Foundation Friday: Who’s Speaking for Whom?

Sister blogger Lucy Bernholz reports that there’s a new Congressional caucus in formation on the subject of philanthropy.  Doubtless this is a good thing–virtually any public attention to the nonprofit sector might result in greater understanding of the sector’s significance–but the Nonprofiteer is dismayed by the blithe conflation, here as in other settings, of "nonprofits" and "philanthropy."  These are not synonyms.

As a consultant working with operating nonprofits, it would never have occurred to me that they were: my clients feared and truckled to foundations, but that doesn’t quite constitute making common cause with them.  Then I did a gig with the Donors’ Forum of Chicago, where much of the talk was about how the group–a regional association of grantmakers–saw its future as a regional leader of all nonprofits.  That’s when I discovered that institutional funders are under the impression that they’re representative (rather than, say, disproportionately able to influence events because they control a whole stack of cash).

In fact, operating nonprofits have one set of priorities–serve people and get as much money as possible to do so–while foundations have another set–change the world and give away as little money as possible to do so.  Let’s hope the legislators who participate in the caucus-in-formation (and thus will be on the receiving end of lobbying efforts on behalf of "the sector") can manage to remember the difference. 

Here’s a way to tell whether a legislator grasps this essential distinction: ask her whether she thinks it’s in the best interests of "the sector" to increase, or reduce, the percentage of their wealth foundations are required to give away every year.


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