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From the President's Office, March 2008

Dear Friend:

Hasn't this been a fantastic primary election season? I had my doubts—and I still have some reservations—about this long-drawn-out affair. Between states jostling for position with early primaries, oversaturated media coverage, and a seemingly endless series of debates, a certain degree of voter fatigue would be understandable. But the energy, enthusiasm, and participation, particularly from young voters, have been intoxicating. This is turning out to be the best and most exciting primary election in my lifetime.

It is incumbent upon anyone with an interest in the nonprofit sector to consider the potential outcomes from a philanthropic perspective before making a decision on which candidate to back. Before I go any further, I'd like to take this moment to offer a friendly reminder:

501(c)(3) organizations cannot—under any circumstances—either endorse or oppose any political candidate. If you're unclear on the exact parameters of this restriction, please take a look at the guidance on this issue posted on the IRS Web site. This is not a restriction to be taken lightly, as it is an integral part of the covenant that allows nonprofits to pursue their charitable missions in a tax-exempt fashion.

Nonprofit professionals, however, are also citizens; we have a right—and an obligation—to select the candidates whom we feel best represent our values and concerns. I recently received an e-mail from Charles Bernard Maclean, the founder of PhilanthropyNow, a consulting organization that coaches nonprofits and donors toward more effective philanthropy, on this topic.

His message offered a series of questions designed for the media, debate organizers, and anyone who finds him- or herself in the enviable position of directly addressing the presidential candidates. The questions are intended to encourage the candidates toward openly disclosing their positions in regards to general philanthropic issues:

  • Who is your role model for good giving, and why?
  • What's the most satisfying gift you've given, and what did you get by giving it?
  • What do you care about, give to now, and why?
  • America is the most giving country in world. What will you do to continue and expand that ethic?
  • What's your stance on encouraging volunteering and dollar donation by all Americans?
  • What stops people from giving, and what national policies and legislation will you champion to dissolve that?
It is important that we elect a president with a clear understanding of—and appreciation for—the nonprofit sector and the role it plays in providing vital services to our society, often services that government cannot or does not provide. But it is equally important that we elect a president who has a personal understanding of philanthropy. Politicians are also citizens—generally wealthy citizens—and it is not unfair to assume that their personal attitudes toward charitable giving will have some effect on their professional decisions.

The ultimate concerns of the nonprofit sector should be agnostic to partisan lines. Regardless of which party is in power, we need an administration that will find a balance between effective oversight and over-regulation, one that will seek out ways to continue funding vital charitable programs, and one that will generally help create a society that encourages members of the next generation to embrace a life of volunteerism and socially conscious generosity.

Of course, the president is not the only individual with a responsibility to steer the nation toward an environment in which philanthropy can thrive. There are hundreds of thousands of others who choose to dedicate their time, their ideas, and their energies toward the same goal, including nonprofit professionals, volunteers, private philanthropists, and social entrepreneurs. Young people who aspire to a career that will allow them to have an impact on society would be well advised to note that politics are not their only option.

I believe that come November, the American people will select a candidate who will lead our country in the right direction. More important, I also believe that each of us has the opportunity to lead by example every day. By continuing to share our energies and work together, we become more than just citizens, more than just voters. In the end, we ourselves are the true agents of positive change.

Sincerely,

Bob Ottenhoff
President and CEO