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Independent Sector

Can the Nonprofit Sector Stand Up for Itself?

There is something really interesting going on in the world of nonprofit advocacy. And I don’t mean advocacy for a specific cause. Rather, I’m talking about advocating for the nonprofit sector as a whole. Three new efforts underway in recent months are vying to be the voice of the nonprofit sector. And the firestorm brewing is interesting to watch.

Robert Egger kicked it off a year ago when he formed CForward an advocacy organization that champions the economic role of the nonprofit sector and supports political candidates who include the nonprofit sector in their plans to rebuild the economy. You can read my interview with Robert about why he launched CForward here. Robert’s video about the need to advocate for the nonprofit sector is below (or here if you are reading this in an email):

And then in the last couple of months there have been two similar movements to better advocate for the nonprofit sector. Dan Pallotta released a new book last month called Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Change the World where he announces the creation of his new entity, the Charity Defense Council, which is also aimed at advocating for the nonprofit sector, via five efforts:

  1. An “anti-defamation league” to respond to and rectify inaccurate reports about the sector in the media
  2. Big public advertising campaigns for the sector
  3. A “legal defense fund” to challenge unproductive laws against the sector
  4. Work to create a “National Civil Rights Act for Charity and Social Enterprise” to support the sector
  5. Grassroots organizing of the sector as a whole, including a national database of every nonprofit in the country

And then the third grand effort to advocate for the nonprofit sector comes from Independent Sector, the organization formed in 1980 to “advance the common good by leading, strengthening, and mobilizing the nonprofit and philanthropic community.” Their new report “Beyond the Cause,” which interviewed 100 nonprofit organizations, recommends the creation of a national organization (probably run by Independent Sector) to push a nonprofit agenda, costing $20 million over 4 years. For Independent Sector the key issues that such an entity would address are:

  1. Changes that could limit the organizations eligible for charity status
  2. Threats to charitable tax deductions for donors
  3. A need to clarify advocacy and lobbying rules for charities and private foundations
  4. Changes to Internal Revenue Service disclosure forms that could hamper nonprofit operations
  5. Burdensome paperwork and red tape involving government contracts with nonprofits
  6. Lack of government-financed research on the nonprofit world

While CForward seems to be largely supported in their work, both Pallotta’s and Independent Sector’s efforts are drawing fire. Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, writes a scathing review of Pallotta’s new book and advocacy effort and concludes that “Mr. Pallotta is selling is himself—as both the nonprofit world’s messiah and its advertising agency,” and suggests that people support CForward and Independent Sector instead of Pallotta’s Charity Defense Council.

Similarly, Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, dislikes Independent Sector’s effort to coalesce the nonprofit sector arguing that “nonprofits will never share a broad consensus about which issues are most important. The best that nonprofits can accomplish is to strengthen their individual advocacy and lobbying activities and join with other organizations in coalitions that fight for specific policy changes.”

It is really a fascinating and multi-layered debate. I strongly agree that the nonprofit sector is often dismissed in the policies of the day. But if organizations like Independent Sector have been working to create a common voice for the sector for more than 30 years with little improvement, I’m not sure what will change. Especially if 3 separate entities are all singing different verses of the same tune. They will be competing for dollars, mind-share, and the ears of policy makers. But I am a huge advocate for fixing a broken sector, so let’s see how this all plays out.

What do you think? How do we get policy makers to recognize the importance and value of the nonprofit sector?

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Discussing the Future

So this is kind of interesting, and I’m not sure yet what to make of it.  Independent Sector, a coalition of 600 charities, foundations, and corporate giving programs working to strengthen the nonprofit sector, has launched an online forum, called FutureLab to answer the question: “What can we do right now, as a nonprofit community, to create a better, more vibrant 2020?”  They are attempting to spur a “national conversation to explore the challenges and possibilities that will affect the nonprofit and foundation community for years to come and to develop groundbreaking strategies that will shape our future.”  Those are massive questions and a massive undertaking.  But didn’t I just say that the nonprofit sector needs to be more bold?  Perhaps this is a step in the right direction.

FutureLab has broken this broad conversation into nine discussion areas which are:

  • Diversity
  • Global Engagement
  • Integration with Religious Groups
  • Leadership
  • Responsibilities of Government and Nonprofits
  • Technology
  • Civic Engagement
  • 21st Century Economy
  • Impact

And they also have a “coffeehouse” area where people can contribute ideas that don’t fit into those categories.

Through social media and other channels they are encouraging anyone connected to the nonprofit sector (volunteers, staff, board members, consultants, etc.) to contribute their ideas for what could make the sector better.  You can comment on existing ideas, submit your own ideas, or vote on contributed ideas.

It doesn’t look like many people are contributing yet, and you have to wonder what the end goal is and what will be done with the volume of ideas and information they are hoping to gather.  Will anything come of it?  Will anything change? Independent Sector’s goals for the project are a bit tenuous:

Members of the nonprofit and philanthropic community are encouraged not only to review the content posted during this discussion, but to draw on relevant insights to inform their own planning and decision making. Independent Sector…will produce a summary of highlights that will be made available to nonprofits and foundations. Independent Sector may also identify ideas from the conversation to pursue as part of its ongoing work.

But there are some heavy hitters involved.  The funding for the project comes from major foundations like Gates, Annie E. Casey, Skoll, Kellogg Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Sea Change Capital.  So something interesting has to come out of it, right?  Anyway, it will be interesting to watch.  If you’re interested, join the discussion.


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Friday, October 16th, 2009 Nonprofits, Philanthropy 1 Comment

New Ideas in a New Year

2009 is finally here and with the new year comes some interesting new ideas.  The struggles of 2008 have the potential to stimulate innovative solutions.  With a new administration entering office on January 20th there could be significant changes in how the nonprofit sector receives resources (funding, staff, government support, etc).  You can read my post on some of the changes the Obama administration might make here.

But it seems the nonprofit sector is not waiting around for those potential changes.  There just isn’t time.  So, in the midst of the uncertainty facing the sector, some interesting innovation is happening.

In December a Washington, DC coalition of eight regional organizations convened Nonprofit 911 bringing together 500+ nonprofit, business, and government leaders to develop a plan of action that “redefines how the nonprofit sector operates in this new fiscal reality.”  It’s not clear yet (since they’ve been around only a few weeks) exactly what this coalition will do and what the results will be, but it is interesting to see such an unprecedented reaction to the crisis.

Another interesting development is an idea proposed by Independent Sector, a coalition of 600+ foundations and nonprofits.  They are proposing to Congress a federal government revolving loan fund that would reimburse nonprofits for essential services they have performed for local and regional governments.  These governments are now cash-strapped and unable to pay for those services.  Perhaps the beginnings of a conversation about a nonprofit bailout, to follow the financial and auto industry bailouts?  If that’s the case I’d like to see something much more ambitious and sustainable for the long-term.  I’m not sure this is the answer.

However, the interesting part is the discussions that these new ideas are generating.  This New Year should be a very interesting one.

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Monday, January 5th, 2009 Innovators, Nonprofits No Comments