Inside Philanthropy

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

February 16, 2009

Obama’s giving-sector moves send mixed signal

By Todd Cohen

“Change you can cash in on and plug into” seems to be the giving-sector policy emerging from the Obama administration.

And that is starting to dim somewhat the early hopes that the Obama administration might truly partner with the giving sector to transform the way Americans tackle social problems.

As Rick Cohen of The Nonprofit Quarterly sees it in a column in the Philanthropy Journal, much of the prowess at the nonprofits that seem to be role models for the kind of social innovation Obama champions apparently lies in their ability to secure federal funding.

Some of those nonprofits, including Teach for America, City Year and America’s Promise, Cohen says, all have been highly effective at landing support from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps.

[Also see Rick’s analysis of policy proposals nonprofit groups have submitted to Obama.]

And while the government’s massive stimulus package includes some spending for the charitable sector, he says, nonprofits should be careful what they wish for.

“Nonprofits should not devolve into contract arms of government,” he writes in the Cohen Report. “They have to maintain their watchdog, advocacy, and organizing functions, else they give up their status as being part of a sector that is different than government.”

In their advocacy role, nonprofits “can join government and intermediaries in finding ways of making programs work,” Cohen says.

“At stake is not simply nonprofit budgetary survival,” he says, “This is essential for helping this nation out of its economic freefall. That’s the reason for an economic stimulus bill, that’s what the nonprofit sector should be focusing on, deploying resources to put this nation to work.”

Cohen also sees mixed signals in Obama’s choices, and reported choices, for officials to head a handful of key offices that will work with the giving sector.

Obama, for example, has named Cecelia Muñoz, senior vice president for the office of research, advocacy and legislation at the National Council of La Raza, as director of intergovernmental affairs.

A veteran nonprofit advocate, Cohen says, Muñoz is a good pick and could become the administration’s key player on giving-sector policy at the White House.

Directing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will be Joshua DuBois, a former associate pastor and adviser to Obama in his U.S. Senate office who served as his campaign director of religious affairs.

It is not clear, Cohen says, whether that office will play a major role in federal social-change funding.

Still up in the air are Obama’s picks for other important administration jobs that will work with the giving sector, although people reportedly under consideration for those jobs have cut their teeth at Google and MTV, according, again, to good digging by Rick Cohen.

John Kelly of Youth Today, for example, reports in his Obama Job Watch that Obama plans to create a White House Office on Social Innovation and Civic Engagement, an idea proposed by America Forward that would replace the current White House Office on Social Innovation.

Heading that new office, Kelly reports, could be Sonal Shah, director of global development for, the philanthropic arm of Google.

MediaMemo blogger Peter Kafka reported Jan. 28 that Obama may have picked Katie Jacobs Stanton, a project manager at Google, as “director of citizen participation.”

Stanton worked on Google’s “Moderator” tool that let people submit questions for the presidential debates and then was used to field suggested initiatives for the new administration through its site.

And Cohen says Obama reportedly has been considering Ian Rowe, vice president of strategic partnerships and public affairs for MTV, to head the office of social innovation.

While those MTV and Google picks might be good because they would represent a departure from the “same old, same old” in the nonprofit world, Cohen says, he questions how connected those people are to the grassroots nonprofit groups that are on the ground and reflect the diversity of America’s communities yet typically don’t show up on the radar screens of Google and MTV.

Indeed. The last two possibilities – Stanton of Google and Rowe of MTV -- suggest the White House may be focusing more on glitzy social-media gimmicks than on the operational and strategic focus nonprofits actually need.

As Obama showed in his presidential campaign, social media can play a powerful role in engaging and mobilizing people on an unprecedented scale.

So it would be highly productive, indeed a breakthrough, if the new administration could help nonprofits better understand and use social media to secure more support and take on both the symptoms and causes of critical social problems.

New ideas and innovative approaches by government in working with the giving sector also could signal a long-overdue recognition that the insiders’ cartel that has monopolized power in the charitable marketplace for far too long does not represent or speak for all nonprofits, and in fact works to exclude them from critical resources.

That cartel, whose self-anointed powerbrokers have been climbing over one another in their grab for federal bailout funds and for clout with the Obama administration, represents big foundations, big nonprofits and the trade groups, consultants and publications that do their bidding and serve as their mouthpieces.

If there is a giving-sector equivalent of the military-industrial complex, a kind of philanthropy-industrial complex, those powerbrokers control it.

Still, hope-filled and promising as Obama’s early giving-sector moves might seem to some, the new administration must not forget that most nonprofits are small and face huge challenges in running their shops, engaging givers, delivering services and finding the time and skills to be effective advocates.

And addressing those challenges will require more than government handouts and hip online tools that aim to engage and connect givers with causes they care about.

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