Surge of Non-Profits After WWII

On the subject of volunteering, Susan J. Ellis, who wrote By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers, noticed while writing the book that surges in volunteering occurred right before and after every war. She says, “Military action evokes citizen action, and such activities have been remarkably similar from war to war…the first American peace/resistance movement began at the time of the Revolutionary War” (p.1).  And on the topic of nonprofits in particular (the notion of nonprofit, here, meaning the formal organization of volunteers into a professional entity), Peter Dobkin Hall of Yale University claims there was no conscious sector of nonprofits before 1970. Before this point (just before 1950), arts and culture organizations were structured and run as for-profit entities but they eventually migrated into the nonprofit domain, with tax incentives as the main instigation for the move. Interestingly, in the area of health, hospitals before 1920 that were nonprofit, made up only a quarter of hospitals in the United States. By 1970, more than half had converted to nonprofit status, one third government run and only 12% were private. He ends his essay with, “And there’s the whole issue of the shift of nonprofits from being donative/voluntary entities to being commercial enterprises operated by management professionals” (p.1). I must admit, that that is as far as I could get with respect to finding information on the history of nonprofits. I tried to research this by using other key words, such as “philanthropic organizations,” “history of nonprofits,” etc. That I could not find much information on the general topic (there was an overload of historic summaries for individual organizations) says much in itself. There seems not to be such an interest in knowing how nonprofits came to be. Although there is an interest in researching the emotional, positive aspects of people engaged in volunteerism and nonprofit work, but not much talk is centering on the fact that many people are choosing to make this a paid way of life now. Is this indicative of the refusal to accept that we as a society are not as altruistic as in previous eras? Were we more altruistic in past eras? Are people so disconnected with their own communities, that to “effectively” engage in this type of activity requires that they receive pay to work on ways to improve other people’s lives? Who is entering the nonprofit sector as professionals? People of color? People of privilege? Poor people?  Also, as Hall points out, the nonprofit historical picture is incomplete when public universities, endowed public libraries and parks are not included in this sector.

As far as surges in the numbers of nonprofit member organizations in Interaction’s database, I found that there were two large surges of nonprofit organization creation (and/or incorporation): 1940-mid 1950’s and 1970-1980’s. Thinking back on Susan Ellis’ essay, I would have to say this makes sense with regard to the surges surrounding war, with WWII and the Vietnam War. It would be interesting to further research whether the surges during these times were international or domestic efforts.

Long-term vs. Short-term?

The vast majority of the organizations are engaged in education, finance and emergency. The education seems to be spread all over the board: health- practitioners and citizens of the “Third World”; business- in terms of educating people in the “Third World” of the benefits and how-to of western development; reproduction- some programs inform people of family planning choices and others, often following a Christian message, teach abstinence only programs; children’s education- in terms of educating children to become “productive, responsible members of society”; and emergency- many of the organizations, especially Christian-based, offer emergency assistance in times of man-made and natural disasters.

I can certainly agree that emergency aid is considered short-term assistance, no argument there. Although I do have a problem citing an organization engaged in other services that would traditionally be considered long-term, because I think that it depends on how one perceives “long-term”. If an organization is engaged in development of a community in the “Third World,” I would be hesitant to deem that action as long-term service if the organization was just interested in encouraging self-sufficiency on the part of community members without addressing the structural issues of the country/community that are creating the need to be assisted in the first place. In this regard, there were one or two organizations that I found to be interested in service with long-term benefits.

If “long-term” refers to the expected presence of the organization in the “Third World” communities, then I would say that the majority of the organizations were engaged in long-term assistance. As stated before, I believe this to be due to the fact that the majority of the organizations are not addressing the structural/ideological reasons for the marginalization/disenfranchisement of “Third World” communities. But I also see it as a strategic method of survival of the nonprofits. This seems to be achieved in two ways: 1. the denial of the structural issues, and 2. the programs are so varied in each organization, so that their activities are spread across the board. Being so diversely involved creates a sense of dependence of the community being aided on the nonprofit for an ever increasing amount of valuable services and also ensures that once one project is “done” there are still other projects that the organization can engage the community in. This is alarming for several reasons. For one, how can an organization be truly effective if it is spread to thin? In order to compensate, it would seem that the organization would have to beef up its employment and this creates the problem of the organization getting so outrageously large it can no longer act as a nonprofit, but more like a corporation.

Roots Causes of Systemic

I spoke on this in the previous question a bit, but I have something to add. Only one organization in Interaction’s membership is actively engaged in annual research to understand the causes of hunger in order to respond accordingly, The Hunger Project; they also claim to promote “democracy building.” That in itself is speculative, considering they are probably promoting a Western ideal of democracy. Except for the Academy for Educational Development, no other organization works on increasing voter education and participation (and/or strategic non-participation) or government policy education.

There is one organization that engages in health research for the benefit of health practitioners of the “Third World.” My comment here is that the insinuation it seems by western nonprofit research efforts to provide “Third World” practitioners and communities with the “knowledge and efficiency” of Western medicine is indicative of the belief that these communities do not know what they are doing and have not known for some time now, or else they would not be in the situations they are in now. The attempt to address the need for research without jointly addressing the structural reasons that the communities are in dire health situations is remiss on the part of the nonprofits. In fact, James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer point out that nonprofits generally tend to operate, “…without moving beyond the superficial symptoms to engage the social system that has produced these conditions…The structure and nature of NGO’s, with their ‘apolitical’ posture and their focus on self-help, depoliticize and demobilize the poor” (p.134).

Revenue Sources and Expenditures


a. Individuals provide the largest amount of revenue for most of the           organizations.

b. government grants provide the next largest source of income for the      organizations.

c. foundation grants are the third largest source of income for members of             Interaction.

My one comment in regard to this information is that fact that Kimberly Nichols points out in her essay, “An Abbreviated History of the Philanthropic Tradition in the United States,” that an increase in philanthropic institutions was due to limited government in the early part of the country’s history. This is interesting considering the size and scope of the contemporary American government and the fact that now there is an overwhelming amount of nonprofits in spite of this fact. And at least for this portion of the nonprofit community, they are somewhat reliant on government funding for a large portion of their revenue.


a. the largest expenditure is on programs provided by the organizations.

b. the second largest expenditure is management operating cost.

c. the third largest expense is fundraising.

This is an interesting aspect to analyze in that it is curious if in marketing themselves to the public, the organization claims that “100%” of the individual’s donation goes to the programs. While this could definitely be true, it is curious to note the amount of money that is raised by the organization through other means and if this amount coincides with the amount of money spent paying the employees, and what exactly the salaries are of its employees. In this way, individual donations could be spent completely on programs. But what is to be assumed when it becomes clear that the organization is promoting the programs to a grant foundation and instead using all of that money to pay for the administration. How can an organization keep its integrity when operating this way? Particularly if the executive director and other top administrators are receiving six-figure salaries and driving around in expense cars?

Language Utilized by Nonprofits, Regarding Their Beneficiaries

Due to the compact nature of the Interaction database, I was unable to extract a real sense of the way in which the organizations view their beneficiaries, although something can be said about this. They are interested in outlining their services and so I think really downplaying the human aspect of it, in the sense that they are not interested in going into the full details about the conditions of the people they are assisting. Essentially they are interested in pointing out what the people are lacking and their part in providing that absence. This method allows for the insinuation that the people receiving the aid do not know any better and are in desperate need of direction and aid from the “informed, successful West.” I did not witness any occurrences of positive reflection on beneficiaries. So, in closing, I would have to say that the language was structured around ensuring that prospective donors know the limitations and extremity of need of the beneficiaries, all in order to illicit more donations. Petras and Veltmeyer said, “The problem is that this language is linked to a framework of collaboration with donors and government agencies committed to non-confrontational politic” (p.133).

I would be curious to know if this is itself a strategy of any of the nonprofits; that if what they do far extends that which they represent themselves by. Truly it is important for nonprofits to not only understand the needs of the beneficiaries, but to understand the mentality and the most effective way of illiciting funding from individuals and various other sources. Although this is an important consideration, while utilizing this type of strategy, one must consider if more damage than good is being done by not truthfully and completely representing beneficiaries and, more importantly, changing the mentality and practice of potential donors- which happen to be the majority of the Western world and the ultimate source of the marginalization and extreme disparity of “Third World” communities.

Closing Thoughts

This research has been illuminating and frustrating, as I initially entered into social justice assuming that I would commit myself to a nonprofit to work toward social change. I have not necessarily changed my mind, but have developed a deep appreciation for analytical consideration of all nonprofits I come into contact with. I am encouraged that a nonprofit can be effective if they know and respect their limitations, with regard to integrity of the movement. Because, apart from the nonprofits on the Interaction list, I have come to know other nonprofits that do not behave in the way that simulates corporate-survival-strategy and are effecting positive change in their communities. I hope that if I do decide to pursue work with a nonprofit that I can somehow influence an effective strategy that works to challenge structural and ideological obstacles and that can work to provide people with not only material resources, but intangible empowerment.


Ellis, Susan J. “War and Vulunteers: History Repeats Itself.” May 5, 2004.

Hall, Peter Dobkin. “Approaches to the History of Nonprofits.” May 5, 2004.

Interaction Member Profiles 2002-2003 (on cd-rom).

Petras, James and Henry Veltmeyer. Globalization Unmasked. Fernwood Publishing: Nova Scotia.     2001.

(C) 2004 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.