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Some Nonprofits Push for Increased Federal Involvement

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In the world of philanthropy, where independence from government has long been sacred, a revolution is underway. Social entrepreneurs are clamoring for a realignment of the way the federal government and nonprofit groups work together to maximize the impact of American generosity.

With the presidential campaign in full swing, nonprofit leaders are organizing what some call an unprecedented effort to boost the presence of philanthropy and community service in a new administration. They are calling for a White House office or an agency similar to the Small Business Administration to match nonprofit programs with government priorities, help successful community-based initiatives grow and organize a corps of service volunteers.

Nonprofit organizations are a growing economic force, with about one in 10 U.S. workers employed by such organizations and Americans giving upwards of $300 billion a year to charities. Although they are relied on to fix many of society's problems, nonprofit groups often work in isolation and have virtually no strategic coordination with government.

"We're the only industry of this size and scope that doesn't have a real voice in this process. At best, we're humored. At worst, we're ignored," said Robert Egger, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen.

Since the New Hampshire primary, Egger has crisscrossed the country as part of his V3 Campaign asking presidential candidates how they would partner with nonprofit groups. Egger described the sector as "balkanized," with many competing for funding and often overlapping in missions and services.

"Is that really changing our society?" Egger asked. "Is it making our community stronger? Or are we trapped in that model?"

Meanwhile, a coalition of nonprofit groups and entrepreneurs recently started America Forward, a similar campaign based on the idea that solutions to the nation's problems already exist, often conceived by small but innovative community-based groups. America Forward seeks to combine corporate pragmatism, charitable ethos and government investment to develop these solutions to address the biggest challenges.

"The philanthropic dollars provide us the money to experiment and try new things," said Kim Syman, an America Forward co-founder. "Philanthropy can fail in a way that government can't. But we can catalyze government investment in growing what works."

But these proposals have drawn skepticism from some philanthropists who pride themselves on their autonomy and are leery of government oversight.

"There are a lot of people in this sector who will get nervous about the federal government becoming too engaged in philanthropy," said Steve Gunderson, president of the Council on Foundations. "This is a delicate balance."

"Some people think, 'Hey, it's a great idea,' " said Alan J. Abramson, a philanthropy scholar at George Mason University. "But there's also this other argument that . . . we don't want an agency that is going to over-regulate us."

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who chairs a key subcommittee, said Congress will study the proposals, but cautioned that an increased role for government may not be best for nonprofit groups. "Sometimes we can get in the way," he said.

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