We talk about the nonprofit ecosystem a lot, but do we really think in those terms?
Ecology is often referred to as natural economics, or the economics of nature. And a lot of organizational theory has taken lessons from biology. Even Aristotle was a biologist, and the entire field of social evolutionary theory arises from biology. In public administration, we have seen discussions of “nudging,” and we have had attempts to set up “red team / blue team” exercises to gauge evolutionary fitness. Banks have “stress testing,” which is not unlike setting up natural experiments where you deprive a pond of oxygen, or sunlight, or food, see how the system responds, and draw conclusions. And donors often hear about “diversifying” their philanthropic portfolio, about “seeding,” and the like.
But we don’t think big enough, or biological enough, in the same way the left does.
Again, think about the conservative nonprofit “ecosystem.” Often this term is deployed to encourage a donor to donate to multiple overlapping organizations. Because no one likes negativity, it’s a lot easier to be positive and elicit more funds. In fact, groups like the Leadership Institute explicitly teach that remaining positive about competitors rather than negative is a better approach than being negative. If you’re starting a Trump think tank, and you know someone else is, you might call up the other organizer and negotiate a detente, so that when you both dip into the same donor pockets, you aren’t effectuation a prisoners dilemma— both talking trash and both coming away empty handed.
So that’s one issue, and we see this kind of coevolution in nature as well. It suggests that resources far outstrip the ability of a single species to exploit a new resource: a lack of scarcity. This situation is unstable, unless there is some external pressure maintaining the peace— it occurs in nature in extreme and marginal situations, such as if a truckload of fertilizer were dropped on a mountain top. In this case the truckload is donor money, and the mountain top is the fact that salaries and growth are artificially capped by what donors think growth should look like. If nonprofit presidents had no de facto salary caps, I don’t think there would ever be this kind of collusion.
But what do we see in nature, and on the left, that we don’t see on the right? A lot, it turns out.
If we’re talking about the pro life movement, we might talk about the institutional ecosystem, and we might mean that there are a number of orgs covering the field. There might be big orgs and small orgs. There might be hardcore groups and mainstream groups. There might be state groups and there might be federal groups. There might be upstream groups (churches) and downstream groups (crisis pregnancy centers), neither of which are pro life by mission but which fill out the field. This is the horizontal ecosystem.
But what about parasites, what about decomposers, what about orchids— the vertical ecosystem? We see these on the left, but not on the right, and we could use these on the right.
Parasites in biology are organisms that feed on other organisms. The host organism is usually large, and the trick isn’t to kill the organism, but to engage in a kind of arbitrage— efficiently feed on it without needing to build out your own costly infrastructure. So on the right I recall a certain law professor aggressively speaking on the “conservative case for gay marriage” and obtaining a large volume of honoraria from the Federalist Society on a subject that students were actually not much interested in at the time. This was parasitical behavior. I’m also reminded of the recent loss of $2 million (IIRC) by the Wisconsin GOP. Word on the street is that this was a rather sophisticated phishing type scam, and that the money was voluntarily paid out. Parasitism if true. Perhaps this was a left wing group that did it: I wouldn’t be surprised. It was certainly highly effective in hamstringing GOP efforts in 2020.
Finally, to go back to FedSoc— I recall joining in the mid 2000s with no barrier to entry, being able to walk into the small Lawyers Convention as an idiot law student and sitting down next to some truly wonderful circuit court judges. FedSoc had no natural barriers to entry, and this has enabled rapid growth, but also entryism. In 2016 immediately post election, I was able to stand in a corner with the Trump campaign folks who would end up in the White House Counsels office and elsewhere, laughing as the huge surfeit of NeverTrump, even explicitly liberal newcomers ran around trying to get a job. They had no idea whom to talk to, because they were new, sniffing around for scraps in a movement they couldn’t care less for. In retrospect, the joke was on me. This was a kind of parasitism.
Parasite - host coevolution can actually benefit both, so I think donors on the right could consider funding parasitical organizations. Certainly one good model is the activist shareholder model that the left has used. Buy one share of Berkshire Hathaway and then leverage that to seek management changes. How might this look? Well, there are major institutional right wing groups that could be pressured from the inside. major conferences such as CPAC already have had groups like the Log Cabin Republicans seek to sponsor, and then change the direction of the groups, in an astroturfed manner. Why not have a group with the sole purpose of activating New Right members at these national groups? Why not seek to host panels that move the window to the right? CPAC has hosted main stage panels on completely astroturfed issues like “patent trolls” before— why not host wedge events, or at least attempt to. E-verify, or Buy America, or returning science to the people.
Why not have social events that prep ALEC members, or CPAC members, or board members at groups like Heritage, and pre brief or inoculate them against the latest corporate outrage? Why not have a clearinghouse for this kind of information sharing?
Why not have a donor advice network? There are groups on the fusionist right that do exactly this. Philanthropy Roundtable is a good example. Or more aggressively, why not fund an analogue to the LaRouche movement, or CodePink, to rally outside these groups when they vote on why it’s fine to capitulate to the NCAA, or the Chamber? I’ve been to ALEC meetings, and it’s a point of pride for pistol-packing Utah state legislators that they have to March through a picket of left wing loons to get to hotel ballrooms. But what if there were MAGA moms with flags shouting “shame” because these good men and women are about to vote down a proposal to protect children’s sports simply because some donor told them to?
Decomposition is another biological phenomenon. When a movement goes belly up, what happens? There are hundreds of failed c3s out there with individuals and contractors still drawing money for long-dead issues. Some of this is pure grift, but some have well intentioned boards. How can we repurpose these groups, or sunset them? Bequests with expiration dates or spend downs are one model, but surely there are other options, which can be baked in at the front end, or perhaps at the back. Can there be opportunistic buyouts? How does that even look?
And finally, there are orchids— niche orgs that are beautiful, with no purpose. Individuals and organizations which are worth funding even if they “do” nothing, or expect to yield the same product over and over, but which, pregnant, bear the culture through these times. I like the new “The Lamp” magazine and feel it falls into this category. Its probably the best thing I read on a regular basis, and I've personally donated, even knowing that all I’m doing is supporting a print magazine that, foreseeably, is never going to change the marginal tax rate, for example (although I did find it on the desk of an OMB program associate director and then subsequently gush about it to the then-head of OIRA). But it’s beautiful, worthy for its own sake.
This is a very cursory survey of what biological and systems thought can teach us, but I think the analogies can be very useful to donors and managers alike. For example, when you are seeking to directly compete with an established organization, one of the questions you ask is how the target org will respond. A feline apex predator suddenly facing a second feline apex predator that is slightly faster might double down on stealth. And Heritage facing new Trumpy think tanks might double down on free marketism. Or they might move right. Thinking the responses through is useful, though. It’s what ecologists model all the time.