Does the recent Komen Foundation debacle signal an increasing scrutiny by the giving public of nonprofit activities? Just as we can’t attribute every record-breaking heat wave to global warming, neither can we assume that recent high profile cases (ACORN, NPR) represent anything like a trend.
Recall that many years ago foundation support for the Boy Scouts took a nose dive after it was revealed that the organization was discriminating against gay men. As long as I can remember, our senators and representatives—both at the national and state levels—have attempted to score political points by targeting charities. I would guess that during any session of Congress there will be at least a handful of bills with provisions to curtail the advocacy rights of nonprofit organizations. (The Alliance for Justice can provide all the sordid details.) Consider also the restrictions on legal service providers that receive funding from the Legal Services Corporation—in force since 1996—and the occasional high-profile ACLU case that’s kicked around like a political football.
What’s clearer to me is that as the American culture wars drag on, more and more charities will be caught in the crossfire.
Charities need to attend to three factors in addition to an increasingly nasty civic culture. We’re living in an age of more activist donors (though I wonder if the research would support this view). The advent of the Internet has raised citizen expectations about the accessibility of information. And finally, calls for transparency in private and public institutions have increased.
Charities beware: You can bet that as we get closer to the November elections, every contribution made by a candidate will be scrutinized. Political operatives will attempt to score big points from a public that generally doesn’t understand the nonprofit sector and can be easily whipped into a froth about the work of shadowy foundations.
I have two primary suggestions for charities. The first is for boards to sit down with their staffs and determine what mission-appropriate transparency means for their organizations. However insistent the calls for transparency might be, I would never, for example, unless I were compelled by law, agree to audiotape board meetings and post these recordings on the Internet. I believe this would stymie the free and open exchange of ideas and ultimately compromise our mission. Other organizations might have a different take on this, but it’s critical for each organization to think through the issue of transparency.
Second, and more importantly in my view, your organization needs to determine whether it has a moral center, and if so, get in touch with it. That means understanding your identity and mission. Years back, the Girl Scouts were willing to take a hit for their nondiscrimination policies. The great value of a not-for-profit organization is that it has no shareholders whose pecuniary desires it needs to satisfy. It can afford to be governed by the love of mankind. Sure, the Girl Scouts lost some donors, but we can assume it gained others in the process.
The time for charities to do their soul-searching is now. Once a campaign against your organization goes viral, it’s time for you to step up to the microphones and tell the world who you are and where you stand. Faced with the question, “What are you about?”, in the wake of an unpopular decision, do you have a clear idea what you would say?
Do you exist to maximize donor support, to perpetuate the life of an institution? or do you exist to advance the cause of justice, however unpopular that might be?