What are nonprofits for?

What are nonprofits for?

This seems like a question that used to have an easy answer - they are tax-exempt organizations that provide services, from education to art to meals; they offer a place for ideological, ethnic or other minority groups to express their ideas and serve their communities; they offer complements or alternatives to services provided by the government; and they advocate for change.

While it never really was all that clear cut I think there was a general sense among Americans at least that, within the U.S., you knew a nonprofit when you saw one.

Well, if it was clear once, it's not clear now. And there are challenges to the notion of "nonprofits do X" coming from many directions. Here are a few headlines that show this:

"For-profit health clubs challenge nonprofit YMCA's tax exempt status "
        The Nonprofit Quarterly, July 15, 2014

         Boing Boing, July 2, 2014

In both cases above the challenge comes because of who the organizations serve - in the YMCA case the membership is very similar to those folks who join commercial gyms, so why does one get tax privileges over the other. The argument raised in the case against free software is that such a resource might be used by commercial enterprises - so where's the public benefit?

The nature of these challenges focuses on who might be benefitting from the services, not whether the services themselves are a public benefit. This is ironic from a nonprofit standpoint. For decades nonprofit managers and funders have been trying to build sustainable revenue sources for nonprofit organizations so they can survive. So much so, the Red Cross recently argued that its spending practices are trade secrets! BUT, at least in the logic of the two headlines above, if the organizations might serve those who can pay (one source of sustaining revenue) then they may not be nonprofit.

As if the market-based challenges to nonprofits weren't confusing enough, in the U.S.A. there's the growing challenge of political action within the nonprofit frame. I'm in the middle of reading Ken Vogel's Big Money about campaign finance post-Citizens United. He has evidence aplenty of the deliberate weaving of 501c4s (nonprofits which provide donor anonymity) into the mix of enterprise networks being built to raise independent cash for campaign politics. And then, along comes this study, showing us what we all suspected, the IRS can't (and possibly shouldn't be) regulate these organizations - "Hobbled IRS can't stem dark money flow," Center for Public Integrity, July 15, 2014.

Of course, given recent rulings on corporate rights as religious enterprises (pdf), the movement to build socially responsible businesses,  and the shenanigans of big companies "inverting" to save taxes, it's no longer really clear what a company is either.

In a story on the compensation of a nonprofit hospital director, Senator Charles Grassley is quoted in today's New York Times as saying, "major nonprofit hospitals often are indistinguishable from for-profit hospitals in their operations.”

Clearly there's lots of change afoot in the corporate code and practices - from the commercial space, political realm, and within the independent sector.  If it's getting so hard to distinguish these enterprises, shouldn't we be asking "What about the distinction matters?" That way we can focus our attention (and regulation, oversight and incentives) on the real reasons we have separate sectors of commerce, government and civil society - not the special interests that have grown up around and within each of them.

Five notes on digital social activism

I'm running faster than I can (I broke my foot and am in a boot, so actually I can't run very fast right now). I just realized with all the writing I've been doing, I haven't been blogging. So - a few quick thoughts:

(Photo from rabble.ca)

1. betterplace lab
I got to spend some time with the team from betterplace lab and learn from their Lab Around the World. They've got great examples of digital social innovation from several countries. I'm thrilled that some of this material will be featured in Blueprint 2015. Look for the United States launch of their work at the Digital Civil Society Lab's Ethics of Data conference in September.

2. Digital social
In Blueprint 2014 when I wrote about digital social I had to clarify that the social refers to "social good" not "social networking." The term "digital social" seems to have caught on in Europe more than in the United States:
3. Nominet Trust NT100 - social tech guide
I've been invited to join the steering committee for the Nominet Trust's NT100 - which will be an incredible opportunity to learn of more digital social innovation. Check out their Social Tech Guide.

4. Global Dimensions of Digital Activism
Ethan Zuckerman is an editor of this new online book about Global Digital Activism - examples from Sudan, Russia, and Nigeria - with more to come. Thrilled to see this work informed by research of Mary Joyce and the Digital Activism Project.

5. There's digital activism here in the U.S. also.  My favorite new story is this article by Nancy Scola on how "rogue archivist" Carl Malamud is reaching out to Republican Congressman Darrell Issa and White House CTO Todd Park to offer technology solutions to protect privacy and release 990 date from the IRS.

Data, digital, and change - four items of note

I've been either head down or on the run so I haven't blogged much in the last few weeks. Here are a few things of note:

1. New Markets for Good website - worth checking out the new column from Beth Kanter, some posts which will be coming from participants at the Markets For Good Workshop last week, and look for a "Lake Washington Declaration" on the values and norms of this emerging community.

2. The Foundation Center working on new taxonomy to match our new world. Check this out, comment, help make sure the data can work for you going forward. To quote a smart foundation colleague from earlier today - "This is like helping shape the census. Get in there and get your information coded right now so you have the data you need when you need it."

3. My speech notes: New Rules for New Tools: Inventing Digital Civil Society
My argument for why we need to reconsider root practices and policies shaping civil society and philanthropy in digital age.

4. What's Next for Community Philanthropy - great work on changing opportunities from the Monitor Institute

Foreword to Building a Beloved Community

The Funders for Black Male Achievement's new report, Building a Beloved Community, is an inspiring, thoughtful, and strategic piece that applies to a much broader array of funders than might see it. I'm taking this opportunity to highlight it again - reposting the Foreword to the report that I was honored to be asked to contribute.



What does it take to help an entire population to achieve? What does it take to make that possible while also counteracting systemic obstacles, built over generations, that seek to hold back that same population? Building a Beloved Community is more than your typical philanthropic research analysis. It is more than a call to action, it represents more than analysis and encouragement, theories of change and multidisciplinary approaches.  It represents the full potential and hope of philanthropy and civil society. It represents what Martin Luther King, Jr. called The Beloved Community – a global vision in which injustice will not be tolerated because we as a people will not allow it.

The report inspires us to think about the positive opportunities created by reframing norms and shaping new conversations. It calls for understanding success and spreading it, for leveraging powerful voices (such as that of the President of the United States), for informing our work with data and looking for intersections across sectors. All of that is right and exciting.

But this report does more.  It presents philanthropy with a radical challenge simply by putting black male achievement at the center of the discussion. Though there have been generations of efforts focused on African American men and boys, and generations of those efforts have been asset-based, the general philanthropic community does not usually approach this work in this way. When the center of the frame is success it sheds new light on the relationships, dynamics and edges of the work that surrounds this goal.

For those in philanthropy and communities who dedicate their talents and resources to black male achievement, this report offers a networked energy and new choices. By highlighting strategic options that extend beyond asset-based approaches to shifting whole narratives, the report encourages a big vision. By recognizing the committed nature of thousands of community groups and the episodic interventions from institutional funders, the report reveals one way this work is similar to many other social change efforts. By noting that black male achievement is an agenda item for mayors, governors, presidents, corporate CEOs and major living donors the report hints at the extraordinary opportunity of this moment – to go beyond episodic attention to sustained effort, beyond lip service to real change, beyond punctuated action to sustained focus.

The report also holds forth a real opportunity for the majority of philanthropists and civic actors for whom black male achievement is not at the center of their frame. My hope is that we will all take the time to consider our actions in light of this centrality. How does this frame influence your work? How do you fit into a picture that draws on high achieving black men as an expectation in our society, as the norm in our communities, as an assumption informing your own professional strategies?

On a matrix of race and gender, I, as a white woman, would be placed in a box other then black men. At each stage in this research when the authors and funders reached out to me I asked myself, and them, why me? I am an ally in this work, so what are my responsibilities in that role? What do I contribute to this report is a question I have given a great deal of consideration. I know that I can help more black men achieve, that I can help change and defeat some of the barriers we’ve created to that success, and that I have thoughts to add and insights to consider when developing philanthropic strategies. Being an ally is more than just supporting the work of others. It involves extending my self and my networks so that they take on a new shape.

Let’s be honest – that’s a big task. Why might you do this? What if your success depended on it? The words of the ancient sage Hillel come to mind, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” These words were not informed by modern day data analysis, policy reflection or financial systems mapping. But they still hold true – our success as a society is relational.

This report requires us to reconsider all of our work. Reading it is not just an exercise in learning about the strategies of building sustained networks of funders and organizations committed to black men. It requires me to consider the direct relationship between my own work and the success of these strategies. How do I contribute to or stand in the way of these strategies? How do my pursuits of social change – be they environmental action, health access, thriving families, or community development – accelerate the goals for black men or throw up obstacles to them? And how do my visions of a fair and just society depend on the widespread achievement and participation of black men?

These are not small questions. They have no one-off answers; they require constant attention. And they are by no means limited to a small group of identified funders or community groups. For more black men to achieve and for those achievements to be recognized as the norm that they should be, we need adjacent allies as well as movement leaders.  We need positive opportunities and narratives from all sectors, all domains, and all walks of life. We need to make sure we are not omitting opportunities or making accomplishments invisible.

Doing so requires both a steady focus on the goal, the people and the institutions dedicated specifically to black men. We must also be willing to find and to be allies. Over time, if we are successful, we will find those allies among an ever-expanding network of unexpected, untraditional and emergent partners.

This report offers a challenge that many have already accepted. For those readers to whom the challenge is new, or seemingly ancillary, I would encourage you to look for ways these goals and strategies intersect with your own. What I can offer, through the words of others, is a reminder of the “why” for making connections between our own frames and the one offered by this report. It comes from the vision of Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community and it comes from a medieval sage, Hillel, who noted for posterity the simple and powerful connections that bind us – and our pursuits – to the other.

Lucy Bernholz
April 2014
Visiting Scholar, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society
Visiting Scholar, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

Sharing Data

I wrote this about the SHARE Conference. Here's Beth Kanter's on the same conference, and here's a great post from TechSoup. Here's part of a twitter exchange Beth and I had across the plenary sessions:

I wrote my post in the middle of the conference, so with the benefit of a few hours away here are two other ideas:

1) I sat in on two discussions, one led by companies and one led by users, about creating "portable identities" for people. The companies were interested in ways to share data across platforms, make life easier for their users, and help simplify the process of checking reputations and trust from platform to platform. The users raised the idea in terms of being able to "control their identities" and be active civic participants, moving from community to community.

It's a data thing, so of course it interested me. But it also struck me as potentially a differentiating characteristic of tech-enabled sharing platforms and potentially some sign of "what's a sharer." I also wondered if other types of data-heavy, identification-based companies (no names needed but think of every major search engine or social media platform) would be in the same conference with their users and identify a similar solution to two somewhat different needs. I also wondered if such a conversation was happening anywhere among nonprofits and their constituents/users/donors? Keep in mind that just because users get civically engaged, doesn't mean they're a) going to do so on behalf of a company's agenda or b) not use that same energy of engagement to raise questions about the company itself.

2) Sharing companies with robust digital platforms have really interesting digital data that could be of use to researchers, policy makers and government officials. Want information on current transporation patterns (Lyft, Uber, Car share, bikeshare)? Want information on tourism patterns (Airbnb, Homeaway)? Want to look at structural racism, affordable housing or daycare, or gender and safety issues? (analyze use patterns from any of the aforementioned). Will these companies hold the data back and fight subpoenas from AGs offices? Will they negotiate with users to release data for public use? Are these data sets part of the "public benefit" potential of these companies and will they argue such when the inevitable battles between nonprofit and for-profit versions of home or car sharing services arise? Can cities and sharing companies strike pro-active data sharing deals that protect users privacy, inform public policy, and benefit communities - without going to court?