Smart Decisions

From a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy profile of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s first vice president for public policy, David C. Colby:

Mr. Colby will split his time between Princeton, N.J., where the fund’s headquarters are located, and Washington, where he’ll work to educate politicians about the foundation’s research and learn how the fund can help lawmakers shape policy. A big focus this year will be on helping the federal government make smart decisions about where it trims spending. (my emphasis)

Interesting that the focus here is on where to cut, not whether to cut. There very well may be some savings to be had in some of the areas that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation cares about—and I assume they will limit themselves to those things when they make their suggestions as to where to “trim”—but there are still reasonable people who think that any further cuts to federal non-defense discretionary spending is a bad idea, since Congress already cut, in 2012, $1.5 trillion of discretionary spending for fiscal years 2013 through 2022. Three-fifths of that is coming out of non-defense programs, which will shrink non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest level on record as a share of GDP.

What Are the Key Federal Policy Issues for Nonprofits?

Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, wrote an opinion piece last week for The Chronicle of Philanthropy that was critical of the Independent Sector’s new report on nonprofit advocacy, Beyond the Cause, arguing that is was undermined by “a self-serving agenda and an implicit, if not intentional, suggestion that Independent Sector become the central hub of the [nonprofit] sector’s advocacy efforts.”

The Chronicle headline would lead you to believe that the article was primarily about Eisenberg’s discomfort with the notion of Independent Sector serving as the voice for all on nonprofits, but the meatier part of his critique actually concerned the specific policy issues that they reported as the most critical to the field. He doesn’t agree with their choices, and suggests five policy changes that he thinks would make more of a difference. Those changes are (in a nutshell):

  • Improving what he labels as a “dysfunctional” nonprofit regulatory system.
  • Mandating an increase to the share of assets foundations must distribute annually.
  • Encouraging greater socioeconomic diversity on nonprofit boards of both foundations and nonprofits.
  • Closing the growing gap between large and small nonprofits. He notes that small organizations are shrinking (or closing) while large nonprofit are thriving and that tis disproportionately hurts the poor and disadvantaged, who typically get services from smaller, community-based nonprofits.

You can read the entire article to read his arguments in depth.

It’s useful to think about the most pressing policy issues impacting nonprofits, even though I don’t think it’s easy to come up with a list that every nonprofit would agree on, considering the size and diversity of the sector—which includes organizations ranging from universities with multi-million endowments to small, all-volunteer organizations with tiny budgets. And sometimes we forget that the sector includes a wide variety of political points of view as well.

For his part, Eisenberg thinks it’s impossible for nonprofits to share a broad consensus about which issues are most important, and that “the best that nonprofits can accomplish is to strengthen their individual advocacy and lobbying activities and join with other organizations in coalitions that fight for specific policy changes.”

But is it really impossible to come up with a short list of changes that a broad consensus of organizations could agree are important? And while I agree that working via coalitions is an effective strategy, the reality is that the best coalitions often are led by a trusted leader that pulls everyone together and keeps things organized. While I don’t think a single entity could speak for everyone on every issue facing nonprofits, a lead organization that was able to bring the sector together on a handful of the most critical issues, if it resisted the temptation to dominate the advocacy space on its own, could be very effective. The more groups there are advocating here in Washington on behalf of this sector, the more likely we are to drown each other out.

For the record, here are the issues that Independent Sector picked as most important:

  • Protecting against proposals that could limit the organizations eligible for charity status.
  • Protecting against proposals to limit or remove charitable tax deductions for donors.
  • Clarifying advocacy and lobbying rules for charities and private foundations.
  • Guarding against any proposed revisions to Internal Revenue Service disclosure forms that could hamper nonprofit operations.
  • Reducing/eliminating overly burdensome paperwork and red tape involving government contracts with nonprofits.
  • Providing more government-financed research on the nonprofit sector.