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Nonprofits Have a Role to Play in Building Bridges in a Polarized World

Reposted with permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy

America finds itself in a moment of political polarization. At times, nonprofits can reflect or even magnify that polarization. But at our best, we can serve as a bridge across the cultural chasms of our time. Americans across the political spectrum want to live in thriving communities—and every day, nonprofits help communities thrive.

But there are rare cases where the nonprofit form is abused by those with hateful agendas. At GuideStar, we have heard a rising demand from our users for information on hate groups which I’ll (imperfectly) define as those organizations that denigrate a group of people based on their identity.

Given that concern, in February we began to flag the profiles of 46 organizations that had been designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the weeks and months since, we have heard from both supporters and critics of the center’s approach. We acknowledge that there is a deep and difficult conversation to be had with Americans of all political, cultural, and religious backgrounds about how to most appropriately identify hate groups. That is a line not easily drawn.

Dismayingly, a significant amount of the feedback GuideStar has received in recent days has shifted from constructive criticism to harassment of our employees.

With these developments in mindand driven by both our commitment to strive towards objectivity and our concerns for our staff’s well-beingwe have decided to remove the SPLC annotations from the GuideStar profiles of these 46 organizations. We will continue to make this information available upon request to anyone who seeks it. And we are actively exploring how else we might be able to share information on those groups that abuse nonprofit status to advance an agenda of hate.

This has been quite a learning experience, so I wanted to offer a few reflections on it.

Some people do abuse nonprofit status to spread hateful rhetoric. We have seen overwhelming evidence that hateful agendas have been pushed by individuals within nonprofit organizations. There can and must be a debate regarding how we define "hate," but we do believe it is within GuideStar’s mission to help the public understand how its philanthropic dollars are used.

As an organization, we believe that an attempt to denigrate or marginalize a group of people based solely on their identity should be called out for what it is: hate. Words matter, and hateful words can cultivate a climate of hostility. That hostility can yield tragic consequences: The FBI documents thousands of hate crimes each year, with most directed against vulnerable people in marginalized communities.

The use of the nonprofit legal form to advance hate is extremely rare.

The vast majority of nonprofits do good work for the good of our society. It is important to emphasize that the use of the nonprofit legal structure to advance an agenda of hate is exceedingly rare. (Only 0.0027 percent of the 1.6 million active nonprofits in GuideStar’s database appear on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list.) In general, nonprofits represent the best of the American spirit; they reflect values that we all can and should stand behind. We cannot let the actions of a few taint the good of so many.

It is difficult to systematically identifyand documenthate.

It is hard enough to pin down a concept as nebulous as "hate." It is even more challenging to tie it to an evolving, multiperson entity like an organization. My direct conversations with people at SPLC have convinced me that their analysis is thorough and thoughtful.

That does not mean that I personally agree with every single designation they made; in fact, I do not. To us, that is the point: People can have different interpretations of the same facts. Different interpretations should begin a conversation, not end it. But in these polarized times, it is tragically hard for people to step back and disagree in a productive way.

We at GuideStar were also struck that SPLC’s thorough research was not always easily accessible through its public website. The center has an opportunity to more systematically share its methodology, analysis, and underlying data. This could go a long way to help us all have a constructive conversation grounded in facts.

We can all do better to productively express disagreement on difficult issues.

My interactions with individuals at the 46 flagged organizations have been largely professional. At times they have been sobering: I will not soon forget being shown the bullet holes from a past hate-driven shooting during my visit to the Family Research Council. No onewhatever their identity or their politicsdeserves to be targeted that way.

I often found these organizations’ arguments about the SPLC’s hate-group designations to be unconvincing. But I appreciated the fact that they took the time to make those arguments in a civil manner. And while I personally disagree with many of the views of the people I met with, I am thankful to have had those conversations.

Unfortunately, our interactions with some of these organizations’ supporters have been more difficult. Members of the GuideStar staff have faced harassmenteven when the individual staff member had nothing to do with these decisions. Closer to home, my own family was mentioned in some of the criticisms of GuideStar’s decision.

I deeply regret that we had to consider staff safety when deciding what to do in this case. That does not speak well for the state of civil discourse in our country right now. We must do better.

We need a new kind of conversation about hate in the nonprofit sphere.

Both "sides" of this debate are talking to GuideStar, even if they are not talking to each other. Over the last couple of weeks we have found ourselves wondering if there is a mediation role we could play. We don’t know if there is, or if GuideStar would even be the right organization to play that role. But we all must seek to climb out of our echo chambers and engage with those who have different views.

So, at GuideStar, we are launching a process to explore how we might more effectively highlight those rare cases when individuals abuse nonprofit status to advance an agenda of hate. Are there other data sources we could use? Could we build other tools to sort through this complexity? We hope you will join the conversation by adding your thoughts on our website.

As is so often true, we can find wisdom in challenging moments from Martin Luther King Jr., so I will close with his words: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Jacob Harold is GuideStar's president and CEO. Read this post on The Chronicle of Philanthropy website.

Topics: GuideStar database Southern Poverty Law Center Hate Groups