On the problem of not being able to short sell non-profits

Robert Shiller had an interesting article in the NYT on why housing markets are not always efficient.

More pertinent to this blog:

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I wish it were possible to short non-profits. I don’t really know how it would work / it’s probably not possible, but not having this type of function harms people in need.

Over time, short selling would reallocate resources to organizations that could provide much better outcomes if those in need.

Everywhere I look, I see non-profit “bubbles,” especially in education reform.

But funders have weak information, or misaligned incentives with those they are serving, so money keeps on flowing.

Short selling, or some version of it, could prevent money from going to organizations that have little to no chance of achieving their aims, as well meaning as they might be. And it could drive funding to organizations that could do amazing things.

If I was going to short non-profit education activity, it would be in these areas:

1) Efforts that mistake coordination for strategy.

2) Efforts that do not affect, or do not tightly align themselves, with what happens between 8AM-3PM.

Of course, the short selling analogy is flawed. The non-profit sector is a different animal than the for-profit sector.I get it.

The main point here is that it is important for there to be a public, meaningful signal against efforts that are likely to fail.

Without that, we all risk walking aimlessly in the dark.

4 thoughts on “On the problem of not being able to short sell non-profits

    1. Mike G


      Serious idea:

      I wonder if you can “short” district reform with a series of “fun” bets? For example,

      1. You challenge some folks that the NYC School System will be no better in 3 years. Both the Chancellor and Mayor (who won’t respond). And sort of a “Any takers” type thing to bloggers pundits, think tank types, political types, etc…folks who believe in the district stuff.

      2. You define the metric (NAEP Trial, state tests). You define the comparison group (Rest of NY State? NOLA). Offer that you’ll negotiate these metrics if there are other ideas (maybe just a focus on the failing 62 worst of the worst schools that they say they’ll turn around).

      3. You write “open letters” – a mix of on your blog, emails, and a place like Gotham Schools.

      4. You “bet” a specific Cajun gift basket (be extremely detailed in what you’ll include, this will be the best-read part) versus an NYC equivalent basket. Anyone who offers to beat NOLA gains you give 5-to-1 odds, 5 baskets to their one.

      Overall, you are trying to tell the Relinquishment Story which is –

      a. I believe in the kids
      b. I don’t believe that top-down fixes by any set of adults can work

      1. nkingsl

        Interesting idea. The bet on resources (Simon, I think) did stick publicly. But not sure that all bets have. Would have to think about how to make it stay in public eye…

  1. Pingback: I Think He Wants Betting Markets in Non-profits | askblog

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