical chops to prove wrong this radically utilitarian approach to giving, but she objects to it on two grounds: first, that it displaces giving to many social goods on the grounds that they're not good enough; and second and more important, that it discounts the reality of problems that happen to occur in a context of prosperity. A homeless child isn't any less deprived of a bed because most people in this country have beds. A person without access to medical care isn't any less sick because American medicine includes the Cleveland Clinic and Sloan-Kettering. Is devaluing individual human beings really the best basis on which to exercise charity or philanthropy--two synonyms for love?

The attempt to make lack of shelter (or illness, or lack of education) more important in Lagos than in Chicago rests on a calculus of expense: it's cheaper to work where most people are poor, therefore working with poor people where most people are rich is less effective (the same dollars benefit fewer people), therefore alleviating Chicago poverty is less valuable, therefore your desire to do so reveals you as an egotist willing to secure your own pleasure in gift-making at the expense of others.

This is what the Nonprofiteer's law professors would style an argument that proves too much. By this analysis there's no excuse for living in the First World at all, and certainly not for securing medical treatment here, when every dollar spent curing your cancer could save fifteen people with ringworm in Rwanda. Nor should anyone secure a post-secondary education as long as children in the developing world can't go to school at all. And so on.

The Nonprofiteer doesn't dispute that some causes are more important than others: she's the first to sneer at people who leave estates to their pets. What she does dispute is the notion that all philanthropy is reducible to this kind of analysis. The desire to measure results shouldn't obscure the importance of results we can't measure. How much impact has Shakespeare had, or Plato, or Picasso? What about the minimum wage, or the anti-trust laws, or building codes? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence--and in any case, there's evidence aplenty that the arts and public policy advocacy and countless other objects of largesse make a difference every day in the lives we lead.

But here's the capper, at least for the Nonprofiteer: we need to contribute to our own communities to maintain them as communities, as places where humans interact and help each other. Specifically, as Sasha Abramsky argues often and persuasively, if we value democracy at home we'd better battle poverty at home, because inequality on today's scale is fatal to self-government.

If this be a First World Problem, make the most of it.

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    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick & Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at

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