What Happens When Your Lifelong Quest Ends?

Nonprofits are like carp: Unless some malign event kills them off, they just live on and on.

Guy Walters has a rather sad piece on Dr. Efraim Zuroff, who has dedicated much of his life to hunting Nazis -- and is still hunting. But who is he hunting for? Let's imagine the youngest possible Nazi war criminal, someone we'd credit as having been fully responsible for his actions. Say, someone who was 16 or 17 in 1945. That person would have been born in 1929 at the very latest, meaning that he would now be 84.

But of course, few 16-year-olds were guarding concentration camps. Most of them were much older than that, which is to say that most of them are either dead, or about to be.

Yet Dr. Zuroff is still hunting. Of course, as Walters points out, there's no reason that Nazis should be allowed to die peacefully in their beds. But as the last of the Nazis die off, the ratio of false leads to actual war criminals is going to go up. At this late date, the odds of a successful hunt are probably close to zero.

Dr. Zuroff faces the problem of other people and institutions with noble missions: what do you do when the quest is over? Nonprofits run into this problem all the time. Look at the March of Dimes, which was founded to end polio. Mission accomplished! So...er...what is the March of Dimes still doing here? The answer: in 1958, three years after Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was licensed for use, the organization shifted its focus to preventing birth defects.

It's extremely difficult for any person or group to say "Yup, we got the job done, now we're firing ourselves." The temptation is to say that the problem hasn't gone away (if you read nonprofit fundraising letters, you'll find that the dark night of fascism is always just about to descend upon America). And if that becomes impossible, you find a related task and do that instead. On New York City's Upper West Side, near where I grew up, was a local nonprofit that had been founded with the specific mission of caring for the poor who lived in the immediate area. But after decades of gentrification, there weren't so many of those around. So did they close up shop? Of course not! They went looking for clients in Harlem.

Might the money directed at them not have been better directed toward local groups in Harlem? These are questions that few nonprofits seem to ask themselves. Nonprofits seem to be like carp: unless some malign event kills them off, they just live on and on.

So too, apparently, with Nazi hunters. Giving up a worthy task is hard, even when that task no longer really needs to be done.

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