August 9, 2007, 12:00 - 2:00 PM - Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C. Headquarters
On August 9, Hudson Institute's Bradley Center hosted a discussion of the question
Should Nonprofit Organizations Play an Active Role in Election Campaigns?
Thursday, August 9, 2007, 12:00 to 2:00 p.m.
Readers of The Chronicle of Philanthropy in May and June 2007 witnessed a lively discussion unfold on its pages between D.C. Central Kitchen president and author Robert Egger and Georgetown University scholar Pablo Eisenberg. With a view to the next election cycle, Egger argued in a May 31 opinion piece ("Charities Must Challenge Politicians") that nonprofit organizations deserve the kind of political stature corporations enjoy because like corporations, they employ millions of Americans, command billions of dollars in resources, and thus play a vital economic as well as civic role in their communities. Yet nonprofits face a double standard when it comes to political activity, and they "accept their muzzled role." Egger concludes that the laws that prohibit charities from direct campaign activities "not only are outdated, but also will be counterproductive" as nonprofits continue to grow in size, wealth, and stature.
Eisenberg, a regular contributor to the Chronicle, responded to Egger in his June 28 column ("Charities Should Remain Nonpolitical"). "Existing regulations are not the culprit for the nonprofit world's failure to be more activist and politically involved," he wrote. Historically, charities and foundations have held themselves apart from business and government, serving as a mediating force between the two. Yet as a result, nonprofit groups have "enormous leeway in supporting and promoting activism and influencing the political system." The problem is not that these organizations are hampered by their nonprofit status and all that it entails, Eisenberg argues, but that most simply fail to exercise their current rights to organize communities, communicate with elected officials and their staffs, and educate and register voters.
On August 9, Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal hosted a discussion between these two storied nonprofit sector leaders. Chronicle of Philanthropy senior writer Ian Wilhelm served as the discussion's moderator, opening the panel with the simple question, "What is the proper role for nonprofits in politics?" Wilhelm's opening remarks also paved the way for an ongoing discussion of "a broader debate… about what, exactly, a nonprofit is; what its relationship to the government and for-profit companies should be; and what, ultimately, its role should be in democracy," as Wilhelm described it.
In his presentation and comments, Egger backed up his written case that the laws regulating charities' political activities need changed by painting a larger picture of what needs to change about America: working mothers who are living "by the rules" but yet can't afford to feed their families; the as yet unfathomably large problems that bear down on America, from the health care of aging Baby Boomers to the rising competitiveness of the global economy; and a million nonprofit organizations facing "a thousand little issues"?children's issues, housing issues, arts issues, or?like Egger's DC Central Kitchen?hunger issues that, with the future's looming problems, are bound to get worse. The laws need to change, Egger argues, because the nonprofit sector can make a difference, yet it lacks a unified voice that can make itself heard where the decisions are made, and it lacks the punch of the corporate world wielding its financial might and lobbying abilities.
Egger also lamented that the nonprofit sector must make do with society's "leftovers"?the left-over food collected by DC Central Kitchen, for one, but also the time left over at the end of the day and the money left over at the end of the year, volunteering and tax-exempt donations, respectively. The sector is obviously not taken seriously?it's a "subjugated and marginalized workforce" caught up in a power dynamic. "We can't 'charity' our way out of these problems," Egger argued. "Individually, it's very difficult for nonprofits to confront the public with that reality…. And I can't just sit idly by and watch business and government do what they've done historically." "…It's about us as a country," he pleaded.
For these reasons, Egger and Audrey Alvarado convened last year's Nonprofit Congress and continue its efforts to find a unified voice in the nonprofit sector and make it heard, politically. "I want to see us get elected," he said. "I want to see us put ourselves up for office and openly vote for each other." Egger also championed "hybrid" organizations and models that cross sector lines.
Pablo Eisenberg disagreed on many accounts, telling the audience of a quality of "nonprofitness" that is the very basis for the sector's legitimacy and power. He urged those considering a political role for charities to recognize that taxpayers are voters who themselves designate politicians, parties, and campaigns. They would likely be outraged if the money they devoted to nonprofit activities was used to endorse candidates, for example. Nor would politicians allow such a role for the sector. In Eisenberg's view, such political activity by nonprofits would "taint the integrity and public trust of nonprofits, thereby diminishing their capacity to deliver services, retain public confidence, and raise charitable dollars for their operations." The nonprofits sector, after all, has an independence from business, government, and politics, as Eisenberg described, "that has characterized their history in this country if they want to do their jobs well, serving as an intermediary between these factions. It is, I maintain, the unique quality of 'nonprofitness' that has been the backbone of our civil society over the years. It is that quality that has enabled nonprofits to challenge governments, monitor and hold accountable corporate America, give a voice to the voiceless, mobilize constituencies, influence public policies and generate crucial scientific and medical research. It has done so because of its independence, not because it has become more like businesses or politicians."
Eisenberg agreed with Egger, however, that there is a need for change and a clear role for the nonprofit sector to play in bringing it about, one that it has not been playing recently. "Take a look at all of the social movements that have taken place since the 1960s, from the civil rights movement to the youth movement to the women's movement to the environmental movement to the disability movement to the gay and lesbian movement. …All of those movements have been led by nonprofits and they made major change in this country, politically, legislatively, and in terms of attitude," Eisenberg argued. Yet today's sector, he went on, is dominated by "too many old fogies" who are afraid of the potential of young people, he complained. Moreover, young people in community service today are not encouraged to develop a politically activist stance as a part of their service. Therefore, "there are so many issues which nonprofits ought to be speaking out and putting their muscle into that they're not doing…. How many nonprofits have had the guts to challenge foundations, corporate donors, and United Ways throughout the country on the pattern of their giving, which has in fact neglected poor people, has refused to fund advocacy, and has supported primarily established organizations? ….How many nonprofits have attacked the excesses of corporate America?"
Eisenberg also recognized that the sector is fragmented and not engaged on critical issues. "Ninety-five percent of philanthropy money?foundation money, that is?goes to established organizations of arts, culture, and higher education. Hospitals. Almost nothing goes to grassroots, to people of color, to advocacy groups."
For his part, Egger noted that many nonprofits act in isolation, and that it is critical for them to realize that "you have to be part of something bigger than yourself." He lamented the fact that the media does so little reporting on the nonprofit sector where they could play an important role in fostering the sector's identity. Eisenberg agreed.
But Eisenberg disagreed with Egger that current law is what's preventing nonprofits from involvement in politics. Nonprofits, according to Eisenberg, "have not yet begun to tap their enormous legal capacity to lobby, shape policies and to influence politicians and the political process…. They can create 501(c)(4) organizations, political action committees or 527 organizations…. The current regulations offer ample opportunities for much more political activism on the part of nonprofits."
It was on this point, but mainly on the usefulness of "nonprofitness," as Eisenberg called it, and the separation of the sectors in bringing about the changes both men view as necessary, on which Eisenberg and Egger seemed to disagree most strongly.
Moderator Ian Wilhelm took eight audience questions and pressed Egger and Eisenberg on various issues throughout the question-and-answer period.
After the session, thoughts about the discussion appeared in several blogs online. Egger posted his response to the debate on his blog, Robert Egger's Piece of Mind, and Egger, Bill Schambra, and Pablo Eisenberg shared their thoughts on Sean Stannard-Stockton's California-based blog Tactical Philanthropy.com. These and other blog mentions are listed below.
The transcript of this discussion was prepared from an audio recording and edited by Krista Shaffer. To request further information on this event or the Bradley Center, please contact Krista Shaffer at (202) 974-2424 or email@example.com.
Click here to view the full list of Upcoming Events.
Home | Learn About Hudson | Hudson Scholars | Find an Expert | Support Hudson | Contact Information | Site Map
Policy Centers | Research Areas | Publications & Op-Eds | Hudson Bookstore
Hudson Institute, Inc. 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.974.2400 Fax: 202.974.2410 Email the Webmaster
© Copyright 2013 Hudson Institute, Inc.