Rural Philanthropy Update More Smithsonian Shenanigans (Sep 07)

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But I wonder, are the principles of the Cohen Report consistent with the old me who helped lead anti-war protests (and anti-John Silber protests) at Boston University, earning me a court-ordered injunction that prevented me from wandering through the BU campus for many years after my matriculation, or consistent with the civil rights work I did on the Yonkers desegregation case (I was an expert witness for the NAACP and then the U.S. Department of Justice on potential affordable housing solutions), the inclusionary affordable housing work I did with nonprofits as the director of Housing and Economic Development in Jersey City, or the assessments and strategies I helped teams of Enterprise Foundation and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) program staff generate around the nation?

I hope so. Not that I’m stuck in the same spot almost 40 years after having been a low-down, junior, assistant, nobody researcher/planner at Action for Boston Community Development, one of the nation’s original anti-poverty agencies, I hope there’s been a healthy learning curve. But since the first issue of the Cohen Report by the Nonprofit Quarterly in May of this year, readers have been trying to figure out what I’m covering in this e-newsletter and why, particularly as the articles address members of Congress and candidates for the White House. I doubt I can describe it all well enough to everyone’s satisfaction, but here’s a shot, probably to be continued, about the principal concerns underlying the choice and analysis in this column.

Obviously, much of the content of this column is about the intersection of nonprofits (especially foundations, but not exclusively), politics, and public policy. People might assume that the objective is to find faults and expose the soft underbellies of the sector’s omnipresent, barnacle-like malefactors. That’s not true. There are other websites and bloggers whose stock in trade is tracking the sector’s bad guys. I’m more focused on the political side, where politicians (and the moneyed people who play disproportionate roles in our nation’s political life) use, misuse, and abuse charity and philanthropy, and where foundations fail to live up to their implicit and explicit obligations to society.

As developed in my work at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy for almost a decade, my approach is to expect more, much more, from our nation’s political leaders than the pabulum and slogans and gloss and spin that so many consistently spew, and that applies especially to their interactions with nonprofits and foundations. There is no reason not to expect a level of seriousness, commitment, ethics, and probity from politicians (and their moneymen) regarding the nonprofit sector and hold them to it.

These aren’t comparative rankings of bad and worse political rogues. If the pols (and the moneymen) come close to or slip over the edges of nonprofit accountability, this column will shine a light, ask why, and try to prod them along in the right direction.

I guess I have a naïve belief that the leaders of this nation in the White House, Congress, governors’ mansions, state legislatures, and mayor’s offices should be exemplary people-and if not, we ought to demand that they be. There is no more appropriate venue for implementing that demand than what our leaders do with the nonprofit sector.

That may mean not only asking politicians what the heck they think they’re doing when they muck around with nonprofits, but, on a more positive note, what they (and we) might learn about nonprofits and, we daresay, society at large from the symbolic and substantive purposes and activities of their nonprofits.

And this column has to look past the hype and cant that politicians or their PR teams and sycophants will use to camouflage their occasional nonprofit depredations. There’s lots of qualifying 501(c)(3) purposes that can be used to dress up pols’ nonprofits and foundations. Given how nearly anything (unfortunately) qualifies as a legitimate nonprofit purpose, the spin constitutes a pretty flimsy toga to cover their embarrassing parts.

All that means that this column is relentlessly nonpartisan on politics and philanthropy. In the course of writing on this for Nonprofit Quarterly over the years, this author has taken on Tom DeLay, Saxby Chambliss, Blanche Lincoln, Rick Santorum, the entire Republican Study Committee, Jon Corzine, President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Barbara Bush, Neil Bush, John Edwards, Rudy Guiliani, John McCain, Mike Leavitt,  Newt Gingrich, Vincent Fumo, Ernie Fletcher, John Rowland, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and many more, and there are more “candidates” for CR columns on politicians and philanthropy waiting in the wings.

We read this past week about a Democratic political strategist who declared both major political parties “brain-dead”, saying “(t)he reality is both parties are brain-dead — they have no new big ideas to deal with the challenges we face today.” The nation can’t afford the relentless race to the thoughtless, spin-obsessed bottom. As the sector that calls out — or should call out — the shortcomings of politics, government, and corporations, the nonprofit sector should aggressively demand principles and values from our nation’s leaders, especially when their activities abut ours. And all of us should call out the leaders of our own sector, when their policies and behaviors fall short of delivering on the tax exempt resources the public has entrusted to them for wise stewardship.

Toward that end, in this issue of CR, we take on a few topics: We revisit the conference on rural philanthropy sparked by a challenge to foundations from Senator Max Baucus to find out what happened as a result of their convening in Missoula in early August. And as a continuation of our past explorations of the unusual and frequently disturbing practices of the Smithsonian Institution, we take on a very recent Smithsonian brouhaha that reminds us how tone-deaf and brain-dead some big-time organizations can be.