The nonprofit sector builds movements that rally people to action against some of the greatest problems facing humanity. But it has no movement to support itself. The sector speaks for the voiceless. But it remains silent on the systemic misperceptions that undermine its own potential. It defends the weakest among us. But it takes punches to the face when it comes to the issues that affect it directly — issues like spending on overhead and infrastructure, investment in talent, risking donor dollars in the present to achieve a brighter future down the road.
It's time to change all that. It's time for a movement for the movement-builders. It's time for the sector to stand up for itself, speak up for itself, defend itself, organize itself, and advertise itself with the same sense of mission and purpose with which it has long subjugated itself to the sacred canons of frugality and martyrdom.
In my new book, Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Really Change the World, I and a number of pioneers in the field have outlined plans for a national Charity Defense Council which will serve five vital grassroots organizing functions essential to the creation of any movement. The nonprofit sector currently lacks each of them. They are:
Unbelievably, the nonprofit sector has no anti-defamation mechanism. The gay and lesbian community has the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The Jewish community has the Anti-Defamation League. The African American community has the NAACP. All are well funded. Ironically, these are all nonprofit organizations. But in the face of routine and malicious attack by sensational media with zero understanding of what makes a successful nonprofit thrive, the nonprofit sector has no legitimate, respected, sanctioned national voice to offer an alternative point of view, or to tell the public the truth.
Legal Defense Fund
Freedom of speech is as much about having the right not to say things you don't want to say as it is about being able to say the things you do. So, when nonprofit organizations are forced to speak to the donating public — in all manner of federal, state, and local tax and reporting forms — in the language of overhead percentages, instead of in plain English, and instead of in terms of impact or aspirations, its First Amendment rights are infringed. Also unbelievably, the sector has no well-funded legal defense resource. The NAACP has a separate Legal Defense Fund, with a $12 million annual budget. The gay community has Lambda Legal, with a $15 million annual budget. The Mexican-American community has MALDEF, with a $3.6 million annual budget. The nonprofit sector has two pro bono attorneys — God bless them — organized as American Charities for Reasonable Fundraising Regulation. Their last tax form was filed in 2007 and showed a budget of less than $3,000.
National Civil Rights Act for Charity and Social Enterprise
It's time the people who are trying to change the world had a statutory code that actually supported them in that endeavor. Instead, we have a fragmented code, written for another age, to address issues that are no longer relevant, by people who have long since died, and that fundamentally undermines our ability to create real change. We need new corporate structures, merger incentives, tax incentives, marketplaces, and oversight apparatuses, among other things. Yet it has never dawned on the sector that it could play a proactive role in determining the legal context in which it will perform. In my book, 16 leaders in the field, from the head of Guidestar to the head of Independent Sector, present their ideas to begin a discussion that will culminate in a sweeping national act to transform that context.
Advertise to the Public
It is mind-boggling that the nonprofit sector has never run a single advertisement — not one — to try to cure the public of its misperceptions and hallucinations about charity and about how change actually occurs. It's time we began running full-page ads in the New York Times and commercials on the Superbowl to inform the public that low overhead is not the path to the alleviation of human suffering — that demanding talent on the cheap is not the way we will eradicate poverty or AIDS or any of the other great problems that confront us. If the pork industry could correct the public's misperceptions about pork as a fatty, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen meat with its "Pork, the other white meat" campaign, then we can change the way people think about charity. If the egg industry could do the same with its "Incredible edible egg" campaign, we can change perceptions about issues like overhead. It's no wonder that the public demands low overhead instead of impact. We've never told them that the two things are not correlated.
It's time for a 3-day fundraising walk for the cause of the advancement of causes themselves. It's time for a national database of nonprofit sector workers and friends that can be called on at a moment's notice to act — against a malicious news reporter, say, or a politician trying to promote his or her career on the back of an ill-conceived populist regulation. It's time we organized ourselves to work on the structural issues that affect our work directly, in the same way we organize ourselves to work on issues like poverty and disease.
The Charity Defense Council will do these things. It's not just an idea. It is incorporated, has its tax exempt status, and has convened a powerful advisory board. The council intends to fight for the people who fight for the people and the dreams that brought us all into this work in the first place. Dreams that have too long been trampled. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has called the effort "An Apollo program for American philanthropy and the nonprofit sector."