BP Oil Spill: A Tale On Blurring of Sector Boundaries?

Posted by Phil Buchanan, The Center for Effective Philanthropy

June 15th, 2010

In recent years, as a debate has heated up about the respective roles of nonprofits and businesses in our society, I have thought and worried about the tendency to assume that a “blurring of the boundaries” between nonprofits and businesses is a good thing. The BP oil spill has me thinking more.

It is important to remember that, because they are purely mission-driven, the role of nonprofits is sometimes to stand up to, or rein in, business, as Claire Gaudiani argues in her book, The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism. She cites examples such as the push by nonprofit environmental groups to ban DDT or get McDonald’s to cease using Styrofoam containers.

Which brings me to BP. Obviously, nonprofits aren’t responsible for the BP oil spill. BP’s greed and incompetence have been on stunning, daily display for nearly two months.

But, just as we can and should ask whether lax government oversight of the oil industry helped make this disaster possible, we can and should ask whether nonprofit environmental groups have been as outspoken as they could be – both before the spill and since. Likewise, we should ask whether funders, and in particular endowed private foundations (which enjoy freedoms other institutions don’t), are doing enough to support those nonprofits that are willing to confront corporate interests when necessary.

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But a recent Washington Post article raises some concerns, discussing in particular the relationship between BP and a major environmental nonprofit, the Nature Conservancy.

The Conservancy … has given BP a seat on its International Leadership Council and has accepted nearly $10 million in cash and land contributions from BP and affiliated corporations over the years,” the Post reports. This latest Post article follows an investigative series by the newspaper in 2003 that raised troubling questions about, among other things, the Nature Conservancy’s alliances with corporations.

To read more of what Jon Buchanon has to say click here…

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