Friday, 5 April 2013

What business model lets a person represent a neighborhood?

First, consider this 1999 article in the New York Times, which quotes community activist and businessperson Majora Carter on the topic of a garbage transfer station that had been proposed for the South Bronx.  This 1999 argument pitted (on the one side) an African American-owned business and a clean-air environmental group in favor of the transfer station against (on the other side) community advocates concerned about pollution from the transfer station.
The opponents shouted down representatives of the garbage company, saying the area already handles more than its share of garbage. They also accused the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which traditionally has opposed such projects, of accepting money from the company in exchange for its support.

''You are accepting money from them and playing their community partner,'' Majora Carter, an official with the Point Community Development Corporation, shouted at members of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition. ''This is obscene.'' ...

''I don't care if it's a minority owned business,'' Ms. Carter, of the Point, who is also black, yelled at Mr. Jones at the public meeting. ''I'm a businesswoman too. I would not sell out my brothers and sisters that way.''
Later, but only later, read the harsh article today about Majora Carter in the New York Times.  This article may be unfair to Carter.  Yet, perhaps, Carter may have been too harsh in her criticism of Robert Jones, 3rd, and the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition in 1999.

For me, the lesson is two-fold: (a) we should have very high expectations for the ethical standards of our public interest organizations and entrepreneurs, and yet (b) these expectations should not be so high as to be impossible for any thriving operation to satisfy in the real world. 

Just like for-profit organizations, public interest organizations need a viable business model.  They may aim for small local impacts with cobbled together funding, or they may aim for larger impact with more substantial funding.  In the latter case, they must be vigilant about conflicts of interest and transparent about funding sources, but being a businessperson is not itself a sign of corruption.  Notice that even in the 1999 article, Majora Carter always described herself as a businesswoman.

[I had been thinking about similar issues in this February post.]

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