Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ideas for Nonprofits

"[T]he Aspen Institute has identified a set of policy ideas that take into account the changes underway in the social sector..."

The Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program, The Aspen Institute, Mobilizing for Change: 10 Nonprofit Policy Proposals to Strengthen U.S. Communities

The important role of the nonprofit sector in the U.S. economy sets the stage for these 10 policy ideas and the overarching recommendation for a bipartisan national commission on the nonprofit sector and government. Four of the policy ideas address fiscal capacity and six deal broadly with nonprofit-sector capacity.

Not a bad list of ideas at first glance -- sensible, related to multiple stakeholders, and seemingly feasible. The nonprofit capital proposals focus on attracting more resources into the sector -- federal incentives for social investment, new tax designations for social benefit organizations, extension of charitable designations until tax time, and reform of foundation excise taxes. The research and capacity building recommendations focus on technical assistance, building a nonprofit leadership pipeline, and better coordination.

The downside of lists of this kind is twofold. First, at some point, one inevitablly asks: What's the problem? The idea prospectus skips from "hope" to "GDP share" to policy proposals without making an argument about the state of the nonprofit sector. Maybe the assumption is that we all know what is needed. But I've seen troubling reports about nonprofit-sector effectiveness and credibility -- in addition to the capital and next generation challenges.

Second, reading the list of 10 ideas more closely prompts another set of questions: Do we really need federal incentives for aggregating new social investment capital? Aren't all the big foundations chasing these elusive trust funds and new wealth now? How will a new social benefit designation affect current nonprofits? Will a new breed of social entrepreneurs supplant the nonprofit sector. Look what happened to the CDC movement when low-income tax credits came on the seen. More production, less community building. Recommending a Small Business Administration (SBA) for nonprofits raises the question about whether the SBA has worked for small business. Is training the answer?

I'm sure some of my questions will be answered when I plough through the ample references provided. Thank you for that. But I'm left with the feeling that the list is a hodgepodge of good ideas, pet ideas, and obligatory ideas. I guess the challenge for all of us is to come up with some better ideas.

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