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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 3, June 2004

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Accountability and Transparency

Introduction--Coming Clean: Civil Society Organizations at a Time of Global Uncertainty
Kumi Naidoo

International Humanitarianism: The Dark Sides
David Kennedy

On the Issue of Trust
H. Peter Karoff

Fostering Accountability in Zimbabwean Civil Society
Ignatius Adeh

Canadian Federal Budget Increases Transparency for Charities
Robert B. Hayhoe

The Crisis Facing Associations and Other Nonprofits in the United States
John H. Graham IV

Articles

Charities and Compliance with Anti-Terrorism Legislation in Canada: The Shadow of the Law
Terrance S. Carter

Corporate Philanthropy and Law in the United States: A Practical Guide to Tax Choices and an Introduction to Compliance with Anti-Terrorism Laws
Thomas Silk

Legal Mechanisms for NGO-Government Partnership in Ukraine
Alexander Vinnikov

The State-Civil Society Relationship in Kazakhstan: Mechanisms of Cooperation and Support
Vsevolod Ovcharenko

Comment: Defining Civil Society
Miguel Angel Itriago

Reviews

BETTER TOGETHER: Restoring the American Community
By Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein
And
THE GREATER GOOD: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism
By Claire Gaudiani
Reviewed by Michael Edwards

A VOICE FOR NONPROFITS
By Jeffrey M. Berry with David F. Arons
Reviewed by Michael Bisesi

THE GOVERNANCE OF NOT-FOR-PROFIT ORGANIZATIONS
Edited by Edward L. Glaeser
Reviewed by Peter Frumkin

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Editorial Board

A Voice for Nonprofits

By Jeffrey M. Berry with David F. Arons
Reviewed by Michael Bisesi

Public policy will be made whether nonprofit leaders are involved or not. And yet, for a variety of reasons, many of these leaders have been strikingly skittish about entering the advocacy fray, with the most vulnerable people in our communities tending to bear an even greater burden as a result.

The primary motives for engagement in the public policy process are financial (a large percentage of the organization’s budget depends on government funding) and programmatic (e.g., health, human services, workforce development policies).  Administrative issues such as tax policy and nonprofit oversight laws are also important incentives. Ironically, many nonprofits are not engaged, either because they do not believe they have a “dog in that hunt” or because they are concerned about losing their tax-exempt status.

In A Voice for Nonprofits, Jeffrey Berry and David Arons chronicle the distinctive set of conditions that have led nonprofits to accept lobbying restrictions in exchange for tax deductibility of charitable contributions. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, and Arons, Co-Director of Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest, wrote the book because they wanted to emphasize “how the lack of political involvement by nonprofits works against the interests of those people who have no one else to represent them.”

Berry and Arons contend that nonprofit organizations are actually interest groups. “The optimum relationship of an interest group with government,” according to the authors, “is to jointly produce public policy.” They provide substantial legal support for their recommendations to nonprofit leaders who may be concerned about perceived tax code restrictions on their ability to cement such a relationship.

But public policy rarely seems prominent on the agendas of executive directors or board chairs of nonprofit organizations. Indeed, one executive director, when interviewed for the study that led to this book, noted that “our organization is inappropriate for the study because we are not involved in public affairs.” After further reflection, this person then conceded that “we harass our state legislator all the time,” and suddenly acknowledged the vital necessity of involvement.

The authors also remind us that nonprofits seldom have any active opposition when legislative issues are addressed. Because most nonprofits tend to be community-based, local nonprofit leaders would be encouraged to hear one of their peers exclaim “I get my calls returned!” 

Moreover, nonprofits are often in the best position to provide information to policymakers, tend to be more nimble than government agencies, and frequently act as neutral conveners and facilitators for community meetings. Paradoxically, then, while rarely included in organizational mission statements, lobbying (or advocacy or public policy) may well be the key to best serving individuals, families, and communities.

Tax code policies regarding the 26 categories of exempt organizations, according to the authors, are more restrictive when it comes to 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits. Gifts to these “public charities” enable donors to deduct contributions from their income taxes, thus increasing “tax expenditures.” Policymakers have expressed concern about the impact of these deductions on government revenues.

Many policymakers also argue that tax money should not be used to underwrite lobbying expenses. (Of course, other recipients of government support, such as private-sector contractors, employ extensive lobbying efforts—but that is another story.) The authors contend that partisan politics plays a key role here. Conservatives, they claim, acting through “legislators, think tanks, and lobbying groups, want to put a stop to tax-supported lobbying because it is a subsidy that favors the liberals.”

Finally, some nonprofits may worry whether government grants or contracts “buy silence,” and therefore may be hesitant to pursue public funding. While possible in extreme cases, vigilant leadership should be able to address this “vendor problem” apprehension.

About the only quibble with this book (and a minor one it is) regards the research population. About half of the organizations studied were providers of health and human services. Contrast this group with the Giving USA 2003 report (www.aafrc.org), which notes that only 15 percent of all philanthropic dollars go to such agencies. (This quibble also acknowledges fee-for-service and government contracts are likewise major revenue sources.)

By failing to engage in public policy (or advocacy or lobbying), Berry and Arons write, nonprofits may be forfeiting access to policymakers and staff members. In the final analysis, it seems wisest to be involved in formulating policy rather than waiting for implementation of an unacceptable policy—and thus marching with the shovel brigade at the end of the circus parade.

Notes

Michael Bisesi is Professor and Director of the Center for Nonprofit and Social Enterprise Management at Seattle University.

 

Copyright © 2012 The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL)
ISSN: 1556-5157