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Nonprofits Must Use Their Power For What Is Right: An Interview With Ruth McCambridge

By Nell Edgington



Ruth Mccambridge

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Ruth McCambridge.

Ruth is Editor in Chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly. Her background includes forty-five years of experience in nonprofits, primarily in organizations that mix grassroots community work with policy change. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Ruth spent a decade at The Boston Foundation, developing and implementing capacity building programs and advocating for grantmaking attention to constituent involvement.

If you want to read interviews with other social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series go here.

Nell: The Nonprofit Quarterly sometimes serves as a watchdog for the nonprofit sector. For example, shortly before his death last year, Rick Cohen took the nonprofit sector to task for not standing up against anti-refugee legislation. But in some ways the sector’s hands are tied because of real or perceived rules against too much political activity. What is (or should be) the nonprofit sector’s role amid an increasingly polarized, gridlocked political system?

Ruth: The nonprofit sector’s hands are by no means tied and pretty much everyone knows that. We who work in 501(c) 3s do have to avoid partisan political activity and be a little careful when it comes to direct lobbying, but this leaves a whole world of political activity in which nonprofits can be and are involved, and there are plenty of powerful examples of political activism by nonprofits.

Look at the way that planned Planned Parenthood Action (a 501(c)4) has mobilized around this election season. Four years ago, in fact, the Sunlight Foundation found it had the highest ROI of any electorally focused PAC.

This response you speak of, of not being allowed to be political is, it seems to me, a convenient and patently obvious cop-out. It’s not that nonprofits do not know they can be involved in these kinds of issues, it is that they are employing a facile excuse for not doing what is right.

What is perhaps most disturbing about this dynamic – what most exposes the true nature of the excuse – is the tendency of some nonprofit infrastructure groups to mobilize nonprofits only on the most institutionally self-interested causes, resisting any limitations on fundraising, for instance. The fact that these campaigns are launched in favor of refugee rights to a safe harbor is not attractive to those who expect integrity from the sector.

Of course, there are issues that combine long term institutional self-interest with the interests of communities – for instance, recently a few statewide nonprofit networks have stood up for a living wage requirement and have accompanied that with work on rate adjustments, but in general, nonprofits, specifically those which are not expressly organized around advocacy, need to consider how to use their institutional power for what is right and stop playing coy in the face of current intense political scrums around issues of basic human and civil rights.

But let’s get back to the NPQ as watchdog idea. We have been hearing this increasingly over the past few years, but we have always tried to afflict the comfortable so maybe our voice has just become louder. We have many more readers than this time last year – I know that!

Nell: The mainstream media is sometimes criticized for holding the nonprofit sector to an unfair standard compared to the private sector. Do you agree with that criticism, or is the nonprofit sector not analyzed enough?

Ruth: That unfair standard coin has two sides. The nonprofit sector is more trusted by the public than government or business and that means that people expect more from us in terms of consistency of ethics. When we violate those higher expectations – yes – we may look like we are being held to a higher standard because the contrast between what they want and expect to see from us and what we give them is sometimes so starkly disappointing. This, by the way, causes some of the obsession with executive salaries that are seen as overly high. There is a sensitivity to wage justice in the context of mission and other compensation of staff that is easy to play on because people just expect us to act from the highest possible ethical position.

Nell: As a journalist, what is your take on the state of journalism and its role in democracy given the 30% decline in the number of journalists over the last decade. What will become of journalism and its role in democracy? And what do you make of the emerging breed of nonprofit newsrooms?

Ruth: Journalism is a changing form, and I would be talking far above my pay grade to suggest that I knew exactly what it was evolving toward, but it has always been clear to me that the role of journalism is central to democracy – to the ability of a populace to act in an informed manner and thus it is as important to democracy as the right to associate, which is at the basis of our nonprofit sector.

In a way, this commonality of purpose links the two, and so it is no surprise that there are now more nonprofit journalism outlets springing up – entities that are not placing profit above mission. That makes sense.

Just as interesting are the conversations around how people choose who can be trusted to inform them and on what basis, and who is going to pay for the long term investigative journalism that always has to be central to the mix, and what part open data plays in breaking stories. Other interesting trends are the evolution of citizen journalism, collaborative journalism and niche journalism. It is unendingly interesting.

Nell: In your interview last Spring with Douglas Rushkoff he had some very interesting things to say, one of which was that the nonprofit business model is superior because it more equitably distributes wealth than the for-profit model. Do you agree with his assessment, or what is your take?

If we do not want to encourage the pillaging of the earth and its peoples by the few – I guess I do agree.

Photo Credit: Nonprofit Quarterly

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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