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Kvetch: The Mission Statement

with 6 comments

It’s Friday, and I actually have something to say, but before I start, I have to admit that I was stuck by the question in the comments yesterday:  do I own a toaster?

Well, yes, I do–but interestingly enough, I’ve never bought one.  They’re the kind of thing people give for wedding and housewarming presents, so they wander through my life, but I couldn’t even guess what they cost.

And I didn’t say I was unaffected by advertising, only that I don’t actually pay attention to most of it.  And the one case in which I actually went out and deliberately bought a brand because I thought it had a good reputation was a disaster–a Black and Decker electric can opener that didn’t open cans, and that got me (when I complained) a snippy little e-mail about how I had complained to the wrong department.

Which has resulted in the fact that I now actively avoid anything by Black and Decker.  Which is a way of being affected by advertising, but not the way Barber was talking about.

But I really wanted to get to the idea that running a nonprofit enterprise “more like a business” can make it possible for it to better “fulfill its mission.”

And I’d say–that depends on what you think the mission is.

First, I’ll reiterated, because I think it should be self evident in today’s environment:  a number of nonprofit institutions now protect the institution first, even if it means violating their mission.  I have in mind here a large teaching hospital–the only one that gave me any trouble when Bill was sick–which was founded over a century ago as a charitable hospital and that now has billing practices so notorious they were the subject of an investigation by the state legislature.

I suppose that such practices–threatening lawsuits for bills that haven’t even been incurred yet, for one; aggressively going after people’s homes and attaching their wages–might help this place stay open as a hospital, but the “charitable” is gone.   There’s a fair amount of sentiment for pulling this place’s nonprofit status–what exactly are we relieving them of taxes for if they’re going to operate like a for-profit corporation anyway? 

But even smaller cases illustrate my problem well enough.  A number of the towns in my area have libraries that have started to charge for things like story hours–you buy a subscription for your child and he gets a ticket to turn in, or you pay a dollar or two when he walks in.

I’m sure this helps to make the library more viable financially, but it does abrograte its mission to provide books and book services for the town, unless you’re going to assume that the poorest residents of that town aren’t really part of the town.   You’d be amazed at how difficult it is to come up with an extra dollar or two when you’re a single mother with two kids making minimum wage.

Of course, you can always start programs that give a break to such people, but they usually require some verification of income, which means they tend to be humiliating to apply for. 

I could do a similar number of a lot of colleges and universities these days.  They charge absolutely ridiculous amounts of money to students they think of as “customers,” and then find themselves in the trap of having to satisfy those customers, which high standards (leading to lower average grades) do not.  They further get pushed out of regular college teaching into vocational stuff. 

Is a Jesuit institution founded to give a liberal education to young Catholic men still “fulfilling its mission” when it managed to triple its enrollment and quadruple its income by “giving the customers what they want” and ditching theology majors  for business majors?

The other problem I have with the businessification (I made that up) of everything is the tendency it has to reduce everything to a single standard of “success”–money is the point, and the only point, no matter what it is you do. 

Maybe that is partially the explanation for something that bothers me over and over again.

In the Great Depression, the towns around here managed to keep their schools running with full athletic programs, keep their libraries running seven days a week (a half day on Sunday, so that everybody could get to church), their public parks open and their public works up to date.

Now a nearby small city is thinking of closing its municipal swimming pools this summer–there just isn’t enough money.  Schools don’t have enough textbooks for their kids, so they take contracts with soft drink companies that provide cash in exchange for exclusive rights to put vending machines in lobbies and a once a year “Coke day” or “Pepsi day” where every student is required to come in wearing the right logo.

Why is it that we’re light years better off, financially, than our grandparents, but we don’t ever seem to have the money to do anything anymore? 

And how is the school’s mission being affected, when it’s teaching “good nutrition” in health class at the same time it’s sponsoring Pepsi Day?  Or renting its cafeteria out to fast food chains instead of providing that old-fashioned nutritionally balanced, bland as hell “hot lunch?”

Well, it’s Friday.

I warned  you.

Written by janeh

April 30th, 2010 at 10:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Kvetch: The Mission Statement'

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  1. On behalf of libraries, since I’ve worked most of my adult years in six of them: municipal governments and state governments see libraries as non-essential. If you doubt this, look at Library Journal or even your home town newspaper. When finances are tight, the first budget that gets cut or even in some cases eliminated is the library’s. I am in a very fortunate position. I am the only paid employee for my library and I have volunteers who staff it. So, there’s not too much whining about our portion of the city’s budget. But lots of people who probably hated reading as they were growing up are convinced that libraries aren’t necessary since “we have ocmputers for everything.” Library systems in larger cities are having huge chunks of money taken from their budgets and yet are expected to carry on as usual. For the most part, their residents don’t want this. I can’t say with any certainty that local and state politicians don’t read but if their library visits are any indication of their reading habits, then no, they don’t. Florida just fought a budget battle to continue state aid to its libraries, first cutting it to 0 and then to $13,000,000 and finally to $21,000,000, which is where it was last year. Considering that Florida has 18 million people, that’s rather sad. Our dollar amount of state aid is miniscule but the fact that we have it allows us reciprocal borrowing privileges with the rest of the county, which we wouldn’t have otherwise.


    30 Apr 10 at 2:53 pm

  2. I was born in 1936 which means my parents lived through the Great Depression. I have vague memories of my father saying that government employees took big pay cuts as being preferable to unemployment. That may explain why libraries and parks open.

    According to what he said (and he was not civil service), the civil service was known for low salaries but high job security.


    30 Apr 10 at 5:26 pm

  3. As a relic of a bygone era, may I point out that once upon a time, to be run “in a businesslike fashion” was to be operated with an eye toward efficiency, and without unnecessary extras or special rules or rates for friends and family. Old Sam Walton, who shared a motel room with five or six other senior Wal-Mart employees when they travelled, would have understood this. He used to lecture his senior people that luxurious staff accomodations ran up the price of Wal-Mart’s products–and so would be borne by some very poor customers.

    Obviously, the head of Merrill Lynch who put in a million-dollar bathroom with the stockholders’ money had a different view of these matters.

    But in the Sam Walton sense, many schools and charities OUGHT to be more busnesslike. The difficulty comes when they forget what the efficiency is for. “Efficiency” for that Jesuit university, should mean ways to turn out more theology majors for the same money–or the same number for less per student, or better-educated theology majors for the same price. And while the librarian or the hospital head might plead ignorance, the Jesuit certainly cannot. He was explicitly warned that he could not serve both God and commerce.

    As for the loss of services when the country is better off and tax revenues near all-time highs, it’s not much of a mystery: take a look at the total compensation packages of state and local government employees as opposed to other salaried workers, and of changes over time. Then look at administrative staff. A friend of mine recently retired after an entire career in one school system. When he began, the entire school system administration fit in a small former house across the street from the junior high. When he retired, the administration filled the former junior high building–and needed more room. It’s pretty much the same everywhere in the country, which is how DC spends $15,000 per student per year, and “can’t afford” textbooks.

    I know some old men who would tell you those schools weren’t being run in a businesslike manner, and they’d be right.

    Of course, neither was General Motors, at the end.


    30 Apr 10 at 5:29 pm

  4. Those old-time schools often didn’t pay a living wage to the teachers, who were often expected to be living partly at their family’s expense (if they were young women) or even, in the really early days, given room and board plus a bit of spending money. Or, if they were nuns or brothers, they worked for donations – unless they were running some kind of high-class boarding school.

    Personally, I think anyone who can manage to teach in today’s schools should get really good salaries. It’s not as though it’s an easy or pleasant job, and the attrition rate is really high, at least locally.

    And although some private sector workers do worse than some public sector workers, I know some in at least one big company with a local presence – not CEOs or members of the board, but middle management – who do a good bit better than any of the public service crowd (always excepting politicians, who are in a category all their own).

    Public library staff are among those public servants who are not well paid at all, since the vast majority are not trained librarians and the government doesn’t consider any other type of education they may have as relevant to the job. But although not as well-funded as I would like, they seem to keep chugging along. Ours is funded by the provincial government, and when someone from another province expressed astonishment that no one had gotten the libraries under the control of the city, where they belonged, she was instantly corrected by all the locals in the group, who were absolutely convinced that they had a better chance of squeezing money out of the provincial government than out of the city government. I think they were right.


    30 Apr 10 at 6:57 pm

  5. Cheryl, do all librarians in your part of Canada (this right, isn’t it?) not have professional degrees or just the ones in smaller towns? Most, certainly not all, of us in Florida, anyway, do have the MLIS degree–which is hardly rocket science but it does pay a fairly decent salary.


    30 Apr 10 at 8:19 pm

  6. I’d expect one or two at the top of the administration would have the MLS, and that’s about it. They do get a good salary, though. At one point, I looked into getting a MLS because I hated what I was doing and wanted to re-train for something else, but I decided that the job options in my home province – which I wanted to return to – were far too limited so I could easily have gone away and spent all that money and not been able to get a job back home. Most of the employees at both the local university library and the public system – a provincial one with the headquarters in my city – are not trained librarians. They often do have university degrees, and now there’s a tendency to require a college (ie community college) diploma in library work, but the pay scales are low, on a par with clerical work. I have a close familiarity with clerical pay scales, too. I could look it up if I get a chance later (I have to work today). Outside the capital, libraries tend to be run by a single individual, invariably female, literate, enthusiastic about books and reading, and probably working part-time for a small wage. Maybe full-time in the bigger small places. At least, that was my experience when I was living in such places. One development since my time has been to move such small rural libraries from a room in the local town hall or similar location to the local high school or all grade school, thus combining the school and public libraries. This seemed very sensible to me.


    1 May 10 at 5:54 am

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