Archive for the ‘Advocacy’ Category

Going where the action (and money) is

April 24, 2012

An excellent piece of news today: the National Council of Nonprofits and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest have merged.  Why is this such good news?  Because many nonprofits have let the fear of losing their 501(c)(3) status keep them from participating in the democratic process in appropriate and legal ways.  And now, with budgets squeezed at the state and local as well as the national level, whatever organizations fail to put themselves in lawmakers’ faces will end up without the resources they require.

Lawmakers, like most other people, pay attention to what grabs their attention, which during a legislative session is whatever gets brought up by the people literally standing around the lobby waiting to talk to them.  Human services agencies need to be in that cohort; so do arts groups and environmental groups.  (Hospitals and universities long since figured out that they can conduct advocacy and still maintain their tax-exempt status.)

Not only will this merger give the National Council of Nonprofits a louder voice in legislative decision-making; it will signal clearly to nonprofits around the nation that lobbying in the public interest is indeed part of their mission—so much so that they won’t be able to pursue their mission without such lobbying.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Whose money is too filthy to take, and why?

April 6, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I’d be interested in your take on the Tucker Max/Planned Parenthood issue. That whole issue, which I’m sure you’ve touched on before, of NPOs making tough decisions about accepting donations is one that constantly comes up.

Signed, Hoping to Keep Clean Hands and Full Coffers

Dear Hoping:

So Tucker Max (a blogger the Nonprofiteer had never heard of until this letter) tries to give half a million dollars to Planned Parenthood, which has just lost funding from the Komen Foundation and is at risk of losing Federal funding, and PP turns the money down.

Under ordinary circumstances the Nonprofiteer would say, “WTF? So he’s a sexist piece of dog excrement! So he’s trying to whitewash his reputation! Why shouldn’t we help impoverish sexists by accepting their contributions? Why shouldn’t they pay restitution for their crimes and sins?”

But these aren’t ordinary circumstances, because the donor describes himself as follows:

My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions . . . sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead.

Years of public education about what Planned Parenthood actually does would go right down the drain if it permitted itself to be publicly tied to an advocate of reckless, consequence-free sex. The Republicans have clearly hit a responsive chord when they strive to outdo each other in demonizing PP, and that chord is that the very existence of Planned Parenthood represents an utter breakdown of sexual morals. Never mind that this isn’t true: Tucker Max actually DOES represent an utter breakdown of sexual morals, and Planned Parenthood can’t afford to be associated with him.

In general, though, the Nonprofiteer remains in favor of taking money from bad people: it’s not possible to eradicate them, and they ought to be good for something. If she still shudders (as she does) at entering the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center, she consoles herself that it represents millions of dollars the self-same Koch no longer has available to give to the Tea Party.

It’s fine if donating makes an evil donor look good. Just be sure that accepting doesn’t make you look bad.

Eternal vigilance is the price of—birth control?

February 10, 2012

The lesson from this past week’s Komen/Planned Parenthood contretemps is that when women make our voices heard in defense of the health care we need, we win the argument.

So let’s not hesitate to make just as much noise in response to the hysteria now being whipped up about the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all health care providers offer free contraception.  Republican rhetoric suggests that this is the equivalent of requiring churches to distribute RU-486 instead of communion wafers; but that’s complete nonsense. Actual religious organizations are exempt. What’s not exempt is the network of hospitals and schools run by those religious organizations.

Hospitals and universities affiliated with religious groups aren’t exempt from the Civil Rights Act. As a result, they’re required to provide health care to women as well as men. Birth control is an essential part of health care for women—a fact you’d think most people would concede, as it’s a way of preventing the abortions they’re so horrified by.

The largest Catholic university in the country already provides birth control as part of its health plan. 28 states already require hospitals and universities to provide this minimum standard of care. If your employer dictates your health plan, and your health plan dictates where you get care—as most plans do—you may be sent to a Catholic hospital regardless of your own beliefs.  Why isn’t it a violation of your religious freedom to be denied the care you need based on someone else’s dogma?

This is just a sketch of the arguments we can and must make, and make loudly, before the noise-makers on the other side take away the health care we’re entitled to and count on.

Write the President, write your Congressperson, write your Senator, write the Secretary of Health and Human Services, write the editor, sign every petition that shows up in your mailbox.   Tell them: don’t compromise our health.

S.O.S.: Save Our Services.  If we don’t do it, no one else will.

Give the people at Komen a piece of your mind . . .

February 2, 2012

as they seem to have lost their own.  Komen’s decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood at the behest of an anti-choice Board member reminds us how ready the right wing is to sacrifice women’s health for political gain.

There’s a petition to sign if you want to want to make your voice heard.  If you’ve been a Komen supporter and you now de-fund the organization, your voice will be heard even louder.

The Nonprofiteer has been wondering what to write about . . .

February 1, 2012

but she’d really have preferred not to have this as an inspiration.  There is no excuse for the decision of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, until now a respected source of information and funding in the fight against breast cancer, to defund Planned Parenthood‘s program of providing breast exams to poor women.

In fact, the decision doesn’t even make sense–unless you consider that a recent addition to the Board of Komen is an anti-choice ex-politician from Georgia.  As another commentator has wisely noted, Planned Parenthood will survive this latest injury–the Nonprofiteer’s determination to support the agency has just been redoubled, and probably her gift will be, too–but Komen may not.

Please join the Nonprofiteer in notifying Komen of your distress at its decision to let irrelevant politics endanger the lives and health of poor women, and of your decision to redirect to Planned Parenthood any support you may have been giving to Komen.

What should (but won’t) be the last word on the charitable tax deduction

December 20, 2011

The most powerful argument Jack Shakely makes in his LA Times op-ed piece opposing the charitable tax deduction is that it’s a poor trade-off.  The retired foundation executive points out that charities have permitted themselves to be shorn of their ability to influence policy and politics in return for a mess of pottage.  Of course the restrictions on charitable participation in the public arena aren’t as draconian as nonprofit executives (and especially Boards) think they are—but the point is that nonprofits understand themselves to be constrained, and rather than bothering with the details remain quiescent politically.

As strong a proponent as the Nonprofiteer is of the pursuit of individual gifts, in the real world virtually every social service agency needs seriously more government money if it’s going to make any dent in the social problems it faces.  The more social service agencies feel free to advocate for this particular budget bill or that particular provision in a piece of legislation—both prohibited by the current tax-code provisions—the more likely it is that those bills and provisions will pass, which would serve way more of the agencies’ clients than the most blue-sky estimates of their potential for growth in individual giving.

And for someone with foundation cred to say this!  All hail Jack Shakely.

h/t The Nonprofit Quarterly Newswire.

Why the public should fund the arts, after all

December 6, 2011

The Nonprofiteer had a fascinating conversation with Margy Waller, a special advisor to Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, which leads the nation in evidence-based approaches to advocating for arts funding.  Ms. Waller had reached out to correct the Nonprofiteer’s misunderstanding (and therefore misreporting) of ArtsWave’s efforts, noting that the argument is not that the public should fund the arts to promote economic recovery but that it should fund the arts to promote neighborhood vibrancy.  This nuance turns out to make all the difference.

Here’s the ArtsWave insight: people are ready enough to agree with the notion that the arts are good for the economy.  But if you probe deeper, and ask what top three things we should do to improve the economy, no one answers “subsidize the arts.”  So apparently the argument that the arts are an economic engine (true or false) is unpersuasive, which is what really matters.

But the ArtsWave research also uncovered the fact that if you ask people what would improve their neighborhood the most, the arts come up time and time again.  Why?  Because artists’ residences are known to herald an improvement in real-estate values; because arts audiences mean feet on the street and therefore greater public safety; because arts venues are known to spawn coffee shops and restaurants and other places of urban liveliness.

Therefore, the argument for public funding needs to be focused not on the art but on the public benefits of art-making.  This simultaneously ends the unwinnable argument about whether x or y is valid art or a useful expenditure of public funds and reminds people of what they believe anyway, that investment in arts-related infrastructure benefits everyone—not in some airy-fairy, soul-stirring, life-improving sense but in the grossest day-to-day experience of quality of life.

Thus an appeal to provide tax breaks to bring artists to a particular area would be framed not as a subsidy to these all-important art-making beings (read: overprivileged white people who ought to get jobs) but as a way to offset (maybe even reverse) the damage to property values wrought by foreclosures.  The subsidy is to the value of private property (something that can be monetized) rather than to the value of art (something that cannot).

As instrumental and cold-blooded as this approach may seem, Ms. Waller makes the powerful point that vibrancy is what people love about the arts—and that weaving the arts into the fabric of other social needs and activities enables people to appreciate the arts “not as consumers but as citizens.”

The Nonprofiteer was particularly struck by that last point.  Asked what citizens should do to respond to 9/11, then-President Bush had nothing more to offer than, “Go shopping.”  Anything that enables us to respond to public concerns in a public spirit; anything that combats the notion that government is the problem and privatization the solution; anything that reminds us that we’re a republic if we can keep it; anything that illustrates we don’t have to buy something to value it—any of these is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

As a wise person once noted, the important thing is not to have BEEN right, but to BE right.  The Nonprofiteer has been wrong in her blanket condemnation of public funding for the arts, because she thought of it exclusively in the frame established by its opponents: as subsidies to artists to create what might or might not actually be valuable.  Once the framing shifts to “vibrancy,”* and to concrete benefits to the broader society, public arts support suddenly makes sense.  No one else may care, but it will be a relief to her to stop being the only left-wing theater critic in the country opposed to public funding for the arts.

She continues to think that the NEA itself is a lost cause and that energy spent defending it would be better spent squeezing support for the arts out of HUD, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and local housing authorities.  But that’s a matter of strategy.  As a matter of principle, the Nonprofiteer is grateful to have discovered a valid way to defend taxpayer support to something that matters so much to her.

—————–

*Yes, “vibrancy” can be a euphemism for “gentrification,” or at least its prodroma.  But if we plan for vibrancy (instead of simply hoping that lightening strikes in this ‘hood or that), we can also plan to prevent displacement.  And without displacement, “gentrification” is just another word for “safe streets, amenities and public services”—for everyone, rich or poor.

By any other name . . .

November 4, 2011

The Nonprofiteer has never had much time for people who want to change the name of the sector to something non-”non”—something more positive, like “Civil Society Organization,” or less meaningful, like “independent.”  But this article about the connection between Herman Cain’s campaign and a Tea Party front group funded by the Koch Brothers has her rethinking her position.  Under the headline “Cain to Review Links to a Nonprofit” we learn that

An outside lawyer will review allegations that Herman Cain’s presidential campaign accepted tens of thousands of dollars in goods and services from a tax-exempt organization founded by his chief of staff . . .

The front group, “Americans for Prosperity,” is a Wisconsin nonprofit granted at least preliminary 501c3 recognition by the IRS.  And if it were actually nothing more than a group of citizens banded together to advocate for policies they believe will lead to prosperity, there would be nothing wrong with that.  But if instead it’s just a mouthpiece for the Koch brothers—an Astroturf, rather than a grassroots, organization—then there is something wrong.

The IRS requires 501c3s to raise a third of their money from the public precisely to prevent the creation of captive organizations of this kind.   Use of a tax-exempt entity to promote the interests of a single individual or family is a violation of Federal tax law.  Moreover, if the nonprofit paid some of the Cain campaign’s expenses, that’s a violation of Federal election law—perhaps one of the few activities left that is.

The Cain campaign may collapse under the weight of far more interesting allegations (sex beats money every time); but if in fact this nonprofit was nothing more than a campaign slush fund, its existence represents a taint on the “nonprofit” label.  What a shame that “handmaiden to profit and to policies assuring that the profitable get more so and the rest of us get squat” is so unwieldy.

Maybe a new name for the sector wouldn’t come amiss; but let’s be realistic.  The Iron Law of Euphemisms means that whatever name is adopted instead will soon become an epithet itself.  This explains the “progress” in designating African-Americans, from “n****r” to “colored” to “Negro” to “black” to “Black” to “people of color”: as long as people using the term hate the people they’re describing, the term will be infected with their hatred and soon need to be abandoned.

And as long as the wealthiest people using the term “nonprofit” are determined to distort the form to support the worst excesses of the profit-driven world, it hardly matters what the rest of us call it.

Collaboration without the head-shaving

November 3, 2011

Thanks to Thomas Cott of You’ve Cott Mail for pointing the Nonprofiteer to this article in Crain’s New York Business about the value of collaboration among small arts organizations as typified by the Lower Manhattan Arts League.

The league — which includes small groups like Access Theater and larger organizations such as Dance New Amsterdam and the Children’s Museum of the Arts — has monthly meetings where constituents help each other with everything from fundraising to legal advice. The groups have created a downtown cultural festival, which they produce in the fall and spring. The members even apply for some grants as one entity and lobby the city government as a pack. Individually, some members with budgets as small as $100,000 are barely on funders’ radar, but as a group the members generate around $14 million in economic activity per year and employ roughly 1,200 people full- and part-time. After years when none of the groups were able to score a grant from American Express, for example, the consortium applied together in 2009 and was awarded $100,000. They divvied up the money according to the size of each budget.

While the cheery tone of the article elides some of the serious difficulties arts organizations face in aligning their missions and needs with one another, the point is nonetheless well-taken: organizations too small to get attention on their own may be big enough when combined with others to secure foundation funding and government cooperation.

Such collaborations also serve as living ripostes to the chronic funder complaint that the supply of arts organizations exceeds the demand for them: if these disparate groups can work together without cannibalizing their audiences or funding, they must not be duplicating each other’s work. Or, as it is written: the whole [collaborative network] is greater than the sum of its parts.

Beyond “Will not!” “Will so!”

October 27, 2011

Kudos to the Nonprofiteer’s nonprofit consulting colleagues Campbell and Co. for sponsoring a study by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy to determine the impact on giving of increased marginal tax rates and a cap the charitable-giving deduction.  While some of us have been arguing that both of these moves toward social justice should be supported by the nonprofit community, and others have been arguing that the world will come to an end if every penny of tax savings isn’t afforded to the generous rich, these institutions decided to look for the facts.

The facts–as elegantly stated in a Congressional Research Service study that came to the same conclusion–are these:

The estimated effects of the cap and other elements of the budget package depend on whether the proposals are compared with the current tax rates of 33% and 35% or the rates scheduled for 2011, 36% and 39.6%. Compared with current rules, estimated effects are between one-half a percent and 1% decline in charitable giving . . . . When compared with tax rate provisions in 2011, charitable deductions are estimated to fall by about 1.5% if only the cap is considered, but if income effects from the entire budget package are included contributions actually rise 2.5%.  The relatively modest effects of the proposal arise because (1) the effect of caps on the subsidy value is limited, (2) only a fraction (about 16%) of charitable giving is affected, and (3) because evidence suggests that behavioral responses to changes in subsidies are relatively small.

(Emphasis the Nonprofiteer’s.)  To paraphrase: the tax subsidy isn’t much reduced; that small reduction doesn’t affect 84% of charitable giving; and, in fact, charitable giving isn’t all that tied to tax benefit.

So whether we take the IUPUI findings that charitable giving is likely to decline modestly if these tax reforms are enacted, or the CRS findings that it might actually go up, we should realize that everyone who’s hyperventilating about the impact of these changes on their poor struggling private school, museum or hospital should just take a deep breath.   Given that the reforms will support many of the social programs, environmental protections, educational institutions and health care options the nonprofits themselves seek to provide, it’s about time for the community to stop whining and agree to pony up.


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