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.

Problems of poverty, climate change and limited access to quality health care and education are so widespread that some philanthropists are convinced that government cannot solve them alone.

Jane Wales, a veteran of the Carter and Clinton administrations who founded the Global Philanthropy Forum, said government would be smart to leverage the "core capacities" of the nonprofit and corporate worlds. "Look at what's in the inbox of the next president," Wales said. "These are crises that cannot be solved by the public sector alone."

Both of the presumptive presidential candidates have been receptive to these proposals.

Members of America Forward have met with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose wife, Cindy McCain, is a philanthropist, and say he is open to using federal funds to support successful nonprofit initiatives.

"Particularly on education, he's been really resonant," said Kelly Ward, a director of America Forward. "He's talked about innovation and finding the best ideas around the country."

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a civic activist before entering politics, is proposing programs that would use federal money to expand successful community-based initiatives. "There are ideas across America -- in our inner cities and small towns; from college graduates to seniors getting ready to retire -- that could benefit millions of Americans if they're given the chance to grow," Obama said in a speech last month.

Obama cited the Harlem Children's Zone, a New York nonprofit group that helps children through after-school activities, mentoring and family support, that could be a model for cities across America.

A few state governments have offices that serve as liaisons with nonprofit groups and service volunteers. In February, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) established a cabinet-level secretary of service and volunteering, the first in the nation.

In 2003, Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) created a first-of-its-kind Office of the Foundation Liaison to broker partnerships between state government and philanthropies. Karen Aldridge-Eason, head of the program, said it has "broken down silos everywhere."

Nationally, some nonprofit leaders consider the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives a model. Established by President Bush in 2001, it helps churches and religious nonprofit groups expand their services by making federal grants more accessible. Critics have raised concerns about the separation of church and state and have said the office gives ministries and politically connected groups an unfair advantage in competing for millions in federal funds.

The fairness question was also raised last year about a secular nonprofit group called Concurrent Technologies, which reaped millions in federal money through its connection with the powerful Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.).

Although White House offices have the ear of the president, there are limits to what they can accomplish. Some say a better model is the Small Business Administration, a federal agency established in the 1950s that provides counsel, loans and other assistance to businesses. Such an agency could help nonprofit groups, particularly smaller ones, with such basic needs as navigating tax laws and applying for grants.

"There is no instrument in government other than the oversight function that provides any meaningful support to groups, especially small groups," said Diana Aviv, president of the Independent Sector, a national association of nonprofits.

With federal and state governments recording huge budget deficits, the burden on charities to deliver basic services is likely to increase. "Without a doubt, there's a greater need, more than ever before, for the nonprofit sector," Lewis said.

The number of new groups has soared in the past decade and Tim Delaney, chief executive of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, said it is only a matter of time before they partner on their own.

"Most nonprofits, if you look at it in human terms, are between toddlers and teenagers," he said. "We're coming of age and still learning to collaborate."

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