Nonprofits and Philanthropy Need to Take Center Stage

Phil Buchanan

As we approach the next pair of Democratic presidential debates this week – the last of which garnered a record-breaking number of viewers – I’m not holding my breath that topics related to philanthropy and the nonprofits it supports will get any more airtime than they did in the first debates, which was essentially zero. That’s a shame, because the role of the nonprofit sector in America is vital, and because recent policy changes – in particular the changes to the tax code that went into effect in 2018 – are threatening its health.

But it’s not really surprising.

For too long, nonprofits have been overlooked and undervalued for all they do to strengthen communities, to address the issues others can’t or won’t, or, for that matter, to drive a major piece of our economy. And, for too long, nonprofits have internalized a “lesser than” perspective, as I argued in this blog post a decade ago and as nonprofit leader and blogger Vu Le put it especially well five years ago when noting that the “nonprofit inferiority complex is not sexy.”

Indeed, for the last two decades, many in the sector have adopted the language of business and accepted the false narratives that the boundaries are blurring between sectors and that this is somehow to be celebrated. Indeed, many have either explicitly welcomed or passively accepted a sort of take-over of the sector by those promising to “fix,” “reinvent,” or “disrupt” it.

But, as I note in Giving Done Right, most of those “fixes” are misguided. Philanthropy and nonprofits play a distinct role that should be preserved and celebrated for its distinctiveness even as we seek to increase effectiveness and impact.

More recently, and especially in the past year, critiques of both philanthropy and nonprofits have intensified and are now coming not just from the business-knows-best crew, which tends to be politically moderate or conservative, but also from the political left. In the latter category, author Anand Giridharadas has said “nonprofits are a very crucial part of how the rigged system gets rigged.” This ridiculous statement, as I noted in a Chronicle of Philanthropy column, is an insult to this country’s vast and diverse nonprofit sector, supported in significant part by philanthropy, which employs one in 10 Americans.

Yet I hear few pushing back. It’s as if the past two decades of bowing down to business have left many unable to clearly and forcefully explain the unique role of philanthropy and nonprofits.

Look, we can and should lament the contemptible exploitation of philanthropy by the Sacklers, Jeffrey Epstein, or, for that matter, Donald Trump. But we should resist the temptation to draw generalizations from outlier and/or criminal examples, or to lump all organizations or major donors together. We should remain clear-eyed about the role philanthropy and nonprofits play in this moment, in particular – one in which the federal government has gone off the rails and a racist president pursues racist policies while flouting our democratic institutions and norms.

After all, who’s fighting against the separation of families at the border? Who has been educating the public and lawmakers and courts about the consequences of adding a citizenship question to the census? Who’s seeking to counter the climate change deniers? Who’s helping young LGBTQ+ young people who are homeless in shockingly high numbers? Who’s supporting the most desperate among us, at community-based organizations across the country? Who’s providing the space and resources for art and artists to thrive and express themselves?

Nonprofits, of course – supported by individual and institutional givers. Many of these organizations are, as I argued in The Chronicle, un-riggers – the very opposite of Giridharadas’ mocking description. Their work is most definitely not a charade. In fact, it couldn’t be more real.

Yet, as the changes to the tax code have dramatically reduced the number of itemizers who benefit from the charitable deduction, we risk undermining the nonprofit sector at a crucial time. That, among other practical and timely issues related to nonprofits and giving, should be front and center both in our national conversation and in our discussions within philanthropy.

But, instead, the sector is largely overlooked, or caricatured when it is discussed. And much of the conversation within philanthropy feels weirdly disconnected from the day-to-day realities. Let me be brutally honest, at the risk of offending colleagues I like and respect. Right now, and especially between now and November 2020, I am not interested in theoretical or philosophical debates about whether this is the precise society we would create if we were starting from scratch. Of course it isn’t. I have my own deep misgivings about the work we have left to nonprofits and philanthropy that I believe should be the province of government, and I cast my votes on election day accordingly.

But now is not the time, in my view, for abstract utopian fantasies that are divorced from the current political moment. Now is the time for figuring out how we best support the vital organizations doing crucial work through more – and more effective – giving. Yes, we should welcome critique as healthy, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept it all as correct, or that we shouldn’t speak up for the crucial work that is being done every day.

Lives are in the balance.

Which brings me back to the debates. Given the vital work of nonprofits, why aren’t the candidates being asked about what they’d do to counter the decline in giving – measured in inflation-adjusted dollars – in 2018? Why aren’t they being asked about their perspective on the role of this sector and the policies that would best support it? Why aren’t they being asked what roles they have played in nonprofits throughout their lives – whether as staff, volunteers, donors, or board members?

Do we really want the political debate in this country to unfold as if there were only two sectors – business and government? Do we really think that these two sectors can do everything we need done for our country to reach its potential? Do we really want to stand idly by as critics cast all nonprofits and their staff or donors as villains?

Philanthropy and nonprofits, taken as a whole, have plenty of room for improvement, as do business and governments. But we need to speak more forcefully to their positive contributions in the present moment. Right now. Never in my lifetime has Martin Luther King, Jr.’s powerful phrase “the fierce urgency of now” felt more apt to me.

I hope leaders across the sector will stand up and do their part to shift the discussion, so that philanthropy and nonprofits take their rightful place on both the metaphorical and actual stage as we debate the pressing issues facing our country. Let’s do everything we can to support the vast number of nonprofits that are fighting every day on the front lines of change.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP, a columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, published by PublicAffairs/Hachette. More information about the book is available on givingdoneright.org. Follow Phil on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

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