Is it just me or were more people talking a lot about nonprofits this year? Not just from my fellow nonprofiteers; but also from folks who were interested in doing good or who were shocked/interested by some stuff they heard and wanted to learn more.
I decided to compile some events this year that I think made those of us working in the nonprofit sector think more critically about our work as well encouraged others to participate (or at least learn about) our role in this country.
The Earthquake in Haiti
What happened: On Tuesday January 12th a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti a few miles outside of the capital Port-au-Prince. The earthquake killed 230,000 people, injured 300,000, and left 1,000,000 homeless. The limited infrastructure Haiti had was severely damaged, making recovery efforts difficult.
How did this affect nonprofits? In addition to mobilizing communities to participate in relief efforts in a variety of ways, several organizations stole the spotlight because of their use of technology (good) and their questionable actions in times of crisis (bad).
The Red Cross made text message donations more mainstream and raised the most of any disaster relief organization responding to the earthquake; at the same time they, along with Wyclef Jean’s nonprofit Yele Haiti, faced harsh criticism for their handling of funds. By February, over $500 million raised for Haiti had not been spent leading many to question nonprofits ability to respond to disaster.
BP Oil Spill
What happened: On April 20th, a deepwater drilling rig operated by British Petroleum exploded releasing 4.9 million barrels of oil into the the Gulf of Mexico over three months. The damage to marine and wildlife habitat and the fishing and tourism industries is still being felt: over 6,800 dead animals, one third of the gulf closed for fishing, and an estimated $23 billion will be lost in tourism revenue over the next three years.
How did this affect nonprofits? While many nonprofits helped with relief and clean up efforts, the news was full of stories analyzing the troubling and often precarious relationship between nonprofits and their corporate sponsors.
The Aquarium of the Pacific in California, who had received large donations from BP, wondered whether or not they should actively disassociate themselves from the corporation. The Gulf of Mexico Foundation, a conservation nonprofit in Texas, claimed the damage on the coast had been overblown. A little investigation revealed that at least half of the 19 members of the group’s board of directors have direct ties to the offshore drilling industry. Indeed this “advocacy-for-hire” trend–where the line between corporate and nonprofit interests are blurred to advance a corporation’s interest–was exposed, demonstrating that the word “nonprofit” is really just a word.
Interestingly enough, in the response to the earthquake and oil spill I also saw lots of individuals taking matters into their own hands as volunteers and fundraisers without working with nonprofits or working with small local organizations over large ones. Again-free agents on the move.
The Giving Pledge
What happened: Bill Gates and Warren Buffet started a campaign to encourage the wealthiest people in the United States to give most of their money to charity. As of this month 57 billionaires have joined and pledged to give away 50% or more of their wealth.
How did this affect nonprofits? While it didn’t have an immediate impact on nonprofits, it got people talking about giving: why does it matter? how do we determine who to give to? what’s affective? and, oddly enough, is this ethical?
Many people who have signed the pledge are notorious for wanting to have a significant hand in whatever cause they support. Eli Broad, for example, has emerged as a major player in education and the relationships that Michelle Rhee developed with foundations during her time as education chancellor in DC have been criticized. Similar to the concern of “advocacy for hire” is this another way for billionaires to have more power under the mask of a nonprofit? Will the growth in their donations result in an unfair growth in their power in our democracy?
And the need for better philanthropy goes beyond money: who will lead philanthropic efforts to ensure that we achieve social justice instead of intensifying inequality with a sudden source of funds? The issue isn’t just money-it’s what we do with it.
New tax requirement for nonprofits by the IRS
What happened: In 2006, the IRS wanted to know whether small nonprofits (making less than $25,000) were still in business so they required these nonprofits to file tax returns for 2007, 2008, and 2009 by May 15, 2010.
How did this affect nonprofits? Apparently these small nonprofits didn’t get the memo. More than 300,000 nonprofits risked losing their 501c3 status, even though the IRS ultimately extended the deadline to October. The IRS will reveal who lost their 501c3 status in January, however the chaos revealed many aspects of small nonprofits that often go undiscussed by folks in and out of the nonprofit sector: just how challenging it is to reach small nonprofits; how difficult it is for them to meet such requirements; and how many of them go out of business.
What happened: Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes launched Jumo, a social network solely for nonprofits and their supporters.
How did this affect nonprofits? Like any social network conversations focused on its utility: another network to worry about? is our audience there? how can this be used to advance my cause? Again, the pressing social media for social good question emerged: will a focus on nonprofits make it easier for followers/fans to translate into donors or volunteers? Stories abound of successful nonprofits managed to leverage social media for more resources and other websites like Facebook make it easier to connect with supporters and already have strong followings. At the same time for those not already connected with nonprofits Jumo may be a great place to start because of its focus and ease. The site just launched in November so its impact remains to be seen.
White House Council for Community Solutions
What happened: On December 14th, President Obama established the White House Council for Community Solutions will provide advice to the President on the best ways to mobilize citizens, nonprofits, businesses and government to work more effectively together to solve specific community needs.
How did this affect nonprofits? This is the second large government initiative that works directly with nonprofits. The first, the Social Innovation Fund launched in 2009, which gave its first round of awards this year. The council is unique in that is is a standing group. The council itself is composed of a diverse group of leaders from different sectors including Diane Aviv, CEO of the Independent Sector and Bon Jovi. Given how recent this is, the impact has yet to be seen. However, is this a sign of more government and nonprofit partnerships? Such relationships are not always clear cut and for many this is a sign of government trying to have more control in business and nonprofits.
These events will be on my mind next year as nonprofits will certainly face new challenges and address the ongoing impact of old ones. What events got you talking about nonprofits?