To Profit or Not to Profit: The Commercial Transformation of the Non-Profit Sector

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Burton A. Weisbrod (ed) To Profit or Not to Profit: The Commercial Transformation of the Non-profit Sector Cambridge University Press, USA, 1998. pp. 340, ISBN 0-521-63180-7 (hbk) L45.00

This book is a set of studies, contributed by seventeen us academics, which is concerned with the commercialisation of what it refers to by the term `the non-profit sector' (p.i). By this it means a whole range of different organisations which are not, historically anyway, driven by the need to earn profits. It is used as an umbrella term to cover things like hospitals, museums, universities and the like, as well as charitable organisations. Although the book from the USA draws on evidence mainly from the United States, the trend identified can also be seen in the UK. These `nonprofits' are becoming increasingly commercialised, and so there may well be a need to examine the reasons for, and the consequences of, this phenomenon.

Anybody who is disturbed by the growing commercial sponsorship of things like the arts, education and research activity will see the possible benefits of such a study, and the book does discuss the issue of `goal displacement, as the social mission slips from sight in the drive for revenue' (p.304). There may well be a conflict for these areas between `capitalist appetites and... integrity' (quoting Farhi p.304). An obvious example of this does lie in the area of research. The book notes that `virtually every major us university has joined forces in some manner with large multinational firms' (p.6) which does raise serious questions regarding the nature and control of such research. One recent example in the UK concerns genetically modified food. Dr. Pusztai, whose preliminary results of research in this area suggested that the immune system could be adversely affected by such food, was `suspended and forced to retire' (Guardian lath Feb. 1999). His supporters claim that `there was industry and political pressure.. to silence him' (ibid). This is one case that reached the newspapers, but it does illustrate the tension that the multinational control of research could create. Similar points could be made about education. Do we want our children to be faced everyday in school with a corporate logo of, say, a fast food retailer, whilst science lessons teach them the nutritional 'value' of burgers? These are clearly serious questions that do have important social implications. However, whilst this book does recognise this as a potential problem ultimately it concludes that `commercialisation... offers real advantages..we have found evidence of significant scientific advances resulting from cooperation between universities and private-sector firms' (p.288).

There is a recognition that there exists a certain level of choice regarding the size of the non-profit sector and it notes that `non-profits are ... an alternative mechanism for providing public-type services' (P.3). The United States is then contrasted with Scandinavia where the Government sector is larger and the `nonprofit sectors are relatively unimportant' (. …