Friday, March 6, 2009

Nonprofit Stimulus

"To improve our nation's ability to address the serious challenges our country faces, America needs to take fuller advantage of the important asset represented by its 'citizen sector,' our country's vast network of private, nonprofit organizations."

Johns Hopkins Listening Post Project,"The Forward Together Declaration: Empowering America's Citizen Sector for the Change We Need."

I couldn't agree more with the overall thrust of this manifesto for greater appreciation and support for the nonprofit sector -- especially in this challenging time. But I have trouble with several of its premises.

First, recasting the nonprofit sector as the "citizen sector" allows the obligatory Alexis de Tocqueville quote but conflates too easily nonprofit organization with volunteerism and grassroots associations. I know I'm treading on sacred ground but sometimes its hard to find "citizens" as "citizens" in many nonprofits.

Second, the manifesto gives short shrift to the potential roles of nonprofits in various aspects of economic recovery work, including advocacy, planning, implementation, innovation, accountability, etc. I know, manifestos are supposed to be short. I just think the list could have beeen more expansive and strategic -- and thus more compelling.

Moreover, the manifesto could have brought more attention to the big challenges that economic recovery efforts will face during implementation -- especially in terms of the stimulus reaching low-income families and communities.

Third, as an umbrella framework, maybe I shouldn't expect a manifesto to take on some of the tough issues for the nonprofit sector. Some nonprofit challenges are mentioned in a "list" kind of way. When you brag about how many people your sector employs it's difficult to then talk about whether the sector is overbuilt (too many organizations with too little capacity), its effectiveness, the condition of nonprofits because of the recession and demographics, and what investments are needed to enhance nonprofit capacity. There was only a glimmer of honest self appraisal.

A dissenting voice: "Nonprofits need to first look to their own community to help them out before asking government to pitch in."

Pablo Eisenberg,Georgetown University, quoted in: Stephanie Strom,"Charities Say Government is Ignoring Them in Crisis," New York Times, March 5, 2009.

By that test, should we even have a federal recovery effort?

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