A Deficit in Nonprofits is a Deficit in Democracy

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On November 12 the then Prince George’s County executive Jack Johnson and his wife Leslie were both arrested and charged with evidence tampering and destroying evidence after Leslie Johnson flushed $100,000 worth of bribe money down the toilet and hid another $79,600 in cash in her underwear as FBI agents approached their Maryland home.

The arrest was only one in a string of embarrassments for Prince George’s calling into question the accountability mechanisms – particularly from nonprofits – absent from the local political landscape.

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When nonprofit leaders are weak and subservient to the political infrastructure, the nonprofit sector’s crucial watchdog and advocacy functions are compromised and crippled – leaving an accountability vacuum allowing the cascade of corruption scandals as seen in Prince George’s County.

With the current focus of nonprofits being government-paid service providers and highly self-publicized social entrepreneurs, much of the nonprofit sector has succumbed to a massive affliction of amnesia.  We have forgotten about the crucial, the irreplaceable function of nonprofits in building and protecting a small “d” democracy. 

The Washington Postcalled the last three years of scandals in the nation’s wealthiest majority African-American county “the stuff of pulp fiction.”

To counter its persistently troubled governance reputation, the county has been engaged in image-building activities such as convincing the public not to call it “P.G.” and in high-end mega-projects such as the National Harbor hotel, office, and entertainment.  But even the National Harbor project came wrapped in scandal, including the sponsoring developers’ capitalization of a charitable fund that was used to reward nonprofits connected to the politicians with no standards of accountability or due diligence in its grantmaking. 

When the Council on Foundations decamped for its 2008 annual meeting to National Harbor, NPQ reminded the foundation elite about the philanthropic scandal and total absence of accountability in P.G. County and gave them some talking points for the county leadership, but the Council failed even a murmur. 

Then came the Johnson scandal, and it took the former chair of the County Council, Peter Shapiro, to remind us of our sectoral responsibilities: “Especially in the nonprofit sector, there is a leadership vacuum in Prince George’s.” Nonprofits cannot prevent Johnson’s type of alleged corruption, but when cowed and purchased, they fall short of even their most minimal responsibilities as advocate for a democratic society. 

The Prince George’s nonprofit leadership shortfall that Shapiro identified extends to other areas of activity as well.  Corruption in this suburban Washington, D.C. county has long centered on the activities of real estate developers, not just those with market rate developments, but developers pitching affordable housing projects (the $100,000 check Johnson suggested his wife flush was an as-of-yet unidentified private developer’s thank-you for the County Exec’s giving him access to HOME Investment Partnership dollars). 

The County’s handful of nonprofit groups has consistently argued that “for-profit developers receive [more] favorable attention.” If Shapiro is correct, it isn’t hard to figure out why nonprofits get the short end of the stick in the county’s deliberations.  It is well known that several major nonprofits in the metro D.C. region  and nationally steer clear of assisting P.G. County nonprofits, suggesting that they aren’t sophisticated enough or, more candidly, that they don’t want to have to deal with P.G. County politics and politicians. 

So what should the nonprofit sector – operating nonprofits and grantmaking foundations – in the metro Washington region do to fulfill its democracy-building and democracy-defending mission in Prince Georges County?

·    Working with Prince George’s County nonprofits – the good ones whose image and credibility are getting stained by the County’s serial scandals – the leadership of the nonprofit sector should be developing a statement reaffirming nonprofits to the highest standards of accountability and asking – or embarrassing – political leaders, including the incoming County Executive, Rushern Baker (someone with his own questionable nonprofit history), to sign on. That act would do what nonprofits typically do in localities: They raise the standards of organizational probity, for themselves and for their partners.

·    Nonprofit human service leaders in the county spoke out after the arrest about the social issues faced by the population (for example, crummy schools, rampaging home mortgage foreclosures, etc.) and the blot on the county’s reputation. But they haven’t – other than Shapiro – taken on the nonprofit sector’s responsibility for improving governance and ethics.  The region’s nonprofit sector leadership, including Shapiro’s Washington-based Chesapeake Center for Public Leadership, ought to start speaking out loudly and consistently about ridding the county of corruption – and building the role of the nonprofit sector as a means of tamping down corrupting inclinations.

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 ·    Toward that end, a nonprofit sector audit of programs such as the HOME and Community Development Block Grants would reveal where the County had bypassed nonprofits in favor of politically connected and, for local politicians, financially generous for-profits.  The leadership design and implementation role of nonprofits in major federal programs passing through the county should be revived and brought to the attention of the incoming County Council.

·    Instead of bypassing the Prince George’s County system and its nonprofits as too difficult, too troubled, too messy to take on, this is exactly the time for national and regional intermediaries and management support organizations to provide technical and financial support to the county’s struggling nonprofits. There are good nonprofits in the county making things happen despite the troglodyte government, including Victory Housing (part of the Catholic Archdiocese) and the Housing Initiative Partnership (HIP) in Hyattsville, Md. But other nonprofits operate in conjunction with and sometimes front for private developers. Some intermediaries are in the county helping local groups, notably Enterprise Community Partners and NeighborWorks America. More help funneled to the legit groups strengthens them against those whose legitimacy has been compromised.

Shapiro’s statement ought to be a wake-up call to nonprofits in the metropolitan area and throughout the nation. You’re not just service deliverers. You aren’t just image-building social entrepreneurs. Believe it or not, you’re protectors of our democracy. An underdeveloped nonprofit sector is a leading indicator of democracy sold short. We need to revive attention to the nonprofit sector’s small “d” democracy mission; else we sell ourselves short too.  

  • Floyd Rheos

    With all the scandals in Prince George’s County, where is Steny Hoyer in all of this? He’s a major leader in county politics, had his start there and I’m sure he continues to have influence. Yet it sounds as though he’s turned a blind eye to his home base.