Welcome to the special expanded Fall 2004 issue, on the complex relationships between government and nonprofits. This connection is complicated, often driven by gusty political winds, and increasingly intense—with long-term implications for the future of nonprofits. Now is not the time to sit silently by. We urge you to both read these articles and also to use them to figure out where you can take productive action.
In fact, we may have struck the balance of power very wrong in the customary relationships we nonprofits have with government . . . and the situation promises to get wronger yet without a change of direction.
We can’t lose sight of the fact that the primary purpose of the nonprofit sector is to activate democracy—getting people involved in common work for the greater good. This is a potentially powerful role that, regrettably, many nonprofits don’t take seriously enough, as shown in their minimal negotiating position. It leaves us and the people we represent (or claim to) far too subservient to elite and monied interests. For those of you thinking that this is a minority or partisan view, note the pieces from Bill Schambra and Krista Shaffer; and Otis Johnson in this issue. While Schambra and Johnson hail from opposite sides of the right to left continuum, they apparently share a belief in this sector’s responsibility to keep our democracy active and more responsive to the needs and interests of people without extra dollops of money, power and influence. We do suggest, however that the reader take take a close look at Tom Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas” to get a nother important perspective on how the issue of an active and engaged citizenry is playing out right now in real politics. As Franks says, people now “vote to get government off our backs; [but] receive conglomoration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking . . . [they] vote to strike a blow against elitism; [but] receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes.” Shambra, Johnson and and “What’s the matter with Kansas” taken together lay out a frightening situation which we are failing to counter, given the lack of progress by nonprofits to engage their communities in rethinking the current political context.
To illustrate our concern that nonprofits are abdicating their duty to address issues most critical to theirr constituents, in “Nonprofits and Taxes” Kim Klein of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal questions why nonprofits are silent on tax policy in this country when it is so basic to what happens to the communities we care about.
We need to understand that nonprofits are in an extraordinary position to think about political/social/economic agenda setting in league with our constituents and each other. In the meantime we have some work to do to actively resist an officious tide of restrictions that would smother much of the autonomy and freedom of association most basic to the way this sector operates.
This issue examines the changing nature of the regulatory environment from several perspectives. For instance, the highly informed staff at OMB Watch developed two articles on federal secrecy policies and use of punitive audits and the precipitous withdrawal of funding to suppress dissent. These may be read in connection with Rick Cohen and Kevin Ronnie’s articles about the increasing restrictions on organizations wishing to participate in the state employee chartitable campaigns and the Combined Federal (workplace solicitation) Campaign for a sense of the tools current administrations are using to make their partisan political will felt among nonprofits.
Because half of the law on nonprofits is at the state level, we also brought together the views of five state charity regulators from offices of the attorneys general. They are concerned about a number of recent trends, including the sometimes messy and inappropriate partnerships between business and nonprofits. Primarily, though, they voiced concern about boards of directors who don’t know what to look for in monitoring the finances, management and performance of the organizations they govern. Particularly, they wanted to alert nonprofits that there may still be a window of opportunity to figure out self-regulating mechanisms both internal to individual organizations and with other nonprofits in the form of the promotion of standards and guidelines. This would be an excellent article to pass along to your board—as is Marcia Avner’s piece, Essentials for advancing Nonprofit Advocacy: Board Leadership,” promoting advocacy by nonprofit boards.
Two articles worth reading by those who have or may consider government funding are Jody Sandfort’s “Trying to Dance to Syncopated Rhythm: the Dynamics of Government Funding for Nonprofits”” and Jeanne Peters’ “Government Funding: Use it Well.” Both do a good job of naming in a very balanced and realistic way the trade offs and management requirements of receiving government money.
One of our favorite authors, Peter Frumkin, and co-author David Reingold, fire a shot over the bow of the complacent in an examination of why three favored social programs—Youthbuild, DARE, and the Individual Development Account (IDA) promoted through community development corporations and other economic development entities—could have received healthy amounts of public funds for national replication without any documentation of extraordinary effectiveness. The new theory of funding dysfunction proposed by the authors is thought provoking at the very least. This article merely exposes the tip of the iceberg, and this will not be the last time we deal with the issue of earmarking of public funds. Look for more within the coming year (whether we get a special appropriation or not!).
Finally, we have two buyer’s guides. Our supplement this issue is on donor database software. Look here for guidance on what to look for when preparing to buy your own! In the back of the book, you will find an article walking your organization through the considerations for selecting an organizational pension or retirement savings program. We are very grateful to Robert Weiner and Tom Raffa (both still saving for their retirement) respectively for sharing their formidable knowledge with you, our readers.
One final word—remember, dear readers that the Nonprofit Quarterly itself is a nonprofit and working on limited capital. Your help in spreading the word about NPQ to future readers—and encouraging them to subscribe—is critical to our success. Please look for the gift card in this issue and fill it out! Let your colleagues know how valuable a resource the ideas and information of NPQ can be for them.
We note with great sadness the passing of Robert Fibkins who acted as the Publisher of the Nonprofit Quarterly between and until health problems intervened. Bob, who had a long and rich history in publishing came here with a dream of one day spending time in Mexico learning Spanish. We were so very glad to hear that he finally made it there before he left this earth.