As the Nonprofiteer learned during a misspent youth, there’s a doctrine in the law known as standing, which holds that no one is entitled to raise a matter in court unless s/he is personally affected by any decision that might be rendered on the matter. This means I’m not allowed to sue to enforce your Constitutional rights–you have to sue for yourself. And the courts have set and interpreted the requirement to mean (with an exception for the separation of church and state) that Jane Q. Taxpayer has no standing to sue to invalidate an Act of Congress, notwithstanding the likelihood that some fraction of Jane’s taxes will be used to carry that act into effect.
This Federal-Jurisdiction-in-a-nutshell is brought to you in connection with the ongoing debate about whether nonprofits should oppose the war in Iraq. The idea of standing is at the root of my reluctance to have nonprofits whose primary purpose is something other than opposing wars take a stance against this one. The standing requirement exists to make sure that issues are argued sharply, clearly and thoroughly, the idea being that only people with skin in the game are able to represent effectively the ideas they claim to support. Though I can see that the local domestic violence shelter has the interests of any taxpayer in the disposition of tax money, I don’t see that it has the personal and particular interest necessary to clearly articulate objections to this war.
Obviously the parallel is inexact–many people and groups speak in the public forum on subjects concerning which they wouldn’t be heard in a court of law. But standing is precisely what we’re all arguing about: what does any particular nonprofit stand for? It’s not a generalized goodness or public-spiritedness but a purpose to do a particular thing for particular people in a particular way. Even that doesn’t make for simple decisions–should a rape crisis hotline endorse access to legal abortion? The Nonprofiteer thought so and was compelled to resign from a governing Board that disagreed–but it does provide a yardstick against which each action can be measured.
So I urge nonprofits tempted to take a position on the war to ask exactly how much territory they’re prepared to claim and defend, and in what context. For, as it is written, you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.