Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

January 7, 2008

Social change depends on civic leadership

As the Iowa caucuses clearly showed, Americans are hungry for change.

Yet while a new president can set the tone for change, truly fixing what is wrong in America depends on the often-unsung work of the charitable marketplace, which itself needs fixing.

In addition to serve as key players in addressing urgent social needs, nonprofits, institutional philanthropy and individual givers can act as civic society’s enterprising arm, investing in and brokering the kind of partnerships critical to fixing the flawed public policies underlying our most serious social problems.

Effectively playing those roles, however, requires leadership, both among those working in the charitable marketplace, and on the part of the politicians who are tripping over one another in this intense political season to claim the title of change agent.

While it too often proves to be intrusive, dysfunctional and counterproductive, government actually can serve as a positive force in restoring fairness, vitality and independence to the charitable marketplace.

Big foundations, along with the nonprofit trade groups and consultants that depend on those foundations’ support and do their bidding, claim the charitable marketplace can police itself.

But an unregulated marketplace simply leaves the big foundations free to continue their ham-fisted bullying of nonprofits without having to account for the unfettered power they exercise, and often abuse, in return for the tax-exempt status they enjoy.

If the presidential candidates who claim to be change agents truly want fix what is wrong, they should be speaking out for changes in the way government regulates and invests in the charitable marketplace, and partners with nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.

Government should require institutional funders to be more open about their operations and activities, and to pay out a bigger share of their tax-exempt assets.

Government also should set aside tax revenue to match contributions by private philanthropy to funding pools that would be earmarked for investment in building the operating capacity of nonprofits.

And politicians should be much more outspoken and visionary about the partnerships that government should create with nonprofits and business that are essential for addressing our most serious social problems.

Instead of interfering with social and economic progress, government should be creating incentives for nonprofits and business to foster progress.

For their part, people working in the charitable marketplace must take the lead in putting their own house in order.

To be more effective at addressing urgent social needs and their root causes, nonprofits need boards that are more engaged in setting goals and strategies, securing resources, forming partnerships and gauging impact.

Foundations need, on their own, to pay out a bigger share of their assets, invest more in helping nonprofits strengthen their operations and services, and be more open about their work.

Corporate-giving programs need to walk their talk: A recent survey by the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College found that while 60 percent of executives surveyed say corporate citizenship is a big part of their business strategy, only 39 percent actually make it part of their business planning process, and just 25 percent give an individual or team the job of handling citizenship issues.

Individual givers also can exercise greater impact by getting more involved in the causes they support, contributing not only their dollars but also their time, know-how and connections.

And groups such as community foundations, United Ways and state associations of nonprofits that claim to serve as conveners and voices for change need to move beyond their words and truly push for the investment and partnerships needed to make change happen.

In our diverse and independent society, fostering an effective charitable marketplace will depend on nonprofits, institutional funders, individual givers and political leaders who are smart, engaged and collaborative.


  • At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hello, Todd.

    Here is cause for concern. The same people who thrive on the status quo define what our youth learn. So our youth do not learn to be innovators or to think outside the box.

    The problem to which you refer is big and might fundamentally affect the quality of life in communities across America.

    Van Ajemian


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