Federal efforts to prevent charitable donations from being diverted to terrorist groups have sparked controversy in the nonprofit sector lately.
This past July, the director of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), the equivalent of the United Way for federal and military employees, affirmed in the New York Times that nonprofits participating in the CFC must certify that they do not employ anyone named on government terrorist lists.
The American Civil Liberties Union immediately announced that it was withdrawing from the CFC. Other organizations soon followed its example. And on October 8, the National Council of Nonprofit Associations announced its opposition to the requirement. Nearly 10,000 nonprofits, however, are participating in the 2004 Combined Federal Campaign.
To get an idea of how people feel about the issue, the October Question of the Month asked Newsletter readers, "Do you believe that nonprofits should be required to check employees' names against government terror lists in order to receive grants and contributions?"
The Noes Have It—BarelyThe results were close: 51 percent of respondents opposed the measure, 45 percent supported it, and 4 percent reported they were not sure.
Opponents gave several reasons for their position. Doubt about the lists' reliability was mentioned most frequently. "The government's lists are constantly changing and full of inaccuracies," asserted one respondent. "Such lists are unreliable, highly subjective and inconsistent at best," wrote another.
Several of these same participants expressed concern about the nature of the lists. "The lists are not accurate, not easily correctible and political in nature," one person stated. Another contended, "The government 'terror' lists are based on racial profiling and scapegoating—the kinds of human rights violations many non-profits work against."
Increasing burdens on charities was another common concern. "For small nonprofits, this requirement is just too cumbersome!" exclaimed one participant. Another asked, "What non profits can afford this extra burden?"
A number of people maintained that the measure violated employees' civil rights: "If this trend is for real, it is not only an addition of work for already over-worked NPO employees, but also an additional erosion of our civil liberties and right to privacy," one reader stated. "This would be equivalent to blacklisting in the McCarthy era," another asserted.
Others argued that the nature of the nonprofit sector makes the requirement unnecessary. "NPO employees do not just materialize," one person wrote. "They usually arrive from known sources and with recommendations."
A few opponents stated that, although such checks should not be required across the board, they might be necessary under specific circumstances. "If it is a direct grant or exchange contract from the federal government and the grant may have some relation to national security or national sites, the feds may require background checks for key employees just as they do with federal contracts to for profit organizations. But not everyone at Boeing needs to have a security clearance or a blanket employee check against terror lists because Boeing gets federal contracts!"
In a similar vein, a couple of respondents suggested that nonprofits should vet their employees voluntarily. "Should they be required to, 'No.' Should a nonprofit perform this due diligence on their employees to demonstrate transparency, 'Yes,'" said one.
"I do not believe such a check should be linked to whether or not an organization receives money. Funders should be making their decisions based on the missions of the organizations applying for funding and on the achievements those applicants have made in fulfilling their goals," wrote another. "I do believe, however, that it is the responsibility of organizations hiring new staff to check names against terror watch lists, just as they would check references or a criminal record. Unfortunately, we currently live in a climate of suspicion, but with legitimate reason. As servants of the community, it is our responsibility to protect our constituents by being as thorough as possible in our hiring practices."
Yes—"We All Have to Do Our Part to Protect Our Society"The requirement's supporters also expressed a range of views. Most common was the opinion that such precautions are necessary in our post-9/11 world. "We will never be able to view freedom the same way," one reader stated. "We will have to pay the price for that freedom." Another wrote, "Names should be checked in this new world of terrorism."
One of these participants did voice reservations about the quality of the lists and how they would be implemented: "We all have to do our part to protect our society. ... My one concern however, is the accuracy of the lists and if there is sufficient information to distinguish between two individuals with the same or similar names. Naming conventions are not uniform around the world."
Others contended that the nature of the nonprofit sector made the measure necessary. "We have a public trust to uphold—many times that trust is all that differs us from the secular for profit (or government) sector," explained one. Another observed, "We are the government. The business of security is all about information. Who is closer to the people than non-profit organizations that work with and for the people."
One participant asserted, "I think every nonprofit who receives government funding should have background checks performed on their staff. Hopefully, that would include a check on any criminal activity, including terror lists. When you're using the people's money, you must be accountable."
Another reader agreed that the issue extends beyond terrorism. "Here in California everyone delivering direct human services with minors must be fingerprinted. Their names are checked for sex offenses, drug offenses and crimes of violence. ... It's taken some getting used to but, in today's world it seems to be a good idea."
Some participants maintained that the requirement holds nonprofits to the same standard as other types of organizations. "I feel nonprofits should have to check a list just as the private sector does," wrote one. Another asked, "Why should non-profit organizations be excluded?"
And, like some opponents to the measure, a few supporters express their opinions quite succinctly: "ABSOLUTELY!!"
ConclusionsIf the responses to the October Question of the Month are representative, then they demonstrate once again that the nonprofit sector is not a monolithic entity with a single ethos but is instead a collection of diverse organizations that hold equally diverse values. As one of the undecided respondents noted, "There is no simple answer to this problem."
Suzanne E. Coffman, November 2004
© 2004, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)
Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.