The Values of the Nonprofit Sector (Aug 07)

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In 1999, when I came to Washington, D.C. to join the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (it was my second stint of working and living in the District, my first was in 1972 as a full-time antiwar activist), I encountered a lot of opaque terminology about the nonprofit sector.

The language that confused me most was the phrase the values of the nonprofit sector, intended by some to mean, I suppose, that all nonprofits share a belief system of supporting the poor and disadvantaged as a function of their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. It always struck me as odd, if not entirely spurious. Nonprofits are as diverse as American society. Other than the 501(c)(3) letters they receive from the Internal Revenue Service, the charities that serve the rich and the charities that serve the poor sometimes share little in common.

But you can learn a lot about the values of people — and politicians — depending on which nonprofits and foundations they establish or associate themselves with. When you look at their nonprofit connections, you can also get a sense of people’s values.

In our series on the nonprofits and foundations linked to the 2008 presidential candidates, we have explored the propensity of some candidates to walk perilously close to the boundaries of ethical morass. So one question is simply, Do the candidates buy into or “get” the issues associated with their nonprofit activity?

In this installment of the Cohen Report, this is the kind of question we ask about Senator Barack Obama’s nonprofit interactions and those of his wife, Michelle Obama. There is much to learn about what the Obamas’ nonprofit attachments might mean for a prospective president and first lady.

For a somewhat different nonprofit family dynamic, we examine former Maryland senatorial candidate (and onetime nominee for Secretary of Labor) Linda Chavez, who attracted front-page Washington Post coverage of her mix of nonprofits and political action committees (PACs). It wasn’t clear what these organizations delivered as nonprofit service, but they kept her husband and kids occupied-and paid. Oh, the values of the nonprofit sector . . .

Let me know what’s on your mind.