General Ramblings: Pulling Out A Rabbit

January 1, 2009       Paul Clolery      

The chatter about the possibilities for the nonprofit sector and the new federal administration in Washington, D.C., has escalated into a near frenzy. It’s almost as if the sector’s collective hair is going to burst into flames if President-Elect Barack Obama doesn’t give it everything it wants roughly 20 minutes into his term, which starts at noon on January 20.

For sure, there’s going to be least a little smoke, if not flames, because there are many fires that need to be put out — the economy, two wars, the potential energy crisis, terrorism, the federal deficit and, oh yeah, the philanthropic sector.

These urgent sentiments were on display during a recent meet and greet in Cambridge, Mass., hosted by Swanee Hunt, head of The Hunt Alternatives Fund (HAF) and former United States ambassador to Austria. She’s also the founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is active in Democratic politics, focusing on increasing diverse representation.

Among other initiatives, HAF convenes a “Prime Movers” program for emerging and established social movement leaders working at the national level. The program emphasizes the professional development of individual leaders who engage masses of people. The intent is to allow leaders to think beyond their organizations and take on broader, more pivotal roles within their movements.

Most of the appointed Prime Movers and some guests were at the former ambassador’s home to discuss suggestions for the new administration. Hunt worked for Obama’s election and several of the Prime Movers and guests are expected to be part of an advisory board for Obama, which will take the place of President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The new office, as yet unnamed, is expected to be headed by Joshua DuBois, who was the Obama campaign’s religious affairs director. DuBois, who was not at the Hunt gathering, was previously an associate pastor for Calvary Praise & Worship Center, a small church in Cambridge that is associated with the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God. He also has a strong education pedigree that includes Boston University and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and National Affairs.

While most of those at the ambassador’s gathering arrived with a laundry list of wants and needs from the new administration, only a few preached patience. Many could not understand why the administration simply couldn’t turn on the money faucet. These is no doubt that public infrastructure issues will take priority and the philanthropic sector will be involved. Likewise, the federal government will probably continue contracting out to the sector services it would cost more to establish.

These were passionate people, some of whom come to this moment in history with reverence at having been at several previous turning points. One of these truly inspirational people in the room had been with Sen. Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Los Angeles and was at the Ambassador Hotel that fateful night in 1968. At least two others in the group had marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and still are pained at the events in Memphis, also in 1968. And, there were the freshly-scrubbed faces of new change-makers who have arrived at their first such crucible.

The group discussions were lively and most pointed to ways that at least some of the nation’s problems can be addressed in the first year of the new administration. One person addressing the group leaned back a little too far and her hair caught fire from one of the many candles the ambassador had lighted. She was quickly extinguished with no harm, other than some singed hair.

There is great anticipation with any new administration, particularly by supporters of those newly-minted leaders. Some will be singed along the way. The key is for the sector to stand together to help put the fires out. NPT