Associations Release Recommendations for Obama, Congress, to Strengthen Nonprofit Sector
Two major nonprofit associations, Independent Sector and the National Council of Nonprofits, have released detailed recommendations on how the federal government can strengthen and serve communities through nonprofit organizations, including some proposals that can be included in the upcoming economic stimulus package.
Nonprofits hope the next administration will not only realize the value of the sector, but also embrace it with policies that promote long-term sustainable social change. For example, President-elect Barack Obama can encourage Americans to give more or volunteer more, to ultimately give back to one another. The new Congress and administration are being called upon to promote national service, ease lobbying restrictions on charities, and much more.
The National Council of Nonprofits has submitted its recommendations to Obama's transition team, specifically addressing the Corporation for National and Community Service, the GIVE Act, and the Serve America Act. Their document states, "The nonprofit sector serves as America's social safety net to provide for people needing basic human services like food, shelter, and health care. Yet that community safety net is unraveling rapidly, straining to endure the additional weight dropping on it from the economy."
On Jan. 6, Independent Sector, a nonpartisan coalition of over 600 charities and foundations, issued a seven-page document, Policy Proposals to Strengthen the Nonprofit Community's Ability to Serve our Society.
Independent Sector (IS) offers six broad policy proposals including:
- Ensure adequate resources and fair and responsible fiscal policies to support vital programs that sustain, protect, and strengthen communities
- Preserve and expand policies that help Americans give back to their communities
- Ensure that nonprofits have the capacity and capital to serve the needs of their communities
- Protect the rights of Americans to speak out through nonprofit organizations
- Ensure that Americans are able to continue vital charitable work throughout the world without unduly jeopardizing their safety or their civil rights
- Support funding and policies that provide for transparency and accountability to ensure integrity and public trust in charitable institutions
Encourage Americans to Join Service Programs
IS supports improving national service programs. For example, the Serve America Act, introduced in the previous Congress, would expand opportunities to engage in community service through stipend programs, voluntary paid leave, and subsidies from employers. In addition, it would allow older people to donate money from their individual retirement accounts to charity without paying taxes on the charitable disbursements. It also includes the creation of the Commission on Cross-Sector Solutions to America's Problems. Similarly, the National Council of Nonprofits supports the creation of the Commission, intended to transform "relationships among the three sectors: public, private, and nonprofit (including volunteers). The Commission can provide a vision of 'interdependent' sectors and the new infrastructure to support it."
The National Council of Nonprofits recommends that the Nonprofit Capacity Building Initiative (NCBI) be included in the Serve America Act as an amendment. "To ensure the continued viability of the social safety net, the federal government should purposefully work to strengthen nonprofits by including the NCBI program in the Serve America Act. Targeted grants in a pilot program can inform the Commission on Cross-Sector Solutions of replicable solutions through field experiences of innovative, proven capacity building."
Improve Nonprofits' Resources to Serve Our Communities
IS promotes establishing an office within the executive branch to coordinate education and oversight efforts that are directed toward improving the capacity of nonprofit organizations in all federal agencies. Similarly, the National Council of Nonprofits supports the GIVE Act to reauthorize the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and suggests elevating its CEO to a Cabinet-level position within a Social Entrepreneurship Agency for Nonprofits.
As Obama outlines on Change.gov, a Social Entrepreneurship Agency for Nonprofits would be placed within the Corporation for National and Community Service and would be dedicated to building the capacity and effectiveness of the nonprofit sector. Obama has already started to call on Americans to serve their communities. The Presidential Inaugural Committee released a public service announcement for television and radio, in which the President-elect asks Americans to get involved through USAservice.org.
U.S. Nonprofits Working Abroad
Noting criticisms of the Department of the Treasury's Anti-Terrorist Financing Guidelines, which are meant to prevent the diversion of charitable money to terrorism, IS calls for the adoption of the Principles of International Charity, which were developed by a working group of nonprofit organizations as a proposed alternative to the guidelines.
Referencing the Partner Vetting System, which requires U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) grantees to collect and hand over to the U.S. government information about its employees, IS cautions against any such action. "Congress should prevent federal agencies administering foreign assistance programs from imposing requirements on international charitable organizations that would cause them to violate the civil rights of those with whom they work, to unduly jeopardize the safety of their employees and partners working outside the United States, or their own charitable missions."
Advocacy and Speech Rights
The National Council of Nonprofits' document recognizes that Obama "can help restore the American people's ability to participate meaningfully in their government by amplifying their voices through nonprofits." Nonprofit organizations allow Americans to have a collective voice to influence and change policies. To uphold and respect this tradition, both groups recommend that Congress protect the rights of nonprofit federal grantees to lobby with non-federal funds. In addition, IS specifically suggests raising "the $1 million ceiling on lobbying expenses set in 1976 to at least $3 million to account for inflation and eliminate confusing distinctions between 'grassroots' and 'direct' lobbying. Congress should amend the tax code to permit private foundations to support nonpartisan lobbying activities conducted by other 501(c)(3) organizations under the same rules that apply to those organizations."
At a time when every dollar counts, adequate funding and support for lobbying and advocacy is essential for change. This assertion is supported by recent research from New Mexico. A report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities, found that "for every dollar invested in the 14 advocacy and organizing groups studied, New Mexico's residents reaped more than $157 in benefits." The report's executive summary states that "communities with more engaged residents are stronger economically, politically and socially than communities in which residents are disconnected from each other and from civic institutions."
Some of these recommendations for the sector could be acted upon immediately, as groups are requesting their inclusion in the economic stimulus package. Promoting community and national service has started as a short-term request as groups are urging the inclusion of a "nonprofit stimulus" as part of the economic recovery plan. The proposals were drafted by the coalitions America Forward, ServiceNation, and Voices for National Service. The groups are circulating a letter that will be sent to Obama and Congress. The letter urges that the stimulus package include money to expand national service programs and support nonprofits that are providing social services. The letter references the Serve America Act, S. 3487.
The letter states, "A nonprofit stimulus fund, patterned after the network of social innovation funds that President-elect Obama called for during the campaign, could help stabilize and grow effective nonprofit organizations that provide vital services in the areas of education, youth development, poverty alleviation, the environment and more."