The nonprofit sector builds movements for the most urgent causes of our time. But it has no movement for itself. It speaks for those without a voice. But remains silent on the systemic misperceptions that undermine its own potential. It defends the weak and the downtrodden. But is a punching bag when it comes to the issues that affect it directly; issues like spending on overhead and infrastructure, investment in talent, risking donor dollars in the present to achieve a brighter future down the road. It’s time to transfrom this. It’s time for a movement for the movement-builders. Change for the change-makers. It’s time for the sector to stand up for itself, speak up for itself, defend itself, organize itself and advertise itself with the same sense of mission and purpose with which it has heretofore subjugated itself to the sacred canons of frugality and martyrdom.In my new book, “Charity Case, How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Really Change the World,” I and a number of pioneers in the field have outlined plans and ideas for a national Charity Defense Council which will serve five vital, fundamental grassroots organizing functions essential to the creation of any movement. The nonprofit sector currently lacks each of them. These include:
Unbelievably, the sector has no anti-defamation mechanism. The gay and lesbian community has the Gay & lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The Jewish community has the Anti-Defamation League. The African American community has the NAACP. All very well funded. Ironically, these are all nonprofit organizations. But when the nonprofit sector itself is attacked by sensational media looking for populist ratings, it has no legitimate, respected, sanctioned national voice to offer an alternative point of view, or to tell the public the truth.
Legal Defense Fund
Freedom of speech is as much about having the right not to say things you don’t want to say as it is about being able to say the things you do. So, when nonprofit organizations are forced to speak to the donating public — in all manner of federal, state and local tax and reporting forms — in the language of overhead percentages, instead of in plain English, and instead of in terms of impact or aspirations, its First Amendment rights are trampled. Also unbelievably, the sector has no well-funded legal defense resource. The NAACP has a separate Legal Defense Fund with a $12 million annual budget. The gay community has Lambda Legal, with a $15 million annual budget. The Mexican-American community has MALDEF, with a $3.6 million annual budget. The nonprofit sector has two pro bono attorneys — God bless them — organized as American Charities for Reasonable Fundraising Regulation. Their last tax form was filed in 2007 and showed a budget of less than $3,000.
National Civil Rights Act for Charity and Social Enterprise
It’s time the people who are trying to change the world had a statutory code that actually supports them in that effort. Instead, we have a fragmented code, written for another age, to address issues that are no longer relevant, by people who have long since died, and that fundamentally undermines our ability to create real change. We need new corporate structures, merger incentives, tax incentives, marketplaces and oversight apparatuses, among other things. Yet it has never dawned on the sector that it could play a proactive role in determining the legal context in which it will perform. In the book, sixteen leaders in the field, from the head of GuideStar to the head of Independent Sector, have contributed their ideas to begin a discussion that will culminate in a sweeping national act to transform that context.
Advertise to the Public
It is mind-boggling that the nonprofit sector has never run one — not one — advertisement to try and cure the public of its hallucinations about charity and about how change actually occurs. It’s time we began running full-page ads in the New York Times and commercials on the Superbowl to inform the public that low overhead is not the path to the transformation of human suffering — that demanding talent on the cheap is not the way we will eradicate poverty or AIDS or any of the other great problems that confront us. If the pork industry could correct the public’s misperceptions about pork as a fatty, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen meat with their, “Pork, the other white meat,” campaign, then we can change the way people think about charity. If the egg industry could do the same with their “Incredible edible egg” campaign, we can do the same with issues like overhead. It’s no wonder the public demands low overhead instead of impact. We’ve never told them the two things are not correlated.
It’s time for a 3-day fundraising walk for the cause of the advancement of causes themselves. It’s time for a national database of nonprofit sector workers and friends that can be called on on a moment’s notice to act — against a malicious news reporter, or a politician trying to promote their career on the back of an ill-conceived populist regulation. And it’s time we met one another in the context of the issues that affect us directly.
The Charity Defense Council will do these things. It’s not just an idea. It is incorporated, has its tax exempt status, and a powerful advisory board. It intends to fight for the people who fight for the people and for the dreams that brought us all into this work in the first place. Dreams that have too long been trampled. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has called it, “An Apollo program for American philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.”
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