The Government And Nonprofits: It’s Complicated

November 5, 2009       Paul Clolery      

DETROIT – Independent Sector’s annual conference being held here is called “Challenging Times, New Opportunities.” But it might as well have been titled, “All Hands On Deck.”

That was the phrase two White House officials used in separate addresses to the nonprofit executives gathered in the Motor City. The intention was to note the Obama Administration’s emphasis on national service and utilizing the nonprofit sector. But, there were some in the audience who seemed a little queasy about the nonprofit sector becoming an instrument of the federal government.

More than 1,100 executives from 32 states jammed rooms at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center. It’s the largest crowd in the conference’s history, with more than 550 of the attendees from Michigan. The Council of Michigan Foundations is the event’s co-sponsor.

There’s an emphasis on the sector’s next generation of leadership, including an “NGen” track for next generation sector leadership. Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and an “NGen” being younger than 30, was the lunch speaker. He called the nonprofit sector the “margin for those struggling on the edge.” While everyone knows about the nation’s economic crisis, there is an untold story of the nation’s “silent storms,” such as the six million kids who will drop out of school this year.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work to do as a country,” he said, and that the country has “big problems and it’s all hands on deck.” DuBois said that he and his colleagues at the White House discuss the federal government’s impact on the charitable sector and noted that many in the administration availed themselves of the sector’s services while growing up. “We ask ‘What’s the government’s value add,’” to working with nonprofits.

He said the federal government’s role is often as a funder, but also as a catalyst. “What we are called to do as a government is to connect with change-makers,” DuBois said.

DuBois talked about resources in the federal government, such as the faith-based offices in 12 federal agencies, holdovers from the President George W. Bush administration. He talked about many of the issues the Obama administration has touted since it took office, attempting to make the government’s help more accessible.

Approximately an hour later, in the room immediately next door, many of the same themes and phrases were presented by Melody Barnes, assistant to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She spoke during the conference’s opening plenary session.

The government can have civil rights laws, “but it took people to push the government to fulfill that role,” she said.

Barnes spoke of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, which was authorized and funded with $50 million through the recently passed Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. She explained the government is looking for not only the best ideas for capacity building but also a better understanding of what works. That includes the government setting up common metrics and standards, which currently is not the case.

The White House has been pushing national service and seeks diversity in the sector’s service leadership, she said.

The second part of the opening plenary was a discussion of eight sector leaders on the impact of sector and government collaboration. The speakers were broken into three groups to discuss trends and opportunities in tough economic times. The first group of three took on the collaborations between the government and the sector and the issue of national service. The group included Aaron Dworkin, president of the Sphinx Organization, Gail McGovern, president and CEO of The American Red Cross, and Michelle Nunn, CEO, of the Points of Light Institute.

While all three praised the White House’s efforts, they explained there might not be a way to prevent serious federal intervention. In the case of the Red Cross, the group has more than a dozen Congressional committees watching its operations.

McGovern sees the relationship as an “evolving partnership.” She told of a time numerous nonprofits were going to help military families during the holidays. Had a base commander not stepped in, each family would have received six turkeys and nothing else.

Nunn praised the $50 million allocation for social innovation but called it a “small amount.” She spoke of national service as not just a replenishment.

Dworkin voiced concerns about government funding of the arts. “When it comes to arts funding, it’s something we can do to expand” in the diversity and interpretation. He said that arts are often seen as being developed by the few and thus a hard argument for funders of the many.