General Ramblings: Be It Resolved, Charities shouldn’t be held hostage by feds

January 1, 2011       Paul Clolery      

January is the time for new year’s resolutions and here’s one for the nonprofit sector: It’s time to stop being a lap dog for a federal bureaucracy that is making your life harder. Let’s start at the top.

Conservative and moderate Republicans are starting to line-up to run in the 2012 presidential election. It might be time for progressives to do the same, if only to shake the administration out of its lip service to the sector.

There have been promises, executive orders and blue ribbon committees formed, such as the most recent White House Council for Community Solutions. But what has the administration done that has tangibly enhanced the sector’s ability to do the job?

A federal court struck down a major element of the administration’s healthcare agenda and will continue to leave millions of Americans to rely on the sector for free or low-cost medical attention. While charities have been able to tap into an estimated $140 million in federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the access points were established by the previous administration. Finally, the budget and tax deal struck between the administration and Congress probably will take a chunk out of the revenue from the estate tax, which arguably is an incentive for charitable giving.

The administration gave no real support to the Nonprofit Sector and Community Solutions Act of 2010, which was intended to create a 16-member panel, the U.S. Council on the Nonprofit Sector and Community Solutions; create the Interagency Working Group on Nonprofit Organizations and the Federal Government; and expand the efforts of government to collect valuable data on nonprofits.

And as Rick Cohen pointed out in his blog, The Cohen Report, the President “sidestepped, for the moment, the contentious issue of whether federally funded religious charities can discriminate in their hiring based on religious belief,” which is something President Obama pledged to eliminate.

The government wants the sector to do more but is clearly unwilling to put real muscle behind its words. And yet, the sector looks adoringly at the administration.

The administration was late to realize that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was going to flat line that region’s pulse and put pressure on nonprofits in the area. Its lack of a coherent immigration policy is taxing nonprofits on every border. The administration is a loud cheerleader for national service and volunteering. Yet, it ignored the suggestion of the National Council of Nonprofits to raise the laughable Charitable Mileage Rate of just 14 cents per mile for volunteers to something approaching the Business Mileage Rate of 51 cents per mile.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has a list of demands for the president. The nonprofit sector should also have a list.

Demand 1 : The idea that a household with $250,000 in assets is rich needs to be eradicated. Move the discussion to $1 million. Then, reinstall the estate tax at the previous level for households with $10 million in assets.

Demand 2 : State and local governments using federal money to fund services from nonprofits should be required to pay their invoices from charities within 45 days. That should hold for federal contracts, too.

Demand 3 : Double the car use allowance to 28 cents. While 51 cents would be nice, doubling the number is a good start. Every time the price of oil goes up, organizations like Meals on Wheels lose volunteers. This would help neutralize those losses.

Demand 4 : Accelerate the release of statistics captured by the federal government so that they can be used prospectively, not as an autopsy of what has happened.

Demand 5 : Stop playing politics with AmeriCorps and actually put these “volunteers” to work. Strengthen outcomes measurement so that those hired actually perform a direct service and not push paper around their desks.

As government expects more from the charitable sector, it needs to add resources, not take them away or cause additional anxiety from lack of action. If the lack of cooperation continues, the charitable sector should start shopping for new candidates on every level of government. Maybe it’s time for the sector to form its own Tea Party Movement. Alert the Mad Hatter. NPT