Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Where's the Nonprofit Agenda?

Are you getting as overwhelmed as I am with all the scrambling to get the Obama administration's attention with a list of demands, suggestions and/or ideas? There's not a day that goes by that I don't see yet another public "call" for the administration to [fill-in-the-blank].

That's all good. After all, it's nice to see that after eight years of closed doors, we finally have a president who seems to subscribe to transparency and citizen involvement in government. And it's great that several organizations have stepped up to help craft an agenda that benefits nonprofits. Among these are ServiceNation, Independent Sector, the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, and others that have been instrumental in pulling together organizations to rally around around and advocate for a coherent set of priorities that are indisputably important to strengthening the nonprofit sector.

What's disconcerting to some is that in the rush to position organizations and issues, there has yet to emerge a comprehensive, coherent agenda for the next administration that transcends larger subsectors. Where's the parallel desire to pull together the some of the best thinkers and "doers" in each of these subsectors--service, social entrepreneurship, human services, advocacy groups, and many others--to devise an agenda that covers all nonprofits, especially small- to mid-sized groups that comprise nearly three-quarters of the entire sector? If these groups -- and all organizations in the sector -- could use anything, it's a plan for supporting their capacity to provide the kinds of services and products that no else is stepping up to offer, especially for under-served constituencies.

As Jed Emerson recently wrote:

...Good advice amidst a lot of positioning and posturing that risks overlooking other crises and priorities that transcend institutional/field interests. If this isn't a call for sector leadership--one that brings together all kinds of groups for a larger agenda that goes beyond specific "fields" or "issues"--I don't know what is!...Before we go advocate for non-profits and the things we care about, perhaps those of us who identify as being in the citizen sector should take this moment to pause and re-connect with what it is we are ultimately attempting to do.....The opportunity of Obama’s presidency and his call to rise above partisanship is more than simply a chance to bolster our individual causes and organizations in light of what may be a more receptive administration. We should first stop to reflect upon the array of issues we care about and consider how beyond our own organizational agendas we might better partner with the business community, make use of our own assets most effectively...and whether, in fact, we have the courage to rise above the strategies/tactics we have executed during a period of partisanship to create new, yet more powerful approaches to advancing sustained impact and change in our world.

Todd Cohen, in a post on the Philanthropy Journal blog, states it more bluntly:

Nonprofits should indeed be pushing the incoming administration for a greater voice in helping to shape the policies that affect nonprofits and the communities they serve. But...the voices dominating the conversation are big nonprofits, big foundations and the big trade groups that represent them....Lost in the scramble for power by the giving sector’s power brokers seems to be the voice of smaller nonprofits...What seems to be cracking wide open is a longstanding fault-line in the giving sector, with big nonprofits, big foundations and social entrepreneurs positioning themselves to push the new administration to adopt a giving-sector agenda that mainly rewards big nonprofits, big foundations and social enterprise...And while President-elect Barack Obama’s pledged emphasis on volunteerism and public service will be essential to help address...problems and challenges, it runs the risk of perpetuating a giving-sector mindset that for far too long has treated nonprofits as an underclass that should swallow low wages and hand-me-down resources.

While these views may rankle some, they're important to moving toward a place that I believe most of those working in our sector want to see: A strong infrastructure for nonprofits, support for building their capacity to be effective, resources for people with new ideas, incentives and policies that encourage more support for nonprofits, AND a strong volunteer army behind them ready to serve. And while we have the pieces of that agenda floating around in various places, we've yet to pull it all together -- together.

One of the few attempts to do this is being led by Lester Salamon from Johns Hopkins University. In a recent op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Salamon outlines a larger agenda for helping the entire nonprofit sector, not just parts of it. And he does so by positioning the nonprofits that provide health care, housing, and educational services to millions of people--particularly disadvantaged groups that would otherwise go without--as a vital part of the overall economy, not just nice groups doing nice things. He also offers some hard numbers with a rationale to back them up--a rationale steeped in economic reality, rather than in lofty rhetoric. That op-ed outlines what is currently becoming a full-blown proposal crafted in coalition with a number of nonprofit sector infrastructure groups. Let's hope that someone is listening.

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