Barry Gaberman, former Senior VP at the Ford Foundation shared with us a new perspective on how to look at nonprofits and how the government and foundations can best support them.

When it comes to our organizations we label them by what they are not: not for profit or non-governmental. Our other attempts at renaming ourselves fall flat:  Independent sector (independent from what—30% comes from public funding), voluntary sector (but we are paid to work), third sector (no pizzaz).

Instead, let’s use civil society. This is not a new term yet embodies what many nonprofits do: provide needed social services, policy analysis to hold our government accountable, education, advocacy often on behalf of those who have weak voice, and art/culture support to increase our enjoyment and sense of identity.

There are two aspects of civil society that the government engages with regularly: edgy and safe.

Safe civil society: Education and social services. The government loves us, mainly because we take burden of work from them.

Edgy civil society: Lobbying and advocacy. In this regard the government gets worried—they don’t like the fact they gave exemption to organizations that criticize them.

Regardless of which aspect of civil society that emerges and how government responds, philanthropy must nurture both. In fact, organized philanthropy has the best potential to strengthen civil society: their infrastructure allows for greater accountability and the ability to take risks; many are created with then intention of being around for the long haul; and they have the capacity to take on politically sensitive issues.

Unfortuantely, foundations tend to be very cautious, jump to fads of giving, and timid when it comes to speaking out.

Therefore, in order for civil society to thrive, foundations should be implementing and advocating  for the following:

  • An enabling environment where people are free to learn and associate with whomever they please.
  • A regulatory system that empowers rather than shackles.
  • A new tax structure that provides incentives not penalties.

Foundations should also be willing to pay more for overhead, a critical and ethical issue when it comes to the longevity of our organizations: “Don’t let your projects be diminished by the myth of low overhead costs. You have to pay the fee.”

Can’t come to the conference?  Check out the livestream or follow the conversation on twitter.  Make sure to visit Rosetta Thurman and  Trista Harris for their insights.