Wonderland 2006


Jon Van Til

with gratitude to Lewis Carroll and William Van Til


When Alice was a little girl, she popped down the rabbit hole–and visited Wonderland, where she had strange adventures and interesting conversations. Later, she went through the Looking Glass and visited the courts of the White Queen and the Red Queen.

Time passed. Alice grew up and became a nonprofit organization manager. But she never outgrew her habit of visiting Wonderland and Looking Glass House. She went back--every 6 years because 6 is a very nice number though not as odd as either 5 or 7. 

So 2006 came around and Alice found herself at a wonderful reunion, a Mad Tea Party attended by the March Hare, the Hatter, the Dormouse, and all of the other inhabitants of Wonderland.

"No room, no room!" they cried when they saw Alice.

"There's plenty of room," said Alice indignantly. "That's a very rude way to greet a person who hasn't been back since 2000, 6 years ago." She sat down anyway.

"Tell us a story!" said the March Hare.

"Tell us about that queer place you come from," ordered the Queen of Hearts. "Is it the Delighted States or the Benighted States?"  "Else, off with your head."


 “It's the United States," corrected Alice, for she had gone to a good university and had learned to call things by their right names.


"Are they really United?" asked the March Hare. "Last time you were here you were telling us about divisions between your Red and Blue states."


"Oh, things are fine there now," said Alice. "The Fundamentalist Ministers who were behind the rise of the Red States have become strong environmentalists, and in Massachusetts, the cradle of the American Revolution 230 years ago, there’s less fighting over marrying men and women separately and more interest in health care reform."


"What did the revolting Americans want?" asked the March Hare.


"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," responded Alice promptly. “To promote the general welfare, insure domestic tranquility, etc."


"Did they want those things for everybody?" asked the March Hare.  “If so, why all this ridicule of Massachusetts, the home state of Senators Kerry and Kennedy?"


“Perhaps it is the way in which liberals seem to want these things a bit more than conservatives, or maybe it is that mainstream Americans are still somewhat uncomfortable about people whose sexual preferences or skin colors are different from theirs.


The March Hare, who was dark-skinned, sniffed at Alice for a long time, his sensitive whiskers quivering. Then he said, "I think I get it," and moved down the table as far away from Alice as he could go. “Oh dear,” thought Alice. “I think somehow I've offended him.”


"I enjoy our Caucus Race," said the Dodo. "So tell me about your politics."


Alice brightened. "Our President seemed to be a nice and honest man. Everybody liked him, but now they’re not too sure."


"What does he do?" asked the Dodo.


Alice thought hard. "He cuts social programs because they cost a great deal of money, but funds wars and tax reductions for the same reason."


"Maybe your country doesn't have many problems. So you don't need all those social programs," suggested the Dodo helpfully.


           "Oh no," said Alice. "We have lots and lots of problems! Pollution and energy depletion and crime and violence and tax fraud and conspicuous consumption and corruption and slums and urban decay and military-industrial complex and overkill and handguns and recession and inflation and monopoly and school financing and racism and civil rights and strip mining and campaign abuses and …”


"Stop," said the Dodo. “Too many.  


Maybe you need a Caucus Race like we have in Wonderland where everyone begins running when he likes and leaves off when he likes."


"We've got that," said Alice. "We call it Democratic Party primaries. All the candidates run and run and attack each other bitterly but in the end none of the Democrats becomes President.  One recent President was a Republican who abused his power and was forced to resign to avoid impeachment. Then the nice man who didn't run at all in any of the Caucus Races got to be President."


"Your politics are far more confusing than ours in Wonderland," said the Dodo sullenly, joining the March Hare at the foot of the table.


The Cheshire Cat inquired, "Aren't people working hard to solve those horrible problems you mentioned?"


"Some are," said Alice, “and many of them are employed in what’s called the ‘third sector’. "But most people don't pay much attention to them. People go around doing their own thing. The philosophers call it an absence of value agreements and sociologists talk about privatism and retribalism. People are searching for identity and trying to find out who they are."


"Don't they know who they are?" asked the Cheshire Cat incredulously. "Here in Wonderland even the Dormouse knows who he is." The Dormouse scuttled to the foot of the table and covered his identity with his paws. The Cheshire Cat slipped away too.


"Time for some Woman Talk," boomed the Queen of Hearts. "How fare the women?"


"They're liberated now," said Alice enthusiastically. "We're achieving equal rights and that's good. Something else is happening though. Marriage is becoming unfashionable. Man and women often live together temporarily and break up whenever they're inclined to have sexual relations with someone else."


"So who takes care of the children?" asked the Queen.


           "We haven't figured that out yet," said Alice apologetically. "Many young people also run around doing their own thing. Some are practicing the three Ds--delinquency, drugs, and deviation."


"Such bad behavior!" roared the Queen.  "Off with their heads!"  She flounced to the foot of the table.


"It's really not their fault," said Alice. "Somebody really ought to take care of the children."


Alice was left alone with the Mad Hatter. "Surely your schools and all those voluntary youth-serving organizations are helping the young people deal with your problems," said the Mad Hatter. "Surely the schools teach more than just Reeling and Writhing and the different branches of arithmetic--Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.  He waited.


"You don't expect the schools to deal with such controversial problems, do you?" said Alice indignantly.


The Mad Hatter tried once more. "Surely your youth organizations are concerned about these problems?"


"Our educational leaders in both schools and youth-serving organizations," said Alice virtuously, "are greatly concerned about accountability, budgeting systems, efficiency, teacher welfare, administrative reorganization, and leaving no child behind."


"Do they ever ask what education and youth development are for? Aren't they concerned about the survival of your Disunited States?"


"Everybody knows what education and youth development are for," said Alice angrily.


"What?" asked the Mad Hatter.


Alice started to tell him. But the Mad Hatter moved to the foot of the table and paid no attention.  Everyone started talking together about other things, and only gradually did silence return.

The Cheshire Cat grinned. "You know what she claimed the last time she was here in 2000? She claimed that the Americans believed that there was something called the ‘third sector’ that was going to make government and business behave more sensibly."

The King said judiciously, "I have heard that the Americans have flown to Iraq and dropped a lot of bombs and at home the people they call ‘corporate leaders’ have stolen a lot of money, and some are even in jail."

"Absolutely right," said Alice triumphantly.  “There was even one scholar who asserted that society’s ‘third sector’ has become its most important institutional field.”

“By the way,” asked the Hatter, “if this sector is so important, why is it called the ‘third’."

“I think I know,” said the Queen, “it existed before politics and business, so it really is the ‘first’.” 

The King chided his mate, “But, dear, surely you recall that the family, or what they call in the British/Irish isles the ‘informal sector’, really comes first.”

"Then of course," said the Dodo, "if it is first or second, it should be added together and called ‘third’.  And I assume that the newspapers and the magazines and the radio and the TV programs must now be complimenting the helpful and wise leaders of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, since the leaders of the first and second sectors have been shown to be so incompetent or greedy or corrupt or malevolent.  The scientists and scholars and journalists and politicians must be singing the praises of these wise leaders of foundations and service organizations and think tanks.”

"Not at all," said Alice. "After the great triumph in Iraq (which never happened), and the housecleaning in the corporations (which really only stung a couple of companies), I read the papers and the magazines and listened to the radio and TV programs. I read the comments of the great American opinion leaders. And no one has even mentioned the role of the independent sector in coming to replace the fallen standing of government and business."

Everybody began throwing things more wildly than before and shrieking "Liar, liar!" at Alice. “But the last time you were here, you told us about how this ‘independent’ sector was really very ‘interdependent’—getting its money from business and trading for power from political leaders.”  Several seized Alice and began stuffing her into the teapot.

"Nobody can be that inconsistent," said Humpty Dumpty as he shoved Alice deeper into the teapot.

"Americans can," cried Alice.  “After all, they know that the most important organizations, independent or interdependent or whatever, are those that provide no profit to their members.”

“Though sometimes,  said the Dodo, “they appear to make a good deal of profit for legislators and lobbyists who set these organizations up and then arrange for them to be funded by something  called ‘earmarks’, which I must say I am too simple to understand.  But I am sure that it makes good sense to call them nonprofit organizations anyway.”

The Queen of Hearts was less understanding, and cried out at Alice, “Off with her head, or at least her earmarks!”

"I'm telling it like it is," cried Alice desperately, while sinking deeper into the teapot. “Indeed, leaders of nonprofit organizations are now being blamed for not helping people in New Orleans who somehow came to live in houses below the level of the sea--which is rising anyway because of something called global warming--which our formerly seen-to-be honest President tells us doesn’t exist--after the ocean found a way to flood those very low lands!!"

This was too much for the inhabitants of Wonderland, who clamped the top on the teapot containing poor Alice.

The Hatter, who sat on top of the teapot, said to the March Hare, "And Alice thinks that we are the ones who live in Wonderland!"



As Alice so acutely has noted, modern Western societies like the United States, the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom are served by four major institutional sectors.  Each of these sectors is contained within its own organizational silo, though each actively transacts with each of the others:  business, government, the informal sector of kin and consanguinity, and the third (or voluntary, or nonprofit, or nongovernmental, or independent/interdependent, and so on).

Each of these institutional silos is surrounded by a set of educational and training institutions that putatively prepare individuals for careers in these sectors:  business schools, schools of public administration, schools of religion, education, and family life, and a variety of programs designed to train third sector leaders.

But, as we all know, these four institutional sectors have been subject to fundamental changes in recent years.  Government, the pillar of the first sector, has steadily withdrawn from many of its formerly assumed welfare responsibilities, replacing robust welfare states with the “farewell state” of the 21st century.  In such a state, concrete assistance is replaced by hearty exhortations to work hard and succeed, but little direct aid in advancing these aims.


The second sector, business, has fared little better.  Although certain times and places, such as Dublin in the 1990s, exhibited booming information-technology driven growth, the usual picture involves the few amassing obscene levels of wealth while the middle and lower classes struggle with declining economic chances.  The “end of (good) work”, as depicted by Jeremy Rifkin, has become a standard throughout the Western world, as vividly brought home in the streets of Paris this Spring.


Within the informal sector, the inability of many families to deal with the rigors of raising hale and whole children remains serious, and the cost of incarcerating a rising population of convicted criminals continues to mount.

To understand the response the third sector to the social and economic crises of our time, it will be important to recall that somewhere around 1980, in the dawning of the age of Reagan and Bush and the associated triumph of corporation-dominated values, scholars and practitioners began to talk less about "voluntary action" and more about "nonprofit organization".  Associations, journals, and conferences began to change their names to signal this change in focus, and a spate of new academic programs began to emerge, their shingles announcing a newfound focus on "nonprofit management".

Leading scholars entered the field, determined to identify the structure and function of nonprofit organizations, which they defined around a legal concept called the "nondistribution constraint", a principle that asserts that members can't divide up an association's assets upon its demise. What's left when the organizational lights go out, rather, becomes the property of other nonprofit organizations.

Defining our field of interest in this way provided some gains, but also some costs. The biggest gain involves the conformance to governmental certification of nonprofit standing, and the associated ability then to count organizations and measure their size. Scholars like Virginia Hodgkinson, Lester Salamon, Helmut Anheier and their colleagues and students in many lands, devoted much of their careers to this measurement process. The result is that it is now possible to compare the dimensions of the nonprofit sector to those of business and government more precisely than was possible a quarter-century before.

On the negative side, one can tally the cost by noting that we have essentially followed guidelines set by the United States Internal Revenue Service in defining a sector, but have largely ignored many stalwart organizations that advance human welfare without much connection to section 501 © of the American tax code. Among the missing: 1) 9 million informal and neighborhood and other grassroots organizations are defined away from the sector, as David Horton Smith has shown;  2) Religious institutions, often excluded, as in the earlier definitions of Salamon, on grounds that they essentially serve to benefit their members rather than broader society; 3) Cooperative organizations, in spite of their critical ability to link voluntary action with economic self-determination, associational self-governance, and the enhancement of community--all excluded purely on grounds of nonconformance to the nondistribution constraint.

Moreover, what is included in the sector comes largely to represent large organizations in health, education, and arts which often grossly overcompensate their executives (in comparison to social serving voluntary and nonprofit organizations) and which often pay scant attention to the culture, values, and traditions of voluntary social action and service (or, I might add, to the literature and academic programs generated around the "nonprofit" moniker). Such organizations often take the form of tax-exempt businesses, largely serving clients with an ability to pay for their services.

In other words, it may be argued that we have come to invent a sector (as Peter Dobkin Hall put it) that excludes many small social-serving citizen-directed organizations, and glorifies a lesser number of larger self-serving elite-directed nonprofit businesses. At the 2004 ISTR conference in Toronto, a number of colleagues (most prominently Adalbert Evers of Germany, Jean-Louis Laville of France, Saad Ibrahim of Egypt, and Kathleen McCarthy of the U.S.) asserted that time may be overdue to accept an alternative conception of our field: one that is based, as Victor Pestoff has put it, "both according to the social values and goals (of organizations), as well as how they distribute their surplus."

In this time of crisis, the third sector is turned to in a variety of new ways and relations, resulting from such disparate motives as desperation, innovation, and creative accounting.  Thus emerge a bewildering range of partnerships, a flourishing of subcontracted relations between the state and the third sector, and a (usually specious) hope that somehow philanthropic giving can replace the declining resources provided by the public purse.


And thereby emerges a flurry of contentions and proposals from an increasingly assertive set of third sector organizations, claiming to provide:


Ø     Communitarian solutions that are more people-friendly than those emerging from bureaucracies

Ø     Pluralistic solutions to problems that must be shaped to different sub-cultures and groups within society

Ø     An appropriate balance between service and advocacy in the remedy of social ills

Ø     Opportunities for deliberation and dialogue in the definition and resolution of social problems

Ø     Efficacy and efficiency in the delivery of subcontracted services.


Both those who study, and those who practice in, the third sector need attend carefully to these claims of nonprofit contribution.  Are the actions created within third sector organizations anywhere near as communitarian, pluralistic, balanced, deliberate, and effective as they are often claimed to be? 



What lies ahead?  Well, Alice will return in 2012.  I can see it now, her arrival announced by  the White Rabbit, out of breath as usual. Joyfully, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare pour the dregs from their tea cups upon the Dormouse. There, I see Alice, accompanied by the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, and the Dodo. They all sit down at the table.

The questions begin to flow:  “How independent is the ‘one plus two’ equals third sector now?  Is anything being done about all those nasty problems in the Untied States?  Did the nice brother of the formerly honest President win the Caucus Race in 2008?  Is anybody looking after the children?” 

"I think I'll go back home now," thinks Alice, "where people don’t ask silly questions."